Many people do not think that they can learn by themselves. I discovered that I could from a very early age, but only now do I realise just how autodidactic I was and I am. At the age of 15 I taught myself Spanish, albeit my motivation was extremely fired up as I had fallen in love and I remember gathering all my father´s Learn Spanish books and spending hours and hours trying to work out how to write letters in Spanish. I never had a Spanish lesson in my life and moving there at the tender age of 17 consolidated my written Spanish converting it into spoken Spanish. Living near Barcelona I also absorbed a lot of Catalan and some years later working in Italy allowed me to also develop my Italian using Spanish as the springboard. Again, I never had a lesson of Italian. The same happened with my German knowledge, with the experience of living in Germany, I learnt the language and maybe and a couple of lessons in German (I confess that German was more of a battle and is still my weakest language).
As a Neurolanguage Coach, one of the key points for effective learning is in fact learner autonomy. In fact, as a coach for me the best things for my client to say to me are “I can do this alone and then can we touchbase and go through it?” or even “Rachel, I would like to learn alone and can I call you when I need some assistance?”. The more a learner really takes ownership of his/her learning, the more effective the learning will be.
One of the most important things for educators to not only understand but also to really ensure, is that “the person doing it learns it”. This only requires a shift in mindset of the teacher and more emphasis on the coach role. The coach is there to facilitate, be a sound board, encourage, empower and support the learner. The coach is not there to do it for them. Most of the time, teachers are not self aware of just how much they really are doing for their learners: like finishing off sentences; preparing lots of work for the sessions; not giving the learner thinking time and space to think for themselves. I always say to teachers to observe themselves and bring in the awareness and always ask what more could the learner be doing and how could I do less.
Coaching is also about the learner becoming really aware of how he/she learns best. Personally, I discovered that I love writing: I connect and learn better when I can write something down. In addition, I like logical structures and when I was studying for my law degree I spent hours and hours creating written summaries and then summaries of summaries, breaking it down and then having that capacity in an exam to create the skeleton breakdown and build it back up into pages and pages for the exams. In Criminal Law I remember I wrote about 20 pages in just 2 hours, obtaining the highest mark for that year. The coach should really have a coaching conversation with the learner that reveals insights for the learner relating to his/her learning style. It does not have to go into complex self discovery, just a journey through the coachee´s learning experience to see if key styles are revealed and there is no judgement here, it is just about finding out whatever is the preferred style or styles and then understanding how to introduce activities that reflect those learning styles.
In addition, the learner should own the process by setting own goals and own actions, delineating the time in which the coachee wishes to achieve the goals and really getting the coachee to feel that he/she is the master of their own learning. A clear structured learning is necessary, but one in which the learner is the “key driver”.
Next Tuesday I will be holding a workshop relating to brain friendly coaching conversations about grammar. I am really looking forward to getting you to experience conversations that get the learner to interact with calm curiosity leading to “aha” moments and continuous insights. These conversations follow the PACT PQC model which I created to encourage learner autonomy and effective learning. If we are honest many of our learners hate grammar and many teachers do too, but in fact these conversations transform the whole process, making grammar fascinating, curiosity rousing and extremely enjoyable for both coach and coachee. Join me and experience this for yourself, Tuesday 2ndApril 10.40 in the morning. Looking forward to meeting you there.
In the meantime, here are a few questions for you to ponder over and respond to in the comments section:
How much do you get your learners doing themselves?
How often do you finish off learners’ sentences?
How much thinking time do you give to your learners?
How do you in fact empower them?
Rachel Paling started teaching English over 30 years ago. She holds a BA Honors in Law and Spanish, a Masters in Human Rights and Democratization (EMA), and qualified as a UK Lawyer in 2003, but she combined her teaching experience, her languages, her specialization in business English and her legal knowledge to coach top executives across Europe as well as develop the concept of Neurolanguage Coaching. She holds a coaching diploma, brain based coaching certificates and is an ACC ICF credentialed Life Coach. She is passionate about helping teachers to feel comfortable to deliver grammar through brain friendly conversations and without the books
“Maybe the journey isn’t so much about becoming anything. Maybe it’s about UN-becoming everything that isn’t really you, so you can be who you were meant to be in the first place”
– Unknown –
In the next post, An Sneyer’s explores some of the conditioning factors that limit learning potential and the role teachers may have in helping students overcome these limits. An goes on to introduce her Ultimate Study Skills Success program, together with The Funnel: a thinking model aimed at helping students with ideas development, understanding text structure, and driving their own learning. An’s text is interspersed with questions that should both offer food for thought and prompt the possibility of sharing your experiences in the comments section. If you want to hear more about An’s model, please join us at the LASIG showcase at 11.55-12.25, Tuesday 2 April 2019.
