Language learning coaching
Enabling rather than instructing

Language learning counselling encourages learner autonomy.
Language learning counselling encourages learner autonomy. | Photo (detail): Monkey Business © Adobe Stock

Knowledge is not contagious. No matter what one teaches, it is either not learnt at all, or is learnt in an entirely different way. Learning is a process that can be externally influenced to only a very limited degree. However, language learning coaching can help learners develop an awareness of the conditions that influence their learning.

In discussions of learner autonomy, enabling learners to direct and therefore take responsibility for their own learning process is regarded as a primary objective.

What does self-directed learning mean?

Self-directed learning means that learners are responsible for taking all decisions relevant to their own learning process themselves. They thus decide which specific interests and needs they currently wish to prioritize, what they hope to have achieved by the end of the learning project, which resources will help them reach this learning goal, which specific approach to learning they wish to take, and how they can evaluate their learning results.
It is not so much about giving them absolute freedom in taking these decisions, as there are of course always certain framework conditions. It is rather about their ability to see the big picture – the various factors that influence learning: Why in fact am I learning a foreign language? What experience of learning do I already have? How do I deal with the correction of my mistakes? What kind of learning material do I prefer? How important are other people (other learners, the teacher, my parents) in my learning? What role is played by time? How can I tell that I am making progress?
When people start asking themselves these questions, this provides a good basis for taking decisions about their learning. Language learning coaching can improve self-directed learning skills by encouraging learners to reflect.

Non-directive advice

Language learning coaching is associated with process-, resource- and solution-oriented advice.

Language learning coaching is designed to support learners in the solution-finding process – and refrains completely from issuing prescriptive instructions, recommendations or tips. Working together with their language coach, learners find ways to optimize their learning. As they know themselves better than anyone else does, they can take responsibility for their language learning process and in future will be able once again to cope with their requirements when learning (cf. Spänkuch 2014). Coaching relies on activating resources that are available to overcome a particular requirement. Resources may be positive potential, competencies, solution strategies, strengths and opportunities. In addition, language learning coaching encourages learners to focus not on what does not work and has led to failure. Instead, the focus is on successful strategies and things that can be changed – on solutions. From a solution-oriented counselling perspective, finding solutions is more likely to result in success than attempting to eliminate problems.

Learners and their perspectives are the focus in language learning coaching. Learners and their perspectives are the focus in language learning coaching. | Photo: dglimages © Adobe Stock

Structured coaching

Coaches proceed within a specific structure that comprises phases which build upon each other. They use what are known as communicative or systemic discussion and questioning techniques. These help to highlight correlations, broaden perceptions and view the problem from new angles. This encourages learners to reflect on alternative solutions. One essential element of language learning coaching is that learners tackle topics exclusively from their own particular perspective, not from that of their coach – as this would contradict the idea of self-direction. As such, only the learners decide what is discussed and which aspects of their topic they wish to concentrate on.

Language learning counselling and language learning coaching

Both concepts – non-directive language learning counselling and language learning coaching – have a lot in common in terms of the function and principles of the approach. Non-directive language learning counselling – just like language learning coaching – aims to foster self-directed learning abilities. What is more, both concepts are based on the way humans are viewed in humanistic psychology, which is why both approaches are used almost synonymously in expert discussions.

Nonetheless, there are conceptional differences: the theoretical framework for language learning counselling comprises the approach used in the client-centred therapy developed by Carl R. Rogers and the concept of learner autonomy. Language learning coaching is based primarily on the fundamental principles of the systemic-constructivist counselling approach; i.e. the interpretations and neutrality of the coach are solely applicable in coaching. Coaching follows a different sequence of phases and uses an extended repertoire of interventions, such as systemic questioning techniques.

Teaching and learning contexts

Nowadays there are many different forms of learning counselling. It may be offered in the form of individual consultations, in peer groups, in person or online, in connection with language courses or indeed independently of any course. A range of corresponding concepts has been developed for different target groups (tandem learners, international students, pupils at school) at different institutions, and for specific skills and abilities such as academic writing or listening comprehension (see Deutschmann/Claußen 2014).

In the area of GFL/GSL, many ways of using counselling and coaching have become apparent in recent years: language learning counselling in integration courses, learning supervision for pupils of migrant origin, German tuition at the workplace and individual support for migrants wishing to have their professional qualifications recognized (see SPRUNQ). As far as GFL at school is concerned, proposals have been developed for how to incorporate elements of language learning coaching into lessons (see Kleppin/Spänkuch 2012).

Teachers can also incorporate elements of language learning coaching into their lessons. Teachers can also incorporate elements of language learning coaching into their lessons. | Photo: Monkey Business © Adobe Stock

Coaching and counselling – but ideally with the proper qualifications

If while reading this article you have been thinking that you already incorporate elements of counselling into your lessons, then you are one of those teachers who give modern foreign language lessons. With a view to promoting self-directed learning, teachers encourage their students to reflect during lesson time and thus – intentionally or unintentionally – adopt a counsellor role.
There are also other ideas about how to incorporate coaching elements into lesson activities.
However, it may also be worth thinking about taking a special course of further training in language learning coaching, such as that offered at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum, where core competencies in professional coaching can be acquired. A proposal for describing the competencies of language coaches was drawn up on the basis of “can-do” statements (descriptors) and examples of observable behaviour (indicators).

Coaching is not a technique, but an attitude

To conclude, here are a number of guidelines which will allow you to reflect upon your personal attitude towards coaching:
  • You must firmly believe that learners know themselves better than anyone else does. When coaching, you must be willing to relinquish your position as the person with the ultimate knowledge, and to let learners themselves find possible solutions and alternative responses.
  • Take any issues that learners have seriously. Do not placate, do not console, and do not play down their problems.
  • Do not take responsibility for solving the problem. If you do, you will become part of the learner’s “system” and will no longer be neutral.
  • Be discreet when dealing with the learning issues raised by learners.
  • Remember: good coaches see their learners only once.


Brammerts, Helmut/Calvert, Mike/Kleppin, Karin (2001): Ziele und Wege bei der individuellen Lernberatung. In: Brammerts, Helmut/Kleppin, Karin (Ed.): Selbstgesteuertes Sprachenlernen im Tandem. Ein Handbuch. Tübingen: Stauffenburg, p. 53-60.

Claußen, Tina/Deutschmann, Ulrike (2014): Sprachlernberatung – Hintergründe, Diskussion und Perspektiven eines Konzepts. In: Berndt, Annette/Deutschmann, Ruth-Ulrike (Ed.): Sprachlernberatung – Sprachlerncoaching. Frankfurt a. M.: Peter Lang, p. 83-111.

Kleppin, Karin/Spänkuch, Enke (2012): Sprachlern-Coaching. Reflexionsangebote für das eigene Fremdsprachenlernen. In: Fremdsprache Deutsch, Issue 46, p. 41-49.

Spänkuch, Enke (2014): Systemisch-konstruktivistisches Sprachlern-Coaching. In: Berndt, Annette/Deutschmann, Ruth-Ulrike (Ed.): Sprachlernberatung – Sprachlerncoaching. Frankfurt a. M.: Peter Lang, p. 51-81.

Spänkuch, Enke (2015): Coaching lernen – Coaching lehren. Die Ausbildung zum systemisch-konstruktivistischen Sprachlern-Coach an der Ruhr-Universität Bochum. In: Böcker, Jessica/Stauch, Annette (Ed.): Konzepte aus der Sprachlehrforschung – Impulse für die Praxis: Festschrift für Karin Kleppin. Frankfurt a. M.: Peter Lang, p. 360-381.