Autonomous Literacy Learners - Sustainable Results (ALL-SR) aimed to investigate the potential of non-directive coaching to help adults develop and sustain the literacy and language skills they need in daily life, including work.
​The project's prime objective was to develop and pilot a coaching programme to help adults develop the skills, strategies and confidence they need to become autonomous literacy learners.

On this page you can find information about the aims of the research, the research questions, the way the approach was tested, the tools we used and finally description of the pilots and their results and 20 lessons learned (at the bottom of the page).

​ALL-SR was funded by Erasmus+ and ran from October 2014 to September 2016.

Theoretical background of the research

The ALL-SR project set out to explore the development of learner autonomy among adult learners of language and literacy. In the project team's experience, autonomy is often attributed to social strategies by learners (see Donaghy and Tough, 2005 among others). The team felt that learners working with a coach would be in line with a social approach to learning and that we would pilot the use of coaching to develop learner autonomy with non-professional coaches since potential coaches needed to be people accessible to learners. The next stage was to run the pilots and evaluate the coaching approach. Since the project was about exploring a change in behaviour in learners and coaches, we opted for a qualitative research approach (Dörnyei, 2007) and longitudinal design (Taris 2000). To understand what happened during coaching sessions and how influential this was  (or whether this had a relationship with) in developing autonomous learning skills among the learners, we developed an observation protocol drawing on Wilson & Fox (2013) as well as Dörnyei (2007). This was an exploratory study and the project team set out to gain an understanding of a (possible) relationship between increased learner autonomy and coaching.

Research description

Research aims and design

The aims of the research with the project were to:

  • develop a new approach to sustainable literacy development, based on theory and experience.
  • develop materials and tools to facilitate coach and learner to develop learner competencies and strategies for sustainable literacy.
  •  pilot the approach using the tools, during which the project team:
    • supported the coaches
    • monitored the pilots and collected different types of data at different stages
  • analyse the data for indications that:
    • the approach might lead to sustainable literacy
    • the tools and instruments might be appropriate for facilitating the development of sustainable literacy
  • conclude to what extent the approach has potential: to be further researched in a following phase
  • evaluate the functionality of the tools, insofar as possible within the brief period of the pilot

We set up an exploratory research with pilots in different settings and qualitative analyses of the data, to investigate whether it might be worthwhile to test the approach in an experimental setting, and if so, how.

Research Questions concerning the coach:

1. Do the coaches deliver appropriate, relevant coaching behavior during the pilot?

2. Did the coach training help the coaches to deliver relevant coaching behaviour?

  • Which aspects of the training were particularly helpful/unhelpful and why?
  • Which elements of the training are likely to be helpful to prepare coaches for coaching low literate learners in specific settings (i.e. workplace, further education or community settings?)

3. How do the coaches feel while working with learners in the way the approach requires: do they enjoy it?

Research Questions concerning the learner:

4. Do the learners show increased autonomy in literacy learning?

  • What behaviour can be taken as evidence for increased autonomy?
  • Which strategies were attributed to increased autonomy?

5. Where there was increase in autonomy,

  • What role did coaching play?
  • Did any literacy learning strategies respond to coaching more? (Which ones?)
  • What resources are appropriate to develop autonomous literacy learning behaviour?

6. What did the learners think about coaching as an approach to develop autonomy?

7. Did the background of the coaches influence their approach (e.g. if they were teachers)?

Research Questions concerning the approach:

8. Do coaches and learners have the impression that learners make progress in their autonomous literacy learning?

9. What recommendations can we make in terms of number and duration of coaching sessions when the approach is be implemented for a study of effect of coaching?

Testing the approach

During the project, pilots were carried out in Germany, in the UK and in the Netherlands. Pilots varied regarding setting (some pilots took place in an educational setting while others took place ‘in the community’ and at the workplace). Some coaches were volunteers without any professional language teaching experience, while others were trained language teachers. In some cases the coach and the learner met for the first time to start their common learning and coaching project while in other pilots they knew each other already and decided to try out a new approach with new roles. In many pilots the coach and the learner worked one to one, while in a few pilots the coach tried to promote learner autonomy in working with a group.

There were also a few similarities to all pilots: all pilots started with training for the coaches. All coaches received some support during the coach process. All coaches were asked to adopt a non-directive coaching style, centered around the learning needs and wishes of their learners. All learners worked on their learning projects for a number of weeks, varying from about 10 to 20 weeks, meeting with their coach once a week.

