What are ‘Life Skills’, and why should you teach them to your language students? Renowned author and teacher trainer David Spencer explains all.




21st Century Skills. Life Skills. Transferable Skills. Soft Skills. Key Competences. These terms are heard regularly at conferences, in articles and textbooks. And yet five or ten years ago we rarely heard those terms being used at all, certainly within the context of the classroom. So, what explains this recent phenomenon? Are Life Skills here to stay or just a passing fad?

The first thing to point out is that Life Skills are not really a modern, 21st-century concept at all. ‘The real object of education is to give children resources that will endure as long as life endures.’ This statement comes from Sydney Smith, a 19th-century writer and clergyman who wrote several articles about education. In 1809 he complained that too much time was spent on teaching Latin and Greek in English schools, rather than concentrating on ‘the only proper criterion of every branch of education – its utility in future life’. He also complained that just because a boy (this is 1809 – he does also write an ‘interesting’ article on Female Education in 1810) does brilliantly in Latin verse at school, it is no guarantee of success in life after school.

Why ‘21st Century Skills’?

So, if these issues have long been a part of education, why are we suddenly using the term ‘21st Century’ Skills to describe them? That’s a good question. Personally, I much prefer the term Life Skills precisely because the term emphasises how useful these skills are now and always have been. But I also believe that Life Skills are important in the 21st century because life is changing faster now than ever, and our teenage students have to be ready for the challenges and stress of modern life from a much younger age than in the times of Sydney Smith. Some skills are particular to the 21st century: digital skills being the most obvious. Teenagers in 1809, for example, didn’t need to worry about:

  • keeping safe online
  • choosing reliable web sources for homework and research
  • the need for caution on social media networks.

Keeping up with the speed of change

Two American educationalists, Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod, in the first version of their YouTube video Did you know? Shift happens (2007), point out the need for education to keep up with the speed of change: ‘Many of our students may end up doing jobs that don’t exist yet, with technologies that haven’t been invented, to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.’ They also point out that: ‘According to the US Department of Labor, today’s learner will have 10 to 14 jobs by the age of 38.’

This explains two of the other terms from the beginning of this article: Transferable Skills and Soft Skills. Today’s students need training in skills that can be applied to multiple jobs. Our students need to possess good communication skills, both in their own language and, in an increasingly globalised world, in foreign languages (which is excellent news for us as language teachers – we should never forget or underestimate the importance of our subject itself as a vital Life Skill.) Our students also need to know many transferable skills such as:

  • how to manage their time well
  • how to work in a team
  • how to face change and new challenges
  • how to solve problems
  • how to deal with stress

Why teach transferable skills?

Aren’t these skills things that our students simply ‘pick up’ as they go along, however? As a secondary school student in Liverpool in the 1970s, I was never taught explicitly how to work constructively in a team, or how to manage my time efficiently, or how to give an effective presentation. We were just somehow expected to do these things as we got older. I believe there is a parallel here with the introduction of Study Skills in language teaching round about the end of the 1980s. Until that time, we assumed that our students knew how to revise efficiently, keep good vocabulary records or make predictions about the content of a reading text from illustrations, headlines or titles. But very often students didn’t, and still don’t, use these strategies or micro-skills unless we explicitly and systematically point them out. Pioneering books such as Learning to Learn English (Ellis and Sinclair, 1989) or the university bestseller The Study Skills Handbook (Cottrell, 1999) made us realise that we could, and should, help our students to become much more efficient at managing their learning of a language by teaching them conscious strategies and micro-skills. Those ’learning to learn’ tips are now a common strand in almost any good textbook. I believe the same will gradually happen with Life Skills.

Interestingly, in the case of Life Skills, there appears to be proof that students do not simply acquire many of these skills naturally, without instruction. For example, as recently as in 2014, the British Chambers of Commerce conducted a Workforce Survey to discover how prepared students are for the world of work. Eighty-eight percent of firms believe that school leavers are not prepared for work. Fifty-seven percent of firms believe that this is because the students lack ‘soft skills such as communication, teamworking, resilience’.

