Fostering Learner Autonomy as Agency: An Analysis of Narratives of a Student Staff Member Working at a Self-Access Learning Center

Atsumi Yamaguchi, Kanda University of International Studies, Japan

Yamaguchi, A. (2011). Fostering learner autonomy as agency: An analysis of narratives of a student staff member working at a self-access learning centre. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 2(4), 268-280.

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This study investigates narrative stories of a student staff member working at the Self Access Learning Center (the SALC) at Kanda University of International Studies, Japan in order to discover whether / how her working experiences in the SALC have an impact on her identities especially focusing on her development of learner autonomy as agency. Drawing on four layers of narrative positioning (Wortham & Gadsden, 2006), I will explore: 1) the ways that agency is projected; and 2) how the learner’s involvement in a SALC impacts on her identities. The examination revealed that the learner’s involvement as a student staff member enhanced her agency to access a target community of English in the SALC. Drawing on the Communities of Practice (CoP) framework by Lave & Wenger (1991), I discuss the possibility that gaining voice in the target community might enable a learner to be more autonomous. Finally, this paper addresses the importance of learner involvement in SALCs – not only for the learners involved, but also for other SALC users in order to provide opportunities to activate both agency and autonomy.

Key words: learner autonomy, agency, identities, Communities of Practice

The Self-access Learning Center (SALC) at Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS) in Japan is a state of the art English-only facility which accommodates more than 11,000 English learning resources as well as human resources. Currently twenty-four student staff members are employed on a part time basis to work at the circulation counter. In this study, one of the student staff member’s autobiographical stories will be investigated as a case study to shed light on how her experiences working in the SALC had an impact on her identities. Drawing on Toohey and Norton (2003)’s claim that that language learning is participation in a “Community of Practice” (Lave & Wenger, 1991), I will discuss how the student staff member gained a voice in a target English-speaking community of the SALC. Employing a systematic analysis of four layers of positioning (Wortham & Gadsden, 2006), I will explore the discursive projection of her identities in her narratives.  The ultimate goal of this study is to discuss the impact of learner involvement in SALCs in order to foster learner autonomy.

Learner Involvement in Self-Access

What are the SALC and SALCers?The SALC was originally established in 2001 for the purpose of providing a learning space for students outside class at KUIS. The SALC aims to provide opportunities for students to individualize their learning experiences and develop skills for becoming autonomous language learners. In addition to resources, students have access to language advising services and self-directed learning modules through which they work with learning advisors to implement individual learning plans. The SALC also serves as a unique learning environment in that learners are required to interact in English. As Aston (1993) argues, learner involvement in SACs is an important component for successful implementation of self-access because it allows learners to be more self-reliant and responsible for their learning. In his study, Aston (1993) asked eight learners to try new equipment and materials in a SAC, then found that their attitudes toward English language learning as well as autonomous language learning was positively impacted. Thus, he posits that through active involvement in the SAC learners become  “animators and creators” (p. 226) instead of consumers of services. To further explore learners’ contributions to SACs, Malcolm (2011) involved learners in a mandatory activity whereby learners were involved in developing materials. Malcolm found that respecting learners’ voices related to materials in a SAC is crucial in order to make the contribution successful. Regarding the context of this study, the SALC employs part-time student staff members who contribute to the service in another way. Currently twenty-four students serve at the circulation counter helping SALC users to check learning resources in and out, helping them to use the SALC facilities, and maintaining resources and equipment. The staff members are recruited through official announcements, and selected based on their expected potential to contribute to the SALC. The staff members are known as “SALCers” among students, and seem to serve as role models as good English learners (see Yamaguchi, 2011). If the SALC is regarded as a space for learners to construct L2 selves, their taking responsibility and gaining voice in the space could be considered as ways in which the students activate their agency to access to the target language community. In the next section, I will discuss how I conceptualize learner autonomy from the standpoint of sociocultural and poststructuralist perspectives.

