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Forest road
Author: Gemma Fanning, EAL specialist

The term 21st Century skills is becoming significantly part of the classroom learning environment, but what exactly does that mean? There are a few definitions, however, in essence, these are the skills that our learners need to prepare them for their future (Puchta & Williams, 2014), taking them from their studies, to their futures as adults.

The Four C's

Many researchers today acknowledge the 4C’s. They are known as:

  • Collaboration
  • Creativity
  • Communication
  • Critical Thinking

(New Vision for Education, 2016)

How can we integrate these skills into teaching EAL learners? It’s highly likely you already engage your learners in using many of these skills, although you may not be consciously aware of this. By defining these skills, we can consider how to apply them in our classroom.

Critical thinking skills

Critical thinking skills are defined by how a learner can shift their lower-order thinking skills to higher order thinking skills. Blooms Taxonomy’s grid provides a good model to demonstrate this (Bloom, 1956 & Clarke, 2001).

Critical thinking skills allow the learners to process information in a variety of different ways. The rationale for teaching thinking skills with the teaching of language is outlined by Puchta & WIlliams (2014). There is a danger of removing any intellectual challenge, in order to become more linguistically comprehensible. Learners can become disenchanted by over-simple activities designed for the learner's linguistic level as opposed to their cognitive potential, which then fails to provide challenge.

Communication skills

Communication skills are defined by learners working together and improving their receptive and productive language skills; for example, materials designed for EAL learners involve learners using the target language in order to communicate a piece of information to another learner, allowing the language to be meaningful (Puchta & Williams 2014).

A communicative approach allows learners to complete a task with a real purpose, that is non-linguistic, for example, to invent something, to solve a problem, or to conduct an experiment. Language becomes the medium for the learners to complete the task. It is the teacher’s role to help the learners with the appropriate language in order to achieve this.

Creativity skills

Creativity skills are defined by tasks that provide learners with the freedom to use whatever language they have at their disposal to get their message across (Nunan, 2011). These can be closely associated with Bloom’s Taxonomy. This will allow learners to make new connections and share their knowledge in a variety of different ways. In creative tasks, learners are required to use their initiative, and are given opportunities to use target language for meaningful purposes with attention on the message and the tasks they are completing, rather than correctness of form and structure (Nunan, 2011).

An example of creative tasks could be where learners have to bridge an information gap or perform a 'spot the difference task. In addition, a writing journal, where learners are given the freedom to write as they please, can also provide a useful tool for creativity.

Collaboration skills

Finally, collaboration skills are defined by the ability to work with others. This is excellent for reinforcing newly learned vocabulary and grammar. Scott (2012) explains that learning is a social process, therefore, when collaborating, learners should be encouraged to interact in one of the following ways: through the teacher conversing with the learners, through a whole-class discussion, through a small-group discussion and by means of peer-to-peer discussions.

When the group engages in collaborative learning, all four skills can be fostered. Group work can promote both content learning (Kagan & McGroarty, 1993) and language acquisition (Mackey & Gass, 2006).


The OUP (2013) has identified 5 strategies that encompass using these skills for the future. They are as follows:

  1. Let your learners lead the learning: If students feel empowered to learn, then it is likely that learners will have a desire to learn. Teachers will need to act as a guide and moderate what the learners are learning. This gives learners an opportunity to become self-learners which will lead to a desire for lifelong learning.
  2. Create an inquiry-based classroom environment: This is something the IB PYP programme has been promoting for years, it is based on the learners feeling able to ask questions and knowing how to find them. An excellent way to implement this is using a, 'wonder wall' within the classroom. In addition, a KWL chart (What do you Know? What do you Want to know? and What have you Learned?) can enable students to become more self-motivated in their learning.
  3. Encourage collaboration: again this is another skill that has been widely promoted by the IB. If we consider Vygotsky’s (1980) Social Learning Development theory, we know that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the process of cognitive development. Students are social beings, according to Vygotsky (1980), and this enables language learning classrooms to utilise pair and group work to develop speaking and listening skills, as well as teaching students how to effectively achieve their goals together.
  4. Develop Critical Thinking Skills: there is more to learning than just memorising and remembering information. According to Steven D. Schafersman (1991), “Critical thinking means the correct thinking in the pursuit of reverent and reliable knowledge about the world”. These skills are required to allow learners to solve problems in new situations and to make judgements based on evidence and criteria. You will need to include activities which build on critical thinking skills along with language skills.
  5. Encourage creativity: when learners are allowed to express what they have learned in a creative way, they are able to synthesise and personalise their learning, thus creating an experience that remains with the learner after the lesson.

Adapted from OUP ELT Global Blog

By incorporating these 21st century skills into our classrooms we are able to provide our learners with opportunities for them to listen, speak, read and write in ways that are meaningful and intrinsically motivated. Attached is a resource with some ideas for teaching these skills.


ELT, Oxford University Press. “5 Ways to Prepare Your Students for the 21st Century.” Oxford University Press, 9 Oct. 2013, Click here.

Clarke, S. (2001). Unlocking Formative Assessment: Practical Strategies for Enhancing Pupils’ Learning in the Primary Classroom, London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Kagan, S., & McGroarty, M. (1993). Principles of cooperative learning for language and content gains. In D. D. Holt (Ed.), Cooperative learning (pp.47–66). Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Mackey, A., & Gass, S. (2006). Introduction to special issue on new methods of studying L2 acquisition in interaction. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 28(2), 169–178.

Nunan. D (2011). Teaching English to Young Learners, Anaheim University Press, Anaheim California.

Puchta, H, and Williams, M (2014). Teaching Young Learners to Think ELT-Activities for Young Learners Aged 6 -12. Helbling

Scahfersman, S, D (1991) An Introduction to Critical Thinking Faculty Available at: Click here.

Scott, C (2012). Teaching English as an Additional Language, 5-11: A Whole School Resource File. London: Routledge

Vygotsky, L (1980). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, Harvard University Press

World Economic Forum (2016), New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning through Technology, Click here accesses 23/2/18 Geneva

Further learning - Blog

Child learning remotely
Created: Fri 19th Mar 2021

It's now almost exactly a year since the UK education system went into lockdown. The ruling that schools must close to almost all pupils was a shock to teachers, pupils, parents and everyone involved in the education system - and the repercussions of the immediate crisis continue to ripple through our lives.

Forest road
Created: Tue 6th Mar 2018

The term 21st Century skills is becoming significantly part of the classroom learning environment, but what exactly does that mean? There are a few definitions, however, in essence, these are the skills that our learners need to prepare them for their future (Puchta & Williams, 2014), taking them from their studies, to their futures as adults.

The Four C's

Many researchers today acknowledge the 4C’s. They are known as:

building blocks
Created: Thu 29th Aug 2019

“Scaffolding is the process a teacher uses to model or demonstrate how to solve a problem (in the case of language learning, to support learners with using the language needed to articulate themselves). After modelling, they step back, offering support as needed.”
Scott, 2019