Recently I saw this quote on a wall somewhere. I love this, because it applies to life in general and it is also true for learner autonomy. I believe that we are all born with a blueprint which contains the seeds for all our human potential, including the potential to autonomously create great things. When nurtured, these seeds get activated through the learning and growing we do, and we transform from infants dependent on our caretakers into fully functional, confident and successful human beings. It’s in our DNA.
Unfortunately, over time there has been interference with the deep knowledge we once shared around what is needed for this process to take place fully and successfully. As a result, is has become harder to raise independent young people ready to lead the world to the next level.
I’ll explain what I mean by that. Around the world parents do the best they can to raise their children the best way they know how. They do this with the resources and thinking they have available at the time. Unfortunately, their approach may not always be effective at growing fully expressed, confident and successful human beings. In fact, unknowingly and unintentionally, they might install beliefs and values that may get in the way of that.
It’s not their fault. Their model of parenting is often based on how they were raised. They may choose to use the same approach, or rebel against it and do the opposite. What we often see, is that parents, despite all the right intentions, don’t know how to meet their children’s needs all the time, and are unaware of the potential consequences of children not being seen as fully-fledged little people, but rather are seen as an extension of the parents. Those children are unknowingly shut down in their self-expression (‘Not now, honey, mummy’s busy’); are not taught how to functionally express and appreciate all emotions (‘Boys don’t cry’, ‘Good girls don’t get angry’); they stop being able to trust their own sensations, thoughts and feelings (‘There’s nothing to be scared about’) and they learn that their needs and ideas are not as important as those of the grown-ups around them.
They get conditioned to believe there is a right and a wrong way, and they’d better get it right. This is the root of people becoming dependent on what the outside authority tells them to do, rather than learn to make their own choices and decisions. Even if that makes them fall down. Even if it makes them look funny. Suddenly, there’s a fear of losing face, of not being enough, of not being liked for who you are and what you bring. Suddenly, it’s become a risk to have a go and be ‘autonomous’ in your thinking, your learning, your doing. Learning is stunted and the person’s experience of life becomes limited.
To date, I’ve not met a single person who hasn’t experienced some version of this and now has concerns around not being enough, being afraid to try new things, take small risks (which are absolutely essential for learning!) and who now worries about whether they’ll be accepted by the group and appreciated for who they are. You only need to look at the increasing number of body image disorders, people suffering from anxiety and depression, or the impact of social media on self-esteem and self-image to see how wide-spread these issues are in today’s society.
I experienced similar things. As a little girl, I loved singing. It was a natural form of self-expression for me. When I was 6, I’d seen people singing and dancing in the streets on a trip to South Africa and couldn’t understand why we didn’t do that all the time… everywhere… when it was so much fun?! I asked my parents to join the children’s choir, but I wasn’t allowed to because the choir would meet at a time that didn’t work for my parents’ schedule. At school I was told singing was for ‘music time’, not ‘maths time’ or ‘reading time’.
This is where I started to unconsciously shut down my voice. I learned that I needed to comply with what the teacher and mum and dad said. Their opinion was more important than my self-expression and my desires. Suddenly, there was something called right and wrong. Singing in maths class was wrong. Being quiet and doing what the teacher said was right and would get me praised. A little people pleaser was born. Needless to say, it took a lot of work for me to break through my fear of opening my mouth and claiming my voice in order to be a teacher, and even more so to do what I do now, which is create my own coaching and education programs, and speak at conferences like IATEFL and the English Australia Conference. It’s taken a lot of ‘UN-becoming’ to get there, but I can honestly say it’s been worth it. I’ve even started to sing again!
