Katherine Thornton, Kanda University of International Studies, Japan

Thornton, K. (2012). Editorial. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 3(1), 2-5.

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Self-Access, Learner Autonomy and Advising for Language Learning

A very warm welcome to the first issue of SiSAL journal of 2012, a special issue associated with the recent IATEFL Learner Autonomy SIG-sponsored conference, Advising for Language Learner Autonomy, held on November 12, 2011, at Kanda University of International Studies. This issue features papers from presenters at the conference who are all involved in advising for language learning (ALL). This conference was the first to be entirely dedicated to the field of language advising, and as such marks another significant landmark in the journey of ALL towards being fully recognized as a professional field in its own right (previous landmarks being the publication of the first book on advising in 2001 by Mozzon-McPherson and Vismans, a special issue of System in 2007, and the introduction of a professional qualification in learning advising at the University of Hull).

ALL, defined by Carson and Mynard in the introduction to their upcoming book on advising as “the process of assisting students in directing their own paths in order to become better, more autonomous language learners” (forthcoming) is a diverse field, covering a range of practices which vary in terms of mode, situation and participants. While usually thought of as a spoken discipline, taking place in face-to-face advising sessions, advising can also be conducted in written mode, when learners’ written reflections on learning are shared with and responded to by advisors. ALL can be conducted in both self access and classroom environments, and encompasses a wide range of participants. Learners may interact with full-time advisors, teachers or administrative staff taking on advising roles part-time or student peer advisors, who may be paid or employed on a volunteer basis. A variety of terms exist for these participants: advisors, counsellors, mentors, to list those that appear in this collection. Learners who choose to engage with advising services also do so for a variety of reasons, and come from a diverse range of backgrounds (although all the present studies have been conducted in tertiary education contexts).

In this special issue, contributors explore the ways in which advising can enhance the learning development of language learners, and address some of the challenges which face practitioners as they seek to develop systems for effective engagement with learners at their institutions. Issues explored include learner cognition, professional development for advisors, advising discourse and language policies.

Luke Carson‘s study of learners’ cognitive processes during the completion of independent learning tasks highlights the importance of metacognitive processing and the need for advisors to increase learners’ awareness of these processes. Carson’s study has found, through verbal protocol analysis, in which learners think aloud while completing an independent task, that contrary to some representations in the literature, learners engaged in such learning all engage in extensive multidimensional metacognitive processing, but the degree of success varies from learner to learner. He suggests that advisors should therefore ask themselves not how to encourage such processing in learners, but how to make it more effective.

Maria Giovanna Tassinari describes a dynamic model for learner autonomy which can facilitate evaluation of the language learning process, and which forms the basis of advising dialogue at her own institution at the Freie Universität Berlin. Accessing the model independently through the university website, a learner can choose the descriptors for the areas which are most relevant to her situation in order to self-assess her own development. This self-assessment then forms the foundation for an advising dialogue with an advisor, who can help the learners to evaluate their progress, set or refine learning goals.

Tassinari’s data suggests that learners benefit both from using the model, ideally with support from an advisor, to structure and facilitate their reflection, and evaluate their development as autonomous language learners.

Several articles in this collection address the role of language in advising. Jo Mynard and Katherine Thornton contribute to the growing literature on written advising by investigating the discourse of written advising, identifying common discursive devices that advisors use when interacting with learners. By examining the weekly comments made by seven advisors to students participating in a self-directed learning programme, the authors highlight the way in which different devices reflect different degrees of directiveness in the responses advisors make to learners’ reflections. Through their choices, advisors negotiate their power relationships with learners, employing individual preferences in advising techniques, while also responding to their perceptions of student need.

John Adamson and Naoki Fujimoto-Adamson also investigate the discourse of advising sessions, but their focus is on translanguaging and the role of L1 and L2 in both advising sessions and the wider context of a self-access centre. Taking data from several sources (questionnaire responses from a survey investigating SAC use, interviews with students using the advising service and transcriptions of counseling and other SAC interactions), Adamson and Fujimoto-Adamson document the change in their SAC’s language policy from English-only to one in which learners are given the choice over which language to use when interacting with each other and advisors at the centre. Their investigation suggests that learners benefit by being encouraged to negotiate and reflect upon their language use, as this mirrors the decision-making process that they will engage in in multilingual contexts.

Satoko Kato highlights the benefits of an “intentional reflective dialogue” as part of continuing professional development for learning advisors to prevent fossilization of advising practice. Through prompting advisors to reflect deeply on their advising experiences in semi-structured interviews with the researcher, Kato demonstrates how some advisors are able to question and possibly alter their existing beliefs about advising practice, opening themselves up to alternative perspectives, or see contradictions between their own belief and practice. She also indicates the benefits of such intentional reflective dialogue for the interviewer herself, and advocates the use of such a dialogue between advisors as part of a professional development programme for advisors.

Yukiko Ishikawa also touches on the role of beliefs in advising, in this case peer advisors, in her study of peer advising at her own institution. Through a case study of a senior student employed as a student advisor, she investigates how this peer advisor approached her advising sessions, with a particular emphasis on learner beliefs. Ishikawa demonstrates how the peer advisor was influenced by her own beliefs and experiences as a language learner, but that she engaged with these beliefs critically while reflecting on the best way to advise her peers. Ishikawa’s study points to the benefits of peer advising for both advisor and advisee.

Satomi Shibata addresses a very pertinent issue in advising for language learning: how best to encourage learners to engage with the learning support available in a SAC. As part of her larger autoethnographic PhD research study, Shibata identifies the existence of what she terms micro- counseling, informal encounters between counselors and users of the SAC which may encourage these learners to eventually engage in more formal, focused counseling sessions (macro-counseling). By describing her own experiences and observations about such micro-counseling, Shibata encourages advisors to reflect upon their own informal interactions with learners and to pay attention to the ways in which they engage with learners using a SAC.

Finally Azusa Kodate has contributed a review of the recent Forum on Growing Trends in Self Access held by the Japan Association of Self Access Learning (JASAL) at JALT 2011. This year’s forum contained seven different presentations and a lively discussion, on various aspects of self-access learning. The author identifies three main themes emerging from the presentations: focusing on the physical learning environment, providing easier access to learners, and supporting learning processes. See the review for more information on how to get involved with JASAL.

We hope that you find the articles in this volume thought-provoking and relevant to your own practice. As the distinct field of advising in language learning continues to develop, the issues addressed, such as professional development, evaluation in advising, ways to encourage learner engagement with advising and how best to direct learners’ metacognitive processes, are ones which need to be explored further. We hope that this collection is a valuable contribution to the field.

Katherine Thornton
SiSAL Journal, Volume 3 (1).


Carson, L., & Mynard, J. (forthcoming). Introduction. In J. Mynard & L. Carson (Eds.). Advising in language learning: Dialogue, tools and context. Harlow: Pearson Education.