Steve Taylore-Knowles explains why teaching life skills matters in ELT
Education should prepare our students for the future, whether that involves going on to further study, joining the world of work or becoming an engaged member of society. Education is a process that enables students to take their place in society as effective learners, as effective professionals and as effective citizens. And English language education enables our students to do it in English.
There is often a mismatch between what students acquire in the classroom and the demands placed on them outside the classroom. Take the world of work. In a recent survey in the UK, carried out by the research company YouGov, fewer than one in five employers thought that all or most graduates were ‘work-ready’. The overwhelming majority of companies said that graduates lacked key employability skills, such as teamwork skills, communication skills and the ability to cope under pressure. In another recent survey, two-thirds of company bosses said that graduates don’t know how to handle customers professionally, while half of them said that graduates were incapable of working independently. If one of the purposes of education is to prepare people for the world of work, it seems we’re not achieving that purpose particularly well.
Far too often, we’ve sold our students short. We’ve given them a decent grasp of English grammar. We’ve given them a reasonably broad vocabulary. And we’ve trained them to jump through the various hoops that examining boards put before them. And then we’ve cast them adrift in the wider world without once considering the kind of flexible, transferable skills they need to really take advantage of the language they’ve acquired.
We all know that the world is changing fast. What we think we can take for granted one moment has completely changed the next. None of us can predict with confidence what any given aspect of life or work will look like in five or ten years’ time, let alone decades down the line, when our students will still be part of the workforce. How can we possibly prepare them for the constant challenges that lie ahead?
We need to equip our students with the kind of skills that will enable them to meet those challenges. These are skills that you, as a successful, effective professional, probably use every day without too much thought. You go into a meeting and put forward your point of view while listening and absorbing the views of your colleagues. You organise your workload and manage your time by prioritising what’s important. You make decisions, solve problems and communicate with others. And you use the same skills in many different aspects of your life. Your critical thinking skills, for example, are important whether you’re analysing something you’re studying, or considering a problem at work or thinking about an issue that affects your community. In your academic, professional and social lives, you use a number of transferable skills, and it’s those life skills that we need to pass on to our students.
Why do we English teachers have a particular responsibility when it comes to life skills? First of all, many of the skills we’re talking about are communication skills, such as persuading others, reaching a compromise or being a good team member. Our aim as English teachers should be to develop our students’ communication skills, beyond filling them with words and rules. Secondly, our students need to learn the precise ways in which we perform certain functions in English. For many life skills, there are particular forms of expression in English that need to be learned. For the life skill of being assertive, for example, you need to learn how to say ‘no’ politely but firmly without giving offence. How we do that in English is bound to be different from the appropriate forms in a student’s first language.
So what do we need to do about it? We need to realise how important these skills are. We need to integrate work on life skills into our teaching, so that rather than being seen as an optional extra, or even being neglected entirely, they become the central thread of what we do. Our aim should always be to tie our language work into work on life skills, to activate our students language in ways that develop those skills and to help our students get ready for the constantly changing world that awaits them. If we can help our students develop a range of life skills in English, then they’ll come to see that language is indeed a life skill.
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Teach young adults? Find out more about how to bring life skills into your classroom with Open Mind. Written by Steve-Taylore Knowles, Open Mind is a four-level course designed to provide learners with the professional, academic and personal skills they need to meet the demands of studying and working in the 21st century.
More about Open Mind
Steve has spent almost two decades in ELT as a writer, a trainer, an examiner and a teacher.
He has written a number of successful courses for teenagers and young adults, including the British English Open Mind and American English openMind 2nd edition which include life skills as an integral part of the course.
More about Steve Taylore-Knowles