Language narratives from general upper secondary education for adults


Linna building, auditorium K103, address: Kalevantie 5


Doctoral defence of MA Tero Korhonen

Language narratives from general upper secondary education for adults: An inquiring teacher’s journey of fostering foreign language identity in autonomy-oriented pedagogy 
The field of science of the dissertation is education, Teacher education.
The opponent is Professor David Little (Trinity College Dublin, University of Dublin). Professor Marita Mäkinen acts as the custos.

The language of the dissertation defence is English.

Language narratives from general upper secondary education for adults: An inquiring teacher’s journey of fostering foreign language identity in autonomy-oriented pedagogy

In language education theory, autonomy and identity are connected to successful language learning. However, it has been widely contested to what degree developments in autonomy and identity can be induced in the formal institutional foreign language (FL) context. As complex constructs with their own integrity, autonomy and identity have rarely been studied together, despite assumptions about their interrelatedness. 

This longitudinal narrative research derives from an inquiring English as a foreign language (EFL) teacher’s (the author of this dissertation) desire to deepen his understanding of language learning and teaching in a general upper secondary school for adults (GUSSA). In particular, this research is concerned with investigating the FL students’ growth towards autonomy through the lens of FL identity which has been adopted here to refer to any aspect of the person’s identity that is connected to their knowledge or use of the target language (TL). 
The research questions are as follows: 

1. What is the language learning process like for a general adult upper secondary student? 
a) To what extent are developments in FL identity manifest? 
b) What is essential in the FL teaching framing the students’ language learning? 
2. What is autonomy in (relation to) FL learning in the general adult upper secondary context? 
3. How can autonomy and identity be fostered through FL education? 

In addition to the EFL teacher, the research participants included 34 Finnish-speaking FL students who attended the teacher’s EFL courses in the local GUSSA between spring 2009 and autumn 2012. Due to ethical, epistemological and practical reasons, exploratory practice was adopted as the data collection method to gather a body of narrative research data consisting of the students’ language learning journals, their reflective essay tasks and self-assessments, audio-recorded material from the annual counselling sessions between the students and the teacher, and the teacher’s teaching journal. 

These data contained narrative elements and parts termed language narratives (LaNa). This notion was adopted to refer to culturally rooted and socially constituted, storied experiences of language learning, language use and participation in different TL-related life settings. In this study, these LaNas were examined as contextually anchored spaces for identity construction, in which the language learners gave meaning to their TL-related experiences, made sense of themselves in relation to the TL, and positioned and performed themselves as language learners, communicators, participants and persons over time. 

As to investigating FL learning, five language learning GUSSA students were selected for analysis. Moreover, a sixth student profile consisting of a compilation of eleven EFL students was crafted to be added into the analysis to provide a more comprehensive picture of the GUSSA students in the English courses. 

A three-part analysis was conducted on the data gathered from these students and their EFL teacher. In the holistic analysis of narrative form, the six students’ language learning processes were depicted on the basis of their LaNas by graphing the overall development of their English-related subject positions over time. This analysis also involved the identification of key episodes and turning points occurring as part of the students’ language learning processes. The holistic analysis of narrative content consisted of identifying the constituent thematic elements (powerful storylines) in the students’ language learning processes and following their progression over time. On the basis of the key discoveries, the students’ journeys were then transformed (emplotted) into storied, developmental accounts, emplotments, in the third part of the analysis. The emplotments depict the students’ language learning processes in the form of multivoiced narratives. 

To contextualise the FL students’ language learning processes, a similar analysis was conducted on FL teaching in the local GUSSA. First, the collectively experienced meaningfulness of the FL teaching was graphed over time, and the key episodes and turning points of the narrative structure were identified in the holistic analysis of narrative form. Second, the recurrent constituent themes, powerful storylines, embedded in this teaching were identified and the development of these storylines chronologically followed in the holistic analysis of narrative content. Finally, a multivoiced emplotment of this teaching was configured by synthesising the most essential events, actions and experiences into a storied developmental account. 

