Tributes to Richard Pemberton

(Published in Learner Autonomy in Language Learning (, December 2012)

Tributes to Richard Pemberton

Paginated PDF version




Richard Pemberton, a former convenor of the AILA Scientific Commission on Learner Autonomy, passed away peacefully at home in the early hours of 19 January 2012.  Richard was an Associate Professor in TESOL in the School of Education, University of Nottingham – a post he took up in January 2006, after nearly 15 years at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, where he was responsible for setting up and coordinating the Self-Access Centre. Previously, he had taught ESL for 11 years at secondary level in the UK and Zimbabwe and at tertiary level in Papua New Guinea.

Richard was very well-known for his work in the field of learner autonomy and is sorely missed by many in our community. He was the lead editor of two milestone publications – Taking Control: Autonomy in Language Learning (1996) and Maintaining Control: Autonomy and Language Learning (2009), both published by Hong Kong University Press. The 1994 conference in Hong Kong which gave rise to the first of these publications is generally recognized to have been a turning-point in the history of the autonomy movement and was entirely Richard’s brainchild. The second conference, ten years later, was equally significant, being the largest international conference on autonomy to date, and one which enabled stock to be taken of the enormous rise in interest in autonomy worldwide during the intervening decade.

Richard served as convenor of the AILA Scientific Commission on Learner Autonomy from 2002 to 2005. In many different ways, over many years, he played a leading role in the learner autonomy field, and generously but with great modesty and professional dignity helped many teachers, students and colleagues from all around the world.  Richard is survived by his wife Norma, and his three children – Natalie, Leon and Louis.

In the belief that friends and colleagues from the autonomy community would wish to share their own memories of Richard, we opened a ‘condolences page on the ReNLA website soon after his passing. We’ve taken this down now, but have decided to reproduce the tributes that were sent in below  – some of them edited for length, but most of them presented in full – as a lasting record of the very high esteem and deep affection so many of us held Richard in.

Richard Smith


I will keep some very fond memories of Richard at conferences over the last 10 years – his great sense of humour, positive attitude and care for his colleagues and friends. He will be sadly missed as a contributor to the field of learner autonomy and by all his friends and colleagues.

Christine O’Leary


Richard was very welcoming and supportive at the 2004 conference where I first met him. He introduced me to the use of e-portfolios and this was the start of my interest in online learning. I am very sad to learn that Richard has passed away, and I shall remember him for his great sense of humour and collegiality.

Debbie Corder


Richard was hardworking and supportive professor even during his sickness. I will not forget his support for me and my friend during my MA in TESOL 2009/10. It is sad to lose him but I will not forget him.

Abduljabbar Al Shehri


Richard, it is with a heavy heart to know that you’re no longer around. You were a very dedicated and supportive supervisor, being concerned about our writing up and giving us feedback even when you were very ill. Thank you for having confidence in our work even when we doubted ourselves at times. Rest in peace and may God comfort your loved ones.

Ruth Ong


Richard’s funeral took place today. It was a very moving occasion indeed. There were many colleagues present – a testament to his popularity as well as the respect he commanded. I shall miss him greatly as will many of his colleagues at Nottingham.

Alex Ding


Richard was a wonderful friend, colleague, and PhD supervisor. I first met Richard in 2000 at HKUST, when he spent one afternoon talking to a colleague and me about the self-access centre there that he managed. He was kind and patient, and was only too keen to answer our endless questions about issues relating to learner autonomy.

Our paths next crossed at the AILA Congress in Singapore in 2002. At that conference, Richard and his colleagues gave a presentation on an aspect of their work which had a great influence on similar work that colleagues and I were then doing in Japan. We met again at the Independent Learning Association Oceania conference in Melbourne 2003, and at the Maintaining Control 2004 conference in Hong Kong/Hangzhou.

Coincidentally, Richard returned to the UK from Hong Kong around the same time that I returned from Japan. I visited him at the University of Nottingham in early 2006 and told him of a PhD programme I had applied for. He suggested that I should apply to Nottingham as well, and seven months later I began my studies under the guidance of Barbara Sinclair and Richard.

Over these last few years, I was fortunate to work closely with Richard. With Barbara we co-organised a conference; together we ran a series of seminars at the University; we worked on a research project together and co-wrote papers; and during this time Richard read and commented on my doctoral work, always with diligence and detail – in his own words, ‘Professor Comma’. In early December I submitted my thesis and visited Richard that day to share the good news and to thank him. Two days later, he officially took sick leave from the University, and I was aware that this was probably the end of our professional journey together through learner autonomy.

