Language advising

Author: Marina Mozzon-McPherson


There is a well developed educational argument (examined elsewhere in the Good Practice Guide) which considers independent learning a desirable goal of Higher Education.The shift in language learning from a teacher-led to a more learner-centred approach and the increased use of a variety of media and technologies has required a repositioning of the teacher and a reappraisal of the teachers skills. Within this context a new professional role, distinct from the teacher, has emerged. Terms such as facilitator, mentor, counsellor, adviser, helper, learner support officer and consultant have been used to characterise such role and identify differences in skills and functions with the teaching profession.This article focuses on the skills and practices of language advising.

Table of contents


There is a well developed educational argument (examined elsewhere in the Good Practice Guide) which considers learner autonomy a desirable goal of Higher Education. This argument accompanies the establishment of self-access centres, virtual campuses, the development of many Open and Distance Learning (ODL) programmes and the emergence of new roles such as language advisers. A successful application of these systems/programmes/environments requires change and transformation in attitudes and beliefs in both staff and students, with impact on the notions of knowledge, learning and teaching. Within this context a new professional role, distinct from the teacher, has emerged. Terms such as 'facilitator', 'mentor', 'counsellor', 'adviser', 'helper, 'learner support officer' and 'consultant' have been used to characterise such role and identify differences in skills and functions with the teaching profession.

Although this article focuses on the skills and practices of language advising, it should briefly be observed that:

  1. interpretations of autonomous learning have affected definitions of advising practices;
  2. practices of advising are determined by the expectations of institutions towards self-access and autonomy;
  3. staff development programmes and research projects on advising and its practices are currently in progress and will contribute to form and inform future language learning pedagogy.

Some of the above points are discussed elsewhere in this webguide.

Brief rationale

As a result of the Teaching and Quality Assessment Exercise, which took place during 1995-96 in all modern languages departments in England and Northern Ireland, the University of Hull's advisory service was particularly commended as a good and innovative practice of learning support. Project SMILE was subsequently awarded funding

  1. to disseminate good practice in the area of independent learning with a focus on learner training and language advising. SMILE's final evaluation report stresses that there is no universal model for setting up a self-directed learning scheme or an advisory service, since many parameters vary from institution to institution. Some advocate the need to keep teacher and adviser as separate but strictly interdependent entities, whilst others prefer the full integration of the advising functions into existing teaching and curriculum demands. The need for professional development programmes for staff in advising posts is, though, highlighted as a key to a successful implementation of a good advisory service. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the number of language learning advisers appointed in the UK has increased from 7 (1997) to over 30 (2001). A good overview and examples of advising practices world-wide can be found in Mozzon-McPherson & Vismans (2001)
  2. .
  3. An email discussion list, PLAN
  4. is also available to advisers to debate and share information about their practices.

Language advising in practice

A key aim in advising is to support students in their language learning and help them find the most effective and efficient way of doing so in a variety of learning environments (online, in self-access centres, in classroom contexts). Advisers achieve this task by creating the appropriate conditions for language practice and helping them develop the ability to determine their learning objectives, define the contents, select the methods and resources, monitor progress and evaluate their outcomes. Most of their work takes place alongside existing language programmes or in specially set up open learning programmes. Students have various personal and developmental reasons to choose open learning (e.g. a wish to keep up a language previously learnt; a dislike for time and syllabus constraints; a need to access resources in a foreign language, no class in the chosen language etc).

Advising can be in the form of individual or group sessions. It can take place face-to-face or by email; it can be organised as an informal workshop (e.g. targeting specific needs/strategies), as an accredited learner training course integrated in a degree programme, as an individualised learning pathway. Finally, language learning advice can be carried out through 'on the spot' learning support ('help-desk service') or by appointment. Students can, in fact, reserve a time slot with an adviser to discuss their own learning needs. In some cases, one initial individual session is compulsory for all first year language students; in others, it is an option for all university students, regardless of their degree choice. Some advisory services are organised around a specific language (e.g. EFL), others are targeting a wider language audience.

The length of a session varies depending on its type and purpose. The first session usually tends to last approximately 30-minute and may require a set of follow-up sessions. This session helps the adviser determine the learner's needs (by means of a needs analysis questionnaire), it maps the learner's past language experiences, present knowledge and familiarity with a variety of media. It also defines his/her aims and establishes a timeline to achieve them. Follow-up sessions are aimed to help learner track his/her objectives, reflect on achievements and take positive steps to overcome barriers to learning.

Advisers may also use learning styles questionnaires and self-monitoring systems (e.g. logbooks, portfolios, media-based language programmes) to develop efficient modes of keeping progress. The latter can be in the form of audio, video, text or technology based self-assessment activities and logs.

Once the needs have been established a self-study learning programme is negotiated and, in some cases, a learning agreement is produced. Examples can be found in Sheerin (1989), Gardner and Miller (1999).

Advisers need to regularly explore new media, evaluate, update and manage language resources to ensure an effective and efficient use of different learning spaces. They organise and deliver induction tours of self-access centres, provide hands-on workshops on use of language learning facilities (digital labs, audio-video equipment, computer software etc.), arrange tandem learning schemes. To carry out and monitor such tasks, advisers use a variety of research tools such as interviews, questionnaires to staff and students, audits of learning spaces, audio and/or written recordings of advising sessions. Results are systematically analysed, reports are produced for staff and students, and dissemination events are organised. To this purpose, advisers may sit on a range of committees such as staff-student, curriculum, resources, staff development and research.