Weneed to remember that when students finally end up in our class, they’ve already experienced some 20 years or more of conditioning like this. Twenty years of learning to comply. To their family’s wishes. To society’s expectations. To the expectations of the education system. They’ve more than likely been tricked into believing there’s a right and a wrong way to learn, and that to succeed in life you must follow a trajectory created for you by external sources. This is how it is, because this is how it’s ‘always’ been.
They’ve forgotten about their ‘seeds’… of their innate ability to be playful, take risks, be curious, spontaneous, resilient, warm, embrace their uniqueness, functionally move through any and all emotions because they all serve a purpose. Instead, they’ve been covered up by a veneer of fears. Fear of not being enough. Fear of not belonging to the group. Fear of not being liked or loved. Fear of not being worthy.
This is why they often struggle to think for themselves, and instead defer to others to rescue them from the potential of losing face. It becomes even more prominent when they don’t trust the group yet. When you ask them for their opinion, they might not have one because they’ve never been asked to articulate one before. And like with anything new, it’s scary. They also may not know how to build their message beyond one-word answers or expand it into more depth because they wouldn’t know where to start. No one’s every shown them and taken care of the full picture, including the thinking and mindset. Not simply the ‘just do this’. This leads to them being quiet, reverting back to their L1 a lot and having inauthentic and rehearsed conversations in English, rather than being able to discuss or write about a topic of interest in depth.
It is clear that, by staying stuck in this learned helplessness and conditioned dependency on the external (teacher or others), they are doing themselves a disservice. And if we don’t learn how to help them overcome this, we are doing them a disservice. They’ll experience a clash in academic expectation, and will likely not do so well in an environment where having and articulating an opinion, and being able to carefully think through hypotheses, are important criteria in passing assessments.
Not only that, these skills are essential to be successful in this post-industrial era, where they will likely spend most of their lives doing jobs that don’t even exist yet. Jobs which are focused on complex problem-solving, collaboration across industries and cultures, in depth communication skills etc. Some of us have started to attempt to incorporate this, but there is so much more to go. And with time constraints and the growing compliance-based bureaucracy that seems to have overtaken the education sector, it’s often not easy to find the time and energy to learn how to do this and fit it into an already overly full curriculum.
So what’s the secret to turning this around then?
Personally, I believe is to help students (and teachers) bit by bit to strip back the layers of conditioning that no longer serves them and replace it with something else. New programming that helps them return to those innate blueprint qualities of resilience, risk taking (as essential to learning and growth), optimism, embracing their own uniqueness, playfulness, curiosity, love and deep trust in their own abilities.
The first step is for them to move out of survival mode and learn to trust others, and see that there may be another way of doing things that is safe and will help them to build the future they’d like to create for themselves. In other words, they must be exposed to a better model of how to navigate the world, than the fear-based one they’ve been programmed with.
Secondly, while they’re in the process of learning to trust themselves and that they’ll be ok, regardless what happens, it helps to give them structures and frameworks to work with. This will allow them to create consistent experiences of success by following a system. It also gives them something to hold on to, which helps in learning to navigate ‘newness’.
This is why I’ve developed the forthcoming Ultimate Study Skills Success program, to step by step install better strategies and models for success in both the students’ study and in life in general. It includes
models and exercises to help students develop a sense of ownership over their own learning
ways to build and maintain intrinsic motivation
frameworks for building functional beliefs around learning, a growth mindset and never-ending curiosity
strategies for building grit and resilience
tips for bringing organisation and structure to their thinking and study approach, including habit building
ways to manage fear, procrastination, stress, overwhelm and much more
Combining the latest in behavioural psychology with best practice education methodology, the program encompasses 10 online modules with videos and exercises for ESL and EFL speakers to take their learning skills to the next level.
If you would like to know more about this program and be the first to know when it launches, I’d love to connect with you. You’ll find my email below, or you can reach out through my Facebook pages.
I will also be presenting a thinking model called ‘The Funnel’ from the program at the LASIG Showcase at the IATEFL Conference in Liverpool on 2 April and at BELTA Day in Brussels on 11 May. The model offers a visual structure to help students distinguish between ambiguous ‘big ideas’ and details or ‘small ideas’ so they can flexibly build opinions, write well-thought out content for essays, recognise the connections between ideas in written and spoken texts, as well as expand on those dreaded one-word answers.