Theoretical Framework

Learner autonomy as agencySince the mid-1970s, the concept of learner autonomy, “the ability to take charge of one’s own learning” (Holec, 1981, p. 3), has been widely discussed. The field of language learner autonomy began with the Council of Europe’s Modern Languages Projects, which aimed to deconstruct traditional teacher-centered practices, and then support a move toward learner-centered process of learning and teaching (Benson, 2001). Whilst there has been heated debate over the definition, the application in Asian-contexts (e.g. Littlewood, 1999), and alternative conceptualizations (Pennycook, 1997; Holliday, 2003), learner autonomy is seen to be a key component of successful language learning and teaching from the viewpoint of communicative language teaching. In this study, I interpret autonomy from sociocultural and poststructuralist perspectives, that is “socially oriented agency” (Toohey & Norton, 2003, p. 59). Language learners are considered to be “agents” (Lantolf & Pavlenko, 2000, p.162) who take responsibility for their own learning and control to what extent they devote themselves to doing so. Agency is a language learner’s will or drive to learn. Toohey and Norton (2003) claim that language learners need to activate their agency in order to gain access to a “Community of Practice (CoP)” (Lave & Wenger, 1991). If the SALC is considered to be a target community of English, involving teachers, learning advisors, administrative staff, and learners, the learning space functions as a CoP allowing learners to activate their agency as members of the community. According to the literature related to identity (e.g. Norton, 1997; Pavlenko, 2001), identity refers to ways in which “people understand their relationship to the world, and how that relationship is constructed across time and space, and how people understand their possibilities for the future” (Norton, 1997, p. 410). CoP has been discussed as a target L2 / foreign community (e.g. Kinginger, 2004), I will expand that scope to an immersion learning space within a learner’s native country. Thus, through analysing a SALC staff member’s narratives, I will explore the following research questions: 1)    In what ways are the learner’s agency projected? 2)    Does the learner’s involvement in the SALC have an impact on her identity? If so, how?

Methodological Framework

Autobiographical narration to project the self To explore the above research questions, I will employ narrative analysis since autobiographical narratives discursively construct and project the self (Wortham & Gadsden, 2006). Although many studies on autobiographical narratives tend to look at just the content, Pavlenko (2007) argues that researchers should treat narrative data not as a collection of facts, but also take account of the content, context, and the form. In the same vein, Wortham and Gadsden (2006) successfully showed how linguistic devices signal positioning of the self and how this positioning helps in constructing the self. To make my analysis more systematic, I will approach my interview data in the light of Wortham and Gadsden’s “four layers of narrative positioning” (p. 319) that the narrator and the interviewer accomplished. In the following section, I will briefly describe the four layers of narrative positioning. Four layers of narrative positioning Wortham and Gadsden (2006) established systematic accounts of autobiographical narratives drawing on Bakhtin (1981), Bamberg (2003), Labov and Waletzky (1976), Schiffrin (1996), and Wortham (2001). Wortham and Gadsden claim that in the first layer, narratives position narrators as they refer to past events as the ones who experienced the narrated events (“reference to past event”, p. 320). In the second layer, narrators position the characters (including themselves) in the narrated events (“voicing”, p. 320). A voice is a “recognizable social type” which is signaled by “indexical cues”, characteristically by using expressions and “quoted speech” (p. 321). Thirdly, the narrators show their “evaluation” (p. 322) of those voices in the third layer. “Evaluation” is similar to Bakhin’s concept of “ventriloquation” (p. 322) by which narrators position themselves with respect to the voices. Finally, by telling a story, the narrators interactionally position themselves toward interlocutors in the “story-telling event” (p. 319) in the fourth layer. If this positioning is repeatedly displayed, this fourth layer becomes a window to the narrator’s self in an interactional event. Wortham and Gadsden argue that the four types of positioning should be distinguished to systematically understand construction of the self. Through the four layers, I will investigate the SALCer’s positioning, especially looking at whether or to what extent she positions herself as an active agent toward the CoP. Participants In order to embrace a systematic account of narratives, I need to consider the participants’ contexts. The main participant in this study is Kyoko (pseudonym), a junior student SALCer who had worked as a student staff member for two years at the time of the interview. I came to know her through my work as a Learning Advisor (LA) in the SALC. I first noticed her because of her non-Japanese appearance and her excellent English even compared with other SALCers, but after a colleague who used to work closely Kyoko introduced me to her, I came to casually interact with her in English whenever we met in the SALC. None of Kyoko’s family closely associates with English, but she explained that she was motivated to learn English because her past English teacher praised her English pronunciation. She went to a regular high school, where chances to speak English were not afforded. However, she stayed in England for two weeks on a program called “Model United Nation” which aims to provide young people with an awareness of international relations and diplomacy through an academic simulation of the United Nations. Although Kyoko speaks English fluently enough to communicate well, her speaking still contains grammatical errors. As the narratives were co-constructed through the dialog between Kyoko and me, I am also considered to be a participant so I will briefly describe my context as well. At the time of the interview, I was a first-year LA at KUIS and still in the process of understanding my role as a LA helping promote learners’ self-directed learning skills through an advising program in the SALC. The interviews were conducted twice in a semi-structured way and focused on Kyoko’s English learning experiences in the SALC. The interviews lasted thirty minutes each. Prior to the first interview, Kyoko was given the option to speak either English or Japanese, and chose English to be the language used throughout the interviews. In the following section, three excerpts from the interview data will be analyzed. I acknowledge that the data represented provides limited evidence, but I was only able to select three short excerpts for the sake of the word limitation of this particular article. Nevertheless the extracts demonstrate how Kyoko activates agency through working as a student staff member.

