Learning Paths


Language Awareness/Learning Awareness in a Communicative Approach: A key to learner independence


Luciano Mariani

Perspectives, a Joumal of TESOL-Italy

Volume XVIII, Number 2, December 1992


The purpose of this paper is to discuss why and how training learners for independence can become a valuable component of a communicative approach to language learning. I will start by providing some background considerations, a frame of reference to clarify why today there is such a widespread interest in the topic of learner independence. Then I will examine the concept of “independence” in a communicative approach, by trying to provide at least a tentative answer to the question, “What makes an independent learner?”. Next, we will consider a few examples of learner-training activities, where the language and learning awareness component is particularly highlighted. This will lead me to summarize the features of a possible approach to learner training, and to provide some essential guidelines for materials and techniques. And finally, I will discuss what problems we are bound to face when we try to fit learner training into our EFL curriculum.


A Frame of Reference

Learner independence, learner autonomy, learning strategies, self-directed learning, self­access, individualization: why is there so much interest in this area? What has happened within, but especially beyond the communicative approach, to make learner independence such a stimulating and challenging aspect of our profession? I will just mention a few essential references (suggestions for further reading are mentioned in brackets):

- EXPLICIT LEARNER-CENTRED APPROACHES date back to the early seventies. One of their original features was the practice of needs analysis, which in turn gave rise to the development of language teaching for special purposes. Learning objectives began to be defined, not just in terms of strictly linguistic criteria, but rather in terms of the sociocultural and professional needs of specific groups of learners. This first stage in what were later to be called “communicative approaches” was centred on the definition of language content - “what” to teach - although it soon came to include a redefinition of methodology - materials and techniques, that is, “how” to teach. Therefore, these early communicative approaches were centred on the learner mainly because they set out to describe the product of the learner’s performance and the teacher‘s methodology to promote the development of the relevant competence (cf. Trim and Brumfit, 1991);

- meanwhile, the development of COGNITIVE SCIENCES was providing us with a substantial body of theory and research, which has gradually enabled us to gain a better insight into learning processes and learning conditions. The influence of cognitive sciences has certainly widened the original areas of concern of the early communicative approaches: this had led to a renewed interest, not just in the product of learning, but also in the process. In other words, the procedures through which the learner acquires a linguistic and communicative competence have become as important as the teacher’s methodology (cf. Corno-Pozzo, 1991);

- closely linked to the development ofcognitive sciences are the on-going STUDIES IN INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES in language learning. For example, by studying language aptitude we can now stress, not so much the fact that some people are better than others in learning a language, but rather the fact that every one of us has his or her own weak and strong points, in terms of perceptive and cognitive styles. That is to say that learner types do exist: there are analytic and intuitive learners, rule-builders and data-gatherers, visually-oriented learners and verbally-oriented learners. Just to mention another area, researchers have gone beyond the traditionai distinction between instrumental and integrative motivation, and have investi­gated the role of teaching materials, teaching styles, constraints and rewards, success and failure, in promoting or hindering motivation (cf. Skehan, 1989);

- the “G00D LANGUAGE LEARNER” RESEARCH has confirmed that learners use a variety of more or less effective strategies, and that “good” learners are the ones that show a richer and more flexible range of strategies. This, of course, has immediateiy raised some difficult but stimulating issues: can strategies be learnt? Can they be taught? Are learners “good” because they use strategies, or rather, do they use strategies because they already have good processing skills? (cf. Wenden-Rubin, 1987);

- HUMANISTIC APPROACHES to language learning, like “Community Language Learning”, “Silent Way”, “Suggestopedia”, and “Total Physical Response”, have stressed the importance of the individuai learner and of her sociai and affective dimensions. Learning has thus come to be seen as a global experience of the whole personaiity, and not merely as the smooth working of mental processes (cf. The British Council, 1982);