To be able to evaluate the pilots and the impact of the approach, data were collected in all pilots. Data included:

  1. Interviews with learners and coaches on various moments of the process;
  2. Day reports/diary of coaches (if possible audio of evaluation between coach and learner after each session);
  3. Observations of coach sessions;
  4. Recordings (audio and/or video) of coachings sessions, with transcripts.

Research tools

During the project and research the following research tools were used:

  • Guideline for interviews:
    • Guideline learners for individual interviews with coaches during the coaching: after three sessions, in the middle of the coaching and after the last session
    • Guideline coaches for individual interviews with learners and group interviews with learners (after three sessions and after the last session).
  • Day reports/diary of coaches (if possible audio of evaluation between coach and learner after each session)
  • Guideline Observations
  • Recordings (audio and/or video) of coachings sessions, with transcripts

Pilots: general information

All instruments and tools were thoroughly discussed and composed with utmost care, but the main question was to find out whether all these worked out well in practice. And if not: what would work well according to the experience of coaches and learners? So in order to learn more about if and how supporting learner autonomy would work for learners, pilots were carried out in The Netherlands as well as in Germany and in the UK. Because of the differences in educational contexts, the pilots differed in a number of ways: coaches could be volunteers or professional teachers. Duration of coaching varied from 12 to 20 weeks. Coaching took place in a one to one situation or was implemented in a group. In some pilots the coaching sessions were the only time when learners interacted in the target language during the week and could be percieved as language support. Learners in other pilots had coaching sessions in addition to language tuition.

During the pilot, data were collected from both coaches and coachees, through interviews, observations and recordings.  The data was processed for indications that A. the approach might lead to sustainable literacy and B. the tools and instruments might be appropriate for facilitating the development of sustainable literacy.

During the pilots, different ways of dealing with the roles of pure coaching and coaching combined with more tutoring aspects were explored.

We are fully aware that possibly not the instruments but other aspects of what happened during the sessions could turn out to be valuable for the learning result. Furthermore, in the brief period of the pilot, we might not be able to say anything about the usefulness of, for instance, one of the competencies we described in our profile of autonomous learners but we could notice that an important competence seems to be missing. Therefore we suggest that the research part of this project is more at the evaluative end of the continuum between evaluation and research. We used pilots in different settings to explore our approach and study these cases. At the end of the project, we would like to answer the question to what extent the approach has potential: to be further researched in a following phase. This research design has the advantage to be able to develop the approach during the pilots. We are in effect testing both our conceptual framework and any instruments we develop to apply the framework and thus might intervene during the pilots to modify how the coach operates or to adjust the instruments (i.e. adding, deleting or changing the instruments).

Pilot descriptions and findings per pilot

For each pilot there is a short description of learner(s), coach, context, findings and lessions learned. For each pilot the research questions are answered in a separate document. All documents can be downloaded in pdf below. In the next paragraph the lessons learned are described.

Case 1. Amsterdam, The Netherlands Case Description Research question answered
Case 2. Utrecht, The Netherlands Case Description Research question answered
Case 3. Utrecht, The Netherlands Case Description Research question answered
Case 4. Den Haag, The Netherlands Case Description Research question answered
Case 5. Den Haag, The Netherlands Case Description Research question answered
Case 6. Leeds, UK Case Description Research question answered
Case 7. Workplace, UK Case Description Research question answered
Case 8. Yorkshire prison, UK Case Description No results available
Case 9. Leipzig , Germany Case Description Research question answered
Case 10. Leipzig, Germany Case Description Research question answered
Case 11. Rheda-Wiedenbrück, Germany Case Description Research question answered

20 Lessons learned

The pilots offered answers to our research questions. Since this was qualitative research, findings are best treated as indicative, i.e. ‘lessons learned’.
These lessons can be clustered into four categories:

  • Lessons learned regarding the approach
  • Lessons learned regarding coaching and the coaches
  • Lessons learned regarding the learners
  • Lessons learned regarding the tools and practical resources

Lessons learned regarding the approach

1. The basic concept of the approach is, that coaching can help learners develop autonomous learning skills and that autonomous learning skills help learners develop and sustain their skills. This basic concept seems sound. Most learners in the pilots reported and evidenced gains in learner autonomy. Some also evidenced quite striking improvements in their communicative competence.

2. Learners need time to build confidence in their autonomous learning skills. This implies that a coach process requires multiple sessions, estimated from 6 to 20, depending on the learner and the learning goal(s).

