Soft Skills in the Secondary ESL Classroom

Listening, reading, speaking, writing, grammar . . . these are all skills that every secondary-education English teacher tries to improve in their students. However, being a teacher is more than just teaching the skills involved in a subject; it’s also about equipping students with the life skills they need to be successful members of society. Unfortunately, there are seldom any classes that teach these skills, but the good news is that we, as teachers, can incorporate them into our everyday lessons. In today’s blog post, we’ll look at some auxiliary skills—or soft skills— that high-school and middle-school teachers can subtly incorporate into the flow of their usual classes.

A quick note before we begin: this article is intended to simply bring awareness to the need for these skills. Readers might find themselves wondering just, how, exactly, to effectively teach them to their students. While this article will give a few tips, each one is a topic in its own, about which an entire book could easily be written! Fortunately, GIFLE often holds training related to these topics and more, so we encourage readers to keeping checking this blog for further teaching tips and advice – or better yet, enroll in some of our trainings!

Note-Taking Skills

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In my previous job, I was tasked with helping students deliver a speech for a school competition. To this end, I gave them a variety of words that I thought would be helpful in accomplishing their goal. “If I were you,” I’d say, looking over the rims of my glasses to drive the subtle hint across, “I’d use these words in your speech to maybe get a few extra points on your final score.” Then I watched as the students, instead of writing the words down, continued to stare straight ahead, slack jawed. During the students’ final presentations, probably one student among the whole sophomore class used any of the words I taught them (and that student got a pretty high score, incidentally).

Later, when test time drew near, I was tasked with overseeing student self-study sessions. It was during this time I noticed something curious: not one student studied from a notebook. Studying was done either by pouring over highlighted textbooks or grinding through multiple-choice problems in their practice books. It hit me then: my students didn’t know how to take notes. Or, if they did, they weren’t convinced of the skill’s usefulness.

Taking notes is such an important habit for students to have. As a former language student, myself — having logged in over 3,000 classroom hours studying Modern Standard Arabic — I can tell you that there are so many grammar points, words, and tips that might be helpful to one student, but not to another, and test-practice books alone cannot account for these. Students need to be encouraged to actively listen and be ready to take (and later review) notes in order to tailor their study to their particular needs.

What’s more, this is a skill that is not only useful for English, but for any skill. For example, anyone who’s studied taekwondo, for instance, can likely recall a time they were taught a technique, only to attend class the following week to find themselves asking, “wait, how did that move go?” Similarly, anyone with a busy schedule knows they need to write their meetings and appointments in some kind of planner, or they’re bound to forget an important event. Whether it’s English, taekwondo, or business, note taking is a skill teachers need to encourage in their students.

How does one teach that skill? Well, that can be a complex topic best covered in another post, but a good place to start can be to make sure your students come to every class with a notebook and pencil. When you teach a point that you think is particularly important or useful, tell them to write it down!

Personal Accountability for Assignments

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I used to teach a lesson about riddles. Students would spend one class period thinking, in a team, of abstruse clues regarding an object of their choice. They would write these clues down, then present them in the following period in a sort of class competition. Sometimes students would lose the papers on which their riddles were written. My solution? Tell them “tough luck.”

I’ve noticed this with other activities as well. Any time I’ve had a class that required students to bring in a paper (or other item) a following class session, several (or sometimes many) forgot. This shows a real lack of organization and responsibility in high school students . . . which is to be expected in teenagers, of course! However, that’s why we need to teach them responsibility now, so that today’s high school students don’t end up becoming tomorrow’s businesspeople who forget to bring important documents to meetings, or paramedics who forgets to bring important pieces of life saving equipment to emergencies.

To this end, I encourage teachers to resist the temptation to manage students’ materials. Often, teachers prefer to collect ongoing assignments (book reports, projects, etc.) and return them for students to work on in subsequent classes, since this insures students will be able to use class time productively (or, in the case of written assignments, that they don’t have their friends do the work for them). However, this doesn’t build habits of responsibility. Instead, it makes students think that, even if they forget something important, there will always be someone to cover for them.

Of course, it’s easy to talk about this, but when a student shows up in class with nothing to do, it’s much harder to enforce it in reality. Therefore, it’s good to have a backup plan for forgetful students. For example, if a student forgets a report they’re working on, have them try to their best to continue it in class, then later re-write it on the original paper. At the same time, don’t be afraid of awkward moments. If a team forgets presentation material? Well, then they have to try it from memory, and if it doesn’t go well, let it be a lesson for how the real world works.

Confidence and Risk Taking

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The famous American baseball player Babe Ruth once said that we miss 100 percent of the shots we don’t take. Well, Korean students often use the opposite idea: We never give a wrong answer if we never participate. This is an unfortunate philosophy by which to live life. While there’s something to be said for the “better safe than sorry” outlook on life (ask anyone who’s been injured in a fireworks accident), it also means they miss out on a lot of potential life opportunities, and in class this will mean that students, out of fear of appearing foolish to their classmates, seldom volunteer.

But how does a teacher help inspire confidence in students? Unfortunately there’s no easy answer for this; (GIFLE’s Level One teacher training last month centered around this very issue, in fact!) but a good place to start is to try to create a classroom environment that allows mistakes. I often tell students that shy people seldom make history, and that sometimes being successful means doing things wrong once in a while. If a student’s answer is wrong, I might take a moment to explain why the answer might have seemed right to them when giving corrections. For example, if a student makes a pronunciation mistake, I’ll tell them “yes, a ‘p’ usually makes that sound, but when paired with an ‘h,’ the sound changes to that of an ‘f,’” instead of simply telling them “no, that’s wrong.”

Of course, this isn’t to say you have tell every student every time that every effort is a good effort. Sometimes they need to be told to get their heads out of the clouds and focus! That’s our next topic.

Attention to Detail

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Many ESL teachers will tell you not to focus too much on minor grammatical mistakes, as fear of making mistakes discourages students from speaking or writing their own English (see above). There is a lot of truth to this: if a student has to pause every time to consider if they need a definite or indefinite article before a noun, it can really slow down the speaking process.  However, there are also times when students should be made to consider some of the finer details of their English. This is because students often have a habit of being hasty and overlooking certain small, but important points. For example, in their writing, they might forget to capitalize their names, or place a period at the end of a sentence. What’s more, they seldom take time to proofread any pieces of English writing they submit to the teacher. These instances and more provide opportunities to teach students to put effort into the quality of their work.

This is an important life lesson for students. Again, bad habits in school can lead to bad habits as an adult. A student who doesn’t take time to check to see if the first word in every sentence is capitalized might later become a doctor who forgets to check if his patient is allergic to any medications, or an accountant who doesn’t take time to check her math.

So when it comes to certain, basic, English concepts, don’t be afraid to make sure your students are paying attention to the little things once in a while.

Wait! What About …

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Critical thinking? Citizenship skills? The ability to draw a realistic-looking cat? Yes, all of these and more are valuable soft skills for students to have, and there are many more you might be able to think of, as well. The above items are just four examples to consider when teaching your students. Remember, our job isn’t just to create English speakers, but future leaders, as well.

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