Back in November, at the ‘Realizing Autonomy’ conference in Japan, Andy Barfield introduced Richard’s presentation by saying, “More than a few people, though, will say: ‘It’s Richard who got me started in learner autonomy and saw me through. He supported me and made me believe my learners and I could do it.’” Richard supported me in much of my work in learner autonomy; he saw me through my PhD, and made me believe I could do it. I will miss him greatly.

Lucy Cooker


[…] Richard was the sort of person you’re always glad to have in the room. He brought ideas, warmth and a wicked sense of humour. We have missed those lunch times when we were doubled up, unable to eat, because of one of Richard’s (often self-deprecating) stories.

On learning of his ‘condition’, as he called his illness, he set up a blog to share his findings, his experiences, his thoughts, and philosophy about life. This blog became a remarkable and moving testament to the spirit and courage of the man while on his journey.

The most remarkable thing about Richard was his ability to remain stoical and even cheerful in the face of his illness. He joined a course called ‘The Healing Journey’ in London for fellow cancer sufferers, which he recommended highly, and attended weekly meetings there. One week he told me he was giving it a miss. When I asked why, he said, ‘This week it’s all about dealing with resentment, and I can’t relate to that. I don’t have any resentments. I’ve had a lovely life’

Richard will be sorely missed, not only by his family, but by all the people whose lives he has touched.

Barbara Sinclair


I only worked with Richard for three months in the summer of 2009, when I came as a German undergraduate student in educational studies to the UK for an internship at the University of Nottingham. When I am reading and listening to how long-term colleagues and friends describe him, I am so impressed that I got to know his personality so well in this short period of time – evidence for how authentic and open he has always been. […]

I will keep the best and eternal memories of his meticulousness, his sincere interest in people and stories, his patience to listen to people and speak to them (even if my English was not fluent), his great understanding of humour and his own hugely humorous narratives, his uninhibited laughter, his tranquillity when things around are chaotic or unpleasant (we were exchanging our experiences with procrastination), his ability to praise what people are doing, his incredible knowledge about the world, languages and countries (he even knew a lot about my parents‘ home country, Serbia, which he even has visited once), his sensitive attentiveness about what was happening around him and unrestricted interest from academic topics to so many others such as sports, his kindness to offer more than is expected; he was utterly empathic and enthusiastic, and as much as I missed him since my departure then, I will miss and never forget him and all the so pleasant characteristics he represents for me.

Jelena Kovacevic


I was so sorry to hear that Richard had passed away. He was one of the first faces of autonomy I remember. That was at the Autonomy 2000 conference in Bangkok in, I think, 1996. He introduced my presentation and smiled encouragingly all the way through. It was the start of a furm friendship which transcended space and time. I suppose I didn’t actually see him very often, but we were regularly in touch. We were both elected as convenors of the AILA Research Network at the same time, in Singapore, so we worked closely together on that, which was a great pleasure and privilege. Until he came to Nottingham, we would meet in various corners of the world at conferences, so it seemed strange when I first visited him in England.

I wish I could have spent more time with Richard as he always managed to cheer me up. He was simply the nicest guy, always smiling, just like that first time I met him.

Terry Lamb


I only every met Richard twice, the first time at the AILA conference in Wisconsin in 2005. Àngels Pinyana and I were there with our PhD superviser, Mia Victori, who had met him in Hong Kong. Mia was full of admiration for Richard and we could immediately see why. He was really friendly, sociable and as everyone says – a great dancer. I met him again at a BAAL conference in Ireland the following year and was glad to find a familiar face and went out for a meal with him and his Phd students. Just a couple of chance encounters, but distinctly memorable ones. Reading these comments I think what an extraordinary and multifaceted person he was who touched people in meaningful ways.

Sarah Khan


This came into my head as I was thinking of Richard, on the morning he’d passed away (I didn’t know he’d gone at the time – though I kind of did know, suddenly seeing dewdrops on a branch, very glistening and completely ‘there’). Richard always seemed so ‘present’ himself that I can still only think of him alive:

“These trees – and i – gliding through them – ‘the thinginess of things’ – and you – on your last legs i hear”

Richard Smith


I knew Richard as a teacher with passion for Maths and English, always supportive and working hard. He visited the country of Lesotho in 1975 and volunteered for a year till 1976 while I was a student at Makhaola secondary school. He visited South Africa and Lesotho again in 1980 whereby he presented me with an English Oxford Dictionary. What inspired our friendship was my love as learner in English and his passion to teach and support in the language.

May God console his family and all those he touched with his special personality. MAY HIS SPIRIT REST IN PEACE. Note that Richard was only 17 years of age when he was in Lesotho for the first time but already he had focus and dedication. I was not surprised when I found out that he had made a name for himself as Professor. Thank you.

Ntsebeng Eunice Raselo

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