Learning to learn #3: Ideas for encouraging learner autonomy when speaking and writing

Daniel Vincent

Daniel has taught English for over 15 years in the UK, Japan and Spain. He currently works as a teacher and coordinator for the British Council in Madrid, and is authoring a new teens course for Cambridge University Press. A key element of learning to learn is the ability to reflect on and take control of your own learning. In this post, Dan looks at some simple techniques for encouraging learner autonomy when it comes to improving students’ speaking and writing.

On my to-do list to say today

The first of these is the “my to-say list”. It works a little like a to-do list. At the end of each lesson (or otherwise appropriate period, as you see fit), each student writes down a short list of words, phrases or grammatical structures that have come up that they wish to practise. The idea is that during the next lesson they keep this list in front of them at all times. Having the list acts as a reminder to try to use the words, phrases or grammatical structures during pairwork or other speaking activities. They can tick them off as they go. From the teacher’s point of view, this only needs minimal monitoring: reminding the students to refer to their list when speaking, keeping an eye on how many items are being ticked off, and – as in any speaking activity – being on hand to help or correct if necessary.

Well, I won’t be making that mistake again!

The second idea is intended to help students write better first drafts before turning in written work. As with the previous idea, it involves a list, but this time one that individual students compile in their notebooks. It works like this; students set aside a section of their notebook and divide the pages into two columns.The left-hand column is for “my common mistakes”, where students keep a list of those grammar, vocabulary and spelling mistakes which they personally have a tendency to make. The right-hand one is for the correct versions. Here’s an example:

dan vincent

Every time you ask students to compose a text, encourage them to use the list as a proofreading guide. Unlike “my to-say list”, “my common mistakes” needs more support at the beginning from the teacher. I recommend getting the students to prepare the section of their notebook with the two columns and then providing them, as examples, with a number of typical mistakes that it would benefit everyone to have on their lists, e.g. third person -s, common misspellings or misused prepositions. Then, when you correct your students’ writing, as part of your feedback you can simply write “MCM” (my common mistake) above a repeated mistake or your correction of the mistake. This will indicate to students that they should add it to their list. You can dedicate a few minutes of class time after handing back writings for everyone to do this.

Hopefully, if students use the list consistently when drafting texts, their common mistakes will become less common over time. There’s also no reason why you can’t add other elements to it, such as remembering to use appropriate paragraphing, avoiding repetition, using the correct register for the text type and so on.

CC is for correction code

Dan vincent

In essence, the “my common mistakes” idea builds on the well-established technique of correction codes, which many of you will be familiar with and may already use. With a correction code, rather than correcting every single mistake, the teacher instead indicates the type of mistake the student has made and then gets him or her to self-correct when writing the final draft (students should be required to write a second draft whenever possible: it allows them to reflect on their learning, incorporate feedback, improve on their first attempt, and, crucially, gain a palpable sense of progress). Clearly, the correction code should only be applied to those mistakes that the teachers feels a student can be reasonably sure of correcting themselves, but it can be an extremely effective tool for encouraging self-reflection and self-guided improvement. Here is an example of a very simple correction code (the codes should annotate the mistakes in question):

  • WW = wrong word
  • MW = missing word
  • EW/UW = extra word/unnecessary word
  • SP = spelling mistake
  • GR = grammar mistake
  • WP = wrong preposition
  • WO = wrong word order
  • ??? = this is unclear
  • MCM = my common mistake


So far, we’ve looked at a number of ideas for developing learning to learn during lessons. However, learning to learn is not restricted to the classroom. In the final post of this series, we’ll look at ways you can encourage students to use English outside of the classroom. See you then!

In the meantime, check out part 1 of the series by Daniel Vincent on ideas for note taking and recording vocabulary, and part 2 on flash cards, spaced repetition and example sentences.

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