Adding ‘Life Skills’ to the curriculum

Findings such as this have contributed over the past two decades to the decision taken in the UK to create a new subject called Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) Education, to be taught in both Primary and Secondary Schools. Topics within the subject cover things like dealing with stress, healthy eating, budgeting and environmental issues. Meanwhile, the European Commission for Education and Training conducted studies into how to help schools prepare young people for the 21st century and came up with the idea of ‘key competences’ that all students need to acquire. They define these key competences as ‘knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will help learners find personal fulfilment and, later in life, find work and take part in society […] These key competences include ‘traditional’ skills such as communication in one’s mother tongue, foreign languages, digital skills, literacy and basic skills in maths and science […] as well as horizontal skills such as learning to learn, social and civic responsibility, initiative and entrepreneurship, cultural awareness, and creativity.’

The term ‘horizontal skills’ refers to the fact that these things should be taught across the curriculum as part of all subjects. I believe that it is not only easy to contain these elements in foreign language lessons, but that they also actually help to positively enrich our classes. Isn’t it much more worthwhile to use Life Skills as meaningful, motivating and content-rich topics on which to base much of our teaching rather than the world of popular culture? This links with another major trend of language teaching in the 21st century – CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning), also known as bilingual education or EMI (English as a Medium of Instruction). We can practise the four skills and at the same time introduce our students to content of genuine interest and use to them outside the classroom. Many of those horizontal skills are already part of good foreign language lessons – learning to learn, creativity and cultural awareness, etc. So, teaching Life Skills does not necessarily mean a radical change to the way we already teach. But it does mean paying more conscious, continued and systematic attention to these skills.

Are there any downsides to teaching ‘Life Skills’?

Of course, teaching Life Skills is not without its dangers too. One thing that I feel strongly about is the need to avoid overly sensitive and personal issues in an L2 context. Within the subject of PSHE Education in England are topics such as eating disorders, drug abuse and sex education. These are all important issues for teenagers, of course, but my own feeling is that such serious personal and intimate matters are best discussed in the students’ L1 in order to treat these subjects in sufficient depth and with sufficient tact and subtlety.

Another question that sometimes arises with teaching Life Skills is that teachers may consider it to be a waste of time because students will not actually bother to put all these Life Skills into practice. They won’t suddenly and miraculously start respecting all their classmates or abandoning their unhealthy crisps, chocolates and fizzy drinks at break time. The classic expression ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’ comes to mind here. But, unfortunately, this is always a part of teaching. We can’t force a student to learn or use the present perfect either. But our job as teachers is to create an environment where students can achieve personal fulfilment, whether they take advantage of that or not. As the headmaster of Eton College says in An intelligent person’s guide to education (Little, 2015): ‘At its simplest, schools give young people a place at the water’s edge. A horse may not choose to drink if it is led to water but it cannot drink at all if the water is not there.’

In conclusion …

Finally, maybe you’re thinking, fine, OK, but I’m a language teacher, not a Life Skills teacher. Well, yes, true, and especially if you’re teaching in a private language school. We’re there to help students learn a language and to help them pass exams. But, like it or not, the very moment an adult teacher walks into a class full of young students, whatever subject we teach, we are teaching Life Skills by providing a model for our students. After all, only a respectful, tolerant, patient, open-minded teacher can teach the values of respect, tolerance, patience and open-mindedness. What better place to start teaching Life Skills in the 21st century?

About the author

David Spencer

David Spencer is a practising secondary school teacher, teaching English as a Foreign Language at Colegio Europeo Aristos in Getafe, Spain.

He is also the author of the second edition of ‘Gateway’ (Macmillan Education), a seven-level course for teenage students that contains Life Skills lessons and videos in each unit, from A1+ to C1.

Find out more about Macmillan’s Gateway course here: www.macmillanenglish.com/courses/gateway-second-edition

You can follow Dave and the Gateway community on Facebook here: www.facebook.com/macmillangateway

You can watch Dave’s great webinar on getting teenagers speaking here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=__PVV75Yoks


  • Sydney Smith (1809). Article Professional Education from The works of the Reverend Sydney Smith complete in one volume (available online).
  • http://apolloideas.com/shifthappens/
  • G. Ellis and B. Sinclair (1989). Learning to Learn English. Cambridge University Press.
  • S. Cottrell (1999). The Study Skills Handbook. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • British Chambers of Commerce – Developing the talents of the next generation [pdf]
  • Sir Alasdair Macdonald (2015). Independent review of the proposal to make Personal, Social, Health, Economic (PSHE Education) statutory [pdf]
  • European Commission – Education and Training. Key Competences [pdf]
  • Tony Little (2015). An intelligent person’s guide to education. Bloomsbury.

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