ELTWeekly Vol. 5 Issue#6 | February 18, 2013 | ISSN 0975-3036
Exploring Learner Autonomy through Language Portfolio
Dr. Kiran I. Chauhan
Assistant Professor in English, Dr. S. & S.S. Ghandhy Engineering College, Surat, Gujarat.
This paper investigates the interrelationship between ‘language portfolio’ and ‘learner autonomy’. This paper seeks to report one such innovative practice that was carried out at H M Patel Institute of English Training and Research in the MA[ELT] programme for the first year students. As a part of their curriculum, the students were asked to create their own ‘language portfolio’. An orientation workshop was held for the students to acquaint them with this new mode of learning and assessment. Here, the students were involved to decide upon the type of framework that they would like to have for their portfolio. In addition to this, it was not an activity to be taken up in the form of submission or assignment. Rather, it was a year-long process wherein students could add in the best of their language work. Henceforth, a qualitative analysis of the reflective reports showed that it helped the students to become independent about their learning, raising consciousness regarding their learning styles and interests, and developing interaction within the classroom sharing their work. It also made the students autonomous since they had to edit their work based on the feedback given by the peers and teachers. The paper thus explores the possibilities of developing autonomy through language portfolio and makes some suggestions of how this could be taken forward.
Over the last two decades ‘learner autonomy’ has become a ‘buzz-word’ within the context of language learning (Little, 1991: 2). The most popular and earliest definition for the term would be that of Holec (1979:3), where he describes autonomy as to take charge of ones own learning, and to hold, the responsibility for all the decisions concerning all aspects of this learning. Littlewood (1999: 71) interprets that taking responsibility involves learners in taking ownership (partial or total) of many processes which have traditionally belonged to the teacher, such as deciding on learning objectives, selecting learning methods and evaluating progress. Littlewood (1996:427) contributes to the notion of autonomy that learner’s ability and willingness to make choices independently is the core. Benson (2005) perceives that the ability and willingness are interdependent since the more knowledge and skills the students possess, the more confident they feel, the more they are likely to be able to mobilize their knowledge and skills in order to perform effectively (Littlewood 1996:428). However, Kenny (1993:440) argues: Autonomy is not just a matter of permitting choice in learning situations, or making pupils responsible for the activities they undertake, but of allowing and encouraging learners, through processes deliberately set up for the purpose, to begin to express who they are, what they think, and what they would like to do, in terms of work they initiate and define for themselves. This means that learner autonomy is a matter of explicit or conscious intention: we cannot accept responsibility for our own learning unless we have some idea of what, why, and how we are trying to learn. The learner must take at least some of the initiatives that give shape and direction to the learning process, and must share in monitoring progress and evaluating the extent to which learning targets are achieved.
On a large scale, the term autonomy has come to be used in at least five ways (see Benson & Voller, 1997: 2):
- for situations in which learners study entirely on their own;
- for a set of skills which can be learned and applied in self-directed learning;
- for an inborn capacity which is suppressed by institutional education;
- for the exercise of learners’ responsibility for their own learning;
- for the right of learners to determine the direction of their own learning.
Hence, in spite of its semantic complexity the term “autonomy” entails the general meaning, that it refers to “freedom”: the learner’s freedom from self; his or her capacity to transcend the limitations of personal heritage (cf. Berofsky, 1997). To all intents and purposes, the autonomous learner takes a (pro-) active role in the learning process, generating ideas and availing himself of learning opportunities, rather than simply reacting to various stimuli of the teacher (Boud, 1988; Kohonen, 1992; Knowles, 1975). Here it’s necessary to clarify the fact that, autonomy is not synonymous with autism: it is not a matter of learners working on their own; like all other culturally determined human capacities, it develops in interaction with others (Little, 2004).What is Language Portfolio?The term ‘portfolio’ has its root in the Latin verb portare, meaning to carry and the Latin noun folio, meaning sheets or leaves of paper. Hence, it refers to a collection of papers. As a matter of fact, the idea of ‘portfolios’ has been inspired by professionals such as photographers and architects as a means of keeping a record of their accomplishments to show to others. Language portfolio, similarly, have a very focus of keeping a record of students’ work. It is a collection of learners’ work assembled over a period of time. In other words, a portfolio is a purposeful collection of students’ work that demonstrates to students and others their efforts, progress, and achievements in given areas. It can be samples of writing- essay and poetry, lists of books that have been read, book reviews, article reviews, poetry appreciation, translation work, worksheets of language tasks solved, so on and so forth. In short, any thing that students do with language can be a part of language portfolio. It becomes a purposeful collection of students’ work that tells the story of student achievement or growth. The Portfolio Programme Summary:The project was carried out with a group of 40 students in the first year of their two-year MA [ELT] course. Following are the steps taken for the project.Step I: Introduction of language portfolio: An orientation workshop was held for the students to acquaint them with this new mode of learning and assessment. Here, the students were involved to decide upon the type of framework that they would like to have for their portfolio.Step II: Students’ consent for portfolio development: Students were involved in the process right from the planning to assessment of the portfolio work.· Selection of content: what to put in? (general essay-article, review of article either from newspaper or magazine, film-review, poetry creation, poetry appreciation, translation, worksheets of language tasks solved, language puzzles, etc., of their choice)· Finalizing assessment criteria: (e.g. inclusion of all required entries, quality of final products, seriousness of revisions, depth of reflections, layout and design, time schedule) Step III : Portfolio conferences: The periodical meetings were planned out right at the beginning so that students can review their work with their teachers and classmates.Step IV : Peer feedback meet: Students were encouraged to review and share their portfolios with each other.Step V : Intensive feedback meet: The students were asked to review an individual student’s portfolio in a small group (a group of five students) and taught how to provide positive, constructive feedback to one another. Step VI: Revision of the things done (i.e redrafting, modifying write ups)Step VII: Final submissionStep VIII: Presentations on language portfolio Step IX : Selection of best three language portfolios (the students were asked to choose best of three portfolios out of the pool of classroom portfolios )Language Portfolio and Learner Autonomy: An idyllic colligation
The best device to determine the interfaces between language portfolio and learner autonomy proven to be useful was that of the reflective reports of the students, wherein they evinced their learning gains and limitations. An analysis of the reflective reports was carried out keeping the constructs of autonomy in mind. The analysis of the reports evolved these sub-categories of autonomy: independent language learning skills and strategies, decision-making and ability to face challenges, and developing interdependence leading to independence.
