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L. Miller, M. Hopkins, & E.

Tsang 1

Supporting Independent English Language Learning in the 21st Century: Proceedings of the Independent
Learning Association Conference Inaugural – 2005

Self-Access Language Learning in Hong Kong Secondary


LINDSAY MILLER, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China

MARK HOPKINS, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong, China
ELZA TSANG, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong, China

ABSTRACT Independent and lifelong learning is one of the principal aims of the recent English Language
Curriculum Guidelines in Hong Kong. In order to promote and support the culture of autonomous learning in
secondary schools, a collaborative research and development project was established by the Education and
Manpower Bureau (EMB) and two universities. Three schools took part in the project and the main finding
was that each school chose a customized approach to Self-Access Language Learning (SALL) in line with the
school’s philosophy, available resources, teachers’ skills, and students’ demands. This paper reports on the
project and its main findings.


Although English holds an important position in Hong Kong, its primary uses are limited to the areas of
government, the media, employment and education (Li, 1999). Since its days as a British colony, English has had a
restrictive function in Hong Kong society due to the fact that over 95% of the population are Cantonese-speaking
ethnic Chinese (Howlett, 1997). The linguistically homo geneous nature of the local population, and the continued
but restricted uses enjoyed by English make for a complex situation of bi linguality / bifunctionality, which is made
even more complex now by the increased role of Putonghua (Luke & Richards, 1982; Li, 1999).
Given the complex nature of the use of English in Hong Kong, there has been much debate and concern about
the approaches and methods used to teach English in schools. Over the past few years there has been an increasing
recognition that in order to help students be come more proficient English language users the traditional approach
to practicing linguistic ability in class is not enough. For this reason the Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB)
of the Hong Kong Government has, in a series of curriculum guidelines, recommended the promotion of
independent and lifelong learning as one of its key curriculum development initiatives (Curriculum Development
Council, 1999, 2001, 2002a, 2002b). This is in line with world trends in language education where many countries
national curricula have begun to advocate the development of autonomy in language learning (e.g. Singapore,
2001; Portugal , as in Vieria, 2003; New Zealand, 2004).

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Once the decision by the EMB to integrate a move towards autonomous learning was taken it was decided that
language teachers would need more than curriculum guidelines in order to help them develop an appropriate
approach to SALL. It was thought that teachers may see SALL as unassisted learning; learning without interaction;
learning with more homework; a collection of learning materials; or simply a system for organizing resources.
Along with the curriculum guidelines teachers needed to understand that SALL was an approach to learning which
involved students in planning and implementing their own language learning, and that students needed to be allowed
to negotiate, make choices and decisions, and reflect on and evaluate their own learning. In order to illustrate this,
a SALL project was initiated with three secondary schools. The plan was to see how each school interpreted the
curriculum guidelines. Then, with assistance from SALL experts, help these schools move towards developing an
approach to SALL which was useful for their students. This paper reports on the project.

The SALL Team

An administrative group was established at the EMB. This group of four administrators were all English
language-trained former teachers and were all involved in helping to prepare the new curriculum guidelines. Three
university teachers with an interest in SALL were invited by the EMB to be project consultants. This core team
then worked with the teachers and students from three participating schools: Buddist Kok Kwong Secondary
School (BKK); Baptist Lui Ming Choi Secondary School (LMC); and SKH Tsang Shiu Tim Secondary School
(SKH). The schools were chosen to join the project as (a) they responded to the call for schools to participate; (b)
there was at least one teacher on staff who had already tried to introduce some form of SALL to the students; (c)
the students in each school were a representative sample of typical Hong Kong learners: Form 1 to Form 7; male
and female; mixed language proficiencies.

Aim of the Project

The SALL project was principally aimed at working with selected schools in order to investigate how these
schools interpreted and were able to implement the new EMB curriculum guidelines for language education with
the emphasis on developing autonomy in secondary school students. The SALL team (that is the administrators
from EMB and the three university teachers) sought to:
1. Help participating schools set up and run SALL;
2. Document and evaluate the process of participating schools in undertaking the SALL project;
3. Disseminate project findings and exemplary materials and practices among all secondary schools in Hong

Data Collection

In addition to supporting the three schools interpret the curriculum guidelines, each school became a case
study. Both quantitative and qualitative data was collected from teachers and students throughout the project. The
following data was collected:
1. Quantitative: questionnaire survey on the perceptions of SALL from 35 teachers and 954 students
2. Qualitative: in-depth interviews and discussion with six teachers, two from each school; focus group
interviews with 35 students in twelve focus groups.

