Developing transferable skills in the English language classroom

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transferable skills

Students sometimes struggle to use what they’ve learned in class in their day-to-day lives. Roadmap co-author Damian Williams explains how language teachers can help their students develop the transferable skills, subskills and strategies they need to understand complex texts and situations outside the comfort of the classroom.

Sign up for Damian’s webinar Finding the right route to develop your learners’ skills on Thursday 26th September at 9am and 2pm (UK time). 

Finding the right route to develop learners’ strategies, skills, and subskills

“A conventional listening comprehension lesson simply adds yet another text to the learners’ experience; it does little or nothing to improve the effectiveness of their listening or to address their shortcomings as listeners.”

John Field, 1997

Language is generally divided into two main areas: language systems (grammar, lexis, phonology and discourse) and language skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing). The latter of these can be further divided into subskills. These are things we do in our first language usually as subconscious processes. 

For example, if we’re listening to an airport announcement, we’ll selectively listen out for keywords and numbers related to our flight (destination, time, flight number, gate, etc.), a subskill known as scanning. If we’re reading a summary of a talk in a conference programme, we’ll skim over the description to get a general idea of what it’s about, to decide whether we want to attend. Likewise, we know how to interrupt a conversation politely to join in, and how to write a note for a housemate, using just keywords/notes.

These subskills are things we generally take for granted in our first language. However, when learning another language, it’s easy to become overly focused on understanding all the language or using the right words and phrases. As a result, these subskills often get overlooked. To truly develop these skills and subskills with our learners, we need to teach specific strategies to help them develop. 

Process vs product

Traditional English language teaching is often focused on the end product in a skills lesson (e.g. comprehension of a script or text), rather than developing the process needed to achieve the goal. Success in a lesson is therefore about achieving a skills goal, rather than providing learners with transferable strategies they can also use outside the classroom. Let’s look at what this means in practice. 

Imagine you’re teaching a reading skills lesson where the goal is for students to understand a review. A typical sequence might involve:

  1. Focus on the introduction, title and/or photo and ask students to predict the content. Possibly pre-teach any necessary vocabulary.
  2. Students read several short reviews for gist, answering a short question about the overall meaning, e.g. matching to headings, saying if they’re positive/negative, etc.
  3. A more detailed reading task e.g. True/False statements, answering more detailed comprehension questions, etc.
  4. A follow-up discussion based on the theme of the reviews.

Here we practise reading subskills (skimming and scanning) and success is ensuring the comprehension activities are answered correctly. In terms of the product (comprehension), the students have achieved the goal. But where in this lesson do we actually teach tangible strategies that learners can transfer to other types of review that they might read outside class?

The short answer is that we haven’t. 

To achieve this, we need to teach a strategy that will help them. In Roadmap A2+, Lesson 4C Develop your reading, the goal is to understand a review (several short reviews of a weekend ‘bootcamp’). However, this is taken one step further by identifying the strategy (or focus) learners will need to achieve this goal:

After the initial contextualisation and skim reading (steps 1 and 2 above), learners are given information on a useful strategy, in this case Understanding pronouns:

This gives useful information on the strategy, using examples from the reviews. This is then followed by focused, controlled practice of the strategy, before they return to the text to answer more detailed, comprehension questions.

The aim is to give learners the opportunity to practise the strategy they’ve just learned. This provides us with a more structured approach for skills lessons that truly aims to develop, not just practise, skills:

  1. Focus on the introduction, title and/or photo and ask students to predict the content. Pre-teach important vocabulary.
  2.  Students read several short reviews for gist, answering a short question about the overall meaning, e.g. matching to headings, saying if they’re positive/negative, etc.
  3. Focus on a practical, transferable strategy to develop the subskill needed for the text.
  4. Controlled practice of this strategy.
  5. A more detailed reading task which allows learners a chance to put this into practice.
  6. A follow-up discussion based on the theme of the reviews.

By focusing on teaching strategies, skills and subskills, we can help our students become more confident and proficient language learners. 

Don’t forget to sign up for the webinar!

For information on this topic and examples of how Roadmap develops other skills, join my webinar on Thursday 26th September. 

Register here! 

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