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Promoting learner autonomy in young learners

July 09, 2020 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy | 2 comments

Learning to be responsible for their own learning is an indispensable skill for all language learners no matter how old they are. In a previous post, we discussed the main theoretical and pedagogical principles of supporting autonomous learning in teen and adult language learners. This time we turn to young learners and think about how we can guide them towards independence in their learning.

Teachers of young learners are aware of the creativity and responsibility children show in learning contexts. Young children are natural learners who are driven by curiosity, intrinsic motivation and a desire for exploration. They have an innate curiosity and get real pleasure from learning when they are immersed in a child-centred learning environment.

Reading curricular foreign language frameworks and classroom research reports, it becomes evident that promoting self-awareness, responsibility and autonomy is one of the major goals of early language education. By guiding young learners in this process, we help them become more reflective and independent learners in the long run. 

Let’s see some of the principles that can guide teachers in their learner autonomy projects. The examples we give mostly focus on reading development, but you can implement them in different skill development projects.

Take small steps

While we can design longer projects with teens and adults, we need to start with smaller steps when we are working with young learners. For example, showing pupils the parts of a book and asking them to find information on their own is an important achievement. 

You can also focus on small self-reflection exercises, for example bringing the children’s attention to when and how they can ask for help when they are stuck with a word or an activity.

Take advantage of play

Children learn through play as their sensory receptors are fine-tuned to continuously process new information and play supports language development and cognitive growth as well as a multitude of other key skills. When you design activities with a play-based approach, concentrate on the outcome you would like to have and the language areas and skills it will activate.

For example, one teacher reports (in Mourão & Robinson, 2016, p. 260) that setting up a free play area is an important step in promoting learner autonomy. When they play, students learn to make decisions about where and with whom they want to play. And when the teacher explains the rules within that play area and her expectations, such as tidying up the area after playtime, and then negotiates playgroup members, children learn to make decisions and take responsibility. 

These tiny aspects of a language session contribute to helping students take control of their learning. They also learn to understand that they have an important role in their own learning. 

Using reading to scaffold autonomy

Reading is another area we can focus on to help young learners become more autonomous. Reading should be done both as a shared whole class project (with either a big book and students gathered around the teacher, or students reading together along with the teacher) and, once students are reading in L2, as an individual activity. For example, we can initiate a reading project by selecting age and level appropriate books.  Start by reading the story together, show students how they can use the illustrations to help comprehension and check the meaning of words, again reminding them how and when they should ask for support. In the Helbling Young Readers series, you have mini picture dictionary features which help you with this. 

When students read storybooks in the company of their peers, they learn to make decisions, give each other feedback, learn rules, and realize their achievements. When they are read to by a teacher, or read together in a group they will often  explain unknown words or passages to each other. Children notice when a peer is lost or confused during a reading session, and will stop to point out where they are, or what a word means or refers to. Encourage such behaviour and invite pupils to help each other.

Then, invite students to choose another book they are interested in, and let them take their chosen books home. You might need to keep records of this and talk to the parents, too. At the next session, ask children to give the book to someone else. Educational researcher Réka Lugossy's (2007) found that students started passing on picture books to each other when the  teacher let them take the books home after a reading class.

Mistakes are necessary and useful

Your young learners will inevitably make mistakes, but that also means that they are experimenting with language. By encouraging such behaviour, students will get used to the idea and will soon realise that they are learning and improving from their mistakes. When you give feedback, provide a model if effective ways of dealing with difficult learning areas. This is why teachers are key to success: they are mediators who control how much guidance students need and how much control they can have over their own learning. 

Support making choices

Learning to make choices is beneficial not only for learners but also for teachers. Of course, teachers are well-aware of the learning needs of their students, but involving them in the learning process is an empowering feeling for both parties. By checking with the students what they enjoy doing, we find out which activities spark their intrinsic motivation best.

We learn from the report (in Mourão & Robinson, 2016) mentioned above that it is a good idea to keep a large board where you list the play areas your students can choose from during a day. We think that similarly to this, you can keep a large board of stories and activities you would like your students to read or complete and then let them choose different ones over a period of time. When students want to choose the same activity or story again, you can encourage them to pick another one by showing them what they have already completed or allow them the security of doing something they are familiar with, knowing that they are consolidating their language. 

Keep records of objectives and achievements

We recommended this checklist for teens and adults, and we also think it is important to involve younger students in this planning and reflection process. Even if children’s answers change from time to time, and they might find it hard to define their needs, ask them about their dreams and successes in English.

  • The story I like reading in English:
  • The story I would like to read in English:
  • The words I like in English:A game I enjoy playing:
  • Words I would like to learn:
  • The games I would like to play in English:
  • The words which are difficult for me:

Two young readers about autonomy

There are two young readers in the Helbling Young Readers and The Thinking Train series which tell stories of children who have dealt with a difficult situation and taken control over their learning and fears.

Paul learns to plan by Herbert Puchta and Gavin Biggs, illustrated by Vanessa Lovegrove

Paul needs to study for his tests in school, but he also needs to finish his online space game before the aliens take over. Paul finds tests very difficult: the more he tries to remember, the more he seems to forget! It’s terrible! How can Paul’s parents and friends help him to find time to study and time to relax?

Paul learns to plan Paul learns to plan

The Dark in the Box by Rick Sampedro, illustrated by Manuela Scarfò

Andy loves the summer, the days are long and he can play in the sun with his friends. Andy likes the winter too. But in the winter the days are short and the nights are long. Andy doesn’t like nights. He doesn’t like the dark. Then one day Andy has an idea. What’s Andy’s idea and how can it help him to sleep at night?

Read more about the story here:

The Dark in the Box


Next time we will look at book selection tips for young learners and give you lists based on reading levels and interest areas.


  • Nikolov, M., Djigunovic, J. M., Mattheoudakis, M., Lundberg, G., & Flanagan, T. (Eds.), (2007). The TeMoLaYoLe book Teaching modern languages to young learners: teachers, curricula and materials. Graz: Council Of Europe Publishing.
  • Murphy, V. A. & Evangelou, M. (Eds.), (2016). Early Childhood Education in English for Speakers of  Other Languages. British Council.
  • Robinson. P., Mourão, S. & Kang, N. J. (Eds.), (2015). English learning areas in pre-primary classrooms: an investigation of their effectiveness. British Council.

Blog Comments

Submitted by Berenice Brown (not verified) on Fri, 07/10/2020 - 18:47
Promoting Learner Autonomy in Young Learners
A very helpful article with lots of pratical ideas.
The list of questions to ask students and the sugestion of a list of available options and resources is particularly useful.
Thank you.
Submitted by n.nagy on Wed, 12/02/2020 - 11:20
Thank you
Dear Berenice, thank you for your kind words!

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