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Review of  Teaching and Researching Autonomy in Language Learning

Reviewer: Lia Blaj
Book Title: Teaching and Researching Autonomy in Language Learning
Book Author: Philip Benson
Publisher: Pearson Linguistics
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 12.2027

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Benson, Phil (2001) Teaching and Researching Autonomy in Language
Learning. Longman (imprint of Pearson Education Ltd), paperback ISBN
0-582-36816-2, x+260pp, GBP22.99 (Applied Linguistics in Action series).

Reviewed by: Lia Blaj, University of Timisoara, Romania

'Teaching and Researching Autonomy in Language Learning' by
Phil Benson is a new book in the ALIA (Applied Linguistics
in Action) Series. As a quick glance at the Table of
Contents can show, Pearson are taking the 'in action'
concept one step further, by means of publications which do
not only traditionally review existing theory on a topic
(Section I of the book) and report on existing practice
(Section II), but also provide an extensive amount of
guidelines for practical action research to be undertaken
by the readers, as well as a section on print and on-line
resources, professional associations and conferences, with
immediate real-world relevance.

Benson makes use, throughout the book, of a working
definition of autonomy as 'the capacity to take control
over one's own learning' and is preoccupied with
deconstructing it into observable behaviours in the context
of institutionalised language learning.

SECTION ONE is concerned with a theoretical discussion of
Chapter One traces its historical origin in the social
and ideological changes in the 1960s (following which social
progress came to be viewed as an 'improvement in the
quality of life') and brings up, from the field of
language learning, issues of self-instructional modes of
learning, learner training, the teacher's role in the
development of autonomy (he quotes Voller, p. 15) and a
rationale for the present-day relevance of the discussion
on autonomy. Benson also underlines the importance of a
view of autonomy as 'necessarily implying collaboration and

Chapter Two refers to the signification of autonomy beyond
the field of language education and the reader will find
here summarised contributions of various educationalists
(Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Dewey, William Kilpatrick,
Paolo Freire and Ivan Illich) to the debate. This chapter
also contains various considerations on how autonomy is
contextualised within the fields of adult education, the
psychology of learning and political philosophy.

Chapter Three is concerned with establishing validity of
the construct around which the book is built. It explicates
three levels at which autonomy – seen mainly as learner
control – can be approached: learning management,
cognitive processes and learning content; introduces the
point of self-initiation as lying at the base of truly
autonomous behaviour and touches upon the matter of
cultural differences, while underlining the fact that
autonomy should be viewed as an educational goal and not a
method or approach. The issue of measuring autonomy is also
introduced in this chapter.

Chapter Four deals with learner control in relation with
learning and focuses on the control of such psychological
factors as motivation, anxiety, beliefs and preferences.
Other factors that Benson mentions and qualifies as 'open
to change through reflection and training' (p. 68) are
aptitude, personality and learning style.

Chapter Five elaborates upon the three levels at which
control can be exercised. Under the label 'learning
management' Benson groups observable 'behaviours that
learners employ in order to manage the planning,
organisation and evaluation of their learning' (p. 75). He
mentions here two existing instruments for measuring
degrees of learner control over the management of learning,
namely Guglielmo's SDLRS (Self-directed Learning Readiness
Scale), on which, he reports, there have been queries about
the validity of the construct it measures, and the up-to-
now unchallenged SILL (Strategy Inventory to Language
Learning), promoted by Oxford and Burry-Stock. Cognitive
processes, the second level subjected to control, in
opposition with learning management, are not discussed in
terms of observable behaviours but from the point of view
of the psychology of learning; the processes focused upon
are attention ('active mental engagement with linguistic
input', p. 87), reflection and metacognition. The third
level, that of learning content, is crucial if we aim at
authentic self-direction in language learning and, as
Benson advises, learners should be 'learning what they want
to learn' in an autonomy-driven education system.

Chapter Six draws conclusions from the theoretical
discussion and announces the shift, in the second section,
to considerations of the effectiveness of language-teaching
practices that claim to foster autonomy

SECTION TWO, 'Autonomy in Practice', opens with further
conceptual clarification of three different aspects under
which autonomy can be tackled: that of an attribute of the
learner, that of autonomous learning as a mode of learning
and that of educational practices designed to foster
autonomy, which are explained on p. 110. Before going on to
specify which are the practices associated with autonomy
that he will discuss further in the book, Benson mentions
(Chapter Seven) that instead of the terms 'to teach' and
'to learn' autonomy, he will use 'to foster', and
'to develop', respectively, terms which he finds more
appropriate in the context of his discussion.

