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A Learners' Perspective on Learner Autonomy and Self-Access Language Learning

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Abstract
This research presents a learners’ perspective of (the promotion of) learner autonomy and Self-Access Language Learning in an English Proficiency Programme. It provides an evaluation of the success of these course elements as well as an interpretation of students’ understanding of the related concepts. Finally it identifies factors that enhance or hinder the successful implementation of Self-Access Language Learning. Both qualitative and quantitative instruments were used to elicit data that gives insight into learners’ perceptions of the issues under review. Self-Access Language Learning was evaluated positively by the students, both as a means to learn English and as a means to develop independent learning skills. The study identified a number of factors that contributed to these perceptions. It also revealed that students’ understanding of independent learning is rather shallow. Finally a number of recommendations were made for a successful implementation of Self-Access Language Learning into a curriculum.

Rationale for the Study
The field of language learning has been in a constant state of motion over the last twenty years. The main change has been a shift of focus onto the language learner. The reasons for this shift are twofold : both goals of language learning and insights into the process of language learning have changed. Society has posed its demands on education and has influenced its shape. Research in fields such as psychology, cognitive psychology, sociology, linguistics and others, have added to our knowledge of how language learning takes place. These two developments have, among others, led to a greater interest in Learner Autonomy.

Learner Autonomy is as Little (1991) describes it, the new ‘buzz-word’ in the field of applied linguistics. Like its precursor, communicative language learning, it is starting to be an unquestionable goal and integral part of language learning methodologies throughout the world. Large amounts of time, energy and money are spent on its promotion and implementation. This is especially true for Self-Access Centres (henceforth SAC), which are believed to be an effective means to the desired end of learner autonomy. However its implementation has a considerable influence over educational practice and involves changing roles for teachers and learners, both of whom may wish to retain the status quo. For Self-Access Language Learning (henceforth SALL) to be accepted by them (as well as by parents, management etc), it needs to prove that it has things to offer that other types of educational provisions do not. If it is primarily aimed at developing learner autonomy, it needs to be shown that that is what it does. If it claims that it allows learners to learn better or faster, then that needs to be proven. If there are additional advantages to it, then they need to be identified.

This, however, is notoriously difficult and empirical evidence a sheer impossibility. Most research in this field therefore relies on the learner as the main source of information. It is thus crucial to explore learners’ understanding of the concepts and phenomena under review. Also, any misconceptions are likely to influence the success of language learning methodologies based on the promotion of learner autonomy and of SALL. There is now a large body of literature on learner beliefs, however very little in conjunction with actual learning situations. Evaluations and descriptions of learner experiences in a particular course or environment are scarce. Little can therefore be said about the efficiency and effectiveness of SACs.

The success of a SAC also relies on a clear understanding of the obstacles it poses to its users as well as on an identification of the factors that enhance efficient and effective use. Few evaluations exist to date to give us insight into these matters. There is a need for a practical evaluation from the students’ perspective, on a sound theoretical basis. This study aims to provide some of the answers that previous research has left open (see also Cotterall & Reinders 2000).

A model of learner autonomy

autonomy model


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