Stages of the Project

The project had three main stages.

Stage 1

In this stage the SALL team met with teachers and principals from each of the three schools. The purpose of
these initial meetings was to discuss the new curriculum guidelines, introduce the concepts of SALL to the staff,

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answer questions about what might be involved, and try to establish a professional relationship with the staff so that
they might become actively involved in the implementation of SALL in their schools. Once trust had been
established the team had the teachers in each school discuss the type of training they thought they needed in order
to upgrade their professional knowledge about SALL.
Stage 1 was an important phase as entry to the field had to be established for the SALL team, and the teachers
had to believe that they had ultimate control over how SALL might be implemented in their schools. The SALL
team did not want the teachers to feel that they were being told what to do. Teachers had to develop a sense of
ownership from the start while working with the SALL team for support when required.

Stage 2

In this year-long phase of the project the SALL team assisted teachers plan and develop their own SALL
programs. Then the team trained the teachers and students how to set up and run a SALL program. This was very
much the training phase of the project.

Stage 3

In this next year -long phase of the project the SALL team continued to assist teachers and students with on-
going training. The also helped to implement and evaluate the SALL programs, and then prepared the project
findings for disseminating to all secondary schools in Hong Kong.


During the developmental stages to the project, teachers from each school identified their goals and worked
out plans for the development of SALL based on their own interpretations of SALL and their understandings of
their own school context and the needs and interest of their students. Rather than seeing SALL as an add-on
teachers were encouraged to consider how SALL could be integrated into the existing school curriculum and how
students from all levels in the school might be involved. Given these considerations, each school took a different
approach to how to integrate SALL into their school curriculum.

School 1

BKK school decided to establish a small Self-Access Centre (SAC) next to the library. This involved working
with both junior and senior form students. First, a suitable room was identified. This was a store room used by the
library. Students from the English Club were asked to help some of their teachers clean out the room and make it
ready as a place where students could practice their English. In the process of doing this, the teachers were able to
chat with their students to see what ideas they had for using the room. The fact that this room was next to the
library perhaps prompted the students to talk a lot about improving their reading skills. Reading, therefore, became
the focus for this SALL.
The second phase was to invite all the senior form students to take part in a workshop on naming the room and
developing rules for its use. After an introduction as to what a SAC was, the students then worked in groups to
come up with their best ideas for the room. Different names and rules were presented to the students by each
group then votes were taken for the best name and rules. Once this was done, these senior form students then
visited junior form students in their classes and presented the idea of the SAC to them. Therefore, the concept of
student ownership was further enforced.
The third phase for BKK school was to ask the junior form students to collect authentic reading material which
either had something to do with the units in their English textbook, or were interesting material they wo uld like to
be able to read. Students handed in the materials to their teachers who continued to interact with students and find
out why they had collected such materials and what they wanted to be able to do with such material in the SAC:
read of fun, read of information, understand the graphics, etc.

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In the fourth phase of the project, one of the SALL advisors conducted a material writing workshop for
teachers and senior form students. Working with the authentic texts collected by the junior form students, a bank
of customized materials was developed and placed into the SAC.

