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Using an Experiential Approach to Teach Soft Skills to Beginning Adult Education Learners

by 2019 AE&L Conference Presenter MaryAnn Cunningham Florez

Preparing English language learners for workplace and career success involves not only language development, but also helping learners develop the soft skills they need to meet inherent expectations in the American workplace. Employers regularly cite soft skills as a priority in hiring decisions and as strong factors in job success and advancement. But because soft skills can be culture-bound and not explicit or easily observable, they can be challenging to decipher and master for some. So, it’s important to help English learners, including beginning-level learners, understand and develop them.

Most examples of soft-skills lessons, at any level, focus on talking about the soft skill. This can be challenging for beginners with limited vocabularies. So, if language is best learned by actively doing things with it, why not take a similar approach with soft skills? An experiential approach, where beginning learners experience soft skills in hands-on, ongoing ways, correlates to good adult English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) practice for beginners and gives them the time and space to develop soft skills in the safe space that is the adult ESOL classroom.

How can a teacher integrate soft skills in instruction using an experiential approach? I propose that you keep the following three principles in mind.

1. Focus on the concrete aspects of soft skills, rather than the abstract.

Instead of thinking about soft skills as big, abstract concepts (interpersonal skills, teamwork, work ethic, etc.)—distill them. What constitutes a good work ethic? What does that look like? What do you see and hear? Work with students to flesh out a soft skill as concrete, real-world actions. Create a reference chart that defines or illustrates it in a more tangible, relatable way.

You can also develop do/say charts that outline actions and language to support a soft skill. The LINCS publication Preparing English Learners for Work and Career Pathways has some great examples.

                                                        WORK ETHIC

Jose has a good work ethic. •      He comes to work every day on time.

•      He is organized.

•      He finishes his job.

•      He meets deadlines.

Remember to model actions and language or provide pictures for your beginning learners in order to increase comprehension; then engage them in dialogues or, even better, role plays, for practice. Once you create reference charts, post them in the classroom or online, or provide them as handouts that students can keep in binders.

2. Focus routines to integrate soft skills, rather than one-and-done lessons.

Routines are cousins of habits, as well as being a way to lessen the cognitive load of tasks (if students are already familiar with the structure and expectations of a task,they can focus on the elements they don’t know, like new vocabulary, grammar, or content). Integrating routines into your instruction could mean including information grids, peer dictation, think-pair-share, or problem-solving frameworks that activate communicative or collaborative soft skills. It could be a “morning message” standard cloze activity that students must copy and complete when they arrive for class and which they must take responsibility for completing if they are late (time management, asking for assistance from colleagues). A ten-minute coffee break time could allow students to practice unstructured or mildly structured small talk. Encourage personal responsibility by having students keep personal calendars (time management) or maintain a personal portfolio of work to demonstrate achievements (self-reflection).

Do: Say:
•      Make eye contact.

•      Lean forward.

•      Nod my head.

•      Smile.

•      Ask a question.

•      I agree.

•      I understand.

•      Mmmmm or uh-huh

•      I have a question.

•      Please tell me more.

3. Plan for students to actively “do” a soft skill rather than just talk about it.

Nancy Welch, one of the teachers in our program, has developed a task for her beginning-level learners that allows them to experience leadership and communicating effectively in front of a group, rather than just talking about those soft skills. In “Who is the Teacher Today,” a student uses a PowerPoint framework that Nancy provides to lead the class in a series of question/answer and fill-in-the-blank slides. The slides progress from noting today’s date to asking students to compare the class start time to their arrival times, to prompting students to remember to practice a soft skill or element of a soft skill (“Today, I will listen actively. I will _____ eye contact. I will ____ my head. I will _____ a question.”). The frame provides structure for the students to feel confidence and success as they present, yet is flexible enough to accommodate possible variations as the format is re-used. I would suggest that you could also ask students to debrief simply afterwards about their experience as leader and how they think the skills they used could apply in work or daily life.

Provide beginning-level English learners with grounded, first-hand opportunities to experience what soft skills are and how they work and see how powerful it can be!

MaryAnn Cunningham Florez

MaryAnn Cunningham Florez, M.Ed., is currently the Program Manager for Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools Adult English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Program. In more than twenty years in adult education, she has provided professional development and technical assistance to adult educators at the local, state, and national levels. Ms. Cunningham Florez has written a variety of research-to-practice briefs and articles focusing on adult ESOL, has served as author and/or series consultant on various adult ESOL materials and textbooks, and has co-developed a series of adult ESOL teacher training DVDs.