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Review of  Language Learner Autonomy: Policy, Curriculum, Classroom

Reviewer: Cathy Bow
Book Title: Language Learner Autonomy: Policy, Curriculum, Classroom
Book Author: Breffni O'Rourke Lorna Carson
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 21.4744

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EDITORS: Breffni O'Rourke & Lorna Carson
TITLE: Language Learner Autonomy: Policy, Curriculum, Classroom
SUBTITLE: A Festschrift in honour of David Little
SERIES TITLE: Contemporary Studies in Descriptive Linguistics Vol 3
YEAR: 2010

Catherine Bow, PhD Candidate, Macquarie University, Australia.


This collection of papers addresses contemporary issues in foreign and second
language education with a focus on learner autonomy, in honour of one of the
leading proponents of the theory and practice of autonomy in language learning,
David Little. The volume contains contributions by his colleagues, peers and
students, in a range of areas which owe much to his thinking, research, practice
and influence.


The foreword by Leo van Lier, ''Agency, Self and Identity in Language Learning,''
discusses the lack of universally accepted definitions of these three terms, and
highlights the need to forge connections between the intricate relationships of
cognitive, affective and social influences of language learning in order ''to
explore both convergences and divergences without prejudice'' (p. xvi). This call
for unity in diversity reflects David Little's own research agenda.

The introduction by the editors, Lorna Carson and Breffni O'Rourke, ''Language
and Learners, Interdependence and Autonomy'' reviews David Little's background,
career at Trinity College Dublin, research themes, achievements, and ongoing
influence in several dimensions of the field, as reflected in the remainder of
the collection.

Part one of the festschrift focuses on the area in which David Little may be
best known: language learner autonomy. Viljo Kohonen's paper, ''Autonomy, Agency
and Community in FL Education: Developing Site-based Understanding through a
University and School Partnership'' describes collaborative learning against a
background of sociocultural theory and the Common European Framework of
Reference for Languages (CEFR). The author addresses teacher development as
cultural socialisation and as a cognitive process, then describes the ''OK
project'' where teachers were involved in action research, developing the concept
and practice of participatory professional learning. This approach explores the
connection between teacher autonomy and learner autonomy in a collaborative
environment, which is often undervalued and underutilised where commercial and
time restraints limit the possibility of connecting research with practice in
the classroom.

Lienhard Legenhausen's article, ''Group Work, Weak Learners and the Autonomous
Classroom: Indirect Support for the Interaction Hypothesis?'' uses conversation
analysis of a short extract of dialogue between two young weak learners to show
how the eventual negotiation of meaning is achieved. He argues that this gives
indirect evidence for the interaction hypothesis, an area where supporting data
is more often drawn from more competent language users. He then concludes that
classroom interactions characterised by authenticity and reflexivity -- both key
features of autonomy espoused by Little -- can contribute to communicative
competence even in weaker learners.

Ema Ushioda's contribution, ''Researching Growth in Autonomy through I-Statement
Analysis,'' addresses the lack of specific tools of inquiry or analysis that have
widespread acceptance in autonomy research. She describes the development of
systematic means of exploring learner reflective writing, through analysis of
I-statements, thus giving researchers a potentially useful tool for qualitative
analysis in order to examine specific cognitions and patterns in learner output.

Naoko Aoki and a group of Osaka University students contribute ''A Community of
Practice as a Space for Collaborative Student Teacher Autonomy,'' which describes
arrangements for teaching practice for trainee teachers of Japanese as a second
language, including engaging with learners of Japanese in various contexts,
goal-setting for teacher development and group projects to achieve these goals.
The researcher's objective was to develop and sustain a community of practice
where participants belong to several different sub-groups, and she uses the
resulting qualitative data to demonstrate the development of collaborative
student teacher autonomy.

In ''Developing Learner Autonomy with Adult Immigrants: A Case Study,'' Leni Dam
describes a program for adult immigrants learning Danish as their second
language, and the teachers' attempts to help learners develop autonomy. She
identifies innovations in the classroom which shifted the locus to learners
(e.g. the physical organisation of classroom, time with teacher, specific
independent tasks), and reports on the positive feedback from learners who
ultimately demonstrated characteristics of autonomous learners.

Dieter Wolff's ''Developing Curricula for CLIL: Issues and Problems'' addresses
the area of content and language integrated learning (CLIL) which has become
common in education systems in Europe. The focus here is on why and how
curricula should be developed, with a description of typical features of a good
curriculum. He argues that developing curricula is not just about developing
closed lists of learning aims, learning content and methodological approaches
but rather illustrating different approaches to learning with respect to these
aims, content and methods, thus creating a positive environment for the
development of autonomy among learners.

