Leveraging the Transfer in Transferable Skills

By Lia Olson, Ph.D.

There is no question that teaching transferable skills can be powerful. In many ways, it is the cape we don to prepare our diverse adult learners to meet the varied needs and goals that will make them successful in any endeavor they pursue. After all, the skills they are learning are transferable.

We know there is truth to this, despite my hyperbole. According to The National Research Council in its synthesis of the literature on the subject of transferable skills, “Business leaders, educational organizations, and researchers have begun to call for new education policies that target the development of broad, transferable skills and knowledge” (2012).

We have responded to that call. First, we adopted College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education (2013) and purchased quality instructional resources to promote rigorous learning. Then we combed our textbooks, googled “transferable skills lists,” and read the WIOA legislation (2014) cover to cover to discover the identity of those transferable skills that would pack the most punch. We added them to our curriculum, our daily lessons, our learning goals, our learning tasks, and our assessments. Finally, our learners have been practicing them in class and even mastering them on our assessments.

Yet, our lamentation still rings out: “Why don’t my students apply what they have learned?” This lamentation clearly puts the ownness on the students, for we know we have done about everything we could do. And, after all, according to our assessments many of them learned it. But…(long pause here)…did they learn it?

The lists we consult, the learning goals we outline, the tasks we design focus on the skills in transferable skills. Indeed, this is a crucial element. But, isn’t its modifier equally crucial? The National Research Council (2012) states that learning that is transferable must “include both [emphasis added] knowledge in a domain and [emphasis added] knowledge of how, why, and when to apply this knowledge to answer questions and solve problems.” In other words, transferable skills must transfer.

The idea of transfer

So, what is transfer? We know what it looks like in everyday life: we transfer money from one account to the other, we transfer from one bus to another, one job to another, and one customer service rep to another and another and another.  In every instance, we are called upon to use what we know about the first situation, how it is connected to the next, and how to use what we already know when we get there. This transfer is successful, according to the National Reacher Council (2012), when the “ability to recognize familiar elements in novel problems allows them [expert learners] to apply (or transfer) their knowledge to solve such problems.”

If they are not practicing transfer, they are just learning skills

According to the National Research Council, that transfer becomes possible “when effective instructional methods are used.” What are these “effective instructional methods”? Many of them we are already using. We are already teaching the knowledge and skills in rigorous ways to engage our learners in productive struggle. Yet, we can teach our learners transferable skills all day long, but if they are not practicing transfer, then they are just learning skills. By the same token, we can teach any skill and make it transferable when our learners practice transfer!

So, what does it mean to “teach” transfer?  Let’s look for guidance from two gurus of the constructivist theory, the theorist Jerome Bruner and the philosopher John Dewey (p. 137).

Teaching specific topics or skills without making clear their context in the broader fundamental structure of a field of knowledge is uneconomical.  ~Bruner (1960)

To grasp the meaning of a thing, an event, or a situation is to see it in its relations to other things: to see how it operates or functions, what consequences follow from it, what causes it, what uses it can be put to.  ~Dewey (1933)

Creating a formula for transfer from their combined wisdom could, then, look like this:

Formula for transfer
Formula for transfer

In some ways, we already do this. We have tasks to activate prior knowledge, application tasks, and expansion activities. But are we leveraging them to focus on transfer? How often have we shortened or skipped one for the sake of time? Do these tasks transfer the learning to multiple contexts, or better yet, contexts of the learners’ choosing? We are still largely driven by the content we need to cover, and our students are still largely assessed on what they learn within one context.

Leveraging transfer

Leveraging transfer takes a paradigm shift in our thinking about instruction and instructional planning. No longer are we satisfied with a focus on knowledge and skills if it does not include an emphasis on transfer. In this way, we make time for transfer by including learning tasks that allow students to contextualize the content they are learning in multiple ways, make connections between the content and other content, and apply the content to multiple situations.

