Are you wired to teach only hard skills or aiming higher, at empowering and transforming students’ lives through the early development of transferable life-oriented skills (critical and creative thinking, problem-solving, self-management etc.)?
The present article focuses on some practical tools and useful strategies for embedding these 21st-century key employability skills into language learning. Why not, it might also encourage anyone who is thinking to start his or her IATEFL journey to share with a global community of dedicated and inspiring teachers their insights and experience. Apart from being an amazing meeting place for passionate educators all around the world, apart from the plethora of opportunities to GET INSPIRED and inspire, to learn how to empower students and peers. IATEFL 2019 was an unforgettable learning adventure in an incredibly vibrant and cosmopolitan city, Liverpool, Unesco World Heritage Site, home of Beatles, culture, and impressive historic buildings, to name just a few.
No one denies that today soft skills are key life skills, sought by employers, transferable and critical for our students’ future success in life. The need for soft skills is not only connected with employability, but it intersects different discourses (the economic, the social, education discourses) and different perspectives (the global, national and personal ones) (Cinque 2016). Interestingly enough, even if we all acknowledge this as a reality, how many of us use specific strategies and tools to integrate these skills into our daily language lessons? If so, how effectively if they are thought to be difficult to measure? Do we assume that soft skills are an automatic byproduct of language learning, so they do not need to be explicitly taught?
So, join us into a quick journey to understand better what are soft skills, why do they truly matter and how to bring them into the English language classroom with younger pupils.
1. What are soft skills?
Soft skills in a nutshell. Theoretical background. Perspectives.
Are soft skills easy to define?
Which soft skills are most valued by employers?
Perceptions of hard and soft skills may be filtered through a gendered-based approach, related consciously or unconsciously to the relationship between the concepts of masculinity and femininity, within the common mentality which views softness as inherently feminine and hardness as innately masculine. Leaving aside these stereotypes, almost all teachers and educators admit the critical importance of soft skills today, yet they do not take systematic action in this sense.
Soft skills vs hard skills: common perceptions
Types of soft skills
2. Are soft skills teachable? The gap between awareness and practice.
An insight into the literature on soft skills reveals that teachers understand the critical importance of soft skills. However, they complain about the lack of time to develop these so-called life skills at the expense of teaching content (Macianskiene 2016). Clearly, we can’t deny that sometimes it turns out to be quite a challenging journey to navigate through our heavily loaded syllabus, caught in a daily race to tick all the teaching goals on our agenda, to produce the expected outcomes and hard skills for exams. No wonder that we can hardly find the energy and time to focus on these additional people skills. Thus, there is a critical need for specific tools and teaching strategies that would help educators to change the preconceived ideas of soft skills as extra skills, not teachable, not measurable, not important.
3. Common effective teaching practices to embed soft skills into language learning
- Task-based and problem-solving activities
These types of engaging activities challenge students to use the target language while solving a problem integrated into a meaningful, real-life situation. In addition, task-based activities bring added value benefits in term of soft skills development since they trigger creative and critical thinking and result in team building, to mention just a few.
- Role plays and dialogues
Undoubtedly, the most widely used tool to develop soft skills is to set up mock interviews as well as workplace situations which involve ethical issues and dilemmas, as well as providing feedback to colleagues. For instance, trying to manage a conflict between two employees require the student to implement their interpersonal skills as well as critical thinking.
- Delivering oral (multimedia) presentations
It is known to be one of the best ways to develop students’ public speaking skills, but it also enhances a wide range of micro soft skills, for instance, information management skills (ability/skill to learn, search and process relevant information), critical thinking, self-management skills (increased awareness and control of their emotions, self-discipline, and resistance to stress, etc.).
4. Specific teaching tools and strategies to embed soft skills
Though these generic strategies prove to be useful and appealing to students, they do not help us if we tend to postpone to apply them. So, how can we check that our activities incorporate life skills along with language ones? To find a solution to this problem I designed a soft skills checker tool (INSPIRE) (see figure below), very easy to remember. Whenever I design an activity, apart from checking language goals I use this tool to quickly assess if I incorporated soft skills as well, by simply asking questions and providing concrete evidence:
- How did I nurture my students’ social and emotional needs?
- Through the activity which asked them to express empathy using the language structures in a certain real-life situation.
- How did I raise awareness of responsible interaction (collaboration)?
- By using specific collaborative rubrics, as for example, Cambridge Framework collaboration
Can DoStatements for the specific level, etc..
Examples of practical activities based on INSPIRE model
Following the principles behind the approach presented in the figure above, if my language aim is house and environment, in order to recycle house vocabulary and, at the same time to develop empathy, critical and creative thinking, I love challenging my younger learners to solve the following task: “Imagine that your favourite cartoon character (Mickey Mouse) got homeless after a natural disaster. Work in teams and help him rebuild the house and present it!”
This can be taken to another level by actually giving them the chance to make a real difference in the world with their language knowledge while developing empathy. I challenged my intermediate students to use a fun and educational award-winning app, supported by the United Nations World Food Programme (www.freerice.com). For each correct answer, this app offers them the chance to donate 10 grains of rice to children from underdeveloped countries. The successful completion of these activities is quantified not only in the satisfaction for achieving the language aims but also in students’ level of excitement and enhanced confidence since they proved themselves they are able to contribute to making someone’s life better!
I also experimented and applied the principles behind INSPIRE approach with video-based learning. As such, I encouraged my 6th graders to watch for a week a selection of short clips presenting the morning routine of famous successful people from various walks of life (royalty, sportspeople, actors, inventors and humanitarian, young leaders). Then they were asked to create a video tutorial with morning routine tips from those inspiring people to show the way it affected their own lifestyle. In a nutshell, this is how I daily try to articulate my teaching approach so that I enhance my language classes with aims for real-life and personal development, aspiring to design life-changing lessons, with lasting impact.
We hope that these suggestions can help you design interesting activities which integrate soft skills! Feel free to share with us your own strategies and tools to ensure that you integrate soft skills and use language teaching to make a difference in your students’ life!
This article outlines some of the main ideas from the talk ”Language Teaching to Make a Difference: soft Skills in Action”, presented by Armanda Stroia at IATEFL 2019 in Liverpool.