Skills and Attributes English Learners Need in 2017

When educators consider what children will need to be able to do in the future, hey think of  21st-century skills. This topic has been written about copiously over the past 20 years or more. So why am I writing about 21st-century skills now? In 2017 we are living in an era of high stakes testing and teaching to the test.  We really haven’t paid much attention to the multiple lists of 21st-century skills unless they can be related to testing. Teachers are under a lot of pressure to focus on good test scores.  I’m always dismayed when English learners (ELs) who haven’t yet acquired English are evaluated using standardized tests designed for mainstream students.  ELs need to develop curiosity, imagination, initiative, and a vision for the future. I don’t think that the “drill and kill” approach to education that is the result of the emphasis on standardized testing helps our students develop these skills.

Wagner’s List of 7 Survival Skills
Tony Wagner, who is currently serviing as an expert in residence at Harvard University’s new Innovation Lab, has developed a list of 7 survival skills as defined by business leaders. It is an important list that I believe directly correlates with 21st-century success. Wagner’s list includes the following skills and should be a part of every school curriculum:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Initiative and entrepreneurialism
  • Effective oral and written communication
  • Accessing and analyzing information
  • Curiosity and imagination

Looking at Attributes Rather Than Skills
One of my favorite lists is one that Dr. Jackie Gerstein posted on her blog, User Generated Education. According to Dr. Gerstein, there are additional 21st-century attributes that teachers need to emphasize to help students prepare for their short and long term future.

Her additional attributes are especially important for ELs who may be suffering from culture shock or who have experienced trauma, violence, and chronic stress. Many of our ELs have left behind family members, friends, teachers, and pets. They have lost their language and culture. Often they do not have the support of their parents, who are also experiencing culture shock or trauma. ELs need support from teachers to help them develop the attributes needed to learn the skills from Wagner’s list.

Here is Dr. Gerstein’s list of additional attributes that ELs need to succeed in school:

Self-regulation. ELs need to be able to control their own behavior and emotions in order to make friends and succeed academically. Teachers need to help their students self-motivate so that they learn to make good short-term and long-term choices. This attribute is crucial for ELs to acquire English and learn content-area information.

Resilience. This is the ability to spring back from adversity and is important for ELs who live with trauma, violence, and chronic stress. Resilient children come back stronger when they face challenges. We have many immigrant children who are arriving in the United States from countries where there is war or gang violence. Many of them have experienced devastating tragedy. Teachers need to encourage the natural resilience that these children bring with them.

Perseverance. Students who persist despite obstacles will become successful in school and in life. ELs who demonstrate this trait develop a growth mindset and believe that they can learn more if they work hard and persevere. Teachers need to help ELs identify the benefits of persevering during difficult times.

Hope and optimism. We want our ELs to have hope and be optimistic about the future. To develop this attribute, they need to set attainable goals and stay determined to realize them. They also need to develop strategies to achieve their goals. Teachers should teach ELs positive self-talk so that they develop self-confidence.

Vision for the future. Teachers need to help ELs learn to care about the future. The should set reasonable goals and learn strategies to attain those goals, but they also need to realize that attainment of their dreams will require hard work and perseverance.

I encourage teachers to look beyond the instruction of reading, math, and English in 2017 and concentrate on attributes that will help ELs acquire 21st-century skills.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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