How do we do this? The good news is there are already many tried-and-true tasks we can leverage to maximize student practice in transferring knowledge and skills. Here are some examples:

KWL+

The KWL chart, sometimes with the addition of the plus, is an activity to effectively support and evaluate student learning from the start of a lesson to its finish.

KWL+ chart
KWL+ Chart
  • The K can meaningfully extract the prior knowledge students have, not just about the topic at hand but about other topics that relate to it or are relevant to them.
    • What other things do you know that can help you understand this topic/learn this skill?
    • What learning have we done that will help you learn about this topic/learn this skill?
  • The W can include a question starter that helps students connect the current learning to other relevant areas in the lives.
    • How does this information/skill apply to __?
    • How will this information/skill help me ___?
  • The L can maintain its context-dependent stance to focus on the objectives of the lesson within the context to set the stage for greater transfer.
  • The + column can be expanded to include how the topic/skill relates to learners’ goals, needs, and interests.
    • How do I apply this knowledge/skill to __?
    • How do I use this knowledge/skill to __?

Activate Prior Knowledge

Often lessons begin with a discussion or prompt to help students connect the new learning with what they already know. Adding the K questions from the KWL+ chart above leverages this activity to include other knowledge and skills (including learning strategies) that students can connect to as they begin the lesson.

Venn Diagram

The Venn diagram is used to explore connections between things, specifically how they compare and contrast. Strategic placement of a Venn diagram task in the lesson allows learners to explore the connections between and among contexts by identifying the knowledge and skills they have in common and considering how those knowledge and skills would be used in other context(s).

Venn Diagram
Venn Diagram

Brainstorm

Who hasn’t done a brainstorm? What about one that specifically asks where else learners can use the new knowledge or skill?  This activity can be done before the learning to get buy-in and show relevance or after the learning as a way for students to reflect on how the learning can transfer to other areas of their lives.

Brainstorming graphic
Brainstorm

Expansion

We plan for expansion activities all the time. Often, they are the task that gets cut when we run out of time. In addition, they often don’t expand beyond the context at hand. Instead, learners apply the learning to a new situation within the same context. Leverage expansion activities to move students beyond the current context to explore other contexts that are directly relevant to them. Students can choose the context and discuss how the new learning would transfer. What knowledge and skills could they use in that context? How could they use them? What adaptations would they make to what they learned to fit this new context?

Exit ticket

One common closure activity is the exit ticket. This can take the form of written or oral answers to 1 – 3 summary questions; a think-pair-share where students think of one thing they learned in class, pair to talk about it with a peer, and then share out with the class; or a turn-and-talk partner exchange to summarize the learning of the day. Including a question around where and/or how students are going to transfer the learning from the lesson means that students leave the classroom with transfer at the forefront of their thoughts, just when they need it the most.

The heart of the matter is that without transfer, transferable skills are just skills. They only become magical when we create the opportunity for transfer.  When our lessons brim with the lively exploration of concepts, connections, and contexts then, just maybe, the cape fits…and we should wear it. After all, we and our learners are up against a lot. We need all the leverage we can get!

References

Bruner, J. (1960). The process of education. Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Dewey, J. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Boston: Henry Holt.

National Research Council. (2012). Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/13398.


Lia Olson, Ph.D., has served as an ESOL classroom teacher, professional developer, curriculum design specialist, author, and consultant. She has taught adult learners for more than 20 years at St. Paul Public Schools Adult Education. In addition, she is an adjunct professor for the Teaching English as a Foreign Language program and Adult Basic Education licensure program at Hamline University. As a curriculum design expert, Dr. Olson has developed curricula and teaching materials for ESOL students at all levels that integrate English language acquisition with numeracy, technology, and work-readiness skills.

Useful tips for your English classes

Browse the resources below to find some useful tips and resources for your English classes.

As our library of useful tips and articles grows, we’ll be adding to this page, so be sure to check it often.

