Smith’s Learner Autonomy: 2nd ELT Research Blog Carnival

This is my first contribution to the ELT Research Carnival. So, to ease me in I’m looking at Richard Smith’s article in the English Language Teaching Journal, entitled: Learner Autonomy.

Smith begins by looking at where the term comes from and how (and when) it made its way into ELT discourse. Understanding the history of any topic is important. However, I think it’s particularly important in this case. Smith’s gazing into the past traces terms which are key to defining what ‘learner autonomy’  really means, both then and now. He refers to ‘individualisation’ and ‘learner independence.’


It seems these two terms represent the foundation of what learner autonomy is: individualised learning carried out independently by the learner.

It might come to some readers as ‘obvious’ that learners have to discharge some degree of independence in their learning, be it only in the form of homework and revision.

Smith recognises that fact but goes one step further: he bullet points what aspects of ‘learning’ could be devolved to the learner. These include elements which would typically be expected, such as contents and materials; however, they also include aspects which wouldn’t normally be released from the teacher’s domain: objectives, stages and methods.

In his paper, Smith depicts the early days of Learner Autonomy, devised under the auspices of Henri Holec at the University of Nancy, whereby learners were given for the first time access to a centre of materials.

From there on in, over time it became apparent that putting learners in a self-access centre is rarely conducive to linguistic mastery.

This lead on to a twofold discussion: do all learners have the potential to be autonomous (some need to be ‘trained towards’ this) or do all learners posses a degree of autonomy in learning.

According to Smith, Holec distinguished between a ‘desirable learning situation’ (self-directed learning) and the ‘capacity for such learning’ (learner autonomy). Having the self-directed materials and having willing learners is one thing, it’s another to have learners who know how to exploit the materials correctly.

Educators know only too well that they can’t learn for our learners, yet we feel the need to teach everything a learner should know. However, self-discovery is perhaps one of the most powerful tools in the cognitive process of language learning, yet it is very often directly hindered by the classroom-teacher. Perhaps bringing in elements of learner autonomy could lead to an environment which promotes self-discovery, both in and out of class.

Smith talks about ‘training’ and ‘trainers’. Bringing learner autonomy into the classroom means for the trainer (the teacher) to bring the necessary tools to train the trainees (the learners) in the art of successful autonomous language learning.


Smith, R. (2008) English Language Teaching Journal “Learner Autonomy” available at

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3 thoughts on “Smith’s Learner Autonomy: 2nd ELT Research Blog Carnival

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