Defining the field of learner-led learning of foreign languages is made difficult by a lack of agreement between authors (myself included) on terminology. Hence there follows a thumbnail guide to key terms within the field.
Self-instruction as applied to foreign-language learning has two different definitions, which may be called "broad" and "narrow" respectively. In the broad sense (Dickinson, 1987: 5), it describes "situations in which a learner, with others, or alone, is working without the direct control of a teacher". In the narrow sense (Jones, 1998; cf. Benson, 2001: 131), it is "a deliberate long-term learning project instigated, planned and carried out by the learner alone, without teacher intervention": unlike the broad definition, this excludes autonomous activities or sessions within a taught course. To avoid potential confusion, an alternative term, autodidaxy, has been suggested for narrow self-instruction.
Self-study describes a mode of self-instruction where the learner relies on specialist language-learning materials produced by others. These materials may take the form of:
Teach-yourself packages (also known as home-study courses, etc.) - sets of all-round course materials, usually published, and typically containing a coursebook, tapes and/or CDs, etc. (Jones, 1993; Roberts, 1995).
Broadcast courses (Rybak, 1983; Umino, 1998, 1999), which are presented via TV and radio, but usually with a coursebook as backup.
Self-instructed learners, even in the narrow/autodidactic sense, rarely work wholly on their own. Part or all of their learning may involve:
Using guidance from a language-learning advisor/counsellor/helper (a person advising on goal-setting, materials selection, learning and assessment activities etc.: Little, 1989: 55-60), often in an open-learning centre. When learners are learning a language on their own, but within a framework of institutional support, this may be called "supported self-instruction".
Studying or practising language with other learners ("study
With a native speaker of the foreign language (e.g. Carson & Longhini, 2002). In tandem learning, two native speakers of different languages help each other to learn each other's language (Lewis et al., 1996).
concern of learner autonomy is not so much whether learning is carried
out by the learner (as with autodidaxy), but whether it is controlled by
the learner. In autonomous learning,
learners take their own responsibility for goal-setting, materials selection,
learning activities and/or assessment, instead of a teacher or self-study
materials being in overall charge (e.g. Holec, 1979;
With full autonomy, learners are completely in charge of their own learning decisions and actions.
With partial autonomy, a learning programme combines autonomous and non-autonomous elements. This may happen in the classroom ("classroom autonomy"), where autonomous activities may play a small or large role (e.g. Dam, 1995), or in a teacher-led course. Despite the claims of some theorists (e.g. Holec, 1979: 4), it may also happen during package-led self-study if, as often happens, learners choose which package activities to follow and which to skip, select back-up materials, and devise their own back-up and self-assessment activities (Lockwood, 1992: 100-126).
Independent learning is also used by some authors (e.g. Page, 1992) to denote autonomous learning.
Broady & Kenning, however, see independent learning as equivalent to open learning and self-access learning, terms which focus on the physical "resources and contexts for learning, from which learners can choose according to their needs" (1996). Institutions such as schools and universities may provide these resources in an open learning centre, self-access centre or language-learning centre, a dedicated area containing language-learning materials and equipment (cassette/video players, computers, etc.), usually staffed by librarians, technicians and language-learning advisors.
Distance learning involves a teacher who, though physically removed from the learners, still oversees their learning (Richards & Roe, 1994). Distance teachers and learners traditionally communicate by post and telephone, but now e-mail and web contact is more common.
Francis R. Jones,
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Elspeth & Marie-Madeleine Kenning (1996) Learner autonomy: an introduction
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Ralph G. & Roger Hiemstra (1991) Self-Direction
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Carson, Joan G. & Ana Longhini (2002) Focusing on learning styles and strategies: a diary study in an immersion setting. Language Learning 52/2: 401-438.
(1995) From Theory to Classroom Practice.
In series Learner Autonomy, Vol. 3.
Leslie (1987) Self-Instruction in
(1979) Autonomy and Foreign Language
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Jones, Francis R. (1998) Self-instruction and success: a learner-profile study. Applied Linguistics 19/3: 378-406.
Jane Woodin & Elke St John (1996) Tandem learning: independence through
partnership. In Elspeth Broady and Marie-Madeleine Kenning, eds: Promoting Learner Autonomy in University
Language Teaching, 105-120.
David, ed. (1989) Self-Access Systems for
Fred (1992) Activities in
(1992) Letting Go, Taking Hold: A Guide
to Independent Language Learning by Teachers for Teachers.
Keith & Peter Roe, eds (1994) Distance
Learning in ELT.
Roberts, John (1995) An anatomy of home-study foreign language courses. System 23/4: 513-530.
Rybak, Stephanie J. (1983) Foreign languages by radio and television: the development of a support strategy for adult home-learners. PhD thesis, Brighton Polytechnic.