Going It Alone: The Route to Learner Autonomy – Guest Post by Andreas Grundtvig (@A_Grundtvig)

It is with great pleasure that I introduce you a wonderful guest blogger, Andreas Grundtvig! I was very happy to meet him at the ETAS SIG Day in Zug.

Andreas Grundtvig teaches at the Staatliche Fremdsprachenschule in Hamburg, Germany and is currently preparing to take over the management of his local Cambridge ESOL Examinations Centre. In his freetime, he regularly presents teacher training workshops and designs and creates classroom resources for Cornelsen. He is passionate about politeness research as well as fostering learner autonomy and imaginative learning – in 2005, he supervised the foundation of the first ever, internationally recognised, EFL micronation – the Kingdom of Playland.
Beginning his career in Spain in the 1990s, Andreas has spent over a decade in academic management in countries as far afield as Portugal, Switzerland, Lithuania, France and Germany. His former students range from aircraft designers, cardiologists and politicians to six-year olds. His first student ever was a famous songwriter (buy him a beer and he’ll tell you about this)!
Andreas was born in Sweden and grew up and graduated in Suffolk, England. He lives in Germany with his Lithuanian wife and English Springer Spaniel. He still cannot make up his mind whether he is a dog or cat person!

Thank you so much, Andreas!

As I’m thinking here about what to write for Vicky’s blog, I’m on my way home after presenting for ELTAF, the English Language Teacher’s Association in Frankfurt. It’s been a long day – I’ve delivered two workshops and talked for over six and a half hours to a group of eleven teachers I’d never met before – but I’m riding on a high – from a sense of success and accomplishment. For a quiet, unassuming guy like me, it’s been a personal record.

Of the two workshops, I feel that the second went especially well. Even though it came after a heavy lunch on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I don’t recall seeing anybody yawning or checking their watches to see how much longer they’d have to bear up until the weekend could finally begin. Instead, I could see only keen listeners, who experienced several ‘a-ha’ moments (when a previously confusing subject suddenly becomes crystal clear) and, at the end of the session, left discussing amongst themselves which of the ideas I’d shown them they would use in their own classrooms. All of these responses – combined with an end-of-the-day refill of the amber nectar – were enough to give me the buzz to keep on presenting.

I began my afternoon workshop – ‘Go it alone – the secrets of the LA learner’ – by telling the participants a story about an earlier presentation I’d given – again to a bunch of strangers in an unfamiliar town. At the beginning of this year, I spoke in Cologne, where, half an hour before the workshop was due to begin, the first of the die-hard TEFLers began to arrive. One of them, I could see, was sizing me up and, as he began to circle and then to approach, I braced myself for what was coming next.

‘Tell me!’, he fired in a no-nonsense manner, ‘What’s the difference between learner independence and learner autonomy?’

I put the same question to the participants here in Frankfurt and – hopefully, sounding less like the Voice of Authority – asked them what they thought. They were as unsure as I had been but were a lot less afraid of admitting to the fact. Deciding which factors are involved in the concept of learner autonomy took up the best part of an afternoon. Working on the task together, we came up with an inventory, if you will, of characteristics of the LA learner. This is what we said:

  The autonomous learner…

–         needs to be motivated.

–         needs to have a lot of contact with and be ready

to accept L2.

–         mustn’t be afraid and should try to move from fear to freedom.

–         can make connections with other languages they may know.

–         shouldn’t try to understand every word they hear.

–         thinks outside of the box.

–         tries to listen to L2 as much as possible.

–         looks at how language is used – context is everything!

At the end of the afternoon, we went on to discuss the negative impression that most of our students have of homework. Why is it that, all too often, when we suggest doing something outside of the scheduled lesson, students glower and grumble until we feel like throwing in the towel and just forgetting about the whole thing? Most probably, they experience flashbacks to the endless evenings of their schooldays spent bogged down with gap-fill exercises and a grammar rule book as their only guide. Come to think of it, the words ‘home’ and ‘work’ are, after all, significant of polarities. Perhaps we can do something to remove the stigma that homework bears (firstly, by giving it a new and better name) and to give our students more creative and – hopefully – motivational tasks.

On the main topic of learner autonomy, I’m interested to hear what you think about our inventory (did we miss anything?) and how can we introduce and tackle, raising our students’ awareness of each of the points mentioned?

By the way, my answer to the question originally posed to me in Cologne began with a shaky ‘Er… it is probably… ehmm…’ – get this wrong, I was thinking, and I’m finished! Swallowing hard, I pulled myself together and managed to come up with the following:

‘An independent learner is somebody who studies alone without the guidance of a teacher. An autonomous learner however, is someone who is able to do things alone but under the guidance of a teacher.’

Right or wrong, I was pleased with my answer. As it turned out, so was my wily interlocutor!

‘Just as I thought!’, he responded, clapping his hands together, and adding: ‘I’ll quote you on that!’

How Can We Activate Vocabulary and Get Our Students to Use It? – ELTChat Summary

Today’s ELTChat session at noon was all about vocabulary and how to activate it with students, in order for them to assimilate it and make use of it. Several interesting ideas circulated the Twitterstream, as always!

So how do we activate vocabulary and get our students to use it? The ideas move among Young Learners and Older or Adult Learners, but you will find that sometimes an idea can very well cross over a category!

  • The idea of using songs is a plus in assimilating vocabulary. For Young Learners they can be songs with repetition in them, such as Old MacDonald,The Colours Song and so on. TPR with songs such as finger chants is so effective with children, as is attaching new vocabulary with gestures. With older students you can use songs with fill-in-the-gaps, or sing a song with a particular word and stop at that word for them to recognise it.
  • Repetition and recycling of the vocabulary is necessary.  The vocabulary found in coursebooks once, needs to be interacted with – more than once.
  • Connecting the words or collocations to something meaningful, something that can help them retain, is the key. Establishing a meaningful and relevant context is paramount.
  • Try to connect the vocabulary students learn to their immediate needs, if possible.
  • When they do use a word or collocation spontaneously, give them praise and write it on the board. The visual effect helps as well.
  • Passing a box with words can help – each student picks a word, describes it to the rest of the class and has them guess which word it is. This is a very effective activity, in particular when you are covering previously taught vocabulary. Guessing can be a very crucial first ingredient in vocabulary acquisition.
  • Games such as Boggle can help students form words and remember them. In addition teachers can use Taboo, Pictionary or miming.
  • Activities such as wordsearches, gap-fills, wordsnakes and crosswords are great ideas in class.
  • The use of post-it notes helps, putting the words on them and placing them all over the classroom. Incidental vocabulary can also be written on notes.
  • Visual representation of vocabulary is helpful, especially with low-level learners. Teachers can use picture vocabulary quizzes, rebus exercises and so on. For younger students, creating their own picture dictionary of new words assists in their learning.
  • Flashcards are essential to helping them learn vocabulary and use it. A very nice game with young learners is to place flashcards in a pile, for the teacher to blow a whistle, yell out the word and the children have to find the card that represents the word.
  • In the same context of visuals, students can bring to class pictures of things they would like to learn and that way attach the word to the image. All these visual representations can prove effective with dyslexic students as well.
  • Have a vocabulary bank for your students.  From this bank, you can assign them a determined number of words which they have to use in any activity.
  • The use of spider diagrams helps students in learning lexical sets and then translation can follow.
  • Extending vocabulary is also useful. Collocations, antonyms, concordances give them more time to study the word.
  • Some students may find keeping a vocabulary journal effective. They write there all the new words as they learn and repeat them frequently.
  • The use of a dictionary, picture or word kind, can help at specific moments.


Words, words, words! (Image taken from http://www.good.is)

Do learners choose the words to learn, or do teachers choose them for them?


  • Perhaps a combination of both is useful. Students, especially if they are older can see where they need more help and teachers can orientate them to the vocabulary the students need.

Online Resources:

There is a multitude of ideas on helping activate vocabulary in class – have a great time with words!

Word of the Week – From my Adult Classes

(Image taken from http://www.britannica.com/blogs )

One day at school I was having a break and leafing through a large dictionary we have there. There are so many new words in there and many are pretty impressive, the way they have been made up! I was thinking of how I could teach my students one word per week from a number that have made an impression on me and give them material for further discussion.

Then I got the idea – what about writing one of these words on the board right before they come in every time? With most of them we have one meeting per week, so it could easily be called The Word of the Week project!

What I do is I usually write it on the board before they come in and make a big circle around it. You should see the anticipation they have on their faces every time they come in – they shake my hand and say their hellos and good mornings and ask me: “So…what’s the Word of the Week this week?” and they immediately sit down and look at the board.

The very first one I wrote for them (and which has become one of their favourites) was daycation. This one made them laugh plus they described vacations, daily outings and they really liked the combination of words. I was very happy to learn that even when they went back to their offices after the lesson they were making examples amongst themselves with the word and they came to our next meeting, eagerly telling me what they had come up with!

