• Andrejus Rackovskis

21st century skills in the language classroom

Updated: Feb 23, 2020

Business English

One of the main buzzwords in education over the last few years has been the idea of ‘21st Century Skills’ – various competencies that are considered important for a successful life and career, such as innovation, communication, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, digital literacy, problem solving, environmental awareness and self-expression (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 A model of competences for the 21st century (adapted from Mackenzie, 2015)

Competences for the language classroom

The idea of defining competences is not a novel idea for the ELT practitioner. ELT educators Legutke and Thomas (1991) were the first to suggest dividing competences for the communicative classroom into two broad categories: communicative competence and process competence, where process competence represents the ability to use the knowledge of three areas (Fig. 2):

  1. intrapersonal competence, i.e. an individual’s knowledge of ‘self’ and personal growth and the ability to respond and to be responsible;

  2. interpersonal competence, i.e. a group’s knowledge related to its dynamics, the ability to interact, cooperate and work things out together;

  3. project competence, i.e. knowledge about learning and the learning process, as well as the ability to learn, to manage learning and to teach others.

Fig. 2 An outline of competences for the communicative classroom

(Legutke and Thomas, 1991)

Exploring the parallels between these two models can give us fascinating insights into the nature of successful learning in a foreign language classroom. For example, in order to help individual learners to develop better self-awareness, respond and be responsible, we should promote critical thinking, self-expression and environmental awareness (in its broader sense, including awareness of others, such fellow students or colleagues). While encouraging groups of learners to work towards common outcomes, we need to foster communication, collaboration, creative problem solving and innovation. Digital literacy and collaboration are essential for more productive learning, both at the individual and group level.

Some of these competences, e.g. learning to learn, require the acquisition of other adjacent skills such as literacy, numeracy and ICT skills, as learners should be able to find, obtain, process and internalise new knowledge and skills. Successful learning also requires effective time management, the ability to set learning objectives, to persevere with learning, to concentrate for longer periods of time, and to reflect on the aims of learning. Moreover, a positive attitude to language learning involves the appreciation of cultural diversity, and an interest and curiosity in languages and intercultural communication. [1]

Thinking skills

Puchta and Williams (2011) have developed a model of thinking skills work for learners that takes into account the specific needs of foreign language learners and helps to develop both learners’ thinking skills and their language. This approach is based on two key premises:

  1. meaningful and intellectually challenging activities are more likely to achieve a higher level of cognitive engagement from learners;

  2. such tasks should have a real-world purpose, e.g. problem solving, decision making, thinking about the consequences of one’s actions, etc.

In our courses, we include activities to develop thinking skills and language involving such categories of activity as making comparisons, categorising, sequencing, memorising, making associations, analysing cause and effect, making decisions, solving problems, and creative thinking.

[1] See The Key Competences for Lifelong Learning – A European Framework


  1. Legutke, M and H. Thomas. 1991. Process and Experience in the Language Classroom. Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman Limited.

  2. Mackenzie, A. S. 2015. Thinking Through English (webinar on

  3. Puchta, H. and Williams, M. 2011. Teaching Young Learners to Think. Innsbruck and Cambridge: Helbling Languages and Cambridge University Press.

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