Helping a language learner gain self-confidence and awareness through advising

Gráinne Hiney, University of Helsinki 


Learners can develop both their autonomy and reflection skills by becoming involved in advising in language learning. Advising is a relatively new field in language teaching and learning, though the value of advising is increasingly recognised. Using narrative inquiry, this short reflective paper describes an online advising session conducted with a Finnish student in the University of Helsinki, Finland. The session focused on building self-confidence and awareness. Analysis of the session indicated that the student experienced immediate short-term benefit, with strong potential for future long-term benefit, both personally and regarding language learning.

Keywords: self-confidence, awareness, language learning, advising strategies and tools, narrative inquiry 

Advising in language learning facilitates learners to become more autonomous in their language learning activities through intentionally structured dialogue and reflection (Carson and Mynard, 2012; Mynard et al., 2018). This type of advising, termed “transformational advising,” often leads to “successful, continuous, lifelong learning” (Kato & Mynard, 2015, p. 69). Awareness and self-reflection are central focuses of advising (von Boehm & Kidd, 2012). By using various strategies and tools, which I describe in more detail below, I aim to demonstrate how focusing on awareness and self-reflection can help students build their self-confidence and develop their language learning skills.

Differences exist between the processes involved in teaching and advising. According to Arias-Sais et al. (2019), the main difference concerns the point of focus. The focus of teaching involves teachers helping “students learn specific information for a specific purpose” and the focus of advising involves advisors “accompanying a learner into a self-reflective process” (p. 401). During the advising process, each learner creates their own goals, for example “to become aware of their own resources and interests,” “to identify their strengths and weaknesses” or “to become lifelong learners” (p. 401).  In addition, learners can discover how to “trust their own abilities and become empowered to design their own learning project” and consequently develop their skills of “self-discovery and agency” (p. 401).  Carson and Mynard (2012) and Kato and Mynard (2015) also differentiate between teaching and advising. Generally, teaching involves telling students what to do based on a teacher’s values and the need to fulfil syllabus requirements. In contrast, advising involves encouraging students to think critically for themselves and become autonomous learners, and thus identify their own needs and decide on the best way to learn based on their own values, strengths, and reflections. 

Differences also exist within advising. Morrison and Navarro (2012, p. 350) highlight the importance of differentiating between capacity (autonomy) and practice (self-directed learning). Such differentiation accentuates the need to be active, responsible, reflective, and evaluative regarding language learning, which will enable leaners to direct their own learning. This type of direction in learning is important for learners to progress in their language learning via advising.

During the advising process, learners not only have control over their learning but are also responsible and involved in decision-making (Mynard, 2020). The advisor’s role is to support learners by helping them to clarify their needs and goals, discover ways to achieve these goals, and explore their affective factors such as moods, feelings, and emotions. These factors concern many areas of life, including language learning (Shelton-Strong & Mynard, 2018). Awareness and consideration of such affective factors allows advisors to holistically regard their learners, and account for both learners’ histories and their present circumstances. Despite the differences between advising and teaching, there is one particular advising technique that can be transferred to the classroom according to Arias-Sais et al. (2019). That technique is open dialogue, which can lead to students’ improved ability to self-evaluate, self-reflect, and identify their strengths and weaknesses; this ability allows students to determine the most appropriate strategies for their own development (Arias-Sais et al., 2019).  

Self-Confidence, Emotions, Motivation, and Self-Awareness in Language Learning

Central to becoming a proficient language learner is building self-confidence. Often helpful to build self-confidence is the ability to identify and describe your own strengths (Gilham et al., 2011). Linked with self-confidence are the above-mentioned affective factors, particularly emotions; positive emotions usually result in high self-confidence and negative emotions in low self-confidence (Beard, Humberstone & Clayton, 2014). The ability to gauge or be mindful of emotions can help develop self-confidence and improve the ability to study, communicate, and deal with stress and exams (Hassed & Chambers, 2015; Li, Gow & Zhou, 2020). Another affective factor that is linked to self-confidence is motivation. Mynard (2020) claims that the combination of motivation (linked to fulfilling the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness), metacognition (the ability to understand yourself and how you learn), and advising (one-to-one dialogue performed either synchronously or asynchronously) can help build self-confidence and lead to successful language learning. 

Linked to self-confidence is self-awareness. Increasing self-awareness can lead to self-knowing awareness (Siegal, 2018, p.168), which involves the ability to connect past, present, and future experiences. Making such connections can help to develop the social brain, that is, develop the ability to interact both with other people and ourselves. Siegal (2009) identifies nine functions associated with awareness: body regulation, attuned communication, emotional balance, fear modulation, response flexibility, insight, morality, intuition, and mindsight. All of these functions relate to language learning to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the individual learner. Body regulation correlates with regulating your heartbeat if learners are very nervous of speaking. Attuned communication is needed for people to understand each other, particularly if a learner is beginning to learn a language. Emotional balance refers to balancing out the excesses of emotional highs and lows, which can interfere with success in language learning. Fear extinction or modulation is needed when a learner is nervous of using another language, especially for learners with bad previous experiences. Response flexibility allows time to think before responding in another language, for example. Insight is an intangible concept concerning awareness of the past, present and future, and is relevant in language learning in dealing with past experiences, current challenges, and future hopes regarding language use. Additionally relevant is the consideration of culture in using language, necessary when using a language in context. Morality, which indirectly relates to learning languages, concerns behaving in ways that are socially beneficial. Intuition concerns processing non-verbal information, an essential element of communication and language learning; for example, body language is important when communicating in a second or third language. Mindsight concerns “how we see our own minds and the minds of others” as well as how we appreciate ourselves and our interaction with other people (Siegal, 2018, p. 32). By understanding insight, empathy and integration as the three main elements of mindsight, Siegal (2018) proposes developing three skills to increase mindsight: openness, observation, and objectivity. I suggest that developing these three skills will simultaneously advance language learning: openness to other languages and cultures; self-observation as a language learner, and reflection on successes and failures in learning; and objectivity of learning, as knowing that efforts will sometimes succeed and sometimes fail allows considering the whole picture rather than focusing on individual parts of the learning process. 

Connected to self-awareness is learning to consider language and language learning in new ways. To help learners develop such awareness of language learning, many advisors use various strategies and tools such as proposed by Kato and Mynard (2015). Examples of advising strategies that indicate active listening include repeating, restating, summarising, backchannelling, mirroring, and empathising. Other strategies enable learners to go deeper in their reflections about their experiences and their current situation, for example, challenging (encouraging learners to challenge themselves), linking (helping learners see a connection between their language learning and other parts of their life), sharing experiences, and using metaphors. Three examples of advising tools are the Wheel of Language Learning (WLL), Viewpoint Switching Sheet (VSS) and Confidence Building Diary (CBD) (Mynard & Shelton-Strong, 2019). The WLL encourages increasing awareness of the various elements involved in language learning such as goal setting, motivation, enjoyment of learning, time management, and learning strategies and resources. The VSS raises learners’ awareness of other viewpoints and thus facilitates the development of a balanced opinion of issues. The CBD enheartens learners as they track their successes in language use. 

Background to the Advising Session 

I teach English in the Language Centre of the University of Helsinki in Finland. The majority of my students are Finnish. Kalaja et al. (2011) and Kuure (2011) highlight the importance to Finnish students of learning English outside the classroom, as social media and gaming have increased the average Finnish person’s passive knowledge of English. However, there are Finns who struggle with oral communication in English, who Karlsson (2015, p. 410) describes as “the silent and marginalized have-nots.”

In the Language Centre, we offer an alternative way of learning through Autonomous Learning Modules or ALMS. In the ALMS system, students take more responsibility for their learning. Supported by their language counsellor (similar to a language advisor), students identify areas in English they want to develop and devise a learning plan accordingly (for more, see: One particular group in the ALMS system helps students who have particular needs or difficulties in learning English. I asked one of my students from this group, Milla (pseudonym), if she would be willing to let me share one of her advising sessions in this paper. Further background information will not be provided to protect Milla’s anonymity.  However, it is worth pointing out that I knew Milla from previous teaching, and knowing both her background and current situation allowed me to prepare for our advising session. 

Milla and I conducted the advising session via Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic and for convenience, as the university was closed for the summer holidays and Milla was balancing work, study, and family life during the school holidays. 

Milla discussed personal experiences in our advising session. To describe our session, I used narrative inquiry (Clandinin & Huber, 2010; Deakin University, n.d.), which is a method of recording the experiences of an individual or a small group. Temporality, spatiality, and place are central to both narrative inquiry and Milla’s experiences, even if these elements are not highlighted in this session. 

  In the advising session, I decided to focus on self-confidence, as in earlier teaching, Milla expressed a lack of confidence in her abilities, although she is able to communicate in English. Milla had earlier told me about previous negative experiences that had decreased her self-confidence. I felt that she would not make much progress in her language development until she both addressed her lack of confidence and began to build her confidence.  My strategy included making Milla feel secure in our conversation, contextualising her situation, and giving her the sense that I am actively listening during the session. Kato and Mynard (2015, p. 81) state “If someone listens to you, it makes it easier to express yourself, your thoughts, and your concerns,” which highlights the importance of active listening in advising sessions. 

The VIA Survey of Character Strengths is a free online self-assessment that can help people learn both about personal strengths in general and how to identify their own strengths (VIA Character Strengths Survey homepage, 2022). To enable students to identify their personal strengths and learn how to apply these strengths to learning and life, I encourage students to complete this free assessment (VIA Character Strengths Survey homepage, 2022) and read the associated strengths chart (The 24 Character Strengths, 2022). During Milla’s advising session, however, there was only time to introduce this topic and for Milla to read the strengths chart.

The Advising Session 

After greeting Milla and getting consent to record our advising session, I began with some small talk about the weather and plans for the summer. I felt a bit nervous, as this was my first advising session and the session was online. I could sense that Milla was also nervous, but we both relaxed after partaking in some small talk. Although typically used in advising, I did not use the strategies of repeating, restating and summarising much in the session, as Milla had a lot to say, and I was aware of how little time we had for our advising session. The session was held in English, although Milla occasionally used a few Finnish words when she could not remember how to say something in English.

To help Milla feel more relaxed, I asked her what she enjoys most in life and she described how she likes the sun, summer, and being with her family.

Milla: I enjoy the sun and summer…me and my family go out cycling…little moments with my family and I can be with them…second thing is…time to just be…lazy…May has been very tough…work and study.

I repeated and empathised by saying “that sounds tough.” When I enquired about her proudest moment, Milla said that it happened when she was accepted to study at the University of Helsinki. She said that she “never ever dreamed that I would be a university student.” I congratulated and complimented her on her achievement and said “your face lit up when you spoke about being accepted to the University.” I did some back channelling when Milla spoke about her plans by saying “hmm,” “yes, that sounds interesting,” “aha,” and smiled encouragingly. I found mirroring difficult as we spoke online via Zoom.  

To help Milla build her self-confidence, I introduced three advising tools to her. I explained how she could use the tools to deepen her reflection on her language learning. Firstly, I introduced the confidence-building diary (Mynard & Shelton-Strong, 2019), which is a simple tool whereby the learner notes every success in using English, and told her that taking note of even small successes in using English can help to build confidence and motivate learners to use English regularly. Milla liked this idea very much. I think she was happy to realise that she does not need to spend long periods of time every day to develop her skills; rather, more important is spending short periods of time regularly. 

Milla: That looks like a very useful…very good for me. That doesn’t vaati [demand] much time…there’s a lot of little things…small pieces…that’s good!

Then, we looked at the viewpoint switching sheet (Mynard & Shelton-Strong, 2019), which involves considering other people’s points of view on a certain issue. I thought this tool might also be helpful in building Milla’s confidence and sent it to her after the session to complete later, as we did not have enough time in our advising session. 

Finally, I introduced the wheel of language learning (WLL) (Mynard & Shelton-Strong, 2019) to help Milla consider language learning in different ways. Milla has mild dyslexia and the traditional focus on reading and writing has caused her a lot of stress in the past. As stated earlier, the WLL includes different aspects of language learning such as motivation, material and strategies used in learning, time management, and enjoyment of learning, and is used to help learners reflect on their level of satisfaction on each of these aspects. I explained the concept to Milla and showed one example of a completed WLL. Due to her sufficient understanding, I felt Milla was capable of completing the WLL by herself. 

To further help Milla describe her progress in learning and using English, I used the metaphor strategy. I asked her, “If your language learning was like climbing a mountain, how far up the mountain have you climbed? Did you have to prepare yourself a lot before you began climbing? Do you intend to continue to the top of the mountain?” This strategy was quite successful.  Milla understood the analogy straight away and not only positioned herself on the metaphorical mountain, but also compared her position to where she was at the beginning of the year and described her aim to continue learning English in terms of the mountain and how she would enjoy the journey. 

Milla: In January…just looked at the mountain…I wasn’t near the mountain…. now I am just starting to climb… but I am already there…I am there, on the ground…just one or two steps…but I am kiinni? [attached] there. 

Me: Do you think you will get to the top?

Milla: Really, no, maybe I can’t get to the top. The middle, a tasanne [plateau] that would be the level where I could get. 

Me: Do you think you will enjoy the climbing process?

Milla: Uhh…when I onnistuu [succeed]…something…when I notice that I understand and get the point…then…happy and I enjoy, but when I know that academic texts…so difficult that I get anxious and my self-confidence goes down…and I can’t understand, but I will enjoy that too. I know I understand more than I feel.

I empathised, sharing feelings of not being capable when I tried to share slides on Zoom.

Me: Let me share this with you. Oh I’m not good at this!

Milla: Don’t worry [laughter].

After introducing her to the advising tools and talking about the metaphor, I showed her the VIA chart (The 24 Character Strengths, 2022) about character strengths in order to help her build her confidence. By identifying and naming these strengths, I intended to emphasise the significance of her strengths and how they would help, not only in her language learning, but also her general self-confidence. After reading the chart, Milla said that she had not realised that characteristics such as friendliness and helpfulness were important and seemed very happy to realise that she had so many strengths. She promised to complete the survey later when she had more time.

Me: Then you can see that you have so many strengths already and learning English is just a little part of everything. Use your strengths to help you learn more.

Milla: Aah, yes, sounds good. I didn’t even think that all of these are strengths. 

Referring to the various tools I introduced in our session, this is what Milla said:

Milla: I have to learn about those strategies [referring to the tools], I have to practice different strategies, I know that…these are very good points to see…good näkökulma [view point] to think about…how I can enjoy my learning. 

At the end of our discussion, Milla seemed very happy, stating “This is very helpful!” and “The time went so quickly!” She promised to use the activities we discussed, if not immediately, when she has more time. I gave her the choice of sending the activities to me when she completes them if she would like to, although I highlighted that completing them was voluntary so she would not feel any pressure to send them. 

Final Reflections  

Reflection has influenced me and helped me develop as an advisor. Regarding this session, I used both reflection-in-action, which involves reflecting on something while it happens, and reflection-on-action, that is, reflection after something happens (Kato & Mynard, 2015; Mynard et al., 2018).  Firstly, reflection-in-action enabled me to be flexible and to adapt to what was happening in the session. Secondly, reflection-on-action helped me to consider the advising process as a whole, which has enabled me to maximally benefit from the experience. For example, in the future, I will work on improving my own self-confidence in advising so that I am more self-assured at the beginning of advising sessions. I believe that if I feel more confident, I will help the learner feel more confident. Reflecting on the strategies I used, I think the most effective were empathising and complimenting, along with asking for her proudest moment and for a metaphor to describe her progression in learning English. Of the tools I used, I think the confidence-building diary will be the most useful to Milla, as lack of confidence is one of her main struggles in language learning and use. 

I was happy with this advising session. I had prepared for it with intention but not a rigid plan, as I wanted to have some flexibility. I knew Milla from earlier teaching; therefore, I had an idea of what to focus on during this advising session. However, I had prepared other ideas as backup in case the discussion changed to a different direction. In the end, my first idea was good, and I feel that focusing on her current strengths and how she could use these to advance in her learning was useful. I was positive and supportive, and we both enjoyed the discussion. For Milla to maximally benefit from this session, some follow-up sessions would be needed to allow me to track the long-term effect of the ideas posed, give time both for her to complete and for me to analyse the tools suggested (WLL, viewpoint switching sheet, and confidence-building diary). 

Three lessons to develop as an advisor that I learned from this session were: a) Be flexible. Having a variety of advising tools to choose from during the session according to how the session proceeded made me feel more relaxed; b) Show my own weaknesses. In this session, I revealed my insecurity in using Zoom and I felt that showing this weakness encouraged Milla by demonstrating that nobody needs to be perfect; c) Keep the conversation light-hearted and positive. By showing the positive elements in Milla’s experience, I hopefully showed that it is possible to learn from all experiences regardless of how successful we initially consider them.

After our session, Milla told me that our session was beneficial. She realised that becoming aware of her strengths helped her to believe more in herself and her character strengths, and that undertaking small tasks in English can result in significant advances. We did not have time to delve deeply into the described nine functions of awareness (Siegal, 2009) described earlier; however, I noted that Milla touched on each of these areas while explaining her development during the session. For example, Milla demonstrated body regulation as she told me after a few minutes of the session that her heart beat had slowed down considerably. Attuned communication relates to her active listening and body language that was visible even over Zoom. Her comparison of her current steady emotional state to earlier years’ emotional state seems to show emotional balance. She demonstrated modulated fear by saying that she was no longer afraid to speak English. She also showed response flexibility by occasionally pausing before or during speaking. Milla also demonstrated insight by acknowledging her past and how it affects her present life. She demonstrated intuition by understanding the mutual benefit of the advising session. Finally, Milla displayed mindsight by her openness to learning (although she is a mature learner), her self-observation and reflection during this advising session, and her objectivity about learning through her acceptance of both success and failure in her learning.

I plan to continue developing my advising skills by continuing to research advising in language learning, advise students individually and in groups, and apply advising skills to my teaching whenever appropriate and possible. 


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2 thoughts on “Helping a language learner gain self-confidence and awareness through advising”

  1. Thank you for your thorough reflection of your advising session, Gráinne.

    Not using repeating, restating, and summarizing is an interesting choice to me, as I personally find those strategies especially easy to use. I could see your compassion for Milla and that you tried prioritizing on letting her speak by selectively using the strategies, rather than squeezing every strategy into the conversation. I am curious about when you made this decision (not to use those strategies). If you made this decision during the session, was there any sort of cue?

    As lacking confidence is one of the common issues I can see in my Japanese students as well, I am very interested in how the use of tools works out for her. You introduced her multiple tools to address her confidence, and I can feel that she was happy with the tools. Was there any one of them that she especially liked? In your impression, which tool(s) is she most likely to keep using after the session?

    Again, thank you very much for your wonderful reflection!

    1. Thank you for your comments on my reflection, Sina!

      When I realized how talkative Milla was at the beginning of the session I decided not to use the repeating, restating, and summarizing strategies. I was aware of the limited time we had for our session and felt it more important to let her talk freely. However, if we would have had a longer time together, I would have used these valuable strategies.

      Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to work with Milla on the tools that I introduced to her. However, I spoke to her sometime after this session, and she mentioned that the self-confidence building diary was very useful, as it helped her to understand how many things she was good at that she had not previously appreciated. Also, she had not earlier realized the importance to her language development of the little things she did regarding using English. She said that she intended to continue using the diary on a long-term basis.

      I suggest that you introduce this tool to your students if you have not done so already, as many of my other students have also found this tool very empowering.

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