The practices that can most readily be linked to the
development of autonomy are, in Benson's view, the
following: First, the resource-based approaches (Chapter
8), under which students working independently in self-
access centres and distance-learning packages are included;
one point that Benson makes here is the relevance to the
fostering of autonomy of the way in which self-access is
integrated into the school curriculum. Then (Chapter Nine),
technology-based approaches, where CALL, concordancing, CD-
ROMs, e-mail, on-line discussion and web-authoring are
mentioned. Next come learner-based approaches (Chapter
Ten), which focus on the relationship between the training
of learning strategies and autonomy development in the
learner; what sets this procedure apart from the first two
is the fact that while the first two are concerned with
creating opportunities for the learner to exert control
over his/her own learning, learner-based approaches centre
on 'direct production of behavioural and psychological
changes in the learner', p. 111. Then (Chapter Eleven),
classroom-based approaches presuppose learner involvement
in the planning and evaluation of learning tasks taking
place in the classroom. Last but one (Chapter Twelve),
curriculum-based approaches give the learner a say over the
whole curriculum and the sixth and last approach discussed
by Benson (Chapter Thirteen) is the teacher-based approach,
which ranks high the development of autonomy of the
teacher, who is prompted to adopt an evaluative stance vis-
a-vis elements of the educational context over which s/he
has the power of decision.

Chapter Fourteen ends the second section with conclusions
on the practices presented, in terms of their effectiveness
and on the importance of contextual factors in discussions
about effectiveness. It draws attention to the fact that
very little systematic empirical evidence is available on
the advantages of autonomy-oriented programmes, lack which
is partially compensated by the studies that Benson
summarises in the third section of his book.

SECTION THREE offers a description of research methods and
key areas of research in the field of autonomy, backed up
with concrete examples of case studies.
Chapter Fifteen puts forward the idea of action research,
in the process of which learners should be treated as
partners. Benson returns here to the three hypotheses
related to autonomy with which he started his book: first,
that learners have a 'natural tendency' 'to take control
over their learning', second, that autonomy can be fostered
through appropriate training, and, third, that autonomous
learning yields better results than non-autonomous learning
(p. 183). He gives examples of questions that can be
investigated in relation with one of the components of
autonomy (reflection), makes methodological observations on
issues such as measuring control by means of direct and
indirect evidence, the design of the research question
which should 'include specific elements of the learning
context' (p. 188) and gives guidelines for reporting
research clearly, in a way that allows readers to build
their own informed interpretations. He also draws attention
to the fact that autonomy leads to a qualitative rather
than quantitative improvement in learning, point which
should be carefully taken into account when evaluating
proficiency resulting from autonomous learning.

Chapter Sixteen summarises six case studies on autonomy: an
investigation of the relationship between ethnicity and
attitudes towards autonomy with a group of students of
foreign languages at a UK university (Marie-Christine
Press, 1996); a study of out-of class learning in a Hong
Kong Anglo-Chinese school (Shirley Yap, 1998); a case study
of reflective journals kept by a group of first year Arts
students taking a compulsory English language course
(Winnie Lor, 1998); the report of a research project
focused on decision-making in the process syllabus for a
group of adult migrants in Australia (Diane Simmons and
Sylvia Wheeler, 1995); an investigation on how vocabulary
acquisition takes place in an autonomous learning
environment in Denmark and Germany (Leni Dam and Lienhard
Legenhauser, 1996); a case study of developing independent
learning, again with adult migrants in Australia (Anne
Fowler, 1997).

Chapter Seventeen closes the third section with an emphasis
on the need to combine different methods of fostering

SECTION FOUR contains a list of resources for research and
practice, conferences and workshops, professional
associations, e-mail lists, web sites, bibliographies and
self-access centres. A web address that needs to be
mentioned here is

Critical appraisal

Following the remark on the overall layout of books in the
ALIA Series made at the beginning of this review, I will
limit myself here to considerations on Chapter Sixteen,
because I would like to underline a few positive aspects
about the selection of case studies discussed:
1. they are all up-to date reports, 1995 onwards;
2. there is a mixture of projects carried out by
established researchers and reported in independent books
and high-quality research undertaken by MA students and not
widely disseminated;
3. the investigations are made in a wide variety of
contexts, with participants ranging from secondary-school
students to adults, from different ethnic backgrounds;
4. the case studies are summarised in a manner sensitive to
issues of research report methodology (each case study is
discussed along eight categories: project, background,
aims, methodology, results, conclusions, commentary and
further research).

Lia Blaj is a junior lecturer and PhD student at the
University of Timisoara, Romania. Her current research
interest (PhD thesis) is connected with discourse analysis
for language teachers (with a focus on critical discourse
analysis and its relationship to language awareness in the
classroom). She is also involved in qualitative research
of teacher learning in foreign language teaching.


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