Bernd Rüschoff's contribution, ''Authenticity in Language Learning Revisited:
Materials, Processes, Aims'' begins with a very personal introduction, then uses
quotes from novel about teaching to discuss the importance of authenticity in
the language classroom -- going beyond the simple use of authentic materials but
identifying authenticity of text and of task as being key to a person-centred

Bernd Voss's ''Language Teaching in Higher Education and the TCD Language
Modules'' gives a history of language teaching in higher education using Germany
as a case study, pointing out that the education of modern language teachers was
based on that of classical language teachers, i.e. focusing on grammar and
translation. He then identifies five characteristics of university language
teaching, and reviews the language modules developed at Trinity College Dublin
under the oversight of David Little, which are seen as models and examples of
good practice in language teaching and learning.

Lorna Carson's ''Innovation and Autonomy in an Institution-Wide Language
Programme'' thematically follows the previous paper in describing Trinity College
Dublin's language programs for non-language majors, based on the CEFR. Here
again is an excellent model of autonomous learning in an institutional context,
highlighting the importance of self-assessment.

Part Two of the festschrift is focused on 'Second and Minority Language
Education,' with seven papers giving examples of specific situations and how
governments, communities or agencies have addressed the needs of users of
non-majority languages in the European context.

In ''The Language Educational Experience of Polish Migrants in France and
Ireland,'' Ewelina Debaene and David Singleton describe the experience of the
Polish diaspora in two European situations and the difficulties of supporting
the home language and culture of children of Polish migrants. The Polish
government, the church and Polish cultural organisations have carried much of
the weight in the absence of support from local or national agencies in the
country, which is probably not a unique example for other immigrant groups
across Europe.

Lorraine Leeson's ''Supporting Academic Success for the Irish Deaf Community''
describes the history of deaf education in Ireland and the breakthroughs made by
the establishment (with the oversight and support of David Little) of the Centre
for Deaf Studies at Trinity College Dublin, including the increase in status of
Irish Sign Language and a ''cultural shift from inherited belief in the
limitations of Deaf people because of deafness to a 'can-do' attitude'' (p. 207).

John Harris's article, ''Attitude Motivation in the Early Learning of Foreign
Languages and Minority Second Languages,'' addresses the lack of research into
early language learning in various sociolinguistic contexts such as second
language minority, regional, heritage or majority language learning by
immigrants. He compares the attitudes of primary school pupils learning European
foreign languages and learning a minority second language (Irish), using an
adaptation of the Attitude/Motivation Test Battery (AMTB). While discussing both
similarities and differences in the findings, the author argues for the
decompartmentalisation of the study of foreign languages, minority second
languages, regional languages and immigrant languages.

In ''Change and Challenge in the Teaching of Irish,'' Muiris Ó Laoire addresses
the issue of why students appear to be unable to hold a simple conversation in
Irish after 13 years of instruction, reviewing the history of Irish language
teaching in schools and the influence of applied linguistic research, where once
again the influence of David Little is apparent. The implementation of
communicative language teaching and a sociocultural approach to pedagogy have
led to an understanding that ''the language is not fully teachable within the
classroom context'' (p. 246) and that the classroom should be a site of
empowerment for language use outside the classroom. This understanding could
easily apply to many approaches to language education where there is little
expectation of language use anywhere outside the classroom.

Pádraig Ó Riagáin provides ''Implementing International Standards for Minority
Language Policy: The Framework Convention for the Protection of National
Minorities and Moldova between 2000 and 2005'' as an examination of how the issue
of minority rights has been addressed in the Council of Europe, using the
Republic of Moldova as a case study. Historically, the 'russificiation' of
Soviet Moldova challenged the status of the Moldovan language, but since 1989
the local language has been strengthened through a range of educational
policies. The implementation of a Europe-wide policy has been affected by
political factors and lack of data, and this article shows that the interaction
between the political agencies of a community of states and a world of
transnational politics are often in competition or conflict.

Waldemar Martyniuk's ''Assessing Competences at the End of Compulsory Schooling:
The Polish Case'' illustrates the challenge of assessing competence in a language
taught as a school subject and a language taught across the curriculum. It
includes an overview of education in Poland and how assessment is done
internally and externally, with a detailed analysis of Polish language at
lower-secondary level. The conclusions drawn may apply more broadly to the
assessment of language and competence standards in many educational contexts.

Androula Yiakoumetti and Edith Esch's article, ''Educational Complexities
inherent in Bidialectal Communities and the Potential Contribution of the Common
European Framework of Reference to Second-dialect Development,'' explores the
multifaceted phenomenon of bidialectalism, with a focus on the educational
implications of such a heterogeneous issue. The authors argue that while the
CEFR is primarily concerned with second-language learning, it could be modified
to include bidialectal learners. Issues of culture, language attitudes,
assessment, the importance of teacher training and authentic materials are all
clearly addressed in such a way that makes it seem possible to implement a
bidialectal program with careful consideration of these and other crucial factors.