(Image taken from http://www.illustrationsource.com )

Another time I had them guess. The word was going to be blamestorming that week so I had them play around a bit. I aksed them questions such as How do you call it when you are all sitting together coming up with ideas for a project? When they got brainstorming, then I asked them and what would you call it if someone were looking to pass the responsibility to somebody for something they had done? So they were searching for a word and then reached blame …and when they found the Word of the Week, they loved it! Additionally, we came up with alternatives to pass the responsibility – for instance shirk the responsibility and idioms such as pass the buck.

The conversations we have had based on The Word of the Week are amazing and sometimes take up the whole meeting – it gets them talking, they learn a great deal in the process and they take it to their work and share it with other colleagues as well. Their learning and practice continues even outside the classroom, which is great for them.

This is an idea I am planning on implementing with my younger learners as well. It can be customised for any level or any age group and really gets everyone talking!

♦ Some of the words or phrases I have used so far with my classes, apart from the ones mentioned above are:

me-time (and we-time), al desko, earworm, couch tomato, googleable, locavore, staycation.

What I am interested in most of the times is not so much for them to retain the specific words, but the great discussions that stem from these words. If you have more like these, or that you find can incite a discussion in class, please feel free to add them!

Many thanks to Cecilia Coelho, who recommended I write some of the words we use in class. Thank you Cecilia!

In addition, many thanks to Emma Herrod, who came up with a great idea – The Two-Week Vocabulary Blogging Challenge (and helped me do a pingback! Thanks a million, Emma!)

My Blog Post for ESL/EFL Carnival of Business English and ESP – Teaching Business English in Switzerland

First of all, many many thanks to Anne Hodgson, for suggesting I write for the Blog Carnival and helping me find my inspiration after my three-month hiatus! Thank you so much, Anne!

This year, I am teaching at a new school and its students are late teens and adults. During the week, I teach professionals either on the school premises or I visit the respective company or bank of the students.

Making Business English as enjoyable as possible! (Image taken from http://www.sweden.se)

I start the first lesson in a way that I have found breaks the ice, gets them talking and combines Business English and cultural elements. I use the book Cambridge Business English Activities for this reason. In the introductory lesson, questions arise such as:

– If you were at a reception and there was a last piece of cake on the table, would you take it?

– How would you feel if a colleague took the job you wanted the most?

– When you are given a new project to attempt, how do you approach it – by instinct or by analysis?

– Would it be unusual for you to lose your office or house keys?

It is so interesting to see how all these people, who have different personalities and who come from different cultures, tackle the questions and their answers are very interesting. In this way, we can understand what is acceptable or not in each culture, in business interactions and in daily life. It can become really humorous too, so learning becomes more of a carefree process for them and they enjoy it after a hard day’s work.

What we also do a lot is role-playing and situations, or what we call conflict situations (I give them a situation that involves disagreement or clarifying a misunderstanding). I give them a situation, which usually involves a problem. For instance:

– You have a deadline on a project this Monday but you need more time to complete it, due to obstacles that were not your responsibility (bureaucracy, an unco-operative colleague and so on). What do you tell your manager?

– You would like to work on a project with the partner you have chosen, but think it will be good to work together over the weekend as well, in order to complete it. How do you convince him or her?

– You are very upset with a mistake a colleague of yours has made on a shared project. How do you tell him/her? Are you diplomatic and let it pass and you correct it, or do you confront this person and inform them of the mistake and the severity of it?

They are all great in this. We learn how it is acceptable to say something in English, how to be tactful in the language and we always benefit from learning new vocabulary, which I am sure to write on the board and leave there throughout the lesson if possible, for the reason that the visual factor plays an important role.

Another thing we do is that they prepare small presentations of projects and we go through their slides and powerpoints and they present to me they way they would on the day. This additionally helps them get rid if some of the stress they feel for the actual presentation!

Sometimes we do e-mail writing. They bring in one of the e-mails they have composed so we can look for mistakes, or I let them think for a minute or two and then they “compose” it orally. We can then write expressions they can use and if they would like to and have the time, they do this at home as practice and that they have understood and then they bring it to class next time and we look at it. Sometimes, they come up with really good ideas of their own that they have added and the whole group benefits from this!

Writing e-mails, comparing and describing charts...the list is endless! (Image taken from http://www.smarterbusiness.de)

There are countless ideas to use in the Business English classroom. Sometimes books, websites like YouTube or the Financial Times can help; sometimes it is the students themselves who come up with great ideas – then you can use them with all your other groups!