The Macro-and Micro-Language Learning Counseling: An Autoethnographic Account

Satomi Shibata, Tokoha Gakuen University, Japan

Shibata, S. (2012). The macro-and micro-language learning counseling: An autoethnographic account. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 3(1), 108-121.

Download paginated PDF version


This article describes an example of the counselor’s role in a relatively small Self-Access Center (SAC) for language learning in universities in Japan. The author has been involved with establishing and running two SACs in Japanese universities. The study used autoethnography as its research method to look closely at the counselor’s role. This study eventually helped the author to analyze the counseling she has been providing and to realize that the counselor is required to provide not only macro-counseling but also micro-counseling. Micro-counseling consists of short, informal interactions with learners which connect the learner to elements in SACs, such as teaching assistants, other language learners, and language learning materials. These micro-counseling encounters can help to create a secure space which encourages learners to engage in macro-counseling sessions which support their language learning.

Keywords: counseling, advising, autoethnography

In the last two decades, the number of self-access centers for language learning has drastically increased all over the world. In Japan, many universities have established SACs in the last decade. I have been involved with starting and running two SACs in different Japanese universities: one started in the 2004 school year, and the other in 2008. Human resources are limited to one teacher and one student teaching assistant (TA) in each SAC per day in both of the SACs. As Gardner and Miller (1999) suggest, teachers have to play various roles in SACs and I have been involved in managing both of the SACs, while also simultaneously working as a teacher and a counselor. The role of a counselor involves a great deal of work at both of the SACs, and I believe counseling is an essential part of making a SAC more successful at promoting learner autonomy.

Much of the research on counseling for language learning has been focusing on what takes place inside the counseling session itself (for instance, Kelly, 1996; Reinders, 2008), which is very important because the quality of this interaction determines whether counseling really helps language learners to become autonomous. However, little research has focused on what brings language learners to counseling sessions. In the present study, I investigate how counselors encourage language learners to seek help and take part in counseling sessions and suggest what kind of contact may encourage language learners to decide to take part in language counseling sessions. I will describe my own experiences as a counselor using an autoethnographical approach.

Key terms: Advising and Counseling

Advising and counseling are often used interchangeably in the field of language learning. Kelly (1996) presented a framework for language counseling for learner autonomy and used the term, counseling which she defined as “a form of therapeutic dialogue that enables an individual to manage a problem” (Kelly 1996, p. 94). Gardner and Miller (1999) also used the term ‘counseling’ in their book on self-access explaining different types of counseling at various settings. Egan (1994) discusses empathy in counseling, which involves listening to clients, understanding them and communicating this understanding to them so that they might understand themselves more fully. While some researchers use the term ‘counseling,’ others use the term ‘advising’. Reinders (2008) uses the term ‘language advising’, calling it a form of support whose purpose is to encourage the development of independent learning skills.

Mynard (2010) uses the term “advising in language learning” and explains that the approach to advising may vary in each institution. The definitions of counseling and advising overlap with each other, and also may vary depending on institutions, but there seems to be consistency that educators who are involved with SACs aim to support language learners to become autonomous and to acquire certain skills in their target languages. Since counseling in language learning is relatively new in the research field, researchers may use different terms depending on their preferences and their focuses.

In the present study, I use the term “counseling” since I believe a great part of my role as a counselor needs to deal with language learners’ affective factors.  I would like to focus on empathy, listening to language learners, and understanding them in the process of their becoming autonomous language learners.

Background of Two SACs

I was fortunate enough to be involved with establishing two SACs in Japanese universities. Furthermore, those two SACs are alike in many respects, which helped me analyze what has been successful in encouraging learners to use the SACs.

Table 1 shows the biographical data for both SACs that I believe is necessary to understand the background of the study. Both SACs are located in relatively small universities and both cater for English major students. About 150-180 students are enrolled in each year. I teach four to five classes a week and work at a SAC for over 18 hours per week. There is always one undergraduate teaching assistant usually with experience of studying abroad and high English proficiency (hereafter TA). The English proficiency of the students varies from 200 to over 900 TOEIC or 300 to 600 TOEFL, but the majority of the first year students are low beginners without specific reasons to study English.

