Addressing 21st century skills from the start

Betsy Parrish

Betsy Parrish is a professor in ESL/EFL teacher education at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN. She has worked as an ESL/EFL teacher, teacher educator, writer, and consultant in the US, France, Russia, Bangladesh, India, and Vietnam. Her research interests include academic and career readiness, pronunciation instruction, adult ESL learner success, and language teacher development.

In my work with teachers of adult English learners (immigrants and refugees) in the United States and with public middle-school, secondary, and university-level English teachers in Bangladesh, India, Russia, and Vietnam, teachers have expressed a similar concern. What is the best way to integrate practice with skills needed for success in today’s world into our language classrooms? These skills include:

  • Effective communication and collaboration
  • Critical thinking
  • Comprehending complex informational texts
  • Digital literacy


Another common thread across the contexts where I have worked is that ESL and EFL curricula often fall short of integrating practice with these essential skills, especially at the beginning levels of instruction.

Moving beyond “language” in the language classroom

There is a global trend to move beyond “language” in the language classroom. Frameworks such as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills or the recent Cambridge Framework for Life Competencies in Education are calling for more rigorous instruction that gives all learners practice with academic and professional language functions (e.g. elaborating on others ideas, synthesizing the main points in a discussion), critical thinking, strategies for accessing complex texts (print and digital), and effective communication skills. The focus of this article and a series to follow is on how to add a layer of 21st century skills to any lesson through simple modifications to our teaching practice, whether you are teaching younger learners or adults.

Data collection and analysis with one-question interview

A great way to integrate these types of 21st century skills is through a classroom activity that involves learners collecting and analyzing real-world data with a one-question interview. Let’s see how this technique engages learners in a series of tasks that work on academic language, critical thinking, graphic literacy, team work, and effective communication. This technique can be used with any topic, whether you are teaching integrated content and language or a grammar lesson, and at any proficiency level. Here is an example on the theme of sustainability and our environmental footprint.

Students are given one question strip (provide 3-4 students with the same question):

1.     Do you try to buy products made of recycled materials?

All of the time        Some of the time              I don’t think about it

2.     Do you take advantage of your city’s recycling program?

All of the time        Some of the time               I don’t think about it

3.     Do you use plastic straws when given the option?

All of the time        Some of the time               I don’t think about it

4.     Do you reuse plastic bottles?

All of the time        Some of the time               I don’t think about it

Students mingle for a set amount of time, gather and tally the responses for their question, and then get in groups with other students with the same question to analyze their data. What do they see?  What are the class trends? What does this mean?

Supports for academic conversations

The task of analyzing the data gives learners a meaningful purpose to communicate with one another, but sometimes learners lack the appropriate academic language needed to talk about the data.  Now we can provide them with useful language frames such as these:

  • Some people…
  • The majority of people….
  • Half the class… Three-quarters of the class…


Creating visual representations

In academic and work texts, information is presented in multiple ways- as text, in a table or chart, or in a diagram. This next step gives learners practice with creating a bar graph depicting the results of their question, which they can then use in presentations to others in class.










As they present their findings to others, we can provide additional academic language supports, for example:

  • We found that…
  • Our data indicate that…


Many text books include a series of questions to practice with a partner, but you can use those for a one-question interview instead. You can use this task to turn a grammar lesson into a deeper exploration of class trends. I have used the theme of practicing English outside of class in a lesson on simple present tense and adverbs/adverbial phrases of frequency starting with questions like these for the one-question interview:

1. How often do you search for information online that is in English?

every day       every week            every month           never          other

IIII                       II                                                                IIII

2. How often do you read news (print or online) in English?

every day       every week            every month           never          other


3. How often do you watch movies or video clips in English?

every day       every week            every month           never          other


Look at all the rigor added!

Let’s see how using data collection and analysis with the one-question interview adds essential 21st century and academic skills to any lesson:

Activity 21st century and academic skills added
  • Collect data
  • Practice numeracy skills
  • Use and interpret tally marks
  • Interview and report to others
Small-group analysis and discussion
  • Collaborate with others
  • Collect, organize, analyze, and interpret data
  • Use academic register with sentence frames (two thirds of the class)
  • Summarize and synthesize information
Create a graph and presentations
  • Represent data visually
  • Interpret graphs
  • Transfer information (interview results to graphs)
  • Use academic register with sentence frames (Our data show that…; We found that…)

How could you use the one-question interview in your classes? In her next article, Betsy will share how using graphic organizers in listening and reading lessons promotes many 21st century skills, including graphic literacy, critical thinking, and more.

For more ideas on adding rigor that could be easily adapted in any setting, see Betsy’s article: Meeting the Language Needs of Today’s Adult English Language Learner: Issue Brief.

  • Nurjahan Naik

    Engaging yet easy to implement. For me it was a hard nut to crack while thinking of implementing 21st century skills in education. But this post has broken the ice.

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