Data Analysis

The interviews were audio-recorded, and then I listened to the data carefully multiple times to identify recurring themes.  Strong recurring themes surfaced; namely, (1) Kyoko’s aspiration to become like a “native” (meaning native speaker of English) and (2) her transformation into a “positive” self in English. Although the following excerpts do not contain reference to “a native”, it recurrently appeared elsewhere in the interview. The first excerpt was selected to illustrate Kyoko’s agency towards cultural norms of English-speaking countries, such as voicing opinions. In this excerpt, she talks about herself before and after she joined the Model United Nation program, noting a change. By contrasting norms of Japan and English-speaking countries, Kyoko shows her positive evaluation of the English-speaking side of herself.

(Click to enlarge excerpt)

In relation to the first layer of positioning, Kyoko made reference to a past event where she was shy and afraid of making mistakes in classrooms in Japan (lines 2-3).  Even though she utilized the present form, I understand her accounts as practices she had participated in in the past.  Due to the fact that English is not her first language and that she participated in the United Nations, I assume that she meant “was afraid of “and “realized” in line 11. If this is the case, she presents herself as someone who had been immersed in American or European culture. With regards to the second layer, Kyoko voiced herself as originally very “shy” and “afraid of” making errors in front of an audience (line 2). However, her voicing changes toward the end of this story to project a more responsible and independent self. Furthermore, judging from “JAPANESE↓ rarely (line 3),” she negatively voices Japanese students’ way of being passive in class. On the other hand, she positively voices teachers from the United States and Europe – “no teachers blame (line 6)”. Within the third layer, Kyoko evaluates the voice of Japanese students as “it’s is just wasting time (lines 11-12),” and says “need to START by myself (lines 13-14)”. This might signal her positive evaluation of Western cultures as well as her transformation to thinking in a more agentive way to gain access to the target community. Through these examples of voicing and evaluation she discursively positions herself as a member of L2 culture rather than L1 culture in the fourth layer.  This could also be conceptualized as her having transformed herself to a more positive self with a great deal of agency. Indeed, this story projected her agency to L2 culture. In the next excerpt, Kyoko tells a story of how she became a SALCer as a freshman student.