Table 1. Biographical data of the two SACs

  Nagoya Gakuin University Tokoha Gakuen University
Opening hours Monday – Friday10:30 am – 6:00pm Monday –Friday9:00am – 6:00pm
Size 30 seats 30 to 35 seats (including three sofas)
Number of students enrolled at the university 3500Three faculties (including foreign language with 180 students taking an English-related major) 2000Three faculties (including foreign language with 150 students taking an English-related major)
Main users English-related major students English-related major students
The number of SAC users per day 40 students per day 30 students per day
Usage 100 % voluntary 100% voluntary
My involvement 4 years (2004-2007) 3.5 years (2008-now)
My roles at the university l  Lecturerl  Teacher (4 classes)l  Managing the SAC l  Lecturerl  Teacher (5.5 classes)l  Managing the SAC
SAC human resources l  One teacher-counselor (myself)l  Undergraduate students teaching assistants (TA)l  Two graduate students teaching assistants while I teach classes l  Two teacher-counselors (including myself)l  One administrative staff memberl  Undergraduate teaching assistants
Language used in counseling Japanese Japanese
Main user interest area Studying abroad Extensive reading
Learning and teaching materials Very limited Very limited
Technology-based materials None, but a few computers available A web based computer software program called ALCNet Academy 2 is available and students can get credit when they achieve the required points. They can use computers at the SAC or in the computer rooms.9 computers available

Methodology: Autoethnography

In order to reflect and analyze what I have been doing to encourage language learners to seek help and take part in counseling sessions, I used autoethnography (Ellis, 2004) as the research method. Autoethnography is a research method of social research that allows the author to be a researcher and a participant. Burnard (2007) claims that in autoethnography the author becomes the ‘subject’ of the study. According to Smith (2005) “[b]y using autoethnography, researchers can use their experiences, together with those of other participants, to complement their research.” (p. 71). It allows the author to describe and systematically analyze her experience in order to understand cultural phenomenon. Considering the nature of autoethnography, I believe it could help me to reflect on my experience as a counselor, so I have documented autoethnographic stories, and read all the research notes that I have kept for the last seven years, specifically entries related to counseling. I also added extra stories reflecting on what I had been doing before, after and during counseling sessions.

A SAC is a complex interactional space, and each encounter taking place there is affected by numerous elements including the specific context and the various participants. I believe this is particularly important to be aware of when examining counseling encounters. It is impossible to discuss counseling at a SAC without considering the context: who the counselor is, what the relationship is between the language learner and the counselor, and when and how counseling is conducted. In addition, the form and nature of reality is interpreted and experienced by people in interactions with each other. I am part of that knowledge and not external to it. I believe each counselor has meaningful experiences and that these experiences are rich resources needed to understand counseling itself. Throughout my seven-year experience establishing and running SACs, I have had numerous counseling experiences. In order to reflect on my experience as a counselor and analyze what encourages language learners to take part in counseling sessions, I consider autoethnography to be a suitable approach for the present study.

I would also like to acknowledge some criticisms of autoethnography itself and the present study. There exist criticisms of autoethnography because of the nature of the data used and the evaluation of that data. Since the main source of data used in autoethnographies is from personal experience, it is often criticized for being biased. In addition, autoethnographers “are at risk of being overly narcissistic and self-indulgent” (Holt, 2003, p. 19). The evaluation of autoethnography has also been one of the major critiques because it is often evaluated in the positivism framework even though it is grounded in postmodern philosophy. The evaluation system is still at the developmental stage and there may not be clear criteria, so it is often criticized for “either being too artful and not scientific, or too scientific and not sufficiently artful” (Ellis, Adams & Bochner, 2011) if there is a paradigm conflict between authors and readers. I have also faced a dilemma about whether it was appropriate to call the present study an autoethnography. However, as Ellis (2004) suggests that we may be able to judge the value of autoethnographies on the usefulness of the stories rather than only on accuracy. I was able to reflect on my role as the counselor and I believe it could be one approach for counselors to share what occurs before, after, in-between, and during counseling sessions.

Language Learners at the Two SACs

In the institutions I have worked in, only a limited number of students have specific reasons or a purpose to study English. Some happened to choose English as their major by chance – they actually wanted to major in another subject; some happened to pass the entrance exam so decided to come; or for others, the location was good, so even if English was not an ideal major for them, they chose it. Others chose English as their major, but do not seem to have any clear purpose for studying it. These students tend to focus on their TOEIC score but since they have no urgent reasons to get high scores on the test, it takes some time for them to start language learning on their own. They seem to prioritize the completion of assignments from the classes they take.