The third part of the volume, ''Implementing the Common European Framework of
Reference for Languages and the European Language Portfolio,'' includes five
papers exploring different implementations of this important policy.

Joseph Sheils' article, ''Council of Europe Policy for Plurilingual Education,''
reviews the issue of plurilingualism and its value in the Council of Europe, as
manifested in its policies. The paper describes the CEFR and ELP and their
relation to plurilingualism, concluding that the policy contributes to ''the
development of plurilingual and intercultural education, founded on a
values-oriented approach that promotes respect for, and goodwill towards, the
plurilingual repertoires and cultures of others'' (p. 325).

Rolf Schärer, in ''The European Language Portfolio: Goals, Boundaries and
Timelines,'' describes the ELP as ''a tool for learners to develop into
responsible, plurilingual and inter-culturally competent citizens'' (p. 327) and
this paper describes the move from piloting to implementation of the ELP,
focusing on the expected and unexpected, desirable and undesirable effects of
this process. While not giving specific examples or data, the author discusses
the goals and guidelines of the ELP and highlights the issues involved in
turning a policy into active use.

Hanne Thomsen's ''This is My Portfolio: Telling the Story of My Learning'' follows
the previous paper nicely by giving an actual example of the dossier section of
the ELP by a young Danish learner of English over three years. Without any
evaluation or critique, it gives a clear demonstration for teachers and learners
how the learning process can be made visible through its use.

In ''The Motivational Potential of the European Language Portfolio,'' Manolis
Sisamakis includes another overview of the ELP, focusing on its desired effect
of fostering learner autonomy. The author then examines the ELP through the
prism of nine contemporary motivation theories, before concluding that
self-determination theory offers an appropriate framework for interpreting the
motivational underpinnings of the ELP. Sisamakis states that the ELP fosters all
three of the basic or fundamental psychological needs posited by
self-determination theory: competence, relatedness and autonomy. The author then
expands on the issue of learner autonomy and the ELP, drawing on David Little's
own work.

The final paper in the collection is by Philip Riley, ''Reflections on Identity,
Modernity and the European Language Portfolio.'' This paper takes a more
philosophical approach to the field, focusing on the idea of 'identity.' He
notes the convergence of thinking in psychology and applied linguistics towards
sociocultural theory, which provides much of the rationale for both autonomy and
the ELP, and states that ''the learner in applied linguistics discourse is no
longer simply a personification of the language acquisition process, but a
flesh-and-blood individual with an identity'' (p. 378). He describes his theory
of identity made up of Self, Person and Ethos, which map reasonably neatly on to
the ELP components of Biography, Passport and Dossier.


This collection provides some solid contributions to the areas of interest to
David Little, as reflected in the three parts of the book: language learner
autonomy, second and minority language education, and the CEFR and ELP. My
concern is that there is a lack of cohesion between these three parts. The title
of the collection: ''Language learner autonomy: policy, curriculum, classroom''
suggests that the focus of the book will be on learner autonomy and its various
manifestations in these three areas; however the second part of the book is
lacking in reference to autonomy. While its focus is significant in terms of
language policy, an area where David Little has been influential, only the final
contribution to this section (by Yiakoumetti and Esch) includes any reference to
language learner autonomy.

Normally in a collection of this nature, the foreword or introduction will give
a justification of how the papers work together and the themes that emerge from
the work as a whole. However, this book lacks a cohesive theme, except to
celebrate and extend the significant work of David Little and his contributions
to the three areas in focus here. While both the foreword (van Lier) and the
introduction (Carson and O'Rourke) spell out the work of Little and his
influence in the areas of applied linguistics, language policy and education,
neither contribution offers any attempt to harmonise the different sections.

Each paper in the collection draws on the influential work of David Little, and
the book is a testimony to his influence and importance in different areas of
the field of language learning and teaching. The first and last papers by van
Lier and Riley nicely bookend the collection, addressing the key concepts of
autonomy in a wider perspective, which is then channelled and explored through
the various case studies and descriptions of implementation and practice
described through the remainder of the book.

The volume offers useful food for thought for researchers in each of the three
areas in focus, with a wide variety of research types (historical overviews,
policy reviews, implementation procedures, case studies, recommendations, etc.)
presented well. The focus on Europe in these readings is not a disadvantage, as
many of the findings would be comparable in other contexts. The references and
reviews of relevant literature are valuable for researchers who may be less
familiar with these areas. There is an appendix with a chronological
bibliography of publications by David Little, and also a useful index to the
collection. Each of the articles makes a contribution to its field; however,
besides David Little himself, it is hard to imagine who the intended reader is
for the whole collection.

Catherine Bow is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University, exploring issues of language learner autonomy and independent learning in intensive cultural immersion contexts. She has also worked in language description, language development among children with hearing impairments, software tools for language documentation, teaching ESL and TESOL.

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