Life Skills

Life Skills – that’s the latest buzz word/phrase you are probably hearing now. But what are life skills and how are English teachers expected to teach them?

More students than ever are going to University in the UK (over a third of 18 year olds), so we could assume that we are creating a very able work force equipped to deal with the challenges of life in the 21st Century. Yet we read about companies complaining that graduates come for job interviews without the basic skills needed to succeed in challenging and fast-changing work environments where team work and creativity are prized more highly than exam results and the acquisition of knowledge. This is not new. In 1990, Robert Fisher said the following in his book: Teaching Children to Think.

Skills that were appropriate 20 years ago no longer prepare children for the world beyond school. Changes in society are accelerating so rapidly that it is difficult to assess what factual knowledge will be needed for the future.

We need to be teaching children and young people knowledge and skills that become part of the way they grow, learn and create relationships with people throughout their lives.

These life skills have been mapped out with corresponding competencies and clearly aligned to the different age groups by Cambridge University Press. I won’t repeat it all here but have a look at their website, where they are clearly laid out and explained:

The life skills delineated by CUP are:

1. Creativity and innovation

2. Critical thinking and problem solving

3. Computer literacy

4. Learning to learn

5. Communication

6. Collaboration

7. Emotional skills

8. Social responsibilities

The Big Question I get from teachers is ‘How can we add this to our teaching as we don’t have enough time to cover the syllabus anyway?’

The good thing is there are two answers to this:

a.   Teachers already include life skills in ELT and b. by focussing on them more directly could get even more done more efficiently.

How do we already focus on life skills? And how can that be improved? Here are a few examples.

(1)                reading comprehension

It encourages Critical Thinking & Problem solving. We lead students to

      Understand key points

      Evaluate texts

      Evaluate opinions

      And, hopefully, ask effective questions

A really effective reading (or listening) task I use with all ages is the KWL approach. Which stands for:

What do you know?

What do you want to know?

What have you learnt?

Step K

So, before reading a text, for example, about The Destruction of the Amazon Forest, students share everything they already know about the Amazon and what they have learnt/picked up about deforestation in the news or in other school subjects etc.

Step W

Then the teacher asks students to think about what they would like to learn from the text and write up questions either individually, in groups or as a class.  They then read the text, looking for the answers to their own questions and underline any parts of the text which answer them.

Step L

Students share information from the text which has answered their questions, collating what they have learnt.

If there are still outstanding unanswered questions, they can research the topic online or by asking others like family members and bring those answers to the next class.

This simple technique (there is NO teacher preparation involved) not only puts information into context by activating schemata and previous knowledge, but also helps them see connections (ie what we learn from the TV can be applied and helpful in other contexts like the classroom – avoiding compartmentalisation of knowledge), personalises the process and encourages students to approach reading critically and authentically. This is how I read (and listen to) newspapers and articles and talks on subjects that interest me. It’s a real-life skill.

(2)                Reading stories with our young learners is a great way to develop emotional skills.

These are two of the competencies for Emotional Skills:

·         Identifying and talking about own emotions

·         Empathy & relationship skills: recognising & responding appropriately to other’s emotional state

Any teacher of children, reading stories with them will be asking their students questions like: Is the forest scary? Do you like bears? Why is the little girl scared? Are you scared in the dark?

If the children then act out the stories, they can do so with the appropriate emotions, too.

(3)                Project work

Have you tried doing project work with students and it’s all gone horribly wrong? Students arguing? Some students doing all the work and some little or none? Time running out and nothing concrete achieved? All the work done in L1 and little English practised? That has certainly happened with some of my classes in the past.

Now here is a perfect opportunity for putting the development of Collaboration Skills into practice.

Collaboration includes: sharing, listening to others, team work, and competing in teams. In order to ensure that project work is successful for all involved and that English and Collaboration skills are practised and developed the following guidelines need to be followed, teachers should:

  • Ensure that the language, collaboration and other goals* and steps of the project are clearly set up and agreed by students
  • Pre-teach the English that is needed to communicate during the project, beginning with such simple language as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ with pre-primary students
  • Explain and discuss the need for collaboration with their students
  • Set out clearly how the success of the task is the responsibility of each member of the group
  • Closely monitor group work and give timely feedback
  • Encourage the teams to celebrate work well done

*If students are aware that one of the aims of the project is to develop their collaboration skills and how that is important for them in the future, they will appreciate the value of the task and not feel that group work is a waste of time and not of any help in passing exams, as is unfortunately often the case with teen classes.

We really cannot just say: ‘Now work together.’

(4)                Learning to learn

Finally, a skill that is not necessarily focussed on in all lessons, particularly with young leaners: learning to learn.  

The competencies for this skill include

·         Practical skills for participating in learning

·         Reflecting on and evaluating own learning success

·         Identifying & articulating learning goals

·         Identifying & using effective learning techniques

Nyar Ibrahim at the British Council in Paris has done some excellent research with children as young as 6 or 7, asking them at the end of lessons to reflect on and explain what they learnt and how in today’s lesson, proving it’s never too young to start this reflective process. Spending just 4 or 5 minutes at the end of each lesson to allow students to consider what and how they have learnt seems to be time well spent if they can account for their own language development and understand the teaching/learning methods that work best for them as well as seeing beneath the ‘smoke screen’ of the lesson at the methodology that lies beneath.

Why not ask students to consider some key questions like:

·         What do I want to learn this week and why?

·         What techniques help me understand and remember English words?

·         How can I help myself improve my English at home?

Or allow them to

·         choose their own homework task after a lesson

·         set their own learning goals for a term

·         tell you what kind of activities they prefer to do in lessons and why

So, Life Skills in the English Language classroom? We already help develop life skills to certain extents, but we can be more systematic. By being more aware of which skills we are developing and why and allowing students to recognise this we can do a lot more to help our students develop not only their English proficiency but also skills that will help them throughout their lives.


High Frequency Spoken Expressions

I was in Austria earlier this week presenting a session about Developing Oral Communication. Although we may know 60-75,000 words in our mother tongue, we don't actually use anywhere near that many in our day-to-day exchanges. In fact, a lot of our spoken language consists of formulaic chunks, which can easily be taught, practised and used.

I presented the following activity for classroom practice. Cut up the cards and distribute one to each student, then ask students to mingle, read out their phrase and see if they can create an exchange with the two utterances.

Once they have a partner, the students can expand on their dialogue by adding a few more lines to create more of a story.

You must be joking!

That’s not my fault.

Wow. That’s amazing!

I can’t believe it!

That’s very kind of you.


I’m so sorry.

No, thank you.

Yes, of course.

That’s so sad.

That’s interesting.

That’s wrong.

That’s ridiculous.
I have ten children.

Would you like a coffee?

I’m getting married next week.

You’re welcome.

I’ve won the lottery.

Superman just flew in the window.

Can you help me?

I’ve met Barack Obama.

Can I help you?

My dog died.

I collect stamps.

There are more people in Austria than China.

I’m 21 years old.