Please come and say hello. I look forward to seeing you there!
And because students are not the only ones who sometimes get stuck in conditioning that doesn’t serve them, I’m also building an Overworked Teachers Recovery Hub. If this sounds like you, please reach out. There is always a way forward and you’re not alone in this.
Lots of love,
An Sneyers is an educator, mindset strategist, passionista and glow-getter. After having built a well-rounded and diverse career in language education, she started creating her own online education programs to help bring out the light in the people she works with and together build a future worth living in. An loves combining her three passions: education, understanding human behaviour to unleash the power of humanity, and travel. She sees empowered learning as the key to unlocking a bright future for the world and the people in it.
It is a pleasure to introduce this new post, written by Jo Mynard and Scott Shelton-Strong (Kanda University of International Studies, Japan). Jo and Scott describe an on-going research project which investigates the extent to which autonomy-supportive conditions exist for fostering English language use in a large self-access learning centre in a university in Japan. Their project will be presented at the IATEFL LASIG showcase, to be held on Tuesday 2 April 2019 (53rd IATEFL Conference, Liverpool 2019).
Although both of us have been interested in the field of language learner autonomy for many years, we are still finding new and exciting ways to think about autonomy and the support we give our students. We had the opportunity to see a plenary talk by Richard Ryan on self-determination theory at the Psychology of Language Learning Conference in Tokyo last June (http://www.pll3-tokyo2018.com). Professor Ryan’s talk and other presentations at the same conference inspired us to explore the field of autonomy from a different perspective. Self-determination theory (SDT) draws on robust research which has been applied to a wide range of fields. The term autonomy is interpreted differently within SDT and our team of colleagues in Japan have been exploring how the two fields can influence each other in order to help us understand more about our learners and how to best support them. As learning advisors and researchers, we are involved in several projects at our university, but the one we will talk about at IATEFL 2019 in Liverpool is the largest project so far. In fact, there were 17 researchers involved with this, including student researchers. Our team are presenting and publishing parts of the project as we go along.
In our presentation at the Learner Autonomy showcase in Liverpool, we will describe a research project designed to investigate the extent to which autonomy-supportive conditions exist for fostering English language use in a large self-access learning centre (“the SALC”) in our university in Japan (http://kuis8.com). In order to investigate these conditions, it is necessary to evaluate an environment from multiple perspectives, and although this is an ongoing process that is likely to take several years, we begin by exploring the views of the student users, and also the team of learning advisors (LAs) who work full time in the SALC.
The research framework we have chosen to use to help us evaluate the SALC is based on a SDT perspective (Deci & Ryan, 1987). SDT is a broad framework for the study of human motivation and well-being and within this framework, there are six sub-theories. One of these is Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT) which focuses on the areas of autonomy, competence and relatedness. We use BPNT to investigate the extent to which our SALC services and design provide support for these needs. We do this because, according to SDT, when support for these universal needs is present, this is thought to lead to support for autonomous motivation, and is needed in order to encourage greater engagement of our learners in the various learning environments which make up our SALC.
The research team investigated factors that might contribute to the basic psychological needs – autonomy, relatedness and competence – such as how comfortable students felt about using English, whether the environment was conducive in promoting English language use, and how the environment may or may not contribute to a sense of self-determination about language learning (Asta & Mynard, 2018; Yarwood, Lorentzen, Wallingford, & Wongsarnpigoon, 2019). Research methods included interviews with 108 student users of the SALC, and results of detailed evaluations of key sections of the SALC undertaken by the LAs (Mynard & Shelton-Strong, 2019). Results indicated that many of the features of the SALC were autonomy supportive in general, but some areas for improving the autonomy-supportive nature of the SALC were highlighted, which will lead to further research or action research interventions in the coming months.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1987). The support of autonomy and the control of behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(6), 1024-1037. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.524
Mynard, J., & Shelton-Strong, S. J. (2019). Evaluating a self-access centre: A self-determination theory perspective. Paper presented at the 53rd International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language annual conference, Liverpool, UK 2-5 April, 2019.
