Promoting Academic Independence in English Language Learners

Instructor: Matthew Hamel

Matt has degrees in Journalism and Business and has taught a variety of courses at high schools and universities around the world.

English language learners (ELLs) face a multitude of academic challenges. However, providing your learners with the academic independence skills outlined in the following lesson can mitigate these challenges.

Assessing Readiness for Independence

As a teacher of English Language Learners (ELLs), you want your students to develop academic independence, or the ability to learn on their own without reliance on direct instruction. The first step to promoting academic independence in your ELLs is to assess both their aptitude and attitudes toward academic independence. You can begin the process by asking the following questions about specific students.

  1. Is the student ready for academic independence?
  2. Does the student have the self-discipline to remain focused on the tasks at hand?
  3. How can success be measured?
  4. Is the student receptive to criticism? Can the student handle criticism?
  5. Will the student ask for help or remain silent in the face of misunderstandings or challenges?
  6. Can the student pace himself/herself? Will the student take on too much?
  7. How will the student handle failure or setbacks?
  8. Who is responsible for addressing student needs and concerns?
  9. How will academic independence affect student performance?
  10. Is there a process in place to bring the student back from independent academic projects?

It is not necessary to answer all of these questions in the affirmative, but a majority of the responses should be positive to ensure that the students you identify for academic independence will be successful. There is a danger in giving students too much academic freedom too soon because if students are unprepared they can use that freedom to slack off or pursue non-academic interests.

Challenges to Independence for ELLs

English language learners face a unique set of academic independence challenges that native English speakers may not. The foremost of these challenges is language. English grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation can all affect an ELL's ability to communicate. For instance, an ELL may overanalyze a text so as to not misunderstand any part of it. This type of behavior can cause the student to miss concepts such as satire, irony or innuendo while being too focused on literal definitions.

Additionally, ELLs by nature approach English cautiously and can be meticulous when it comes to grammar and vocabulary. This focus on being perfect linguistically can cause other skills such as critical thinking to suffer. For these reasons, it's important to realize the language limitations of your students.

Tools for Developing Academic Independence in ELLs

A variety of tools and strategies can be used to promote academic independence in your English language learners. Tools include dictionaries, thesauruses, which may be paper-based or online, and software tools such as spellcheck and grammar checkers. Encourage your ELLs to become comfortable using these tools to overcome the language barrier to academic independence. However, watch out for signs that students are becoming over-reliant on tools, which have deficiencies and may not always be available in real-life situations.

In addition to encouraging appropriate use of tools, begin to assess your current learning strategies for the following opportunities to promote academic independence.

Independent Study

Consider whether you currently have or could develop independent study projects, tasks and other assignments. When using this approach be sure that guidelines and expectations are clearly understood by all students.

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