Anna Hasper examines what learner independence means and gives practical suggestions to help young learners take more responsibility for their learning.

There are lesson materials including a worksheet and teacher’s notes at the bottom of the article as well as a link to the webinar for Macmillan Education in which Anna discusses these ideas at length.


COVID-19 has caused plenty of changes to the traditional learning environment. Instead of being surrounded by their peers in a classroom, young learners have had to learn remotely and independently from home. Teaching learners to develop independence is essential if we want them to succeed while learning remotely.

Creating learner independence involves gradually progressing along a continuum. At one end of the continuum, the learner relies heavily on a teacher; at the other end, the learner is capable of following instruction without constant supervision. Moving across this continuum takes time and is accomplished in small steps. According to Glaxton (2002) even learners as young as six can start moving along this continuum. It is all about teaching the skill of “learning to learn” and creating the right conditions.

To understand the skill of ‘learning to learn’, it is crucial that learners take ownership of their learning. They need to make decisions about what they learn, how they learn it and where they learn. Teachers create the conditions for learners to take ownership by providing the structure in the learning environment and clear models to follow. One structural paradigm for learner independence is K.A.S.H.: the knowledge, attitude, skills and habits that are necessary for successful independent learning. Let’s examine each element of K.A.S.H. and see how to promote learner independence.


When learners know where they are heading, they take more responsibility. Therefore, it is important to make the learning goals clear. Learners should also be given choices about the topic or way they will learn.  Here are some ways to share goals and allow choices:

  • Write ‘We Are Learning To …’ Statements (WALTs)

    Set or co-construct ‘We are learning to’ statements in child-friendly language. This helps clarify for learners what they need to know, understand or be able to do by the end of an activity or lesson. For example:

    I am learning to write about activities I like and don’t like.
    I am learning to talk about my last holiday.
  • Offer choices about tasks

    Allowing learners to make choices about the tasks they will complete gives them a sense of ownership of their learning. Give learners a choice of age-appropriate activities and require them to do a set number, or allow learners to decide in what order they would like to do the activities. If there are three stories to read, for example, allow choice in the order the stories are read.
  • Create a sheet for the learner to record his or her completed tasks

    Giving learners a record sheet encourages them to think about why they made a choice and how well they completed the task. This raises awareness of their role in learning and allows the teacher to ask learners about their choices and decisions. A record sheet is as simple as a table that learners complete with the name or number of the activity they chose, the reason they chose it and a reflection on how well they did the activity.

    Choice Record Sheet

    Which activity did I choose?

    Why did I choose it?

    How well did I do it?

    I did 



    🥇| 🥈 | 🥉

    I did 




    I did 





By encouraging learners to believe they can do an activity, they also develop learner independence. This ‘can-do’ attitude in learners helps them feel that it is safe to try new things. Learners need to know the teacher believes in them, so building rapport and trust is a must. Encourage learners ‘to give things a go’ even if they make a mistake. Dweck (2006) calls this a growth-mindset. Try these activities that promote an independent attitude.

  • Think like a dolphin

    To make learners aware that they are able to do things better when they keep trying, display the table below in a shared space, like a Google Jamboard or on the whiteboard. Point out that Dolphin Thinking helps them learn and Shark Thinking doesn’t help them learn. Encourage learners to think like a Dolphin!

    Alternatively, you could give learners all of the statements in a list and ask them to sort the statements into Dolphin Thinking and Shark Thinking.

    A swimming dolphin, isolated on a white background.

    A digitally generated illustration of a Megalodon shark, an extinct giant species from the Cenozoic Era, on white background.

    I can try a different way.
    I will get better at it.
    It’s OK to ask for help.
    Let me try again.
    I can’t do this yet.

    I’m not good at this.
    It’s too hard.
    I really can’t do it alone.
    I give up.
    I can’t do this.

    *See image sources below

  • Four before me

    To keep learners motivated, they need to know what to do when they get stuck. The first impulse might be to seek help from the teacher, but there are other alternatives. Encourage learners to try and solve their problem by checking other resources before reaching out to the teacher. Display a reminder such as the following where students can readily see it.