Jo Mynard is a Professor, Director of the Self-Access Learning Center, and Director of the Research Institute for Learner Autonomy Education at Kanda University of International studies in Japan. She has an M.Phil. in Applied Linguistics from Trinity College, University of Dublin, Ireland and an Ed.D. in TEFL from the University of Exeter, UK. Her research interests include learner autonomy, advising, self-access and affect in language learning.
Scott Shelton-Strong is a Learning Advisor in the Self-Access Learning Center and a member of the Research Institute for Learner Autonomy Education at Kanda University of International Studies in Japan. He earned his MA TESOL (with distinction) from the University of Nottingham, UK. Among his research interests are learner autonomy, advising and reflective dialogue, the psychology of language learning, and self-determination theory applied to advising and self-access learning.
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Thank you Jo and Scott for contributing to the blog with this very interesting and thought-provoking post!
We’d like to encourage the readers to share their own thoughts and/or experience, before and after the conference.
For example, do you have any examples of autonomy-supportive environments in your own cultural context?
What do you think of self-determination theory and its significance for language learner autonomy?
Being a member of LASIG is a source of motivation and inspiration for my teaching, and I am really glad to be a part of it.
My first experience with LASIG was at the conference in Hannover (September 2013): here I had the opportunity to hear the inspiring words of Leni Dam and David Little, which I had until then only read in their books, and to meet Maria Giovanna Tassinari, whose ideas are so much in line with my working and teaching methods. I also remember a remarkable speech by Steven Scott-Brewer on motivation and the inner-game, which really made me think about my learning and teaching style.
The following year at the LASIG conference in Istanbul (May 2014) I gave a talk on learner autonomy and the role of emotions and I remember having an inspiring conversation with Leni Dam and Jo Mynard, who encouraged me to keep researching in this field and to promote autonomy among my students. The chance to visit other universities, to speak with colleagues from all over the world and to see how they work is the most enriching professional update one can ask for.
This year, after a long – but happy – break, due to maternity leave, I attended the 2018 IATEFL Conference and LASIG preconference in Brighton, which I found once again really motivating and inspiring for both my work and my research on teacher and learner autonomy.
In my experience as a language advisor at the Language Centre of the University of Parma, in fact, the concept of autonomy has always been a key note. I usually do not teach in a traditional language class, but I run study groups of 15/20 students who lack confidence in their language learning abilities and need guidance. Working with small groups of students (with me as teacher, but also as advisor and helper), enhances a unique sense of belonging, which is perhaps the most fascinating part of my job.
My aim is not only to provide knowledge and skills, but also to foster students’ self-esteem and motivation, to reduce their anxiety and to create the premises for a good group climate, thus enabling them to engage in their own learning.
What has been particularly interesting for me is to observe how the students gain more self-awareness during the semester and change their attitude towards the language and their learning skills: they are encouraged to reflect on their own learning and self-evaluate their outcomes, in a way that traditional university lessons do not allow.
I think that collaboration among students – learning with and from each other – is a fundamental aspect of learner autonomy. Many students have told me that coming into contact with other peers experiencing similar difficulties and problems was very useful and encouraging.
In this context, students help each other and become friends. They go to the cinema to watch films in the original language, they exchange books and materials and they even spend free time together, which helps to foster a sense of group belonging in the language classroom.
I am glad to be able to create a learning environment that enables students not only to reach positive results in their academic studies, but above all to raise more self-awareness and motivation in language learning.
Greta Bertolotti is a member of the IATEFL and LASIG. She works as a Language Advisor at the Language Centre at the University of Parma, Italy, where she also organizes and teaches English courses for university students.
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Thank you Greta for contributing to the blog!
We’d like to encourage the readers to share their own thoughts and/or experience.
Here are some questions that might help your reflection:
Do you have any examples of non-traditional classroom teaching in your own cultural context?
What role does collaboration have in your students’ learning and/or classroom environment?
What role do emotions have in your students’ learning?
