A Theoretical Framework of Language Learning in Light of Learner Autonomy


Aaron Chao 

Back to the Link front page

How does one learn a language? This is a question that continues to serve as a key question for teachers and curriculum developers. More so than ever, it has also become a key question for students to wrestle with necessitated by increased expectations for learners to be more aware of and take a more active part in the learning process. This is due to developments in research on learner autonomy, which refers to ‘the ability to take charge of one’s learning’ (Henri Holec, 1981). This demands that students expand their awareness beyond the language itself and look at the process of language learning. In other words, students are expected not only to know the what of language learning but also the how (Benson, 2011). As such, it would be beneficial to have a simple theoretical framework that encapsulates the language learning process while also highlighting the salient characteristics of autonomous learning. This can serve as a starting reference point for students as they foray into becoming autonomous learners. In this paper, I will present such a framework not only as a means of fostering learner autonomy but also unifying beliefs about learner autonomy in the classroom.
Challenges in Fostering Learner Autonomy
Degrees of autonomy can vary greatly from student to student, which can present a challenge for the teacher. This has led to many recent studies on how to encourage students to take an active role in their own learning process. For example, Nunan (2003) offers a ‘nine-step procedure’ designed to be implemented at the curricular level in order to encourage students along the continuum from dependence to autonomy. Other researchers have looked at different ways to foster and encourage learner autonomy, some of which include teaching learning strategies, metacognitive skills, and increasing motivation. Interestingly, Reinders and Balcikanli (2011) found that there was a lack of attention given to fostering learner autonomy in textbooks despite the amount of attention that learner autonomy has received in recent years. This suggests that there is still a considerable gap between theoretical research and practical application within the classroom.
While it is one thing to attend to the knowledge and skills that students need to develop autonomy, it is another thing altogether to address the attitudes and beliefs that students have towards learner autonomy and how such theories are implemented in the classroom. It is well understood that teachers’ beliefs regarding language learning and teaching will invariably inform their practices in the classroom. Likewise, it has been well noted within research that students’ perceptions and beliefs about student and teacher roles within the classroom can affect the way they learn. Kern (1995) mentions that frustration can result on the part of students when methods used in the classroom do not meet their expectations. Research has shown that there is a wide range of beliefs among students regarding learner autonomy and that these beliefs can impact effective learning (Horwitz, 1999; Sakui & Gaies, 1999). Therefore, expectations can vary greatly within a classroom where a wide gap exists between teacher and student perceptions about language teaching and learning. These studies also suggest that attitudes and beliefs towards learner autonomy can vary from person to person depending on personality, personal experience, culture, and so forth (Horwitz, 1999). Especially within the ESL setting, where it is not uncommon to have a class made up of students from a wide range of countries, the teacher may be faced with a wide variety and possibly conflicting views of learner autonomy.
Setting the Stage for Fostering Autonomy
Fortunately, there is a strong consensus that autonomy can be developed (Benson, 2011). A theoretical framework of the language learning process can help break down many of the aforementioned barriers, especially in regards to how students view the language learning process and the roles that the teacher and student should carry within it. One advantage is that a theoretical framework is explicit. Although the practices that a teacher employs in the classroom will always be a reflection of the beliefs that they hold in regards to learning and teaching a language, this will not always be tangible or noticeable to the students. An explicit statement of philosophy can inform students in regards to classroom practices. Another advantage is that, as mentioned above, a theoretical framework can serve as a starting reference point especially for the student who may be new to the idea. Rather than inundating students with various principles in a top-down manner, they can be challenged to draw those principles in a more organic manner.
There are some important features that a theoretical framework aimed for students should contain in order for it to be useful. For one, it should be understandable. Often times, students come into a classroom with very little experience with autonomous learning and therefore sensitivity should be given to introducing it in a palatable way. The second feature is that such a definition should be broad enough that it can be applied to all learners. Therefore, a philosophical construct would seem to be more appropriate rather than a one-size-fits-all method especially considering the vast differences that can exist between individual learners.
A Theoretical Framework
I propose the following theoretical framework for how to learn a language: Language is learned through pushing against one’s own limits of communication with respect to frequency, intensity, and efficacy.
The word communication assumes the idea that language learning is for the purpose of communication. The word limit can hold different meanings; however, one important aspect of learner autonomy is for the student to be able to identify the quantity and quality of what they know and are able to do in the target language for the purpose of communication. In other words, they need to be aware of their limits. For the teacher, this understanding can be taken further to include educational background, linguistic background, and so forth. This reflects the fact that limits are highly personal; each individual will have their own limits.
The word pushing suggests several things. For one, pushing is active. Therefore, it highlights the fact that students need to be active in their learning.  It also serves as a springboard for discussions on where learning can take place by suggesting that pushing limits is not just limited to within the classroom but can just as much take place outside of the classroom. Language learning is a dynamic process that involves learners pushing against their limits to communicate with respect to their surrounding.

The words frequency, intensity, and efficacy qualify the manner in which learners should push their limits. Frequency simply refers to how often a learner pushes against their limits of communication. There have been many studies that show the number of hours that a learner should expect to spend on average in order to reach a certain level of proficiency in a target language. The more frequently the learner pushes against their limits of communication, the faster they are likely to expand those limits.
If frequency refers to ‘how often’, then intensity refers to ‘how hard’ the learner works. For example, a student may be sitting in my class and yet be thinking about something else totally unrelated to the lesson at hand. Showing up to class is just half the battle. Finally, efficacy refers to the effectiveness of the skills and strategies that the learner employs in learning a language. These can vary greatly between learners, so students should be encouraged to make an effort to learn specific skills and strategies and determine which ones are effective for them.

It should be mentioned that any theoretical framework has its limitations. A broad framework such as this one can be interpreted in different ways. At the same time, however, theoretical frameworks are meant to be adapted to the needs of the particular teacher and learner depending on their given situation. Whether this framework is adopted as is or heavily modified, defining the language learning process is a challenge that confronts all language educators and, with the increased focus on learner autonomy, a challenge that confronts students as well.  An explicit theoretical framework can serve as a starting reference point for students in shaping their perspective and beliefs about autonomous learning, which will ultimately affect their learning experience. 

Benson, P. (2003). Learner autonomy in the classroom. In Nunan, D.  (Ed.) Practical English Language Teaching. New York: McGraw Hill.
Benson, P. (2011). Teaching and researching autonomy in language learning (2nd ed.). Harlow: Longman.
Holec, H. (1981). Autonomy in foreign language learning. Oxford: Pergamon.
Horwitz, E.K. (1999). Cultural and situational influences on foreign language learners’ beliefs about language learning: A review of BALLI studies. System 27, pp. 557-576.
Kern, R.G. (1995). Students’ and teachers’ beliefs about language learning. Foreign Language Annals, 28, 71-92.
Nunan, D. (2003). Nine Steps to Learner Autonomy. In Nunan, D. (Ed.) Practical English Language Teaching. New York: McGraw Hill.
Reinders, H., & Balcikanli, C. (2011). Learning to foster autonomy: The role of teacher education materials Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 2 (1), 15-25.
Sakui, S. & Gaies, S.J. (1999). Investigating Japanese learners’ beliefs about language learning. System 27, pp. 473-492.
Sinclair, B. (2000). Learner autonomy: The next phase? In B. Sinclair, I. McGrath & T. Lamb (Eds.), Learner autonomy, teacher autonomy: Future directions (pp. 4-14). Harlow: Longman. 

Aaron Chao teaches adult EFL at the Yanbian Business Technical School in Yanji, China.

Back to the Link front page

ITBE Link - Spring 2016 - Volume 44 Number 1