Building independent language learners

Students working independently on a language assignment

Over the last couple of years many language learners have had to work on developing their language skills outside of the classroom and without having their teachers on hand. The move to full or partial online learning has therefore meant that students have been forced to take control of their own learning and to become more autonomous and independent language learners.

But what characteristics define independent language learners and independent language learning? What are the benefits for your students in developing such skills? And how can educators help create the right conditions for students to do so? This blog post aims to answer these questions and to provide some reassurance for educators worried about their role and a loss of control.

Let’s start with some definitions!


What is an independent learner?

A recent webinar for the British Council identified four key characteristics of an independent language learner. They are:

  1. Independent learners manage and improve their own learning.
  2. They believe they can and should control and improve their learning – they have agency.
  3. They make their own decisions about how to improve their learning – they have autonomy.
  4. They monitor their progress and adjust their approach – they self regulate. 

It’s important to recognise that becoming a more independent learner may not be appropriate for all of your students. So it’s vital to take the time to assess their aptitude and attitudes towards such independence. That process begins by asking them (and yourself) some key questions. Without doing this, there is a danger that students receive too much freedom too soon, which is then used to reduce their effort and / or to focus on other activities.


What is independent learning?

According to Philip Candy (1991), independent learning is:

…a process, a method and a philosophy of education whereby a learner acquires knowledge by his or her own efforts and develops the ability for enquiry and critical evaluation.

Depending on your specific cohort of students, this might mean very different things. On one hand, fully independent learning usually means that students are entirely responsible for choosing what they do, where, when and why and that they’re able to choose the content / lesson materials that really interest them. On the other hand (and the focus of this blog post), independent learning is also about how students make the most effective use of their study time outside of the constraints / schedule of the classroom and the set work you’ve asked them to complete.

In either case, independent language learning is characterised by students:

  • Recognizing their learning needs
  • Taking responsibility for their progress and achievements
  • Working on the skills which really need their focus
  • Effectively using the resources / time at their disposal to build confidence and language fluency
  • Developing the required language skills on their own or with other learners.


What is not independent learning?

It’s also worth tackling the most common misconceptions about independent learning.

Firstly, independent language learning is not teacher-less. There’s still a significant role for teachers but rather than spoon feeding them everything they need to know, educators should help guide students towards their predetermined goals. Independent learners are active learners – they make learning happen rather than waiting for it to be handed to them on a plate. Which is, of course, a vital skill for language learners as their teachers won’t be there to help them order lunch in a seaside bistro in France or to book a hotel room in Mexico!

Equally, independent learning should not be a lonely activity, conducted without peers to work with and learn from. No language learner should ever be an island. Rather independent learning gives students the opportunity and the right to seek out the voices and resources that inspire them on their journey. Students should be encouraged to immerse themselves in the language and have the freedom to seek feedback from fellow students and native speakers. 


Why is it important to develop independent language learners?

The 2008 UK report “What is Independent Learning and What are the Benefits for Students?” is clear about the benefits of independent learning for students.

They include: 

  • Improved academic performance
  • Increased motivation and confidence
  • More chances to be creative and intellectually creative
  • Fostered social inclusion and countered alienation from peers
  • Increased opportunities for completing differentiated tasks, set by the teacher

After all, encouraging and equipping students to explore a topic for themselves lies at the very core of learning. Importantly, it also supports students to improve the management of their learning and helps them to better recognise their strengths and weaknesses as well as the progress they’re making. Not only do these benefits help students as language learners, but they’re also incredible life skills for them to develop as well.


A female teacher talking to her young student


How can educators encourage students to become more independent learners?

There are a wide variety of ways in which educators can help their students to build and develop these core skills.

1. Help them set goals for their learning: Start by sharing the key learning goals for each new topic so that students can see what success looks like. Encourage students to set their own goals (tailored to their specific strengths) based on the goals of the whole class.

2. Give them the skills: As outlined above, not all students will know and understand how to become more independent learners. It’s vital therefore that educators help them to discover strategies and tools that will help them to develop effective independent learning habits and skills.

3. Give them the opportunity: The best independent learners are always looking for chances to practise their core language skills outside of the classroom, so give them the inspiration and a little nudge to do so! Blogs, vlogs, TikToks and chat messaging platforms could all be ways to creatively build their fluency outside of the classroom.

4. Give students control of their own learning: If you’re able to be flexible in how you deliver your curriculum, why not give students the chance to shape it? Give them parameters to operate within and allow them to choose the topics, themes and even the resources to deliver it. The positive impact on motivation and engagement will be well worth it!

5. Less sage on the stage, more guide on the side: If the educator is always doing all the talking, then she’s also telling her students that she’s responsible for the learning that takes place in the classroom. To become independent learners, students need to be able to take risks and learn without being told what to do. Move away from lectures and prioritise projects and task-based learning instead – students have to find their own way forward by learning key language and study skills.

6. Help them evaluate their own learning: Always try to include reflective opportunities at the end of every activity. This helps students to think about their learning experience and to identify what suits them best. This can aid students to take more control of their learning and help them to make more effective plans for future learning.


Whatever language you teach and however you inspire your students to be more independent learners, Sanako’s market-leading tools are here to help. We’re constantly innovating and looking to use technology to enable language educators to teach languages more efficiently and more successfully. It’s why the world’s leading educational institutions choose Sanako as their preferred supplier to support online and in-person lesson delivery.


If you are interested in learning more about how Sanako products support language teachers and students and would like to see how they could benefit your institution, book a FREE remote demo now to see them in action.

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