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How much responsibility should adult learners take for their learning?

Man sitting on desk with lots of work spread out on it.
Man sitting on desk with lots of work spread out on it.
T. Barwick, Iconica/Getty images

An important misunderstanding that many adult English language learners (ELLs) have is their responsibility as students in the classroom. In this regard, ELLs are not unlike traditional and nontraditional college students who are unrealistic about the degree of participation they have in their learning.

With regard to learning, there are several reasons why adult learners enroll in ELL programs, including educational or job advancement, communication improvement, citizenship attainment, job security, and support of their children’s education. Nevertheless, there are factors that clearly affect the adult learners’ learning experience such as their goals and motivations for learning English, literacy level in the native language, age, learning abilities or disabilities, living and working environments, sociocultural backgrounds, and learning autonomy.

Among the research on language learning and language teaching is Henri Holec’s theory of learner responsibility that he explains in Autonomy and Foreign Language Learning. In part, “The autonomous language learner takes responsibility for the totality of his learning situation. He does this by determining his own objectives, defining the contents to be learned and the progression of the course, selecting methods and techniques to be used, monitoring this procedure, and evaluating what he has acquired.”

A core assumption of communicative language teaching is that teachers function as facilitators in the classroom and the responsibility for learning belongs to the adult learners. Does Holec’s approach to language learning and language teaching place too much responsibility on adult learners?

One thing is certain. Classrooms are communities in which learners learn through effective communication strategies, active participation, discussion, and collaboration. Yet, language learning takes additional effort. Proficiency does not magically happen one day in the classroom. Adult learners have to practice using the language outside of the classroom in real-life settings.