by Phoebe Gomes and Mike Tomkins

What is learner autonomy?

When you think of the word ‘autonomy’, you may think ‘independence’. However, encouraging learners to become more autonomous is not quite the same as asking them to ‘study independently’. So what does it mean then? The term itself can be traced back to Holec (1981:8), who described learner autonomy as “the capacity to take control of one’s own learning”. A student’s ‘capacity’ can be best understood by the three-way Venn diagram below:

(Adapted from Holec, 1981)

Here we can see the capacity involves the interwoven relationship between their ‘ability’ and ‘desire’ to exercise greater autonomy and the extent to which their learning context gives them the ‘freedom’ to do so.

This is important to understand because not all students will have a) an inclination to be more autonomous, b) the knowhow, or c) both. For many, there is an expectation that the learning takes place only within the confines of the classroom: the teacher teaches, the learners learn. However, in order for students to get the most out of their learning, we need to encourage them to take charge of that learning. Doing this is not always simple, even for teachers, who may feel there is little room for autonomy within the curriculum.

Why is it important?

From experience, fostering learner autonomy is beneficial for both teachers and students for the following reasons:

  • Independence

Students are not always going to be in the presence of their knowledgeable and supportive English teacher, and they need to learn to manage situations in the ‘real world’ when it comes to their own language learning. By developing into more autonomous learners, our students are better prepared to deal with uncomfortable language learning situations, which are highly likely if they are studying in an English-speaking country.

  • Pressure

We are all familiar with the pressure of delivering effective lessons and impressing our students with our unlimited knowledge of English grammar. However, by encouraging learners to take more responsibility for their own learning, it alleviates the pressure on you as a teacher. For learners to be fully involved in the language learning process, they need to accept that success in learning depends as much on the student as it does on the teacher (Scharle & Szabo 2000: 4), and by teaching various strategies which students can use to manage their own learning, students are encouraged to have more realistic expectations.

  • Individual Needs

No two students learn in the same way, yet often we design lessons and activities with the assumption that they do. There are many factors at play: age, L1, preferred learning style, reason for studying English etc, and accommodating all these factors for a full class of learners is near impossible (Thornbury 2017: 22). By training learners to reflect on their own strengths, weaknesses, and preferred method of learning, and giving them the tools to do this independently, learners feel valued and listened to when it comes to their own learning.

How can we promote autonomy in the classroom?

So far we have looked at autonomy in terms of a student’s ‘capacity’, but how can we help them ‘take control’ of their learning? There are many ways of creating a class of more autonomous and responsible learners and the suggestions below are by no means the only methods - they are simply the strategies for which we have received generally positive feedback from students.

1. Noticing

Whilst many learners have the expectation that the teacher should lecture them on the multiple uses of ‘present perfect’ or provide lengthy explanations on the form of the third conditional, when they are in the real world and encounter a grammatical structure which they are not fully comfortable with, the teacher will not be there to guide the way.

Learners need to be taught to notice language structures and work out the rules by noticing patterns for themselves from examples of language used in a natural way - whether by Guided Discovery, as Pilar Capaul writes in Issue 51 of the IH Journal, or by less formal means. The mental effort of working out the rules ensures greater memorability and a greater degree of cognitive depth (Thornbury 1999: 54) and this skill can be applied directly to real life. Many coursebooks are now adopting an inductive approach to teaching grammar (see below), but using personalised texts or authentic material can also be very motivating for students.

(Taken from Speakout Intermediate 2015: 48)

2. Recording Vocabulary

More often than not, students get incredibly frustrated when they have difficulty retaining vocabulary, particularly adult learners, and we are often met with the question:

‘What can I do to remember words better?’ Learners need to be trained in how to write down language in notebooks, because they reflect the developing lexicon of a learner and can be revisited and extended independent of the teacher (Woolard in Lewis 2000: 43).

Firstly, encourage students to divide their notebook into sections e.g. adjectives, nouns, adverbs, verbs etc. Students can continue to add to these sections and once they are used to organising their notebooks in this way, they can add more sections focussing on language items such as collocations, idioms, and phrasal verbs. Students can use the following layout to record vocabulary (adapted from Woolard in Lewis 2000: 43).

By encouraging students to write an example sentence, it is much easier for them to recall what the word means. By including the translation, it also addresses those students who have a need for translation as a learning preference.
Training students to organise their notebooks and record language in this way can be time-consuming, especially at the beginning. It requires a great deal of patience on the part of the teacher, and practice. It is also important to remember that this method may not work for all students, and it is totally okay if they favour another method, perhaps a digital one that involves the use of their phone.