- the “STUDY SKILLS” TRADITION has always held an important place in teaching students how to learn. Today it is possible to re-define this tradition in light of the contribution of cognitive sciences. Study skills have traditionally focussed on the product of study activities, on observable behaviours, on learning techniques or tactics; sometimes, they have been presented and practised as “recipes” which were supposed to be valid for everybody, under all circumstances. We can now re-assess the role of study skills, by focussing more ciosely on cognitive processes, by introducing a strong element of personal awareness, and by accepting the fact that study skills cannot be prescriptive but only descriptive. In other words, we are now in a position to stress the role of the individual student in choosing his or her own personal working style (cf. Mariani, 1987; Frasca, 1989; Pozzo-Rossi Bozzuto 1989);

- last, but certainly not least, I would like to mention the role played by SOCIAL CH4NGES AND CHANGES IN THE LABOUR MARKET. Professional profiles now often include an ability to learn and to train and retrain oneself; continuing education stresses the need to improve learning efficiency, flexibility and personal responsibility for one’s own learning. Unfortunately, as we know only too well, school systems are usually rather slow to recognize these changes and to implement new, appropriate policies.

Is there a common factor unifying all these trends within and beyond the communicative approach to language teaching? It seems to me that these trends basically point to a concern with learning, with what the learner does or can do - teaching seems to have become more and more concerned with the provision of opportunities and conditions for more productive learning to take piace.


The Independent Language Learner

At the same time, I think that the frame of reference I have just outlined highlights the complexity of the problem of promoting learner independence. If the picture is so compiex, how can we identify a useful starting point? We might start by asking ourselves:

What makes an independent learner?

What does it mean to be an independent language Iearner?

What kinds ofbehaviours do we notice in those students that we could define as good, autonomous learners?

To give some examples, we might say that an independent learner, when faced with a reading task, is able to select appropriate strategies according to the type of text and the reading purpose; she is able to predict, preview, anticipate; she is not put off by unknown words, but uses all possible clues to guess their meaning. When faced with an oral interaction task, an independent learner is not afraid of making mistakes and taking risks; he tries to make the most of his iimited knowledge of the language and is able to adjust his message or perhaps change his communi­cative goals; he tolerates ambiguity and is able to negotiate and ask for help.

Although not many of our students may be said to fit into the category of “independent” learners, it is not very difficult to make a list of the features and qualities of an independent language learner. It is considerably more difficult to turn a possibly endless list of qualities into a more systematic description (cf. Wenden, 1991). We can tentatively say that an independent leamer

-          uses effective strategies;

-          has appropriate knowledge;

-          holds positive beliefs aud attitudes.

I am not suggesting that an independent learner is conscious at all times of these features, although, as we shall soon see, part of training learners for independence actually consists in raising the awareness of these factors.

These three different areas are very much interrelated. Let us examine them in more detail. 

First, independent learners use strategies, that is, they have a stock of actions, plans and techniques that they know are effective for them and for their particular learning style - a stock they are able to choose from according to their needs. Basically, independent learners know how to make the most of their cognitive processes. For example, in order to comprehend and store information, they can use elaboration strategies like note-taking, summarizing, and using charts, tables and graphs. Io relate new information to their own prior knowledge, they can use brainstorming techniques, or create semantic maps like spidergrams.

In addition to cognitive strategies, independent learners use metacognitive strategies, that is, they know how to plan, monitor and evaluate their language learning. For example, they are able to arrange the most suitable conditions for learning, both at school and at home; they know how to monitor their writing, spotting mistakes and focussing their attention on their weak areas; they know how to check their progress, and can compare their self-assessment with other measures of proficiency provided by the teacher.

Independent learners have appropriate knowledge. They can rely on what we might call a bank of information about

- the nature of language and communication;

- the nature of learning;

- the purpose and demands of learning tasks.

Of course, this knowledge is usually intuitive and informal, and therefore implicit and unconscious. Knowing about the nature of language and communication, for example, means realizing that a language is both a formal system, with its own rules, and a flexible means to be used to start and keep contact with people; it means knowing that accuracy is not enough, but that what we say must also be appropriate to the situation.

Having some kind of knowledge about the learning process means, for example, accepting the idea that we must practise and recycle what is first presented to us; that our knowledge of Italian will be useful in processing a foreign language; that we can’t expect to understand every single word in a passage or in a conversation, but that this is often unnecessary. Similarly, it means knowing that we can try to express our thoughts and ideas even if we don’t master all the necessary grammar and vocabulary, by using, for example, paraphrases or approximations.

Closely linked to this is the intuitive knowledge of why we are carrying out a certain task, what kind of demands the task will make on our skills, and what kind of strategies are most appropriate for the task itself. This also means having an intuitive knowledge of what a strategy is, which strategies are most effective in language learning, and which ones have worked best for us in the past.

What we have been saying so far has important implications for the beliefs and attitudes that leamers hold. General ideas about language and learning tum into very specific beliefs and attitudes within each individuai learner. In other words, what I know about language and learning, I apply to my own personal situation as a language learner. Therefore, if I think that language is all about a set of rigid rules, I will react negatively to communicative activities which are perhaps high on fluency and low on accuracy; I will not be ready to take risks and tolerate ambiguity. If I think that memory is the most important factor in learning a language, and am convinced that I have a very bad memory, I will probably not be very confident in my language learning abilities. If I think that language learning is a process which is basically handled by the teacher, and if this is what has always happened to me at school, I will resist the offer of self-directed learning or of a self-access centre: I will simply not be confident enough to believe in my own independence.

Of course, students’ beliefs and attitudes are influenced by their previous learning experiences, particularly by the feelings of success or failure that they have experienced, by the roles that they have played at school, by the general “image” that they have of themselves as learners. This is why training learners for independence is such a challenging task: we can’t simply tell people that they are going to cook their own meals, lay their own table and do their own washing up if they have always had their meals in a restaurant. However, we can bank on the fact that these beliefs and attitudes can be brought to consciousness: this is the reason why language and learning awareness becomes perhaps the single most important idea in training learners for independence.


Some Examples of Learner Training Activities

Now that we know the basic task that we will have to tackle, that is, eliciting strategies, knowledge and attitudes, how can we go about it? Let us first examine some examples of activities with a clear learner training component; then we can highlight the methodology behind them.

Suppose we have noticed that our students tend to read a text word by word, or feel the need to understand or even translate every word in order to process a text. We decide that we want to carry out some training activities to introduce the strategy of predicting as a way of improving both speed of reading and text comprehension.

In a first session we play a videotape without sound and ask the students to guess what is happening and what the speakers are actually saying. Instead of a videotape, we could use a photostory or a cartoon in which we have deleted the captions and the words in the speech bubbles.

We elicit from the students what has helped them to guess; then we play the videotape again, but this time with the sound on and discuss why some guesses were incorrect.

Then, through a guided discussion, we try to elicit why and how we are able to make predictions; we try to turn the clues from the video into more general categories of information, for example, setting, topic, general knowledge of the world, specific cultural knowledge, linguistic and extra-linguistic knowledge. In this way, we try to make the point that there is a difference between the input, which is provided by the video, and the background and expectations that we bring to the task of decoding it. Also, we introduce the concept of strategy as a conscious plan or action that we can undertake to solve a problem, and we actually call this strategy “predicting”.

In a second session, we discuss with the students whether or not they think the strategy of predicting can be used when reading a text, in L1 and/or in L2; through a brief discussion or questionnaire, we try to find out if, when and how they actually use the strategy, and why they use or don’t use it. In this way, we get a clearer picture of which aspects of the strategy we can safely take for granted and which ones we need to present and practise in the following stages.

We ask the students to do a few exercises of the “cloze” type, in which the task of filling in the gaps gradually becomes more complex. We can demonstrate how we actually go about one of these tasks by talking aloud while we try to solve the problem. Or we can ask one or two students to talk aloud and describe how they do one of the tasks just as they are doing it.