The adviser's working base may differ. In some institutions advisers are located at a desk in the Open Access Centre where everybody can approach them with their enquiries (e.g. The University of Newcastle). In other cases they have an office where they will carry out most of the individual sessions with students (e.g. The University of Hull, Leeds Metropolitan) or are in classes and in the self-access centre where they run group sessions or induction tours (e.g. Nottingham Trent, The University of Westminster). In others, they may mostly operate online with occasional face-to-face sessions (the Open University).

Skills of advising

During advising sessions, dialogue is a pedagogic tool to help the learner help him/herself. Such conversations constitute skilled work on the part of the adviser as it requires the ability to be effectively non-directive, to actively listen and perform a function of 'mirror', enabling students to revisit their statements about learning, strategies and needs. Paraphrasing, formulating open questions, restating, empathising, confronting are some of the skills adopted. This dialogic process enables learners to gradually acquire their own knowledge of self in relation to what they are learning and assume more responsibility and control of their learning.

Because it is skilled work, professional development is required to avoid replicating familiar habits and patterns and traditional models of 'learning conversations' (teacher-pupil model). A survey, conducted amongst students who had been to advising sessions, and an analysis of these advising sessions have revealed that

  1. some staff felt ill-prepared for such role in independent learning programmes
  2. the dialogic interaction between adviser-learner was perceived as the catalyst in changing learning attitudes and behaviours
  3. mechanisms to monitor such learning conversations and their impact on learning should be set up
  4. adequate staff development should be provided.

This use of pedagogic dialogue is considered to be a distinctive feature of advising in relation to teaching. Riley (1997) and Kelly (1996) discuss the need for a significant shift in attitude on the part of both the adviser and the learner, and the development of a specific competence to deal with the complexity of the task. Such skilled work needs to be learnt and practised.

Staff development issues

To this end, a postgraduate qualification has been developed to prepare teachers for this role. This qualification is fully delivered online through the Hull Merlin environment, and has currently prepared over 30 advisers from all over the world. Teachers, like learners, may need both psychological and methodological preparation to new roles. Those who are new to learner development and independent learning, those who lack confidence in themselves to help learners in this mode, those who are doubtful and sceptical about the benefits of learner development need to start from their own personal experience. Advisers who have taken part in the professional development programme reported changes in the way they reached out to students, commented on the difficulty encountered when training to listen, observed positive results in students when allowed to explore and reflect.

Research is also being conducted to investigate the impact of the adviser-learner interaction on learning outcomes (Cotteral S & D Crabbe. 2001; Mozzon-McPherson M & R Vismans 2001). This type of analysis is fundamental to understand the discursive world of advising and to prepare advisers. On a smaller scale, advisers can sit in on a session of a more experienced colleague, may want to learn a new language in self-directed learning, share and discuss with other fellow advisers their own sessions, analyse their own recordings.

Some final tips

A learning support service such as language advising can be established in a variety of environments: as part of self-access centre, in online learning spaces, in classrooms or as an overarching support across all these environments. Whichever the learning space you should be clear about:

The audience of the service

Is it open to everyone -staff, students, the local community ? Is it for language degree students only? Is it for undergraduates from any degree programme ? etc.

The accessibility of the service

Is it free to university students and staff? Is there a fee to the local community? When are advisers available? weekdays? At which times? (between 9.00-5.00; after 5.00 etc..) how can one contact an adviser (face to face, in the self access centre, by email etc.) how is the service advertised?

The purpose of the service

Is it mainly focused on resources, strategies, language learning needs in general, on a specific language, on remedial work etc.

The nature of the service

Is it a confidential and independent support service as counselling and career? Is it integrated into language degree programmes? Is it part of the library service? Has the service got report mechanisms to departments (e.g. as could be the case of students referred by staff or accredited learner training programmes)

The resources for the service

Where is the staff located? Whom does the adviser report to? What responsibilities and decisional constraints has s/he got? ? (e.g. in relation to material production, workshop organisation, dissemination of information etc.). What types of media will be available? (online as well as audio/video/books etc)

Skilled personnel

The successful realisation of the above mentioned points depends on the selection of the appropriate professional personnel: someone with experience of learner autonomy and new technologies, knowledge of second language learning and professional training in advising skills.


Crabbe D., Hoffman A & Cotterall S (2001) 'Learner Advisory Sessions: Problems, Goals and Beliefs', in Dam. L. (ed.) AILA Review 15

Gardner D. and Miller L., Establishing Self-Access: from theory to practice (Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Kelly R., 'Language counselling for learner autonomy', in Pemberton R. et al. (eds.), Taking Control: Autonomy in Language Learning, pp. 93-113 (Hong Kong University Press, 1996)

Mozzon-McPherson M & R Vismans., Beyond Language teaching Towards Language Advising (CILT, 2001)

Riley P., 'The guru and the conjurer: aspects of counselling for self-access', in Benson P. and Voller P. (eds.), Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning, pp.114-131 (Longman, 1997)

Sheerin S., Self-access (Oxford University Press, 1989)

Related links

Project SMILE : The Unversity of Hull, Project SMILE. CILT book on advising: CiLT (Centre for Information on Language Teaching, Beyond language teaching towards language advising. Professional Language Advisers' Network, Archives of PLAN@JISCMAIL.AC.UK. The University of Hull Language Institute, Postgradute Certificate in Advising for Language Learning.

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