Supporting Literacy Students to Become Independent Learners


I was taking the chairs down from the desks and putting them on the floor before the morning class, when a student came in and said:


She shook her head and pointed to herself.

Me,” she said.

She motioned for me to sit. Since that day, the students have put themselves in charge of the chairs.

Taking Ownership

My Literacy class is proactive. It has taken responsibility for its own learning by creating the classroom environment that it wants and needs. The students understand that learning isn’t just about word recognition, spelling, writing the letters, and pronunciation. They continue to take ownership of their own education.

My students display what Stanford education professor Jo Boaler calls a growth mindset. They inspired me to build on their collective growth mindset, their active rather than passive approach to lessons, and their desire to become independent learners. Prof. Boaler’s book Limitless Mind has also inspired me to diverge from the conventional wisdom of Literacy instruction, which emphasizes scaffolding and controlled activities. Now, my overall approach is that it’s more important to encourage the students to become independent learners than it is for them to learn by rote within a structured environment. 


For one thing, I’ve observed my students’ desire to try on their own, take risks, and learn from their mistakes, all characteristics of independence–and a growth mindset. The student I talked about at the beginning of this post is not an outlier in my class. All the students do activities on their own before asking me for help.

Second, in Limitless Mind, Boaler writes about the importance of struggle and mistakes in learning. It’s for this reason that I plan more free activities than controlled ones in my Literacy class. At the same time, I try to create a supportive environment that lets the students know that it’s okay to make mistakes. Boaler says that the deepest learning occurs when a student struggles with material, which makes them work harder to master and understand it. In this effort, neural pathways are formed and strengthened in the brain.

The Silent Method

I know my students are not daunted by difficulty, because when they face a problem, they persevere by finding different solutions. For instance, they collaborate with their classmates to help each other. It’s a wonderful sight to see several students gathered at a desk helping each other and using English! Or, one of the more advanced students goes to the white board to demonstrate and explain an answer and how to get it. 

I’ve also started incorporating the Silent Method in my teaching to encourage independence. This approach allows me to remove myself, albeit temporarily, and put the onus on the students to work on their own. So, instead of explaining again and again how to do an activity, one they’ve done before, I silently point out what to do. The students understand that it’s now up to them to get it, and if they don’t, then find ways to understand the work.

And so, I encourage all teachers of lower level classes, and most especially Literacy, to give my suggestions a go, and see how they work for you. True, Literacy students have little English and little to no formal education, but neither trait precludes their ability to learn and achieve. The human brain is a powerful organ designed for growth. After all, if we’re not helping our students’ development, then why are we teaching?

Derek teaches at St. Louis Adult Learning and Continuing Education Centre in Kitchener, Ontario. He taught at colleges and universities in the Sultanate of Oman for eighteen years. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from Trent University, and a TESL Certificate from Conestoga College. Derek is also a playwright, fiction writer, an avid walker, jogger, and a Kitchener Rangers fan.


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