What does learner-centered teaching mean to you?

Hello colleagues, We seem to hear a lot about the importance of learner-centered practice. What does learner-centered instruction mean to you as someone who teaches adult English learners?  If we walk into any adult ESL classroom, what would be the telltale signs that the class is learner-centered? What would we look for? How might we draw upon technology to make our instruction more learner-centered?

Looking forward to hearing everyone's thoughts on this!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition


Hi Susan,

Thanks for posing this question.  I developed a checklist of characteristics of a learner-centered class that I have added to through the years.  I have used this for teacher development work, asking participants to identify concrete examples of things they do in their classes that correspond to the characteristics on the list. I have also had teachers use it to evaluate their lesson plans and in peer observations.  These characteristics are also central to the feedback sessions we hold in the practicum of our certificate program. I look forward to hearing others' ideas- I am sure there is much more to add to this list.  Sorry, I didn't address your technology piece (yet, anyway). 



What does learner-centered mean?

  • All learners bring rich knowledge and experience to classes and this knowledge and experience are validated.
  • The content of instruction is relevant to the students’ needs and interests and draws on their experiences and knowledge.
  • Learners have active roles in the classroom.
  • Learners make choices about content and classroom activities.
  • Learners control the direction of activities.
  • Classroom interactions and tasks are authentic.
  • Teachers use authentic language in their interactions with learners.
  • Learners acquire strategies that help them learn inside and outside of the classroom without the help of a teacher.
  • Classroom tasks promote higher-order thinking skills
  • Teachers listen actively for themes they emerge from learners.
  • Teachers constantly assess teaching and learning in relation to learners’ needs.

Hi Betsy,

Something tweaks me oddly with regard to two items on your list:

1.  Learners make choices about content and classroom activities; and 2) Learners control the direction of activities

Would you speak a bit more to these two points.  With #1, I agree whole-heartedly with learners making choices about content but wonder what you mean by making choices about classroom activities.   Teachers necessarily have to put a lot of thought into ensuring that activities are sequenced appropriately to achieve to lesson objectives.  Controlled, guided and free activities all need particular attention to timing, assessment, and evaluation. Where do you see room for learner decision-making?  Similarly, with regard to controlling the direction of activities, hmmm....my vision is clouded on this one two.  Could you explain further or give some examples of how you see students participating in that way?

Ellen Clore-Patron

REEP volunteer teacher



Hi Ellen,

So glad you ask.  I actually see these two principles going hand-in-hand. I am mindful of the fact that we carefully develop lesson plans that we hope are as responsive as possible to learners needs, so this doesn't mean that they make all the choices from the ground up.  The idea is that within those lessons, learners are decision-makers and have options.  Here are just a few examples that combine these two principles:

  • Let them be decision-makers about roles they take on in a project or during a discussion based on what they see as their strengths, or based on new roles they would like to try. 
  • If you are doing categorizing/sorting tasks, let learners decide on additional categories.
  • If you are doing mingle activities or information-grid interviews, let learners decide how many/which questions they would like to ask and let them add their own questions.
  • Project-based learning is a great place to bring these principles to life as learners choose their line of inquiry, the resources they want to draw from, the roles they would like to take on in the project, and even the product they want to share at the end.  
  • When reporting out at the end of an activity, let them take the lead in asking the follow-up questions and in calling on other groups/students to report out. Typically, I see teachers taking on that role most of the time, but there's a missed opportunity to have learners take the lead there. 
  • At the end of a unit, have students draw a bingo grid and fill it in with new vocabulary they want to work on/review from the unit.  Play bingo with a partner using the grid, calling out a definition or synonym for the words.
  • Have them complete exit tickets reflecting on the content/class activities used and which were most effective, thereby affecting the decisions we make about activities in later lessons. 

Many years ago, Jack Richards shared at a TESOL workshop that at the end of a lesson,  he asks teachers: "What did you do in the lesson that the learners could have done?"  That has guided my own teaching and the feedback process I use with teachers in our practicum. So, the idea is always keeping the learners at the center of instruction. I would love to hear your and others' ideas.



Very interesting topic, Susan.  I view the teacher’s role in a learner-centered classroom to be more like a coach than a lecturer who is providing information.  We are teaching skills, just like a tennis coach or like a driver’s ed instructor.  In these situations, students need to practice; they won’t learn the skills by just listening to someone talk.  In a learner-centered class, the teacher may briefly explain to the whole class a technique that they will be practicing, demonstrate the technique and introduce the activities.  Then students work on teacher-designed activities individually or in groups as the teacher moves about the room offering support when needed.  This would be similar to what tennis coaches do.  They explain, for example, a serving technique and demonstrate it.  Then students individually practice it as the coach looks on and makes suggestions when needed.  It’s important to note that students don’t just do whatever they want; there is structure to the activities.   But autonomy can be built in.  For example, in teaching the conversation technique of follow-up questions, the teacher would start by showing how the technique works.  Then students would practice the technique in pairs using questions that the teaching has provided them.  For example, what is your favorite website?  Then, to give the students some autonomy, the pairs would write their own questions.  These would often be about their current lives and events.  For example, what did you do during the snowstorm last week?  Finally, they would form new pairs, read and answer their new partner’s questions and ask follow-up questions.  All this time, the teacher would be moving around the room ready to assist.  David Kehe, CommonSense-ESL. 

Thank you, Betsy, Ellen and David, for your contributions here. Betsy, your ideas on learner-centeredness have long guided my own practice.

Some members will appreciate taking a look at this article on evidence-based, student-centered ESL instructional practices by Joy Peyton, Sarah, Moore and Sarah Young, which is reviewed on LINCS.

Would love to hear more members' ideas about ways to make our practices more learner-centered.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition

Susan, and group members - The student's first language should not only be valued and respected but should be the base of learnng, especially for Beginning students. I have always taught bilingually and phonetically and it is a method that has proven to be extremely effective. It also serves as a Transition ot English Only classes.

At the same time I focus on subjects in the class which are useful to the students. And important ingredient in a class is the willingness of the students to ask questions. Often a question from one student can turn into a good lesson for the whole group.

Paul Rogers