3. Peer teaching

If you ask your students who they should go to for help in the classroom, they’ll probably respond: ‘the teacher’ - and they’re (half) right. When you point out they can also help each other, this may come as a surprise - but it can be just as effective for both you and them.

Big classes don’t always allow you to attend to each and every student every lesson so it is important for them to get used to this. We all get our students to ‘check in pairs’, but consider ways of expanding this e.g. getting them to look for spelling errors or give feedback on each other’s work. You may even get them to teach each other something they learned from a reading text.

As with all the other suggestions, they’ll take time and training. You’ll need to decide what you want them to focus on or how best to give feedback, but peer-led activities can boost students’ confidence as they help each other and see the positive outcomes of that help.

4. Reflection

Another great way to involve students in their learning is by getting them to reflect on their progress and to set goals. Many coursebooks increasingly include activities that encourage reflection, with these typically found at the end of a task or textbook unit (see below).

Primary Plus: Inspiring Lives, British Council (2020:9)

You may want to use or adapt these, or decide when and how often you would like the students to do them. Goal-setting is also useful, especially at the start of term as it helps the learners think about what they want to get from the course. Re-visiting these targets at later dates then reminds them if they are on track or not. However much the students take to any of these reflection activities, remember that their contributions can be invaluable for you as a teacher as they give you an insight into how they perceive their own progress (and the more pragmatic of you might even want to take note of what they say so that report writing becomes a little easier). Even if they misinterpret the task, as some students might do in the activity above, their answers might still indicate a general feeling towards a particular skill e.g. writing. You can also find out how they like to learn or what they enjoyed, by creating your own reflection questions e.g. ‘what was your favourite topic?’ (from the textbook) or ‘which activity did you enjoy the most?’

Final Thoughts

If you’ve been reading this wondering which classes you could use any of the above with, we believe that promoting autonomy is not exclusive to only adult learners and can be applied to Younger Learners as well. See the recommended reading for more specific ideas.

It is important to consider one thing: these activities are not designed to be done once, because it is unrealistic to expect students to become autonomous after one lesson. Repetition and patience are key, and don’t be discouraged if learners don’t grasp the sense or practice of autonomy immediately.


Capaul, P. (2023). Guided Discovery Unleashed, IH Journal #51
Clare, A., and Wilson, J.J. (2015). Speakout: intermediate. 2nd ed. Harlow, England: Pearson Education.
Holec, H. (1981). Autonomy and Foreign Language Learning. Oxford/New York: Pergamon Press
Scharle, Á. and Szabó, A. (2000). Learner Autonomy. Cambridge: CUP.
Thornbury, S. (1999). How to teach grammar. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
Thornbury, S. (2017). The new A-Z of ELT : a dictionary of terms and concepts. London: Macmillan Education, A Division Of Macmillan Publishers Limited.
Woolard G (2000) Collocation - Encouraging Learner Independence. In M Lewis (ed) Teaching Collocation: Further Developments in the Lexical Approach (pp28– 46).

Recommended Reading

Harmer, J. (2003). Do your students notice anything? Modern English Teacher, 12(4), 5-14.
Recording Vocabulary:
Thornbury, S. (2002). How to teach vocabulary. Harlow (UK): Pearson Education.
Woolard G (2000) Collocation - Encouraging Learner Independence. In M Lewis (ed) Teaching Collocation: Further Developments in the Lexical Approach (pp28– 46).
Woolard, G. (2005). Noticing and learning collocation. English Teaching Professional, [online] (40), pp.48–50. Available at:
Peer Teaching:
Ellis, G. (2015, October). ‘Teaching Our Learners How to Learn' (with an introduction from Andy Mackay). YouTube.
Younger Learners:
Cameron, L. (2001). Teaching Languages to Young Learners. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press & Assessment.
Moon, J. (2005). Children learning English. Cambridge: Macmillan Education
Pinter, A. (2017). Teaching Young Language Learners, Second Edition. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Author Biographies

Phoebe Gomes has been teaching English for almost seven years, with experience of teaching in the UK, Poland, and Italy. She currently teaches at IH Newcastle where she takes an active interest in professional development. Phoebe holds certificates in DELTA Modules 1 & 2, the IHCYLT and the IH CAM and is in the process of completing DELTA Module 3.

Mike has been teaching since 2014 in different countries including Poland, South Korea, and now the UK where he teaches EAP. Along the way, he has successfully completed the DELTA and an MA in Applied Linguistics & ELT. His main pedagogical interests lie in learner autonomy, materials development and EAP. You can read more of his teaching thoughts on his blog: