The Internet TESL Journal

Three Activities to Promote Learners' Autonomy

Galina Kavaliauskienë
ukk [at]
Law University of Lithuania, (Vilnius, Lithuania)


I believe that many EFL teachers, like myself, have experienced the frustration of investing endless energy in designing interesting, from the teacher's point of view, tasks and organizing various activities for students, but getting little response. Learners are often reluctant to use the target language in pair/small group work. Students do not reflect on their mistakes and, consequently, do not learn from their errors. Even really motivated learners do not always seem to attain their potential.

The common phenomenon among learners is a passive role they assume in the process of learning -- they rely on teachers too much and are reluctant to develop a sense of responsibility for the outcome of their learning. This holds for other subjects as well as for foreign languages.

It is unreasonable to expect that encouraging a student to become more independent, or autonomous, in acquiring language skills will bring about any tangible changes. Learners have to be taught the skill 'how to learn'. Learning this skill is a slow process and can only be perfected in a step-by-step manner.

First, learners need to become aware of the ways they learn best, which involves their learning styles and strategies (Brazis, Kavaliauskienë, 2000). Naturally, it takes time for learners to find out what are the most effective techniques and activities for each person.

Second, learners have to change their passive attitude to learning to a more active attitude, i.e. to become less dependent on the teacher and take charge of their own learning (Wilga M. Rivers, 1992). Teacher's role is to involve students in search for interesting materials, e.g. surfing the Internet, or finding pen-friends on the Internet, taking part in competitions, chat-clubs, encouraging to read English books, newspapers, magazines, etc.

Finally, learners have to be given a chance to gain experience in 'swapping places' with a teacher, which means changing the traditional role of a teacher, developing the art of negotiation, emphasizing the importance of self-assessment, etc. (Grudzinska, 2000). This involves tasks and activities designed and administered by the learners themselves. The diversity of tasks may cover grammar, games, written work, audio- and video- recordings, news items, translation -- you name it -- anything that interests learners will benefit them.

This article presents some techniques I have used in order to involve my students in active preparation and administration of activities. I hope my experience may be of interest to other English teachers who like experimenting in the classroom and trying out various techniques.

Crossword Session

In this activity students assume the teacher's traditional role of designing a task and carrying out the activity.

For many students learning professional vocabulary is a tedious task. Learners find it difficult to retrieve a specific item impromptu (speaking or writing). The possible cause of this failure is that vocabulary items have not been consolidated, i.e. have not been transferred to a long-term memory and either remained in a short-term memory or have been forgotten. Some items might be recognizable when encountered by learners, but usually learners complain that they are short for words and use rudimentary vocabulary because appropriate terms have not been effectively activated.

In this activity a situational context and a lexical content are intertwined. Students use the wordlist of target vocabulary from the topic-based reading materials. Students choose the items they want to process and design a crossword working in pairs. It is advisable to limit the number of vocabulary items (about 10) and to set the time limit (7 to 10 minutes). Each pair is expected to deliver their crossword either on the chalkboard or transparency using an overhead projector. One student reads the definitions, and another writes the item as soon as somebody generates the answer. Students are awarded a point for each correct answer. In case of an inaccurate definition, a point is awarded to a person who corrects it. The guessing activity should not take longer than 10 minutes. The idea is to have a fast performance and delivery. The activity also helps develop fast-thinking, which is necessary in spontaneous speech. It can be administered as a warm-up or between other activities, like writing or reading, for students to unwind. The crosswords designed by other pairs should be administered in the follow-up lessons, one at a time. Thus, learners will be able to recollect and process the task-based vocabulary during a few weeks. Naturally, different pairs will choose diverse vocabulary items, which also encourages revising. Learners' interaction, cooperation, assessment and self-assessment is lively and takes place in a friendly atmosphere: students argue over definitions, pronunciation and spelling, and enjoy awarding the titles of 'the best', 'the second best' and 'the third best' performers.

An example of a crossword and definitions are presented below. This crossword example was prepared by a pair of learners using vocabulary from the reading text 'The Law and the Family' (Powell, 1993). Although the visual design may seem unprofessional, this crossword puzzle serves the goals.


crossword puzzle image

Grammar Training

The usage of English tenses is rather problematic to Lithuanian learners. The most likely cause of students' difficulty is a difference between grammar systems of English and the mother tongue. There are only three tenses in Lithuanian -- Present, Past and Future. There are no notions of either Continuous or Perfect tenses and learners find the usage very confusing. Although students are very familiar with the structures of all the tenses, they tend to simplify their usage to simple forms. The technique presented below demonstrates an opportunity for students to practice the usage of various tenses within the topic-based context.