    4B4 me
    Ask your:
    B rain
    B ooks
    B rowser
    B uddy
    B efore me 😀


Learners need to be instructed in the skills that will make them independent. Modelling is a key instructional strategy for skill-building. Learners need to observe the actions and thought processes in the model and incorporate these into their own learning. Generally speaking, learners need to engage with a model multiple times and in multiple ways. Provide clear instructions, ideally in several modes. For example, teachers may need to record a video, write tasks out, and/or upload a picture for learners so they understand the procedure they should follow. In a remote learning context, crystal clear models are invaluable.

  • Visible thinking

    Supply models that show the learners thought processes that they can emulate. Demonstrate how to apply a skill or strategy so learners can observe before they try it on their own. Record your modelling and post it for learners to view multiple times.
  • Look-Say-Cover-Write & Check

    A model for learning the spelling of words is the Look-Say-Cover-Write and Check model. Display the instructions below and show or record a video demonstration of you following the instructions.

    Remember the spelling!

    Look at the word carefully three times.
    Say the word aloud or in your head three times.
    Cover the word so you can’t see it. Don’t cheat. Close your eyes - can you see the word? What did it sound like? What did it look like?
    Write it. Uncover the word.
    Check how you did!


Once learners develop the skill of independent learning, they need to make it a habit. One way to help learners realize the importance of taking responsibility for their learning is to first help them understand what they need to achieve and then ask them to reflect on whether they achieved it or not. Teenagers may be able to set their own goals and assess their achievement, but younger learners will probably need to you to explain what you were looking for.

  • What I am looking for (WILF)

    Learners should already be aware of what they are learning to do (WALTs). However, it is also important to explain what they should achieve. If the WALT is, “I am learning to talk about my last holiday”, learners should be able to explain where they went, who they went with and what they did. If learners can successfully achieve all three of these elements, then they have achieved the goal of talking about a holiday. Therefore, three things related to the learning goal that you might be looking for as a teacher (WILFs) are:

    ☐ I can say where I went on holiday.
    ☐ I can say who I went with on holiday.
    ☐ I can say what I did on holiday.

    And if learners can’t tick one of those elements? That means they know exactly what they need to work on.

  • 3Hs—Head, Hands & Heart Reflection

    After completing their work, learners should be in the habit of reflecting on their learning as this is an important part of developing learner independence. This Head, Hands & Heart reflection covers the cognitive, the affective, and meta-cognitive aspect of learning. Take a few minutes at the end of class to ask these three questions:

    🤔 What did I learn today?

    🖐 How did I do it?

    💗 How do I feel about my work?


By helping learners to build their Knowledge, Attitude, Skills and Habits, they will gradually move along the continuum to full learner independence. It is not a fast process but, as this article has shown, little by little, teachers can support their learners as they become independent. Keep the instructions simple and consistent so the ‘learning to learn’ skills become a habit. Provide a clear model and use the same model multiple times and in multiple ways. It may also be necessary to add explanations in the learners’ first language to increase their understanding of the learning process. However, always provide this in addition to the explanation in English. As learners become more successful, their confidence in their ability to learn will grow and this will pave the way for them to become independent, life-long learners.

Further reading

Ellis, G. & Ibrahim, N. (2015). Teaching Children how to Learn: Delta Publishing Company

Fraser, D. & McGee, C. (2012). Professional Practice of Teaching 4th edition: Cengage Learning.

Glaxton, G. (2002). Building Learning Power:Helping young people become better learners: Tlo Bristol

Moon, J. (2005). Children Learning English: Macmillan

Wilson, J. & Murdoch, K. (2008). Learning for themselves: Routledge

UNESCO (2012). Beyond the conceptual maze: the notion of quality in education (online). Available at

Image sources

Dolphin: Source: iStockphoto / bazilfoto
Shark: Source: Getty Images / Stocktrek Images / Corey Ford

Anna Hasper’s webinar for Macmillan English on what learning independently means and practical ideas to support young learners in managing their own learning.



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