Skills for the Twenty-First Century English Language Learning/ Teaching

Being an English language teacher in the 21st century involves developing a set of skills that can contribute to the way in which we interact with our students and the way in which we are perceived by them. To be more specific, in order to become efficient, inspiring and innovative teachers, we need to create the necessary conditions for learning to occur.  Jeremy Harmer states in his book How to Teach English, with reference to teacher skills, that effective teachers need to be able to manage classes, match tasks and groups, vary their activities and embed their activities with destinations, or learning outcomes.

To begin with, managing classes effectively represents a skill that teachers need to acquire in order to have successful teaching experiences. To achieve this, teachers need to think beforehand about all aspects of their future lesson, from the activities, instructions and materials needed, to the procedures used and the student groups’ arrangement. Once all of these have been taken into account, the teacher needs to be able to choose the right tasks and topics for the lesson so as to make sure the students are involved, interested and stimulated by the topics.

In addition to this, teachers have to vary their activities. This is necessary during classes to avoid students getting bored. So, it is highly recommended that, over a certain period of time, teachers should come up with new types of activities to constantly motivate the students to actively take part in the lesson. As for the learning outcomes, teachers have to make sure that the activities they perform during the class have a goal and make students understand where they are going and more importantly, to be aware when they arrive at the destination.

Last but not least, teachers need to keep up-to-date, meaning that they have to be in a continuous search for new ways to grab the attention of the students. As we live in the digital world, teachers have an abundance of online resources and ideas to choose from in order to spice up their teaching. Attending conferences and taking part to online courses and workshops is a good way to find out the latest tendencies and most useful activities that can be used with their students.

As teachers of foreign languages in the 21st century, we are used to being ahead of the curve in terms of our teaching, compared to our peers teaching other subjects. The activities language teachers run during their lessons develop more than just the 4 skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening). They develop what are considered to be the main 21st century skills for students: communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration, also known as the 4Cs.

These are the skills that will allow students to step into the real world with confidence, inspiration for innovation, development and advances in the tech-industries of the future.

Communication encompasses the students’ ability to convey messages and ideas efficiently so as to make themselves understood by the others, while being receptive to the exchange of ideas with the others. This skill is probably the most practiced one in foreign language classrooms as it constitutes one of the main general objectives of every lesson.

Critical thinking implies having the ability to logically reason and reach your conclusions by means of evidence. This skill can prove extremely useful in academic debate as well as in various problem-solving instances of every-day life. Students can practice this skill in the English language classroom in numerous activities. A good example would be the activities of picture description where the teacher asks two students to look at some pictures together, while eliciting answers. The teacher asks both closed questions (e.g. Where are the people in the picture?) and open one (e.g. Why do you think the people are sad?) This way, the teacher can exploit the student’s ability to both assess facts and assess reasoning.

Creativity stands for the process of playing with ideas and possibilities being open-minded. This skill has been essential throughout history as it was the driving force of development and progress. While logical, analytical thinking are useful in many situations, creativity allows people to go beyond the boundaries of what is possible and think outside the box. Students can be very creative if given the chance. There are many activities in which the teacher can ignite the students’ creativity. These can range from asking the students to create their dream house to imagining life on other planets.

Collaboration refers to the idea of learning how to work effectively and responsibly with other people, being an essential skill in life. Collaborative activities are also highly common for English language learners as they prompt speaking and listening skills. Students learn to collaborate in a wide range of activities that promote pair or group work. One such activity that can be used with primary and secondary school students is The Obstacle Course, in the case of which the teacher places various classroom objects in the path where students would normally walk and then blindfolds one student. Another student has to guide him through the course, while giving him directions in English (turn left, turn right, move straight ahead, stop, take one step back, etc.)

When talking about these 4 skills, their acquisition is not restricted only to the teaching of English, as they can be equally acquired through the study of other subjects. By preparing our learners for the 21st century, we want them to have the ability to perform both independently and in groups; we want them to be flexible and able to adapt to any working conditions, and to be creative and open-minded, with a developed critical thinking.

To illustrate how these 4 essential skills could be practised during an English language lesson, let us analyse the following example: a lesson involving the teaching of mixed skills –‘What is your favourite musical genre?’ can be organized having in mind activities that promote the 21st century skills.

Collaboration – the teacher puts the students in groups of 5, asking them to create a short survey assessing the level of interest of their classmates in eight different musicals genres (pop, rock, rap, hip-hop, house, cocktail, jazz and classical).

Communication- When the students have finished, the teacher asks them to use the information from their survey to create a graphical representation or a drawing to communicate their results and decide which is the most listened to musical genre.

Critical thinking – the teacher asks the students to compare their results with those of the other groups. They have to spot the differences and similarities between the various musical preferences of each group. Then, the teacher asks the students to create a short piece of writing to in which to justify how their results differed from other students.

Creativity – After the analysis of the collected data, the teacher asks groups of students to collaborate in creating a poster advertising the musical genres that the students liked the least, with the purpose of attracting as many students that chose other genres to those particular ones. In the case where the smallest number of students chose classical music as being the least preferred, they have to create their poster as creatively as possible so as to convince the others that classical music is cool. They have to think of the aspects that could make classical music more enjoyable for young people. At this stage, students may conduct further surveys in order to find out the reasons why the others do not like classical music. The debate can continue over a longer period of time, perhaps lasting for the course of several lessons. However, at the end of the lesson, the students will surely have gained more than just language skills.

This is only one activity that could be used with the purpose of practising the skills for the 21st century in the English language classroom. It is overall an engaging experience for all the students as each of them contributes to the lesson with their own view on the musical genre they prefer. The teacher has the active role of facilitator, while the students become independent learners working within the confines of the objectives set for the lesson.

Besides these 4 main skills, we can enumerate others of equal importance and relevance for the technologically-developed society of our century: problem-solving, responsibility, initiative, information literacy and ICT. All of these can become specific objectives in an English language classroom. It comes down to the ability of the teacher to choose the specific skill that would be worth practicing within a certain lesson type.

Therefore, the use of the 21st century skills in the classroom should come as something natural to every teacher who wants his students to become successful and responsible people in the future, who will be able to reinvent themselves whenever it is necessary and who will forge their own destinies while constantly pondering the unknown. As the writer and futurist Alvin Toffler put it: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.


prof. Alexandru-Florin Oprean

Școala Gimnazială Horea, Cloșca și Crișan, Brad (Hunedoara) , România
Profil iTeach:

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