The analysis of the LaNas revealed the uniqueness and diversity of each student’s experiences. It also enabled a conceptualisation of FL learning through the constructs of FL identity, agency and affordance. The uniqueness and diversity embedded in the processes of FL learning were also reflected in the meanings that the students attributed to their experiences of participating in GUSSA FL teaching. Analysing these meanings promoted a conception of this FL teaching in terms of autonomy, authenticity and affordance. 

This research makes the following claims in answer to research questions 1a and 1b: Despite the uniqueness of the critical experiences triggering identity development, FL identity can be adopted as a framework to capture the language learning processes and outcomes in the FL context of the GUSSA. The identity work underlying the development of FL identity is essentially narrative and involves the potential to expand from one context to another, with the FL context representing an integral though by no means unique site for this process. Empowering reconstructions of FL identity are closely related to the development of personal autonomy. FL identity is manifested through agency in language learning and agency beyond language learning purposes, the development and integration of which will promote the perception of affordances for language learning, use and participation. FL teaching in the local GUSSA can be examined as a pedagogy for co-directed autonomy that fosters social agents capable and willing to use their voice in the TL and exercise their agency flexibly in different sociolinguistic and -cultural contexts. This FL teaching is oriented to fostering the language learning individual’s authentic growth and guiding his/her perceptions towards personally engaging affordances in a complex ecology of TL learning, TL use and participation that extends beyond the formal institutional FL context. In this FL teaching, narrativity plays a more or less central role. 

Regarding research question 2, autonomy was conceptualised as the capacity to exercise flexible, authentic control over the different TL-related aspects of the ecology that one inhabits. The core of this autonomy lies in the capacity to control one’s life through the TL. This core is situated across an open, complex ecology where interacting forces influence the person’s capacity to assume this control. Autonomy in this sense involves dependencies (on people, communities, contexts and ideologies) that build an intricate network of belongings, affiliations and relationships providing the language learning person with a range of interrelational spaces for autonomy. Autonomy manifests itself as a dynamic construct that develops temporally, is anchored in place and time, and regulated flexibly. Moreover, the construct is intimately linked to the authenticity of the person engaged with the TL, both in and beyond the institutional FL context. 

As to fostering autonomy and identity through FL education (research question 3), this study implies the need for pedagogies for autonomy to extend beyond learner autonomy and embrace a broad conception of autonomy as a means to foster personal agency, authentic growth and human well-being. The reflective narrativity embedded in the teaching is needed to provide the students with opportunities for on-going self-interpretation, which involves the potential for meaningful identity work. Fostering autonomy and identity presupposes an ecological perspective that views FL learning as a complex enterprise spreading across contexts. As for implications for teacher education, the importance of understanding the full potential of autonomy and identity in FL education is pointed out. From the perspective of educational policy, FL teaching in the GUSSA should be re-organised so that the holistic and processual nature of language learning could be taken into account. Concerning the ethos of the Finnish GUSSA, the GUSSA students should be viewed as individuals learning languages in communities rather than by themselves in isolation from others. 

Finally, this research suggests a theoretical model interrelating agency, autonomy and identity in FL education. On the basis of the findings, the three notions can be examined as distinct but closely related constructs in the processes of FL learning. Autonomy and identity develop in a complex, on-going and reciprocal process, in which one influences the other. As an expression of autonomy and identity, personal agency becomes the mediating force between the two constructs, situating them spatially and temporally across the TL-related spheres of life. On the other hand, autonomy and identity development are also fuelled by this agency, the expansion of which beyond language learning is an essential trigger for personal growth.


The dissertation is published in the series Acta Universitatis Tamperensis; 2183, Tampere University Press, Tampere 2016. ISBN  978-952-03-0162-0, ISSN 1455-1616.

The dissertation is also published in the e-series Acta Electronica Universitatis Tamperensis; 1682, Tampere University Press 2016. ISBN  978-952-03-0163-7, ISSN 1456-954X.

The dissertation can be ordered at: Juvenes e-bookstore or by e-mail:

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