Learner autonomy is defined as “a capacity for detachment, critical reflection, decision making, and independent action” (Little 1991:4). This is what, exactly, language portfolio aims at; that is to prepare the learners to take independent action, to decide what to select for their portfolio work, define why did they choose what they did and reflect on their writing endeavor, and finally all these activities occurs without being grappled by the ghost of examination. The idea is to trigger up the students’ concealed desire and lead them towards the alternatives of learning language, specially a language which they have never applied for increasing their repertoire. This is what some of the students felt after the completion of the portfolio work:“ I would love to say; language portfolio is an impetus that keeps the learners moving around the ‘Englishness’ with fresh and colorful varieties involving interests” “ In my point of view, language portfolio is very important, and should be used in future also…some of the students may refuse it, but they don’t know that by this portfolio many things can be improved like language skills, knowledge, ability, own ideas or views, etc…” The “autonomy”, as defined above, entails that it is not any one specific thing – it is a capacity, and like any other capacity it will grow with practice, or be lost through inactivity. Hence, the positive effects of portfolio on students leaning arose from the opportunities they afford students to become actively involved in learning. Another important aspect of learner autonomy is that of ‘interdependence’ rather than independence (Little, 1994) and (Ryan 1991). Majority of the students are still being taught in ways which leave them ill-equipped to apply their classroom-learnt knowledge to the world beyond the classroom. This is primarily because they have never been exposed, or very little, to the skills or interdependence. Interaction, negotiation, collaboration etc. are important factors in promoting learner autonomy. It is this thread of collaboration that bounds language portfolio with autonomy. This was also revealed through the analysis of the reflective reports that, often, the students got puzzled with what to do; but they could resolve their problems through each others’ help. Certainly, it strengthens the ability to trust and lift up each other. The anxiety of teacher-student interaction is diminished. “ During preparing my language portfolio ,I face problem in reviewing article. And I think that I could understand the difficulties when I talked to my friends…” “ In spite of classroom lecture, whenever I got confuse with certain things in language portfolio my friend ………helped me and shown me my mistakes. I also realized my errors.” Hence, language portfolio seems to promote collaborative efforts among the students and develops interdependence. Portfolios are said to develop supportive and collaborative environment (Smith, 2002). Above all, the crucial aspect of autonomy evolved through the perusal of the reflective reports was that of ‘critical reflection’. Perhaps, for the first time in their academic life, the students confessed that they had never been channelized to reflect on ‘what they do’, ‘why they do’, ‘did they like to do it’ and ‘did they learn anything out of it, if at all?’. This aspect was reiterated in their reflective reports implying that students became clear on where they stand, in terms of language competence, specially their writing skills; they were able to locate their weakness and this realization led them to overcome their limitations. Here, the students were able to make choices that are informed, not conditioned. In other words, language portfolio provided alternatives to what they currently think and do. Ultimately, the students become reflective managers of their own learning within the constraints imposed by the syllabus and examination. Outcomes and suggestionsThe major findings of the project undertaken were:· language portfolio can foster learner autonomy by developing their language and critical reflection and helping them to make choices in learning and responsible in making decision;· ‘interdependence’ can be brought forth through open form of discussion in order to make the learners independent; · autonomy can’t be fostered in the absence of teacher’s absence, rather it can nourished if it is monitored properly;· the traditional classroom tools like diaries and journals that professedly aid autonomy (Dam 1995; Warschauer et al 1996; Oxbrow 2000) could be effectively combined within the space of a language portfolio.· language portfolio is a tangible evidence of student learning to be shared with parents, other educators, and other students.There are, however, some suggestions to strengthen the outcomes as mentioned earlier. It is very essential that the teacher monitor the work in progress by the students periodically. In addition to that, it’s inevitable to provide constructive feedback at regular interval, because that is the impetus of learning for the students. To reduce the burden of the teacher, the students can be divided into groups and assign a supervisor teacher. This would add collaboration on both the ends: the students and the teachers.
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