Drawing on my seven year experience at two relatively similar SACs and by examining my research notes and autoethnographical stories written for the present study I have categorized SAC users into four groups.

Language Learners 1

The first group, Language Learners 1 (LL-1), have high motivation, know what they want, have language learning goals and are autonomous learners already. They know it is useful to ask for help, so they use counseling sessions when necessary.

Language Learners 2

Language Learners 2 (LL-2) are a group of students who accompany LL-1 students to the SACs, but do not have clear reasons for visiting the SACs themselves.

Language Learners 3

Language Learners 3 (LL-3) students do use the SAC for purposes such as checking out extensive reading materials, TOEIC and TOEFL textbooks, using speaking practice services, or the web based training program, but they do not speak to counselors or teaching assistants.

Language Learners 4

Language Learners 4 (LL-4) are students who never use the SACs. This could be because they are not aware of the existence of the SACs, they do not have motivation to learn English, they do not need any help from the SACs, or they hesitate to enter the SACs.

In this paper, I would like to focus on how a counselor’s interactions with LL-2 and LL-3 students (i.e. learners who use the SACs, but the purpose for visiting is not for attending counseling sessions) can encourage them to make more use of the counseling opportunities available.

Data Interpretations

Macro-counseling and micro-counseling sessions

Based on my autoethnographical data, my research notes from the last seven years and reflecting on autoethnographical stories, I found that counseling sessions could be divided into two levels: macro-counseling and micro-counseling. Macro-counseling sessions are formal counseling sessions where language learners have some specific problems to talk about to counselors. They are usually ready to talk to counselors.

On the other hand, micro-counseling sessions refer to casual contact with counselors or TAs, varying from 30 seconds to 15 minutes or more. They can be very informal forms of contact, but can eventually encourage learners to engage in macro-counseling sessions. Some language learners may need to communicate with counselors or TAs in order to get to know the people and the place first before they come up to participate in a macro-counseling session.

In a previous study (Shibata, 2010), I attempted to investigate how language learners voluntarily and autonomously use a self-access center to learn English in a Japanese EFL context and suggested the necessity of an “acclimation period”, until language learners are able to use a SAC with feeling comfortable, accepted, and competent. For some language learners it takes some time to finally approach and talk to a counselor even in their native language. I realized the counselor is required to provide not only macro-counseling but also micro-counseling connecting the elements necessary in the SACs, such as TAs, other language learners, and language learning materials, and creating a secure space for learners to have macro-counseling sessions. Many language learners seem to contact counselors or TAs constantly (micro-counseling), then finally decide to engage in counseling sessions (macro-counseling), and continue studying with while drawing on both micro and macro counseling sessions toward their language learning goals (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Micro-counseling to bring language learners to macro-counseling

I would like to present three examples in order to share the characteristics of a shift from casual encounters to language learning counseling sessions in the cases of LL-2 and LL-3 students. In order to protect the identity of the students, dates and locations are not specified and names have been changed.

Case 1 (LL-2)

At the beginning of April, when the academic year starts in Japan, Yumiko, a first year student, visited the SAC. Yumiko was very cheerful and friendly to her friends, but she seemed reluctant to talk to me, a teacher-counselor. Yumiko came to the SAC with her friend, Takako, who wanted to ask how to study for TOEFL. Yumiko continuously used the SAC, but she never talked to me, just sitting next to Takako, who needed to talk to me. Whenever I had a counseling session with Takako, Yumiko was there. I assumed Yumiko also wanted to talk to me about something, but I didn’t push her. Instead, I always greeted her, and whenever I talked to Takako, I tried to include Yumiko in the conversation and made eye contact with not only Takako but also Yumiko. I tried to create the atmosphere where we all three talked to each other. In July, before the summer vacation started, Yumiko finally approached me and asked what she could do to get a high enough score on TOEFL to be chosen as an exchange student. It took her three months to get used to the place and to see who I was.

Case 2 (LL-3)

Kenji always checked out a few graded readers. When he was looking for books to read in front of the bookshelf, I asked what kind books he was looking for, and we shared some information about the books we both read. Then I recommended some books. We always had some communication at the SAC related to extensive reading. One day, when he came to the SAC to return the books he checked out, I was in charge of checking the check-out file. I asked “How are you enjoying extensive reading?” Then he said “I’m not sure I am improving or not. Can I talk to you about my English skills when I have time?” I said he could come back anytime he wanted. A few days later, he came to the SAC and we had a counseling session.

