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April 2021 - Year 23 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

Autonomy in Language Education: Theory, Research and Practice by Manuel Jiménez Raya and Flavia Vieira


Brian Welter has taught in South Korea, Canada, and Taiwan to a range of ages and levels. He currently specializes in exam preparation, including the SAT, AP English composition, IELTS, and TOEFL. Email:


Jiménez Raya, M. and Vieira, F. (2021)

Autonomy in Language Education: Theory, Research and Practice

New York: Routledge

ISBN: 978-0-367-20413-6 (hbk)

ISBN: 978-0-429-26133-6 (ebk).


Learner autonomy and how teachers can facilitate its development make up a complex and rich area of educational inquiry that fits into a social constructivist perspective. Learner autonomy’s relevance has grown in the internet age, as learners now have to develop skills in managing an overabundance of resources. The fourteen chapters of Autonomy in Language Education, divided into “Historical and Theoretical Avenues” and “Research and Practical Avenues”, cover significant terrain, including language learning strategy use, dynamic systems theory, language advising, and teacher autonomy. Readers will come away with practical, student-centred and teacher-centred perspectives, while having some of their more theoretical assumptions challenged or updated. Individuals interested in pedagogical issues more than in lexis, grammar, phonology, or discourse analysis will find this book rewarding, despite the authors’ overlooking of at least one critical issue.

Interestingly enough, a learner autonomy perspective prompts much reflection on the role of the teacher. The teacher is described throughout this book as facilitator, listener and advisor, manager, educational reformer, self-actualizing agent, collaborator with students, and more. These images stem from the re-imagined concept of the learner. Discussion around learner autonomy begins with Holec’s definition from 1981: “The ability to take charge of one’s own learning” (*7). A revolutionary, Freirian perspective is assumed. Paiva and Braga in their chapter on language learning and autonomy in Brazil, note “three of Freire’s assumptions: (1) Reflection is essential to action and our actions influence society;” (2) “teaching is not simply about conveying knowledge;” “(3) learners should see educators as oppression liberators and not as authoritarian models” (105). In other words, the learner autonomy movement seems to have little use for traditional ways of learning and teaching. Some readers may wonder if any babies have been thrown out with the bathwater. The preeminence of Holec, Freire, and social constructivism builds consistency and coherence but allows for little in the way of alternative perspectives. 

Benson and Lamb, two of the most respected voices in learner autonomy in language learning, seem at first glance to reduce learner autonomy to another form of consumerism: “‘Choice’ is a fundamental aspect of learner autonomy …, so the opportunity of making an informed choice of which language to learn brings together the concepts of multilingualism and autonomy” (75). Yet they make a powerful point about the technological age: With so many language resources available, “autonomy may be less about taking charge of learning activities and more about making informed choices about contexts of language use” (76). They cite Illés, who shows the potential power of greater choice: Autonomy is “the capacity to become competent speakers of the target language who are able to exploit the linguistic and other resources at their disposal effectively and creatively” (77). Choice, then, concerns greater awareness of two basics: “the learning resources in the environment” and the ways that those resources can be exploited. “Critical autonomy”  refers to taking advantage of these capacities to develop the person and society. A critical role of the teacher is to prompt learners’ curiosity and raise awareness of these possibilities.

Many of the book’s writers show that learner autonomy places the learner in a wider context than simply the classroom and learning. Teachers no longer see “students,” but “persons.” Paiva and Braga insightfully note, for example: “An individual can possess three types of autonomy: as a communicator …, as a learner …, and as a person,” with a fourth being the “autonomy of the technology user” (106). More on this technological aspect and its impact on both learner and teacher autonomy would have made the book even more relevant, particularly because technology does not necessarily guarantee greater learner autonomy.

The multifaceted nature of learner autonomy means that many interesting pedagogical issues that may be unfamiliar for most language teachers make an appearance in Autonomy in Language Education. This includes the educational ecosocial system and complex dynamic systems as discussed by Murray. The author provides a clear description of the features of a complex system, including emergence, internal diversity, internal redundancy, coherence, and randomness. As for an ecological approach, it means “shifting attention from learning opportunities to affordances,” with affordances defined as “possibilities that are realized as learners interact with the environment” (86). The notion of affordances could help develop teacher autonomy as well, because teachers with a greater sense of what a given environment, whether traditional or digital, affords learners and teachers can make better decisions -- which again highlights the crucial role of choice. Of all the book’s chapters, this one seems the most relevant to promoting learner autonomy in the technological age and could easily be expanded into a very useful book. It is the highlight of Autonomy in Language Education.

Many of the book’s authors emphasise heightened demands on the teacher. Learner autonomy develops a more sophisticated language learner, who depends on a more sophisticated teacher. Teachers have to go far beyond simply inputting language and evaluating subsequent output. Learner autonomy may therefore start from the willingness of teachers to even entertain the possibility of student autonomy, a significant issue in many cultures. Perhaps a chapter on potential resistance to autonomy in some traditional cultures would have helped many readers. Not every educational stakeholder around the world accepts (or even knows about) Holec, Freire, or social constructivism. Yet the fact that the contributors write from the UK, Brazil, Finland, Spain, Japan, and elsewhere already gives the book a comparative education orientation.

Vázquez in a chapter on pre-service language educators rightly highlights low self-efficacy among teachers as a major block to developing learner autonomy. He suggests case pedagogy as one solution. Case pedagogy places “the emphasis of teacher education on learning from and through educational experience,” which “can provide student teachers with the opportunity to integrate theory into practice” (198). Case pedagogy could address many issues such as the micro-tasks or strategies that could help teachers in culturally or professionally-confined situations to at least subtly encourage learners to develop greater autonomy. This issue is not fully addressed in this book. One potential solution to restricted teaching and learning options concerns metacognitive skills, which Thornton in her chapter on self-access centres defines as “monitoring and reflection”; determining objectives; defining the contents of learning; and selecting methods and techniques (152).

The pedagogical issues discussed in Autonomy in Language Education make for engaging and rewarding reading. However, the lack of a technological perspective in this book means that the affordances to language learning and to learner autonomy provided by the internet via mlearning (mobile learning), blogs, wikis, and social media are not fully examined, though the tech sphere is where learner autonomy will undoubtedly see the most growth in the next few years. Mlearning is not even mentioned. A future book on language learner autonomy in the smartphone age will be a better fit for today’s English teachers. Some chapters are more nostalgic than forward thinking. The chapters on Self-access learning centers (SALCs) focus on technology in a very broad sense, without much specific reference to the use of mlearning, blogs, and so on. Typical of this, when speaking of the greater role of the internet in SALCs, one writer notes rather fuzzily, “Thus, SALC managers must face the evolution of societal change in order to adapt the SALC facility to changing needs” (173). Specific examples and experiences of learners developing greater capacity for choice, metacognition, self-assessment of learning needs and of learning, through technology would have made this book far more useful to teachers.

Overall, while Autonomy in Language Education provides much that is thought-provoking, we should wait for something less old-guard.


*Page numbers come from the reviewer’s personal e-reader and are therefore approximations of pages in the paper-based book.

* Look inside at


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