Moving with the Times: Twenty-First century skills by Ines Mazzini and Natália Coelho

The following post was written as a summary of the session with the same name which took place at IH Portugal's training day, led by Diana England from IH Torres Vedras.

A very interesting session with some practical ideas on how to incorporate 21st century skills, such as: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication, in the classroom. A reflection on our role as teachers, and how we can prepare students for the constant challenges that they will face as part of the workforce.

The session began with some brainstorming. It was agreed that the skills referred to are not exclusive of the 21st century, but rather, need to be adapted to it.

Diana focused on the 4 skills above, to which she referred to as the “4Cs”


She then went on to suggest ways in which we can promote these skills by doing different tasks.

The first example given focused on a reading task, but would certainly help to improve not only critical thinking, but also communication and collaboration, because of the interaction between students.

Using a text appropriate for the level taught, she created seven questions, which she handed out to us (working in pairs). Some examples of these questions were: “What is the purpose of education?”, “How are English language teachers letting their students down?” , etc.  The pairs’ first task was to discuss these questions and think about their answers. ( full text on last page ).  After this, we were given slips of paper with the actual answers, and we had to place them under the correct question. This second task was very simple, since we had already discussed them extensively.  The presenter suggested using this activity as an introduction, for example, for multiple-matching.

The activity can be very useful, by promoting communication and collaborative tasks between the students, but also because once they get to the actual reading task, they’ve already discussed and read the text, so any further activity is then much simpler. What I do think that should be taken into account is that not all texts might lend themselves to this kind of task. Questions must be created carefully and the students should be able to have an opinion or at least speculate about the answer. I tried a similar exercise with a CAE group, and it worked perfectly, because they really spoke and discussed the topic for a long time.

Another activity –this one especially to promote creativity- was related to speaking. Diana suggested that instead of the typical pictures shown to students (particularly for exam purposes, the typical “compare and contrast” pictures), students could be shown completely different pictures that would force them to speculate. For example, the picture used during the presentation was a surface with black and white squares, which could have been a chess board or a tiled floor (see below).  Diana also prompted us to keep talking by asking more specific questions about it (such as whether it was taken outdoors or indoors, how we knew, etc.).

This is a way to make students talk about something which is unknown to them, especially by prompting them to vary their speculation vocabulary, instead of just using “probably”, and I am sure that with the right picture, they might come up with excellent ideas.

Yet another very interesting activity was developed, focused on listening skills. It helped remind us of how we process information differently, and we listen in different ways.  Having divided us into three different groups, Diana read a fairly long text to us. We had to take notes according to her instructions: some of us making mind maps, others, taking traditional notes and the third group focusing on key words. We then had to get together and discuss them.

This could be a way to introduce some variety to listening tasks, while at the same time checking on whether students really understood what was being read.

For helping each other to improve when preparing, for example, for Pet for schools Speaking Part 2 by getting the students to work in groups of three, one of them playing the role of the interlocutor and ticking a checklist of all the assessment points that are required for each candidate, which will encourage peer assessment.

The last activity she tried was a very simple, but extremely visual one and fun, useful to practise grammar rules. In the example we worked with, she had cut up, enlarged and laminated the rules to make comparisons, according to the type of adjective, which she scattered on the floor. We were supposed to match the corresponding halves (for example “Adjective ending in y” with “ i + er”.  Simply changing a grammar table from a course book into a more student- centred and challenging activity by using cards with different colours and displaying them on the classroom floor for students to match the rules with examples (e.g. comparatives), made it much more interesting.

All through the exercises she gave us, Diana took a back seat, only intervening when she thought that some group was falling behind or not doing what they were supposed to. The websites she took the texts from were:,

On the whole, a very interesting session.


Steve Taylore-Knowles explains why teaching life skills matters in ELT


What is the purpose of Education?

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.
In which ways is Education not helping students enter the world of work?

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.


How are English language teachers letting their students down?

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.


What’s the problem with predicting the future as regards our students?

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?


What are some examples of specific skills that teachers need to help their students acquire?

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.


What are some reasons for EL teachers working with their students on 21st Century skills?

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.


What is the way forward for EL teachers?

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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