Case 3 (LL-3)

Daisuke always used the SAC, but he never talked to anybody there. I always asked if he had any questions, and told him he could ask me anytime. He just nodded or thanked me. One day when I asked if he had any questions, he actually did. It was a grammatical question. I sat next to him and showed him how to look it up in a dictionary and where to look in a grammar book. After that, he asked me if he could ask me about how he could be an English teacher. We had a counseling session then.

I reflected on what encouraged language learners to seek help at the SAC, and considered micro-counseling sessions to be one possible approach. In this paper I would like to focus on micro-counseling. Firstly, I will examine when, where, and how micro-counseling takes place and then discuss two major roles that micro-counseling plays: removing invisible obstacles and increasing confidence in what students have been doing.

When, where, and how micro-counseling takes place

Micro-counseling sessions are language learners’ casual contacts with counselors or TAs which may encourage them to take part in macro-counseling sessions. Micro-counseling could take place in various settings. For instance, when language learners accompany other users to the SAC, I make the most of the chance to interact with them casually and give them some time to see who I am. I also inform them that they can take part in macro-counseling sessions whenever they are ready (see case 1 above). When the learners engage in other SAC activities, such as checking out books, signing up for conversation practice sessions, and web-based training, submitting applications for tests, or receiving test results, I always ask how they are or if they have any questions (see cases 2 and 3 above). In most of the cases, students eventually participate in macro-counseling sessions.

Removing invisible obstacles

I realized language learners struggled with many invisible obstacles. In the previous study (Shibata, 2010), I attempted to investigate how language learners voluntarily and autonomously use a SAC to learn English in a Japanese EFL context. The results suggested that language learners at a SAC in a Japanese EFL context become autonomous and continue to learn outside classrooms, based on self determination, receiving support from counselors, student teaching assistants, the SAC itself, learning materials, and especially the other language learners who use the SAC.  Furthermore, the necessity of an “acclimation period” is suggested, until language learners are able to use a SAC feeling comfortable, accepted, and competent. In the interviews (Shibata, 2010), the participants often mentioned some of the following: “I feel bad using the teachers’ time”, “I have to be good enough to ask teachers”, “I don’t want to bother you and take your time”. Because of their Japanese cultural background, the learners respect teachers and think they should not waste teachers’ time. The fact that I also teach classes is likely to affect how students understand my role and it seems to be difficult for them to consider me as a counselor in the SAC, not a teacher. Many learners are likely to decide what kinds of questions they will ask depending on the classes teachers teach. For example, if the students have a specific question in mind such as how to study for TOEIC or TOEFL, they may think they can only ask these questions to teachers responsible for teaching the TOEIC or TOEFL classes.

Some learners mention that they will ask me about how to study after they have studied a little more, which suggests that they believe they need to be “good enough” to talk to counselors because if they come to counseling sessions, they have to use counselors’ “precious time”. I realized I needed to eliminate the students’ invisible obstacles. One possible approach was to talk to each student face-to-face more often, and let them know me, the place, and the system or services until they are ready to take part in counseling sessions and let them believe I never think they would waste my time. I consider such numerous casual contacts to be “micro-counseling”.

Some learners such as the learner in case 1 (LL-2) come to the SAC with their friends and do not engage in any specific language learning activities. I assume that following their friends means at least that they are interested in the SAC, but they cannot enter it alone or they hesitate to visit it without a specific study purpose. I talk to these learners casually, and sometimes encourage them to come back anytime, telling them some example usages of the SAC. They gradually learn what kind of place it is and often end up using the SAC more. Once a learner said, “I saw you talking to other students and explaining to someone whose English level is lower than me and you were so patient, so I thought you would help me”. It suggests that some learners want to know or need to know who I am and what the SAC is before they talk to me.

Increasing confidence in what they have been doing

The other aspect of micro-counseling is to support language learners in feeling confident in what they are doing. Once learners discuss their study plans and start studying on their own, it may be some time until they have the next macro-counseling session. However, many learners mention how much they have done so far casually when they check out or return books, or when they use the SAC. Some say “I’m doing great.” Others just stop by and tell me ‘I will do my best’ and leave. The conversation is extremely short, but still it is likely to help them to have more confidence in what they are doing and in themselves. Again I realized the importance of such small talk and these interactions are examples of “micro-counseling”.