School 2

Staff at LMC school decided to integrate SALL into the school curriculum, and they decided to focus on the
junior form students. These decisions were based on the fact that if younger students were able to see the benefits
from working in SALL then they may continue with such an approach later on once they moved to more senior
After examining their textbooks with the SALL advisors, the teachers decided on three activities which would
complement the work they did in class with the students. One was a SALL outing. Here students were prepared in
class to go on an outing to popular tourist spots and interview foreign tourists. The students were responsible, in
class, for planning the outing and deciding on the types of questions they could ask. After the outing groups of
students presented what they found out from interviewing the tourists to each other, once more in class time.
The second activity was an extended research project into different charities in Hong Kong. There was a
language practice unit about charities in the textbook and teachers made use of this to encourage their students to
go beyond the textbook to find out as much as they could about a charity that interested them. Once more, students
worked in groups and gave an in-class presentation about what they had discovered about the charity of their
The third SALL activity once again began from a textbook unit. This time, the theme was ‘food’. After
practicing the vocabulary of different foods and how to describe recipes, groups of students set up their ‘Jubilee
Café’ as part of the school’s Open Day. Here, these junior form students acted as waiters and waitresses to serve
customers who attended the Open Day, all the ordering was taken in English – as far as possible. Other students
gave on-the-spot demonstrations, once more in English, about how to prepare local sweets.

School 3

SKH school decided to approach developing SALL into their school via project work. The work for each of the
three projects the students worked on was done outside of class time. Each year, the school has a Promotion Day.
Here, junior form students are allowed to find out more about the various clubs and societies in the school from
senior form students. It was decided that the students should use English to promote and find out about the clubs
and societies. Teachers helped the students prepare for the promotion day, and monitored them while asking for
and giving out information about their clubs and societies in English.
The second activity was a variety show. In order to help celebrate the school’s Silver Jubilee, Form Four
students (around 15 years old) were asked to work in groups to develop a series of skits, songs, and plays, in
English, to be performed in a variety show. The students worked in groups over their summer holidays using
worksheets designed by their teachers to assist them. After they returned to school for the new term, each group
performed their shows in front of their class mates and votes were cast for the best performances. In the end, the
groups who won the most votes were allowed to perform their shows for the whole school.
The third project activity was called ‘Career Oscars’. At certain times each year the careers teacher visits
senior form classes and gives information about careers, and university courses. This time, it was decided to hand
over this important task to the senior students themselves. Students were formed into groups and allowed to
choose a profession. Then, they worked together to collect as much information about the profession as they
could, and then decide on how to present this information to their classmate. Each group was given 10 minutes to
present their careers to Form Four and Form Five students. Some groups used straight lecture format, others used
power-point presentations, while others acted out mini-dramas to illicit interest in their careers.

Impact on Students

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As can be seen above, each school took a different approach to integrating SALL into the curriculum. In
discussions with the students we found that due to implementing SALL students felt that:
1. They had more opportunities and space (both physical and cognitive) for language learning;
2. The SALL activities increased their engagement in language learning both inside and outside of
3. They were encouraged to assume an active learner role through developing learner autonomy;
4. They enhanced their self-motivation and confidence which led to an improvement in using English.
In addition to these perceptions, the results of the questionnaires collected from students in the three schools
indicated that participation in the SALL activities led to an understanding of what SALL was and the benefits
students could receive from it (see Table 1).

Impact on Teachers

In each of the three schools the teachers and heads took a positive view of implementing SALL into the
curriculum. The fact that the SALL team tried to include as many staff as possible in their meetings and workshops
appeared to help inculcate a sense of ownership of the project and the SALL team was very much given an advisory
role – as was hoped for. By taking part in the SALL activities teachers’ understanding of and their commitment
towards building a SALL culture was evident. The main benefits to the teachers were:
1. Teachers improved their understanding of what SALL could be, and were able to interpret the new
language curriculum guidelines better;
2. Teaches became more committed to developing their own school-based SALL programs;
3. Space for teacher-student and teacher-teacher collaboration was created;
4. Principals were kept informed as to the progress of the project and became very supportive. This
translated into the provision of funding for SALL activities, flexible time -tabling, and providing physical space for

Impact on School-Based Curriculum

By taking part in this SALL project teachers in each school went through various stages in their professional
development and slowly changed their views about SALL. These changes can be related to the three main stages of
the project.
In the first stage teachers gained insights into SALL. They participated in professional development training
programs and then devised SALL programs for their own schools. In this start-up phase the focus was on providing
teachers with information about SALL so that they could implement plans and strategies which were appropriate
for their learners.
In the second stage of the project, teachers implemented their SALL programs and monitored the success of
the activities. Both teachers and students came to understand that SALL was not an add-on but that it could become
an integral part of class activities as well as the school curriculum. As a result of this, teachers and students
appeared to be keen to use more SALL in their school learning.
The third stage of the project was to see if any school would continue using SALL activities once the project
ended. It appeared that over the period of the two years of the project each school had developed a culture of SALL
as a way of developing critical thinking and independent learning. Each of the schools is now integrating SALL
activities into their language teaching and learning and one school is now experimenting with institutionalizing
SALL into the whole school curriculum via other taught subjects.


