3 before Me – Developing learner autonomy in YL & teens

Teaching this age group usually means groups classes and learner autonomy is essential, not only to increase learning, which in turn promotes good classroom management, but also to ensure teacher sanity at the end of class! In this post we’ll look at the whys and hows of learner autonomy, and we will discuss the “three before me rule” in more detail.


This may seem like a no-brainer , obviously I want my students to look up the word they need rather than sit there waiting for me to do it. Learner autonomy means the class can get on with the set work and free the teacher for the students who really need help.

However it goes further than that. Developing an autonomous classroom will foster group motivation, the class that works together plays together and helping each other will favour this. Encouraging autonomous learning will also enable your students to work better at home, therefore improving their overall level. By working this way in English class they will be able to transfer these skills into other school subjects and even their home life – my primary partner also uses “3 before me” and I encourage my children to do the same. By finding out independently children are developing not only their curiosity but they will also get into the habit of going one step further; when looking up a word in a dictionary they’ll probably glance at the words above and below, when reading a Wikipedia entry they may well click on the hyperlink, this promotes learning for its own sake – a great skill to have in this day and age.

Finally, as we all know, there is more value attached to tasks we have undertaken ourselves, discoveries made independently will be more valued, the child’s self-confidence increases and of course children learn better what they discover for themselves.


The first thing to know about developing autonomy in your class is that it takes time, just as with bringing up your own children, it can seem harder in the short-term to develop the behavior you wish to see, you must be consistent, give in to demands one day and you put yourself back, not permanently, but still you will have to catch up that lost autonomy, however, as with parenting, the long-term benefits should pay off.

Get a routine – just like at home, young people need the sense of security that rituals bring, this means that they must bring the same things to class every time, (in my case, pen, paper and books). Also by starting the class in the same way every day (asking for the date, weather, last lesson’s vocab…) you will not only create a learning environment but will avoid having your desk surrounded by a pile of people who’ve forgotten something. Then, and only then, should you answer questions, and the answer to most of them is usually “and what is your solution?” Make it clear that anyone who does not have the necessary material to work can’t do the classwork (and then give them boring written exercises while the rest of the class do some fun, walking around oral game) they will quickly find the solution of sharing a book etc. After the first lesson or so expect them to put their hands up to tell you the solution, not the problem, if possible of course.

Other routines are easy and fun to establish. With at least twenty students per class, it’s easy to waste time handing out worksheets, I place a pile at the end of every row, or on each cluster-table and then time the students, I expect everyone to be holding up their sheet in about 17 seconds believe me it can be done, especially of the first row to execute can leave first at the end of class!

Welcome failure and mistakes – this is essential in fostering independence, why would a child try and risk being punished or humiliated if they get it wrong when if they wait and get someone else to do it they won’t? Be sure to make a big deal about effort and the methods students use to get round problems, constantly reminding them that he who dares, wins.

Three before me – If you don’t already know and use this is very simple technique, then the idea is that students must try at least three ways to find the information they need before asking the teacher, loads of posters of this are available on the internet, plaster your classroom walls with them and point at them when necessary.

I call it B.B.B. but it’s the same thing; before asking the teacher, use your Brain – where have you seen this word before? is it a noun or a verb? Is there a known word hidden within it? Like “friendship” for example. After a little brainwork, try a Book, most course books have a lexical section, if not there’s a wonderful book full of English words on the shelf in the corner, that’s right – the dictionary. Of course in today’s classroom “book” may mean any device that will do the job. Once they’ve found the word then why not get them to write it on the board to tell their mates? They can write the translation alongside, or if you insist on a L2 only classroom get them to draw a picture or write a phrase with the word in it, even if this doesn’t explain the item satisfactorily, then at least the rest of the class will know that someone has found the answer, and they can ask him in step 3. Finally Buddy, ask your neighbour, not only will he feel good for being able to help out but also research has shown that many students learn better from peers than from their teachers anyway.

An even simpler method is to reply “I don’t know” to every question you are asked, and pretend to be busy doing something else. As long as students know they can’t get away with doing nothing then they’ll find a means to their way. What is clear is that the more effort they make to find an answer, the more chance there is of them remembering it.

Accept agitation– this is the downside, but mayhem is not inevitable. There will be more noise and movement in your classroom, while students getting up to fetch dictionaries, writing on the board or asking a friend something, however as the teacher now is now available to keep an eye out for anyone that’s off task (as opposed to answering the same question four times in a row) this is not such a problematic issue anymore.

As with much good classroom management, these ideas take time to put into place, but quickly pay back in terms of learning, atmosphere, and especially student motivation.


About fabenglishteacher

enjoying sharing learning
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