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Do you aspire, as any passionate teacher, to offer a transformative learning experience? But how can you make a difference in your students’ lives? You can shape their future through the early development of transferable life-oriented soft skills.
The present article focuses on some practical tools and useful strategies for embedding 21st-century key employability soft skills into your language learning classes.
This article might also encourage anyone who is thinking to start his or her IATEFL journey. Why should you attend this incredible event? First, it is an amazing meeting place for passionate educators worldwide; furthermore, it gives you a plethora of opportunities to GET INSPIRED and inspire. To learn how to empower your students and peers. Last but not least, personally, for me, IATEFL 2019 was an unforgettable learning adventure in an incredibly vibrant city. I have collected indelible memories from Liverpool, home of Beatles, culture, and impressive historic buildings, to name just a few.
Soft skills in a nutshell. Theoretical background. Perspectives.
Nobody denies that today soft skills are critical abilities sought by employers and vital for our students’ success in life. However, the need for soft skills is not only connected with employability. It intersects different discourses (economic, social, educational discourses) and different perspectives (the global, national, and personal ones) (Cinque 2016).
Undeniably, we all acknowledge this as a reality. Yet, 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 considered difficult to be measured? Do we assume that soft skills are an automatic byproduct of language learning? If so, do they need to be explicitly taught?
So, join us on a quick journey to better understand some important aspects. What are soft skills? Why do they truly matter? And how to bring them into the English language classroom with younger pupils?
What are soft skills?
Are soft skills easy to define?
Soft skills vs hard skills: common perceptions.
Certainly, people may filter perceptions of hard and soft skills through a gendered-based approach. For instance, they can relate them to the relationship between masculinity and femininity. Undeniably, the typical mentality views softness as inherently feminine and hardness as innately masculine. However, 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.
Which soft skills are most valued by employers?
Generally, the employer’s discourse is rooted in the common complaint that university graduates, regardless of their level of expertise, often lack basic communication and soft skills (Organ 2017).
The top ten soft skills sought by employers are communication, making decisions, showing commitment, flexibility, time management, leadership skills, creativity, problem-solving skills, collaboration, and being able to work under pressure.
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).
We can’t deny that sometimes it turns out to be quite a challenging journey to navigate through our heavily loaded syllabus. We get lost in a daily race to tick all the teaching goals on our agenda to produce the expected outcomes and hard skills for exams.
Unquestionably, it’s a challenge to find the energy and time to focus on these additional people skills. Thus, there is a critical need for specific tools and teaching strategies to help educators change these preconceived ideas; to show that soft skills are not extra skills; to demonstrate that they are teachable, measurable, and relevant.
Common effective teaching practices to embed soft skills into language learning.
- Task-based and problem-solving activities
Firstly, these types of engaging activities challenge students to use the target language while solving a problem integrated into a meaningful, real-life situation. Additionally, task-based activities bring added value benefits in 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 and workplace situations. These involve ethical issues and dilemmas and. Furthermore, these tasks create the opportunity of providing feedback to colleagues. For instance, trying to manage a conflict between two employees requires the student to implement their interpersonal skills and critical thinking.
- Delivering oral (multimedia) presentations
It is known to be one of the best ways to develop students’ public speaking skills. Furthermore, 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.).
Specific teaching tools and strategies to embed soft skills.
These generic strategies prove to be useful and appealing to students. However, they do not help us if we tend to postpone applying 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 create an activity, apart from checking language goals, I use this tool to quickly assess if I incorporated soft skills. To sum up, I simply ask questions and provide concrete evidence:
- How did I nurture my students’ social and emotional needs?
- For instance, I did this 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)?
- I managed to do it 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.
To clarify, let me illustrate how I exploit the principles behind the approach presented in the figure above. For instance, let’s say my language aim is to develop house and environment-related vocabulary. So, what can I do to consolidate this topic vocabulary and, at the same time, develop empathy, critical and creative thinking?
Well, I love challenging my younger learners to solve the following task: “Imagine that your favorite cartoon character (Mickey Mouse) got homeless after a natural disaster. Work in teams and help him rebuild the house and present it!”
Moreover, this strategy can be taken to another level by giving them the chance to make a real difference in the world with their language knowledge while developing empathy. For example, I challenged my intermediate students to use a fun and award-winning educational app, supported by the United Nations World Food Programme. For each correct answer, this app offers them the chance to donate 10 grains of rice to children from underdeveloped countries. Most importantly, students feel successful and happy after completing these activities. How can I explain my students’ level of excitement and enhanced confidence? Well, by the fact that they were not only capable of achieving the language aims but also because they proved they could contribute to making someone’s life better!
I also experimented and applied the principles behind INSPIRE approach with video-based learning. For example, I encouraged my 6th graders to watch for a week a selection of short clips. These were about the morning routine of famous successful people from various walks of life (royalty, sportspeople, actors, inventors and humanitarian, young leaders). After that, they had to create a video tutorial with morning routine tips promoted by those inspiring people. Additionally, they had to show the way it affected their lifestyle. You can find more interesting details about my approach to student-produced videos here.
In a nutshell, this is how I try to articulate my teaching approach, how I strive to enhance my language classes with aims for real-life and personal development, and how I strive to design life-changing lessons with lasting impact.
We hope that these suggestions can help you design interesting activities that integrate soft skills!
Feel free to share with us your own strategies and tools! What do you do to ensure that you integrate soft skills and use language teaching to make a difference in your students’ life?