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March 2012
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Self-Directed Learning Strategies For Adult ELLs
by Alexandra Dylan Lowe

Despite our best efforts as teachers, there simply is not enough class time for working adults to learn English as a second language in the classroom at the speed that many of them need to meet their personal language learning goals. 

To accelerate and deepen the language-learning process, I recently created a series of activities that encouraged my intermediate level adult students to design their own independent language-learning strategies. These draw extensively on lessons learned from structured interviews I conducted with adult immigrants who have successfully taught themselves English. These activities are outlined below in the order in which we tackled them in class over a 3-month period:

Discussion: How Do You Practice English?
During our first night of class, I asked my Level 5 students to stand up and move around the classroom, interviewing their classmates to find out under what circumstances they used English outside of class. It quickly became apparent that most students were barely practicing their English outside of the classroom, apart from brief conversations with coworkers. While some occasionally watched TV and movies in English, very few routinely read books or newspapers in English or used English-language learning Websites. Almost none had library cards. Only one student was listening to audio books available for free at the local public library and not one student was familiar with the library system’s web-based English learning materials for immigrants. Few had American friends with whom they could practice their English.

Reflection: What Are My Interests?
As a follow-up activity, I encouraged my students to reflect on the kinds of books, magazine articles, and movies they enjoyed in their native language, and to think about what they liked to do in their limited time off from their jobs.  Most of my students worked as waitresses, home attendants, cashiers, and in other entry-level service industry positions.

Working alone and then sharing the results in groups, they completed a Getting Ahead in English questionnaire that provided a platform on which to build their independent learning strategies. The questionnaire helped them to delineate their goals for learning English, how they learned best, and how they might begin to increase their learning.

Download a copy of the questionnaire.

Lessons From Successful Independent ELLs
As a subsequent reading activity, I shared with my students two interviews that I had conducted with immigrants (Eugene and Marija) who were highly successful autonomous language learners. Both came to the United States as adults, knowing little more than the lyrics of Beatles songs.  Both took charge of their English language learning from the outset and charted their own paths to near-native fluency. My students found many aspects of those interviews inspiring. For example:

Eugene routinely spoke to himself in English when he had no one else to talk to, stating his own actions aloud: Now I am getting up from the chair. I am going to the door. I am opening the door.  I am going to the store. I am going to buy this or that. He obtained a copy of the video of Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” and “played it to death, over and over, picking up words here and there.” He wrote down idioms whenever he heard them and would try to use them right away in conversation.

Marija pushed herself to speak English as much as possible and asked everyone to correct her grammatical errors.  “I spoke with my hands and with my feet until someone would understand me.” She started by purchasing simple children’s books, and then progressed to reading Victoria’s Secret catalogs and using an English-only dictionary to expand her vocabulary to include synonyms and antonyms of words that interested her. She estimated that she spent 20–25 hours a week teaching herself English.

Download the complete interviews with Eugene and Marija.

The Getting Ahead in English Outside of Class Project
Inspired by these independent learners’ examples, my students then designed their own Getting Ahead in English Outside of Class plans. Although I strongly encouraged my students to read more on their own, I placed no limits on their choice of reading material, did not suggest books unless asked, and did not even require that they chose a reading activity. In my experience, students are more likely to follow through and complete independent activities that they themselves have chosen based on their own interests and passions, although beginning students may need more guidance than my intermediate level students did.

The array of activities they designed for themselves was as diverse as the students:

Reading plans: Those who decided to read more chose books by authors ranging from Danielle Steele to George Orwell.  Their picks included The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Orwell’s Animal Farm, and W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, as well as Christian inspirational literature (chosen by a student who taught Bible study classes in her free time). Several went to their local library for the first time and proudly displayed to their classmates the audio book CDs that they began listening to during their commutes to work, at home in the evening, and even during breaks at work.

Video plans: Several students chose to watch archived programs on PBS online that reflected their personal passions for cooking, history, or science, toggling back again and again to hear and repeat phrases that they heard on the videos and using the English closed-caption subtitles to expand their vocabularies. 

Internet plans: Others began to regularly take advantage of online pronunciation and grammar materials available through Voice of America, Rachel’s English, and USA Learns. It was especially gratifying to see students of different nationalities arrange to meet outside of class to read and discuss articles they had found on the Web, using English as their lingua franca.

Throughout the semester, students made presentations about their Getting Ahead in English Outside of Class projects. One student downloaded the lyrics in English to a song she was learning and led her classmates in a YouTube-fueled karaoke session. Others demonstrated to their classmates the web-based pronunciation websites they were using, or played a movie trailer for the books they were reading and explained what they enjoyed about their books. 

Building a Personal English Plan
On the last day of class, I invited my students to make a short, written promise to themselves, outlining two steps they planned to take to continue to improve their English independently after the end of the semester. If they wished, they could put the plan into a self-addressed envelope, which I mailed to them several weeks after the end of the semester as a reminder of their commitment. 

Here are some of the pledges my students made to themselves, in their own words:

  • I will speak to a friend who doesn’t speak Spanish and I will ask him to correct me in my English.
  • I will read and listen to 2 or 3 books for months [sic]. I’m going to spend 4 or 5 hours a week and find vocabulary and [write new words] down in my Word Hunted [notebook]. I will also speak new words with my boyfriend and friends.
  • I will watch TV in English.
  • Speak every day with American people.
  • I will be always available to listen [to] new words in every person who speak[s] with me or who I’m listening [to] in radio or TV.  I will pronounce my English in the mirror.  I will sing in the mirror.  I will be proud of my tough [sic].

I, too, am proud of my students’ “tough[ness]” —and the strategies they developed to get ahead in English on their own.


Alexandra Dylan Lowe is an adjunct instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College’s English Language Institute, where she currently teaches English as a Second Language and Business English for Internationals. In class, she draws extensively on her many years of professional experience in law, public administration, and adult workplace education. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Harvard College, and earned a TESOL certificate at Westchester Community College.

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Table of Contents
TC Homepage
Lesson Plan: Speed Networking
Self-Directed Learning Strategies For Adult ELLs
Poetry for ELLs
Free Book Chapter: Listening
Association News
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