One-to-one: Promoting Learner Autonomy
Have you ever had the feeling that there’s not much left for you to do but watch your student’s rapid growth resulting from his or her independent work? I’ve been lucky enough to witness such cases with my individual students and I remember that at first it made me think, “What am I doing here? This person doesn’t need a teacher at all”. However, with experience I’ve come to understand that when the students seem to be progressing significantly on their own, it is usually the teacher’s investment in learner autonomy paying off.
Thornbury defines learner autonomy as “your capacity to take responsibility for, and control of, your own learning.” The teacher role most related to the concept of learner autonomy is that of a coach. There are many things a language teacher can do that are similar to what a sports coach or a life coach does. For example they can help to select the right difficulty of tasks, listen to how the client feels about what he or she is doing, offer alternative perspectives and effective strategies, or provide a point of accountability and support.
There are lots of aspects of learner training that can be applied both to a one-to-one and a group context. In this article I’d like to concentrate only on what is special about the one-to-one context and how you can best exploit it to aid your one-to-one learners’ independent work.
One-to-one lends itself well to promoting learner autonomy, making it possible to give the student “a great deal of control over his or her own learning process.” However, the teacher should be sensitive to the degree of autonomy the learner is prepared to take on. One-to-one students often have extremely busy schedules. I agree with Meddlings and Thornbury who say teachers need to be “realistic about how much ‘homework’ learners can do.”
In the previous issue of EFL Magazine I talked about investing time wisely in one-to-one context by concentrating on follow-up rather than on preparation. Learner autonomy is another area where a little time investment can pay off significantly in terms of learner progress. Here are six ways in which you can, to use a popular analogy, give your one-to-one learners a fishing rod instead of feeding them fish.
Figure out their interests and get them hooked
My student Irina is a successful architect and a mother of three. When I gave her “homework” I spent a long time designing, she almost never found the time to do it. Once Irina told me how much she liked the “Eat Pray Love” movie. I remembered I’d seen an adapted version of the book in a store so I went over and bought the book for her. By the next class she was already half through the book and had a dozen questions about grammar constructions and word collocations she’d encountered. A week later she finished the book and watched the whole movie again in English. I’m sure the hours Irina spent on the book and the movie did much more for her English than the 20 minutes she would spend (or wouldn’t, in most cases!) on her hometasks.
When we face a choice between preparing a sequence of activities and a trip to a bookstore to get the book our student likes, we often make excuses in favour of “having to prepare the lesson”. However, Irina’s case convinced me that in the long run your student benefits more if you show up completely unprepared but with something really engaging that can be used for independent work. An hour of looking for an adapted TV-series your student will get hooked on and will find time for in her packed schedule is a much better investment than an hour spent typing up grammar exercises.
Talk through their independent work in detail.
If I have things planned for the class but the student seems inclined to talk about the difficulties she’s having with the video course she’s watching, I usually give the latter as much lesson space as necessary even at the expense of other activities. Such conversations can take the form of counselling, where the students tell you how they feel about their independent work and you suggest ways to make it easier and more effective, or just plain reassure and praise them. Making this kind of discussions my top priority has proved to be one of the most efficient uses of classroom time in my experience.
I have an advanced student whose learning goal is to improve his listening skills. There was a turning point at an early stage of our work when he was discouraged to watch any authentic material because he didn’t understand as much as he’d expected to. We talked about it at length and since then he’s pretty much incorporated consuming authentic materials into his life. A big part of our classes is just discussing different video and audio he’s working with. I’ve noticed that having the opportunity to share his impressions with me and “brag” about his results motivates him to do more.
Do it with them to avoid frustration
My student Tamara is in her fifties and she’s not very tech-savvy. She tries her best to keep up with technology achievements but it’s often a challenge. When I showed her the Duolingo application she was excited about it. We installed it on her iPhone and she started using it. But, in a week when asked about it she’d stopped using it because she said it was too difficult. We decided to give “that stupid program” another chance and spent 20 minutes of our class working completely through two Duolingo lessons. It turned out Tamara hadn’t understood how to use some of the application features and that had caused the discouraging slowness of her progress.
In most cases, if learners don’t know where to download the film or how a program works they will never do it. They will only do things they are familiar and comfortable with. In case you’re asking yourself “why are we doing in class what they could be doing at home? Is this what the student is paying me for?”, the answer is “you do it to provide support and reduce stress” and “it’s worth it”.
Consume the same material
When you have a class of ten or fifteen and they all read and watch different stuff outside the classroom, it’s of course impossible to keep up with all of it. However, as a 1-2-1 tutor, you can realistically consume at least a part of the same materials as your students – read the book, watch the show, etc. This way you will be aware of the level of material and some of the key language to build on.
Sometimes the students find really good stuff you can use later on in your work. One of my students told me about a series of video lectures on English grammar he found helpful and when I watched it I liked it so much I started recommending it to other students. Besides, it’s a great way to build rapport and provide a basis for conversation. I must say, the “Game of Thrones” TV-show has been a real lifesaver in this respect.
Keep in touch with the student
You can lend your support and guidance to your one-to-ones when you’re not in class. Even with groups, teachers often create pages in social networks or set up email newsletters. However, if you’re teaching many groups, it might be overwhelming and you might want all the time outside the classroom to yourself. With 1-2-1s on the other hand, because there are relatively few of them, I have found it effective to be open to contact via social networks, emails or Skype.
One way to do it is to check up on your student’s progress, especially if your classes are not that frequent. Another option is to tell your students they can ask you questions if they encounter difficulties in their independent work. Students don’t usually overuse this opportunity and it literally takes just a minute to reply to them but they value it enormously and it keeps up their motivation.
Fine-tune the combination
All in all, there can be no one recipe for promoting learner autonomy in a one-to-one context because every case is so different from another. The beauty of it is to find a unique set of changes and tweaks that fit the particular student’s lifestyle. Can she listen to audiobooks in her car? Can he read on the metro? Can he learn poems with his children? I’d recommend making small tweaks like this and avoid big shifts that are intimidating.
Then of course, this process should continue throughout the time of your work with the student. It is impossible to find a perfect way to promote a one-to-one learner’s autonomy because of the enormous number of options available (a nightmare for a perfectionist!) So, the thing to do is to go on trying out new things and seeing what works and what doesn’t.
If you are a beginner teacher who doesn’t know a lot about learner strategies, don’t worry about it too much. Even without any explicit focus on learner training, your enthusiasm and love of language can do a lot to inspire and motivate your student, so the first step is simply to share your passion for what you do.
Frendo, E. (2005). How to Teach Business English. Pearson Longman.
Meddings L., Thornbury S. (2009) Teaching Unplugged, Delta Teacher Development Series
Osbourne, P. (2005). Teaching English One to One. Modern English Publishing.
Thornbury, S. (2006). An A-Z of ELT. Macmillan.