Then we elicit the criteria the students have used for predicting the missing words. In this way we help students to generalize. Depending on the level of our class, we can actually name and define these criteria: we are able to fill in gaps in a text thanks to our orthographic, grammaticai, semantic, contextual and socio-cultural knowledge. We stress the fact that these criteria always work together, and in real time, in the reader’s mind. And, again, we try to make the point that the visual, that is, typographical, information is only part of what we need to decode a text - the other, vital part being what we bring to it.

Finally, we lead the students to evaluate their attitudes to reading: if we can predict, do we really have to read a text word by word? Is it really necessary to understand every single word in a text? On the other hand, can we always fill gaps in comprehension by using predictions? Or are there cases where other strategies should be used?

Again depending on the level ofour students, we could have a third session, where we can extend the strategy of predicting to text coherence, that is, to the logical organization of specific types of texts. For example, we can give the students the first part of a paragraph and three possible continuations and ask them to discuss and choose the most suitable one. Or they can read the beginning of a paragraph and argue with us and their partners about the way they think the paragraph will develop.

Then we briefly discuss with the students if they think some or all of these strategies could be useful in their current reading and studying tasks, in L2 in L1, or even across the range of their school subjects.

In the following lessons, when students meet a particularly difficult reading task, we remind them of the predicting strategy, encourage them to use it and give them the support they need.

From time to time, we also try to discuss the students’ use of the strategy: how often have they used it? Has it been effective? With what kind of texts? For what purposes? What sort of problems have they met in using it? And we try to make them appreciate that if they have improved their performance or if they have increased their confidence in reading and studying, this may be due to the use of one or more strategies.


Towards a Methodology for Learner Training

How can we summarize the features of this approach to learner training? I have managed to translate these basic features into a sort of a formula, an acronym:

D I3 C E3

D stands for diagnostic; I stands for integrated, and this refers to 3 aspects of integration, which we will soon discuss; C stands for cooperative; E stands for experiential/explicit/evaluation-oriented.

D for diagnostic. We start a learner training activity by fnding out about our students’ use of the particular strategy we want them to consider, and about their beliefs and attitudes to it. I think there are at least three good reasons why we shouid become more aware of our students’ situation at the start.

The first is that there are so many different strategies we could teach, that we need to make a choice and decide what our students most urgently need - in other words, it is a question of establishing priorities. Second, if we gain a better insight into our students’ needs, we can then possibly provide some individualized instruction or perhaps design some speciai tasks for particular groups of students. And third - and this I think is very important - if our students become more aware of their strengths and weaknesses, we can start working on problems that are perceived as real and relevant to them, and thus we can hope for better motivation.

Then we have the 3 Is. Learner training for independence should be integrated, and this refers to three main issues. In the examples we have just seen, training tasks are tightly integrated with language tasks - in other words, we do not practise strategies in isolation, but on texts and tasks and skills which our students have to cope with in their daily lives: reading a difficult text, writing a letter, listening to cassettes in class.

Integration, however, also refers to the need of working, at the same time, on strategies, knowledge and attitudes - we do not just focus on mental processes, but we also try to highlight beliefs and attitudes, fears and expectations. For example, in training learners in reading as a process of predicting, we have to remember that their previous learning experience may have led them to form false or incorrect assumptions - they may believe that unless you know all the words and the grammar of a language, you cannot hope to understand it. These assumptions can be difficult to change, as we all know, and strategy training must take them into account.

And finally, integration points to cross-curricular implications: can we think of learner autonomy as a strictiy L2 business? Can we imagine an autonomous English learner who suddenly turns to a fully dependent student in other subjects? Frankly speaking, I don’t think we can. (For cross-curricular strategy development, see Mariani, 1990).

