Self-access: A framework for diversity

What is a self-access centre, why might your students benefit from using one, and how might you go about setting one up in your school.

Self-access: A framework for diversity - resources article


  • How do you define a self-access centre?
  • A bit of educational theory and a little politics...
  • ...and back to the practical benefits
  • What to put in your self-access centre
  • Using the self-access centre

How do you define a self-access centre?
A self-access centre is a physical entity. It might be a classroom cupboard with a set of dog-eared learner dictionaries and a pile of supplementary exercises, or it might be an all-singing, all-dancing, multimedia learning centre with state of the art learning resources and a team of language counsellors to guide individual student development.

The physical description of a self-access centre is, however, only part of the story. Why it's there is the other part of the equation. What is the point of setting up self-access resources for our students?

A bit of educational theory and a little politics...
To summarise (and educational psychologists would be appalled at the simplification!), there is a lot of evidence to support the idea that we learn better if we are in control of the learning process. We all have different learning styles; we all respond differently to different teaching environments; we are different ages, with different attitudes and interests; we respond in different ways emotionally when working with other individuals and groups. Why, therefore, do we expect to thrive in a language classroom, cooped up with ten, fifteen, twenty other individuals? And that's assuming we're all at the same level, which is by no means true in all classroom situations!

Our teacher may have considerable skills and experience. But isn't there another way for us to learn, a way which allows us to be more independent, more autonomous, more capable of making decisions about the development of our own learning? This is not an argument for pensioning off language teachers, but it is an argument for the democratisation of learning; for seeing the teacher and the formal classroom as only two components of an extensive framework for individualised independent learning. And central to that framework is the self-access centre, where learners can help themselves to learn the language.

...and back to the practical benefits
But you don't need to accept the whole philosophy. On one level you could say that a self-access learning resource allows your students to do extra work on their own in order to develop their skills, to revise aspects of their work, and to undertake remedial work when faced with problems in their language development. How free will learners be to undertake their self access work programme independently? This will depend on the teacher and teaching establishment: how far are they prepared to encourage the idea of independent learning? It will also depend on the actual provision of self-access resources and the degree to which these resources are integrated into actual teaching syllabuses.

What to put in your self-access centre
A self-access centre will include as much or as little as you have money to finance it, time to develop it and interest to keep it going over time. A quick look at any of the publishers' catalogues will show you the amount of ELT material available nowadays. Some of this material is specifically directed at self-study, and you can adapt a lot of it for self-study use. Even a few of these resources would be a useful supplement to a class course book.

And you don't always need class sets of these books. Some materials are photocopiable, and others can be cut up and laminated to form hard-wearing worksheets, which can be used over and over again. Or you can make your own worksheets. And if that sounds a bit daunting, remember that there are a lot of free resources, which can be adapted for the language classroom. David Gardner and Lindsay Miller in their book 'Establishing Self-Access' (1999), point to different sources, including not only the obvious ones like newspapers, magazines, and brochures, but also user manuals, foreign mission information, airline promotional material, and so on. You can also use old course books, and supplementary books, and there is now a huge range of graded readers, which will cater for the reading and vocabulary development of a wide range of learners.

Work can also be developed using television programmes, radio programmes and video. If you have computers and access to the Internet, then this is another rich seam for self-access work. Sites like the British Council's 'LearnEnglish' provide learners with an extensive array of learning materials, which can be used by learners at different ages and levels, and with different language needs. Materials can be catalogued on a computer database or a 'hard copy' notebook, and arranged on shelves in terms of the main skill areas and level of the material.

Using the self-access centre
You should also think about how you will get the learners to make the most of the centre. You may want to offer counselling and assessment services. Although you might encourage students to use the self-access centre as and how they wish, you - and your students - may appreciate a few signposts through the forest of self-access. You will need clear mapping and physical signs in the centre, and clear instructions about how to use the resources.

In addition, you will need to provide comprehensive induction sessions so that learners are clear about procedures. You might want to schedule self-access lessons into teaching syllabuses to help students to 'learn to learn independently' over time, and you will need to be prepared to give more support during the early stages of this process. You should also encourage learners to keep individual records of their self-access work, showing what they studied when and with what result. If you have the resources, you could negotiate a personal study programme with individual students, pointing them to personalised 'pathways' to lead them through particular self-access routes.

Michael Rodden, British Council, Lisbon

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