The SALL project described in this paper was an attempt to show how the new English Language Curriculum
guidelines which advocate developing autonomous learners for secondary schools in Hong Kong could be
interpreted. While working with the three schools, the SALL team was keenly aware that it was the teachers’
responsibilities for deciding the directions which their approach to SALL would take. What is most interesting is

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that each school took a very different approach: BKK chose to promote SALL through setting up a SAC; LMC
decided to integrate SALL into the school curriculum; while SKH supported SALL through project work.
The customization of SALL by each school should perhaps not be surprising as:
Self-access is very flexible. It can be used on a large scale or a small scale. It can be conducted in a classroom,
in a dedicated self-access centre or elsewhere. It can be incorporated into a language course or it can be used
by learners who are not taking courses. It can function at all learning levels. It allows for different levels of
independence among learners encompassing both teacher-directed groups of learners and virtually
autonomous learners. It allows individualization but also supports groups. (Gardner & Miller, 1999, p. 11).
For SALL to work in a secondary school context there are certain questions which must be considered:
1. Is there a desire to promote SALL? Are there any Education Department guidelines or initiatives from the
school’s principal which require teachers to consider this approach to learning?
2. Are the teachers and students sufficiently prepared to take on board the concept of SALL? Can workshops
be organized so that teachers and students are given time to explore what SALL means to them?
3. To what extent can the teachers and students customize their approach to SALL? Is there sufficient
financial and human resources to do all the things teachers and students want to do?
4. How will SALL be monitored? How can teachers and students demonstrate that SALL is making some
contribution to the students’ learning?
The SALL project described in this paper indicates that integrating SALL into secondary schools curricula is
achievable. Howe ver, this project took over two years to complete and was supported by funding from the
Education and Manpower Bureau of Hong Kong. It is suggested that if Education Authorities wish to advocate
independent learning, autonomy or SALL into their curriculum guidelines, then they have to spend the time and
effort to assist teachers and students explore how this might be achieved.

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Curriculum Development Council. (1999). Syllabus for English Language (Secondary 1-5). Hong Kong, China:
Curriculum Development Council. (2001). Learning to Learn: Th e Way forward in curriculum development.
Hong Kong, China: Author.
Curriculum Development Council. (2002a). Basics education curriculum guide: Building on strengths (Primary
1 – Secondary 3). Hong Kong, China: Author.
Curriculum Development Council. (2002b). English language education key learning area curriculum guide
(Primary 1– Secondary 3). Hong Kong, China: Author.
Gardner, D., & L. Miller. (1999). Establishing self-access: From theory to practice . Cambridge, England:
Cambridge University Press.
Howlett, B. (Ed.). (1997). Hong Kong – A new era. Hong Kong, China: Government Printer.
Li, D. C. S. (1999). The functions and status of English in Hong Kong: A post-1997 update. English World-Wide,
20(1), 67-110.
Luke, K. K., & Richards, J. C. (1982). English in Hong Kong: Functions and status. English World-Wide, 3, 47-64.
New Zealand, 2004. (2004). Available from New Zealand Ministry of Education Web site,
Singapore, 2001. (2001). Available from Singapore Ministry of Education Web site,
Vieria, F. (2003). Addressing constraints on autonomy in school contexts: Lessons form working with teachers. In
D. Palfreyman & R.C. Smith (Eds.), Learner autonomy across cultures: Language education perspectives.
Basingstoke, England: Palgrave MacMillan.

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Table 1
Student Response Rate to the Use of SALL Activities

Statement Agree

I have more confidence in learning English 54%

SALL can improve my general English level 72.7%

I can learn more English with SALL 62.8%

I enjoy learning English in groups 77.6%

I would like to use more SALL to learn English 64.3%

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