What does C stand for? Cooperative. I believe that independence is not an alternative to cooperation - quite the opposite. I feel there can be no real independence without the ability to work with others. In my examples I have often mentioned interactive activities, because learner training cannot be made up of recipes passed on from the teacher to the students. There is little piace for “spoonfeeding” in developing autonomy - it is an obvious contradiction in terms. Rather, we try to share problems and discuss solutions. However, this does not mean that students should be left alone to discover their ways and means, that is, by trial-and-error only. We can provide them with the “scaffolding” that they need at the start, and gradually, very gradually, remove our support as we realize that they can stand on their own.

And finauiy, E3, standing for experiential/explicit/evaluation-oriented. The kinds of training activities we have examined are based on our students’ direct experience: they are not simply told how to do things, but are actually asked to work through task-based activities. In other words, they are provided not just with information but also with practical, “hands-on” experience, and they are prompted to think about what they are doing. Experimentation - trying out things - alternates with reflection - taking a step back and looking at what has been done. This has an important implication for us as teachers: if we want to show our students how a strategy works in practice, we need to have tried it out ourselves; we need to break it down into steps, and to understand what skills are needed for each step. For example, if we want to train students in summarizing strategies, we cannot simply say “right, here’s a text, keep the important pieces of information and delete the secondary ones”. We’ll have to show them that “important” and “secondary” are meaningless words unless we relate them to each particular type of text, unless we recognize different types and levels of information - for instance, a statement from an example, a process frorn its stages, a thesis from its arguments, fact from opinion, and so on. And we need to select information according to our purpose in summarizing.

This is also what we mean by our second E - explicit. We need to provide informed training, not blind instruction. What do we mean by “informed training”? We mean making students aware, not just of the content of training, that is what they are going to learn, but also of the rationale and benefits behind the content, that is how a strategy works and why and when it can be useful and relevant to their purposes. In a word, training in an informed way means sharing at least part of what we know as teachers with our students.

This leads us to the third E - evaluation-oriented. How can I make sure that a strategy works for me? I need to evaluate what I have done, to see how my performance has improved, to spot the problems that the strategy has helped me to solve and the problems I still have to face. In a word, I need to see not just what I have achieved or not achieved - that is, the product of my activity - but also how I have achieved it - that is, the process I have been through while using the strategy. Self-assessment is a complex and delicate stage in learner training - just think of its problematic relationship with formal, external measures of assessment: tests, exams, marks - but I believe a necessary one. Only through self-assessment can I realize that success and failure are not the result of unchangeable factors that I can do nothing about, but rather of the effective use of skills that I too can learn.


Learner Training in the EFL Curriculum

So far we have looked at some basic guidelines for training learners for independence. We must now face harsh reality and ask ourselves some crucial questions: can we use such an approach in our working conditions? Do we and our students have the necessary time and energy? How can we fit learner training into our already crowded EFL curriculum?

Let us face it, the task in front of us is daunting. However, as always in these cases, we need to carefully adjust our ambitions without giving up the main features of our approach. In other words, we must play a game of dice with the determination to win and gain, but within the reasonable limits of what we can risk.

Maybe the single principle that is most useful at this stage is the idea that training learners for independence is not a new teaching method - not even, perhaps, a new approach. It is, first and foremost, an attitude - a willingness to change. This immediately implies two basic consequences. The first is the fact that autonomy is not confined to any particular age, any particular school or language level, or any particular content or skill. The second consequence is the fact that we need to set priorities and focus on specific teaching-learning situations. We can still play a game of dice - but it must be a problem-oriented game. Our starting point will be our awareness of our students’ most urgent problems and needs. Do they need help with listening tasks? with writing compositions? with note-taking? with finding ways of storing and retrieving vocabulary? do they perhaps need to organize their study more efficiently, keep their notebooks tidy or simply be able to keep their diary up to date?

Once we have established what we need to do, we must then decide when to do it. I must confess that this is a problem which worries me a bit. Do I need to set apart a lesson, a week or even a month to carry out specific learner training sessions? Or can I just add an element of learner training to my everyday classroom work? On the one hand, a series of sessions like the ones I described a few minutes ago does require setting aside some precious class time. On the other hand, specific sessions seem to contradict our basic principle of fully integrating learner training into the EFL curriculum.