The activity is prepared at home and administered by learners in class. Learners use authentic professional materials either from professional journals, CNN or BBC news, newspapers and so on. Each pair prepares a passage in which verbs are replaced by infinitives and reproduced on transparencies or handouts. In the classroom, all peers exchange their ideas and suggest the choice(s) of a tense. All students are involved in the discussion and present their arguments for or against the suggested usage. This activity is very lively, particularly when there is an alternative possibility. Learners argue the points enthusiastically, and as a rule a final decision is reached without the teacher's intervention. Learners enjoy awarding 'prizes' to their peers and demonstrate the ability of being objective in their evaluation. It is noteworthy that students should complete the activity during the lesson, and the teacher's feedback should follow the learners' self-assessment. It is advisable to have no more than one such activity during a lesson, so that students do not get bored or frustrated in case it is rather hard.

Here is an example.


The use of bicycle patrol (1) ___________ foot patrol in many areas. (REPLACE)

Lately US law enforcement agencies (2) _____________to recognize the many benefits of patrolling

on bikes. (BEGIN)

Patrolling on bikes (3) ____________ high visibility, accessibility and mobility. (PROVIDE)

Bicycle patrols (4) _____________ crime by the capability to approach crimes in progress without

being seen or heard. (REDUCE)

The element of surprise (5) _____________ police to catch more suspects.. (HELP)

Police bicycles (6) ______________ with radar or computerized communication systems. (EQUIP)

Electric bikes travel up to 20 mph and (7) ____________ pedaling. (NOT NEED)

Answer key

1 replaces / has replaced 2 have begun 3 provides / has provided 4 reduce / have reduced 5 helps / has helped 6 are equipped / have been equipped / were equipped 7 do not need


A possible variation of this activity is combining two tasks: selecting the word order and the tense.
A useful tip: usage of tenses is better understood and learnt from a context. The choice of tenses out of the context is often ambiguous. The following example is a part of a passage, which is meant to demonstrate the format of the exercise. Students-peers have to determine the logical word order and choose the appropriate tense:

/ a student / for two years / to juvenile offenders' / be sent / institution / for making / death calls / anonymous /
/ until his trial / be remanded / accused of harassing / in custody / young girls / the youth / last month /

Answer Key:
A student has been sent to juvenile offenders' institution for two years for making anonymous death calls. The youth accused of harassing young girls was remanded in custody until his trial last month.


A way towards bilingualismDeveloping bilingualism in learners demands their awareness of the word-combinations and options that language allows (Kavaliauskienë, Janulevièienë, 2001). Students find it hard to understand the language of agreements, contracts, treaties, laws and conventions, although they seem to know the meanings of most words.

This activity is designed to give students practice in translating short legal excerpts from English into the mother tongue. It is advisable to select two passages of similar scope that do not contain new vocabulary items. Prepare two passages of approximately the same difficulty and scope. Divide the class into an equal number of pairs and give different passages to the students sitting next to each other. Ask students to translate their passages into the mother tongue and set the time limit for translating.

As soon as students have finished translating, collect the original English texts and ask students to exchange their translations in mother tongue. Set the time limit and ask them to translate their peers' work back into English.

As soon as students have finished the translating, give them original texts and let the pairs who swapped their translations compare and analyze their work. The emphasis is on the difficulties they encountered in translation both ways. A whole class discussion is a follow-up activity.

The final stage is to provide a copy of an officially approved legal document in the learners' mother tongue so that learners can compare their own understanding and translation with the official version. As it is obvious from my description, this activity is time-consuming, because learners need some time for reflection, analysis and discussion. Discussions concern different aspects of language -- a choice of vocabulary, collocations, structure of sentences, style, etc.

I applied this technique for fostering comprehension of the Schengen Agreement documents. The majority of students were baffled by the usage of vocabulary items like 'alien' which they associated with 'a being from space' and not 'a foreigner'; 'a technical support function' has been understood as some 'computer software' which actually is 'a service' in the Schengen Information System; the term 'Contracting Party' some learners have understood either as 'a political party' or 'an entertainment contract'.

It is noteworthy that the use of the translation technique is not the old-fashioned way of teaching languages that was common in the middle of the 20th century. The communicative approach to translating is a useful means for teaching comprehension of legal texts, which are hard to follow because of the formal wording and change in the meaning of otherwise familiar vocabulary. Now that my students are aware of translation benefits, they bring their own legal excerpts into the classroom for peers to translate, analyze and discuss.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VIII, No. 7, July 2002