Developing learner autonomy in language learning: A study in the Thai EFL secondary school context
Learner autonomy, primarily defined as “the ability to take charge of one’s own learning” (Holec, 1981, p. 3), has gained much research interest in the field of language learning and teaching due to its potential contribution to effective language learning. Although the concept of learner autonomy has been extensively discussed in the literature, little research has empirically investigated how this concept is realized in language classrooms. This research explored learner autonomy and its development in the Thai secondary school context. The research was structured in two phases. The first phase of the study was an exploratory phase conducted to identify the Thai teachers’ perspectives towards learner autonomy and how their classroom practices prepared learners for autonomous learning. Data were collected through class observations, teacher interviews and learner group interviews. The findings revealed that although the teachers shared positive views about learner autonomy and regarded it as a useful concept, they did not sufficiently promote autonomous learning in their classroom practices. Learners’ accounts of their learning experiences also indicated that their classrooms did not prepare them methodologically and psychologically to take responsibility for their own learning. Findings from the exploratory phase indicate that the teachers’ use of the teacher-led teaching method as well as the learners’ lack of skills and confidence in their ability to direct their learning process could pose significant challenges to learner autonomy development. Building on findings from the first phase, the second phase of the study featured a strategy-based intervention program designed to promote learner autonomy. This intervention phase involved 30 learners from an intact class in which the strategy-based instruction program was implemented, and 32 learners from a comparison class who received regular English lessons. Data regarding the intervention’s impacts on learners’ development of knowledge and skills to direct their learning were obtained from learner group interviews and weekly learning journals while the intervention’s influence on learners’ language proficiency was observed through reading think-aloud sessions and three sets of reading tests. Findings revealed that strategy-based instruction was an effective means to raise learners’ awareness of their learning process and foster autonomous learning. First, the intervention lessons significantly contributed to learners’ gradual development of knowledge and skills to independently direct their learning process. Secondly, learners’ learning experiences during the intervention also motivated them to create learning opportunities in which they can interact purposefully and creatively with English. Furthermore, learners’ strategic approaches to learning appeared to have led to their increased scores in English reading. In sum, this study indicates that learner autonomy is a viable goal in the Thai educational context. It also provides empirically-grounded insights into the process of developing learner autonomy in language classrooms and reveals factors that can mediate the process. Findings from this study contribute to the current understanding about learner autonomy in language learning and offer practical implications for teachers in creating a learning space to promote autonomous learning.