(Click to enlarge excerpt)

From the perspective of the first layer, Kyoko refers to the time she came to the SALC for the first time as freshman student. By doing so, she might have positioned herself as an new freshman student with no connection to the SALC. In the second layer, Kyoko voices Yumeko as someone superior to her by using indexical cues, “the senior, senior person (lines 16-17)” and “not students just such as like managers (lines 18-19)”. Later in line 27, Kyoko voices Yumeko as her “role model” who speaks excellent English and is generous and kind. Then, in the third layer, Kyoko positively evaluates Yumeko as “a wonderful girl (line 28)”. Thus, in the fourth layer, this story might position Kyoko as a “SALCer (line 29)” who decided to be a SALCer for an authentic reason. By doing so, Kyoko discursively represented herself to be a role-model SALCer who applied for the SALCer’s position not to earn money but to contribute to the SALC  and help SALC users as Yumeko did.

(Click to enlarge excerpt)

The reference to this story may position Kyoko as an experienced SALCer who has helped SALC users. In relation to the second layer, she negatively voices a student who “seldom smiles (line 31)”. On the contrary, she voices herself as a positive SALCer who tries to cheer the student up (lines 33-34). Then, Kyoko evaluates the student as “uncomfortable (line 32)” and “not really happy (line 32). Additionally, she voices herself sympathetically using quotations, “how are you doing (line 36)”, “is that your homework? (lines 36-37)”, and “did you read the book? (line 37)”. These divergent positionings appear to be similar to those of Kyoko and Yumeko’s in the excerpt 2. Then, the story enters a turning point in line 43, which might be a “complicating action” to use Labov and Waletzky (1976)’s term. The quotation (lines 43-44) positions Kyoko as a sympathetic and encouraging SALCer similar to Yumeko. Then, the student was voiced positively i.e. “smiled (line 45)”. The reference to the particular event and voicing the characters in the story allowed Kyoko to position herself as an active agent in the SALC. Then, she rephrased “I could” to “we could” (lines 46)”. By doing so, she interactionally presented herself not as an individual learner but as a member of the target community of the SALC. In other words, she positioned herself as an insider of the community who is in charge of the space rather than an outsider to the space. Eventually, overseeing the trajectory of her three narratives, it might be claimed that those stories illustrate Kyoko’s growing agency to be more responsible for her learning and control her ways of being in a target language practice space, i.e., the SALC.


Kyoko’s narrative stories unfolded the trajectory of her identities having shifted over time in storied events as well as in context-situated identities on an interactional-level. Her agency was discursively projected through a window of Wortham and Gadsden’s  four layers of narrative positioning. In excerpt 1, her agency to gain voice in the target CoP was marked though the comparison between her passive Japanese self to an active English side of herself. In excerpt 2, she expresses her agency for accessing a foreign language community. According to the analysis, Yumeko seemed to have functioned as Kyoko’s role model. Finally, excerpt 3 shows that Kyoko activated her agency to encourage another SALC user by positioning herself as an insider of the foreign language space. Indeed, it seems that Kyoko invites SALC users to the CoP to which she belongs. To answer the second research question, the learner’s involvement in the SALC did have an impact on her identities to a large extent, judging from Kyoko’s growing agency over time. Kyoko illustrated herself as a shy and passive student before extensively being involved in the SALC, yet her later narratives hinted that she transformed to being a more positive and agentive self. Furthermore, it might be true that the existence of student staff members working in the SALC serve as role models and motivators for new students. Thus, opportunities for learners to work in the SALC could provide not only student staff members but also SALC users with chances to foster autonomy in the sense that they have opportunities to activate their agency to access a foreign language community of practice.


This paper examined whether or to what extent autonomy conceptualized as socially oriented agency is projected within autobiographical narratives. From a analysis of a SALC student staff member’s narratives, it was revealed that student staff members in the SALC could serve as role models, and that their working experiences as student staff members could activate their agency to a greater extent to gain voice in the CoP. Furthermore, they could foster autonomy of fellow learners who visit the SALC. Indeed, more attention should be paid to learners’ contributions to SACs, and learners’ participation to the CoPcould shed light to a larger extent on discussions of learner autonomy.

Notes on the contributor

Atsumi Yamaguchi has an MA from the University of Hawaii and currently works as a Learning Advisor in the Self-Access Learning Center at Kanda University, Japan, where she advises and team-teaches EFL students and promotes learner autonomy. Her research interests include learner autonomy, identity and intercultural communication.


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