These examples show that micro-counseling could possibly encourage language learners to take the first step. It may give them opportunities to talk to TAs, talk to other learners, and to talk about themselves with counselors. Through such short interactions, we might be able to build rapport. Micro-counseling may help break barriers and eliminate obstacles that learners have. As a result, learners could build up readiness to start talking to counselors and start studying autonomously.


As many studies show (Mozzon-McPherson, 2001; Reinders, 2006), language counseling at SACs is likely to support language learners to become autonomous. It is very important to think of what we really do during counseling sessions. However, it is also important to take a close look at what we do before, after, and in-between counseling sessions. What we say and how we behave could possibly influence the decision language learners make, and whether or not they want to participate in counseling sessions.

In the present study I used autoethnography as the research method. I am fully aware of the critiques toward autoethnography and have faced a dilemma about whether it was appropriate to call the present study an autoethnography. I would also like to acknowledge that the learners’ decisions for engaging in maco-counseling sessions did not only result from micro-counseling encounters. Language learners simultaneously receive encouragement from multiple sources. In addition, it is possible that there were language learners who did not benefit from micro-counseling encounters and decided not to take part in macro-counseling sessions. However, I still believe autoethnography can be one approach for counselors to share what occurs before, after, in-between, and during counseling sessions, not only because I was able to reflect on my role as the counselor through the present study, but a large number of counseling sessions are offered it would be beneficial for the field if more stories were shared. Since more research on language counseling is expected, an autoethnographic approach could be one way for counselors to contribute the field of language counseling.

Finally, if we (counselors) were more aware of the existence of micro-counseling, we may be more likely to consciously conduct micro-counseling. This in turn could help language learners take the first step to becoming autonomous learners and may also motivate them when they struggle with continuing self-study.

Notes on the contributor

Satomi Shibata is the director of Foreign Language Study Support Center, Tokoha Gakuen University. She is also a lecturer there. She has been involved with self-access centers for over seven years.


Burnard, P. (2007). Seeing the psychiatrist: An autoethnographic account. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 14, 808–813.

Egan, G. (1994). The skilled helper: A model for systematic helping and interpersonal relating (5th ed.). CA: Brooks Cole.

Ellis, C. (2004). The ethnographic I: A methodological novel about autoethnography. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press.

Ellis, C, Adams, T. E., & Bochner, A. P. (2011). Autoethnography: an overview. Forum Qualitative Social Research, 12 (1), Art. 10. Retrieved March 8th, 2012 from

Gardner, D. & Miller, L. (1999). Establishing self-access. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Holt, N. (2003). Representation, legitimation, and autoethnography: An autoethnographic writing story. International Journal of Qualitative Methods 2, (1). Retrieved February 28th, 2012, from

Kelly, R. (1996). Language counseling for learner autonomy. In R. Pemberton, E. S. L. Li, W. W. F. Or & H. D. Pierson (Eds.). Taking control (pp. 93-113). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press

Mozzon-McPherson, M. (2001). Language advising: Towards a new discursive world. In M. Mozzon-McPherson & R. Vismans. (Eds.) Beyond language teaching towards language advising (pp. 66-83). London: Cilt

Mynard, J. (2010). Promoting cognitive and metacognitive awareness through self-study modules: An investigation into advisor comments. Proceedings of the International Conference CLaSIC 2010 Individual Characteristics and Subjective Variables in Language Learning, Singapore, 2-4 December 2010, 610 – 627.

Reinders, H. (2006). Supporting self-directed learning through an electronic environment. In T. Lamb & H. Reinders. Supporting self-directed language learning (pp. 219-238). Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

Reinders, H. (2008). Do advisory sessions encourage independent learning? Reflections, 11, 1-7.

Shibata, S. (2010). Structuring the autonomous learning process for a self-access center (SAC): Applying structural constructivism as the framework. Language Education & Technology 47, 113-133.

Smith, C. (2005). Epistemological intimacy. International Journal of Qualitative Method 4, 68-76.


I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for thoroughly reading the paper and providing their valuable and thoughtful comments and suggestions to improve the quality of the paper. I would also like to thank the editors, who helped focus my thinking, broaden my vision, and encouraged me.