I think that the answer cannot be a simple one. Of course, most of the tasks that we set in the classroom can be made to include an element of learner training. Training students in the use of a predicting strategy, for example, can be done in the context of ordinary reading tasks - sometimes it is just a question of having a short guided discussion or using a simple questionnaire. In other cases, however, we may find that the issue at stake is so specific, complex and important for our students that it is worth making it the primary objective of a lesson or even a series of lessons. For instance, we may decide that our students would benefit from a specific short course in note-taking techniques. Then the main focus of our sessions will be strategy training, and questions of grammar or vocabulary will, for the moment, remain in the background. In this case, however, we need to make sure that strategy training is not carried out in isolation, that is, we must still closely link it to the actual work that students are required to do in the EFL curriculum. This is necessary if we want our students to maintain the strategies over time, to transfer them across tasks, and eventually, and hopefully, to use them in an autonomous way. (For materials and activities for learner training, cf. e.g. Ellis-Sinclair, 1989; Oxford, 1990; Mariani-O’Malley 1991).



I can now draw my final conclusions. We have just said that training learners for independence is basically a willingness to change. We need to promote changes, not just in the learners, but in ourselves as teachers and in our working conditions. I think that this will affect three basic, very general areas:

- our own awareness, knowledge and skills: what do we need to be aware of? What do we need to know and to be able to do? What roles do we need to change, and therefore, how will this change the patterns of relationships in the classroom?

- the learning tasks that we set: do they provide our students with an awareness of language and of language learning? Do they give students the chance to plan, monitor and evaluate their performance? Do tbey offer opportunities to make choices? This includes, for example, a reassessment of the textbooks and materials we use: to what extent do they help us to carry out a leamer training approach?

- institutional constraints: we need to identify all the possible ways in which we can promote independence in teaching and learning conditions: for example, ways of managing class time and space in more flexible arrangements, ways of exploiting the media we have or could have available at school, from language laboratories to video facilities and computers; ways of organizing self-access facilities at school or even in our own classroom; ways of "reinventing" homework tasks, so that students can make the most of their time out of scbool 

Promoting iearner independence is all about changes and all about choices. It is a process which defies all rigid definitions. Its philosophy is not “all at once or nothing forever more" - rather the opposite - what is possible today for the people, teachers and learners, that today are going to spend a few hours in a classroom.

This means giving up the idea of complete independence as the alternative to complete dependence. Most of us, and most of our students, can be placed somewhere along a line between these two extremes. Some of us and some of our students cannot, indeed will not, accept complete autonomy today - but, as conditions change and as we and our students change, we could be ready to work for more autonomy tomorrow. Some of us and some of our students may choose to be independent for one particular purpose, or under particular circumstances, and this choice, again, can change over time.

Perhaps dependence and independence are not, after all, opposite terms; perhaps we all need to feel autonomous under certain circumstances, but we also need to experience a reassuring feeling of dependence under different circumstances. In other words, dependence and indepen­dence may be two complementary and necessary experiences in human deveiopment and education. Each individual may need to find a balance which is appropriate to her or his own style of learning or teaching - and this balance is not achieved once and for all, but is an on­going process of growth.



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Frasca, S., Insegnare a Imparare. Faenza: Faenza Editrice, 1989.

Mariani, L., Study Skills through English. Bologna: Zanichelli, 1987.

Mariani, L., Strategie per Imparare. Bologna: Zanichelli, 1990.

Mariani, L., O’Malley, K., Choices. Bologna: Zanichelli, 1991.

Oxford, R. L., Language Learning Strategies. New York: Newbury House, 1990.

Pozzo, G., Rossi Bozzuto, C. (eds.), Abilita’ di Consultazione e di Studio. Torino: IRRSAE Piemonte/S.E.I., 1989.

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