When I think of learner autonomy, a particular Erasmus student always comes to mind. It was quite a few years ago now, but I always use him as an example of how he took his learning of Italian into his own hands. He had been seconded to the University Language Centre in Parma to get some inside experience on language teaching with a view to taking it up as a career. I was curious to see a little notebook he brought in one morning and proudly showed me the number of new words he had learnt just by looking out of the window on the bus as he came to the university campus. He had decided that day to jot down some shop names that either he wasn’t very familiar with or that he realised had been coined to attract potential customers. So on this particular occasion, he had come up with words like “spaghetteria”, “paninoteca” “birreria” that have now practically become part of everyday Italian. He noted the suffixes –eria and –teca and realised how they had been used in combination with typical food terms. We then discussed other tasks he could carry out when walking round the town – how many English words could he see in shop fronts, how many spelling mistakes could he find and then account for them (e.g. “Snek” bar written as it would be pronounced in Italian). I suggested using his camera too (it was before the era of the smartphone!) to build up a corpus of real life examples.
Encouraging learners to notice the language and culture around them whether they are at home or abroad, takes them outside the traditional confines of the language classroom and helps foster the critical reflection needed to develop language skills. I now suggest my students use their smartphones and snap photos of language examples they find interesting and can share with their peers in the class online forum. The important thing is to plant the seed in their minds that they must be curious about language, not only the language they are learning but also their mother tongue. It’s amazing what they can come up with that will prompt others to look for themselves. One of my classic “stimulants” in my translation class that has sent students “viral” is the following snapshot that some English Erasmus students took when I asked them to develop their powers of observation as they walked round the town, not only noting new words as their colleague above, but also bad or inappropriate translations:
This was just one instance, but also a collection of restaurant menus, clearly a result of machine translation, are another source of hilarity and occasion to use language skills. I further developed the idea of critical reflection with my Italian students learning English and also translation skills. The above photo sent them off to surf the net and find examples of their own to post on the class forum, adding a comment too on what they found. Further to this kind of identifying and correcting errors, another fruitful activity is to launch the idea of studying similar but not identical messages, as in adverts, easily retrievable in magazines or online, or any other area of particular interest (sport, cinema,…) to the individual.
Activities that combine critical reflection and enjoyment of a learning task is for me a positive step forward in sustaining motivation and helping students to think for themselves about the language and culture that surround them. Curiosity may have, alas, killed the cat, but it certainly won’t the language learner! Rather his/her lifelong learning skills can only benefit from being observant.
Gillian Mansfield is Associate Professor at the Department of Modern Languages, University of Parma where she teaches English Language and Linguistics. Among her areas of research, she has focused on critical reflection and awareness-raising activities for her students with which they can bridge the gap between language competence and lifelong learning skills that incorporate intercultural competence.
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In thanking Gillian for contributing the first post of this blog, we’d also like to encourage you, the reader, to share your own experience of some of the areas Gillian covers.
Here are a couple of questions that may get the process rolling, but nothing stops you from expanding beyond:
What role does curiosity have in your students’ learning?
Do you have any examples of misappropriation of English through misaligned translation in your own cultural context?
LASIG is the Learner Autonomy Special Interest Group which is part of IATEFL, the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language.
Since its foundation by a small group of devotees in 1986, LASIG has greatly expanded its network, bringing together scholars, researchers, teachers, learning advisors and teacher educators who are all equally interested in autonomy in language learning.
LASIG’s areas of interest include a variety of spheres related to the implementation of language learner autonomy, such as learner differences, learning styles and learning strategies, motivation, the use of technology and multimedia, out-of-class language learning, lifelong learning, multiculturalism and cultural diversity.
The LASIG committee thought the time had come to set up a blog, exploiting the platform to provide further exploratory possibilities for a plethora of experiences related to autonomy in language learning. It’s an opportunity for those with field-specific interests to contribute by sharing narratives of personal experience and of a free exchange of related ideas, activities and resources.
The posts will be written by LASIG members, but not exclusively. Through the blog, we hope to give voice to those who have experienced learner autonomy in their professional or academic life and at the same time to give readers ideas to take inspiration from and to reflect upon. Moreover, some of the posts will be written by students, who will offer insight upon their experience of language learner autonomy.
Through the writers’ reflections and personal narratives of autonomy, the blog offers a great opportunity to connect globally and cross-culturally and to explore the fascinating world of Learner Autonomy from a wide variety of perspectives.
Posts will be published periodically, starting in early 2018.
If you’d like to contribute, please email the blog editors, Micòl and Sandro (contact details below).
We are looking forward to walking down the path of language learner autonomy with you!