Language and employability skills: Critical thinking, creativity, and communication

Ken Beatty
Ken Beatty
A server standing and smiling at a group of ladies smiling sat at a table

Why learn a language?

For most, it's part of academic studies. For some, it's a fun social opportunity. But for many, language learning is aimed at getting a job.

Language teachers didn't always consider the reasons students were motivated to learn a language. Instead, they focused solely on the central parts of language learning: phonology (sounds of letters and words), morphology (the meaning of parts of words), lexicon (vocabulary), grammar (word order) and to a lesser extent, discourse (the intent of language).

But today, beyond the mechanical aspects of language teaching and learning, language teachers and their teaching and learning materials try to align with students' motivations. This includes exploring a wide variety of social issues from global warming to racism to homelessness. Reasons for teaching these issues are based on the notion that language is culture, and students want to learn broad topics and be able to contribute to conversations about the issues of the day.

Employability skills

A related challenge facing students is employability skills. In the past, students were largely taught the types of language expected of factory workers: giving and responding to simple instructions. Most students learning via the audio-lingual method would consider the question "How are you?" to always be answered with the response, "I'm fine, thank you." The reality, of course, is that you might just as well say, "I'm okay." "Can't complain!" "Not too bad." or even the little-used but truthful, "I feel terrible!"

The Communicative Approach challenged this pre-programmed speech and reflected changes in the workplace. As robots and artificial intelligence agents take over more and more factory work, today's language students are graduating into jobs that require critical thinking, creativity, and broad communication skills. What are these skills and how do they relate to employability?

Critical thinking is about examining problems to better understand them. Sometimes critical thinking helps students make choices between one or more alternatives. Like creativity and communication, critical thinking is vital in both academic and employment situations where, for example, staff might try to decide between two locations to build a new factory.

Creative thinking is about looking for new solutions. In the factory example, a solution might be to build a factory on a boat so it travels between where the raw materials are collected to the market where they're to be sold.

Communication is about explaining ideas, listening to others' views, and using persuasive speaking and writing to structure arguments. Is the factory boat the best idea? It might be, but without clear communication and debate, it will be tossed aside.

In terms of employability, the Pearson series Step Up outlines the varied needs faced by adult learners: "to improve their employability skills to get their first job, secure a promotion, find a different job, re-enter the workforce after an absence or change fields."

Meeting these needs requires new teaching and assessment approaches.

Be collaborative

Teaching has to become more collaborative. This reflects the nature of modern work, where most people work in teams, rather than in the factory model where workers were interchangeable parts of a machine. Workers today need to identify problems, share ideas about how to solve them and negotiate, using critical and creative thinking.

Assess positively

Similarly, assessment needs to change to a model that allows students opportunities to show what they know in open-ended ways with multiple opportunities to achieve success. Tests with closed-ended questions aimed at tricking students are a thing of the past. Assessment today needs to present students with chances to learn and try again and again until they and their teachers are confident of their abilities.

Learning a language and related abilities, like employability skills, is not a narrow classroom-bound experience. Students continue to learn and improve throughout their lives. More than anything else, the role of today's teachers is to set their students on a path of lifelong learning.

To empower your learners with the employability skills they need for future success, watch Ken's webinar here: 

Employability: New Jobs, New Needs for Language Learners l Future of Language Learning Webinar 1
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About the author

Dr. Ken Beatty, Writer and Anaheim University TESOL Professor has a PhD in curriculum studies. He’s worked in Asia, the Middle East, and North and South America, lecturing on language teaching and learning from the primary through university levels. Author/co-author of 67 textbooks for Pearson, he’s given 500+ teacher-training sessions and 100+ conference presentations in 35 countries His research focus is on critical and creative thinking.

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