3. Learners with clear learning goals seem to benefit from coaching most. They appreciate their learning project being the central focus in the coaching.

4. Coaching sessions need to have some continuity – a weekly session seems fine. They must be long enough to develop a successful coach conversation. Initial sessions need to be at least 15 to 30 minutes.

5. Non-directive coaching requires from the learners:

  • understanding what coaching is and how they can benefit from reflecting on their own learning process,
  • a positive attitude towards coaching,
  • a wish for a change and to discover themselves as the source for successful learning.

6. Coaches need to understand the coaching methodology (extensive training is needed), practice the approach, show a positive attitude towards coaching, develop self-confidence as coaches and understanding of what they can achieve with the approach and to accept it’s limitation.

  • For further exploration: An ongoing debate during the project addressed the issue of directivity in coaching. All coaches in all pilots were asked to perform non-directive coaching. In some pilot cases a more directive approach seemed useful from time to time, especially to help learners to solve their language problems through building up language consciousness. In these pilots it was also felt that field expertise (the coach is an expert on language learning) was useful. In other pilots, language teaching expertise seemed unnecessary and even unhelpful. The concept of field competence and the question if it would help or rather disturb a learning process focusing on learner autonomy, remained interesting for the project team during the project and needs further research. The same applies to the effect of directivity on a coach process.

7. There seem to be possibilities to include focus on learner autonomy in classroom teaching; group work and peer teaching seem useful to promote learner autonomy and reduce dependency on the teacher or coach. A focus on autonomy seems to improve mutual understanding.

  • For further exploration: in this project, we have mainly focused on one-to-one coaching. Only two pilots were carried out in groups. There seem to be chances for working on learning autonomy in classrooms, but only very little of this is explored within the scope of this project. More extensive research on group coaching and more extensive piloting would be useful.

Lessons learned regarding coaching and coaches

8. The coach needs a learning period for developing coaching skills just as much as learners do.

9. The coach training needs to consist of multiple sessions. Coaches need to receive support during the coach process.

10. Coaches report that practicing coaching in role-plays was the most useful element of the coach training and discussions with other trainees.

  • For further exploration: An online coach community where coaches could share experiences seems helpful.

11. For the process to work as intended, coaches must understand clearly that they are there to coach (not instruct) and that their responsibility is for the coaching process (not the learner’s progress). This may be difficult for coaches who identify themselves primarily as language teachers.

12. Helping the learner to identify goals and then formulate an appropriate learning project to help achieve those goals, is an essential competence for the coach. This does require from the coach clarity of purpose and commitment to the value of autonomous learning. Commitment to the value of autonomous learning may not be trainable, but clarity of purpose surely is.

13. The pilot suggests that 12 weeks of supervised practice with a learner, combined with input of the type provided by this pilot (i.e. three or four half-day training sessions, process guidance and supervisory support) would be sufficient to communicate the approach to would-be coaches.

14. Coaches are likely to have to cope with learners who expect to them to teach. Guidance for coaches on how to clarify roles and responsibilities with the learner – e.g. a contacting template – is likely to be useful to coaches, both in practice and also to help them clarify their own understanding of roles and responsibilities.

Lessons learned regarding the learners

15. Coaching is appropriate when a learner wants to change something in his/her learning or life. Clear learning goals lead to a more successful coach process.

16. Coaching needs to be voluntary for learners. To make a good decision and prevent frustration on both sides, coaches have to communicate clearly, what the learner may expect from the coaching and from the coach.

17. Coaching is based on a coach conversation. This requires a common language between coach and learner. In our pilots, the coaching in most cases took place in the second language of the learner; an A2-level for oral skills seems a minimum.

  • For further exploration:The coaching could take place in the first language of the learner, at least in the first sessions, when the learners have low language skills, low study skills and/or low self esteem. Also the idea of coaching with the help of an interpreter seems worth exploring.

Lessons learned regarding the tools and practical resources

18. The use of visual materials was in some cases very helpful to encourage learners to speak and think.

19. In general  a coach conversation seems to be adequate and sufficient for helping the learners formulate their goals, actions and strategies. Tools to help setting goals and actions (‘help cards’) proved useful in one pilot, where coach and coaches seem to got stuck in the process. The extent to which tools are useful, seem to depend on the situation. Coaches should develop sensitivity for when (not) to use what tools.

20.  Manuals for coaches and learners need some suggestions for resources and strategies.