Addressing the 4Cs with online learning
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Priming the brain for teaching and learning: Mindfulness goes to the classroom
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Reimagining student engagement in distance learning
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Future, 2E: Making remote teaching and learning easier

Make remote learning easier with Future

After making the emergency transition from face-to-face to remote instruction last spring, many programs continue distance learning as the pandemic keeps its grip on the world. Remote instruction poses many unique challenges for English language programs. These challenges include how to encourage student engagement, promote interactive communication practice, balance synchronous and asynchronous learning, build a classroom community virtually, and deliver remote instruction that is effective on a range of student devices.

With the new edition of Future, teachers can engage, support, and challenge their adult learners at a distance by leveraging the program’s considerable digital and print resources. Future not only prepares learners to meet their life, career, and educational goals, but it also helps instructors deliver high-quality engaging lessons remotely, both synchronously and asynchronously.

It all begins with the Pearson English Portal – a powerful platform that delivers Future digital resources to instructors and students, such as MyEnglishLab, eBooks, and the ActiveTeach. With these digital resources, you can transition your Future course online and ensure your students have the resources they need to continue learning.

This handy toolkit offers tips and suggestions for teaching remotely with Future, 2E.

Future eBooks

Reader+ eBook
Reader+

Students don’t have their books? No problem! For studying on-the-go, the Future eBooks are the perfect solution. Delivered on the Reader+ platform, the eBooks can be accessed on a computer, tablet, or smart phone. The Reader+ application allows students to read and interact with rich digital content and multimedia assets through highlighting, annotating and many other study and reading tools. Users can store all their eBooks and notes in one place and access them at any time, as all of their content gets synced across multiple devices. Designed with offline capabilities, Reader+ offers a perfect solution for areas with low bandwidth or unreliable Internet access.

The eBooks are also a perfect resource for synchronous instruction in a remote setting. Teachers can share pages from the eBook using Zoom capabilities (or other web conferencing platforms) and use multiple tools to zoom in, highlight, add text, and play the class audio.

The Reader+ app can be downloaded from the app store.

MyEnglishLab

MyEnglishLab
MyEnglishLab

MyEnglishLab is an easy-to-use learning management platform that delivers additional Future course content digitally. MyEnglishLab is an excellent resource for asynchronous instruction, delivering engaging exercises, videos, and tests in one place. Students can practice each lesson’s content in an interactive environment with instant feedback and tips to scaffold their learning. Teacher can take advantage of the MyEnglishLab platform to assign homework, monitor performance, and pinpoint areas for improvement.

Using MyEnglishLab

ActiveTeach

ActiveTeach
ActiveTeach

The ActiveTeach is an offline tool that delivers student book pages, audio, video, additional activities, and teacher resources. You can use ActiveTeach with Zoom or other web conferencing platforms to share the Future book pages with your students. In the classroom, it can be used a computer and projector or with an interactive whiteboard to bring the book to life. With ActiveTeach you can zoom in, zoom out, and focus on specific activities. You can annotate pages, embed links, and attach files. You also have access to full class audio, printable worksheets, interactive exercises, assessment activities, tests and interactive whiteboard tools. The ActiveTeach for Future comes as a downloadable zip file within your course on the Pearson English Portal.

Watch this video to learn how to install and use the Future ActiveTeach

Pearson Practice English App

Pearson Practice English app
Pearson Practice English app

The Pearson Practice English app is a mobile app that delivers Future audio and video resources on smart phones. Students and teachers can easily access their course resources anytime, anywhere. The app can be downloaded from the app store and unlocked with the same Pearson English Portal login and password.

Additional Teacher Resources

Teachers can feel fully supported with Future teacher resources. Available on the Pearson English Portal, these resources include additional worksheets, Teacher’s Edition pages, robust assessments, standards correlation documents, and more.

Watch this video to learn more about how to access all the available teacher resources for Future.


To learn more about Future, access additional videos and resources, please visit our Future catalog page.

Our team is dedicated to helping you achieve success with Future, 2E. If you would like us to help you get started, please contact your dedicated Pearson ELT Specialist at pearsoneltusa.com/reps.

5 Halloween-Themed Activities for Your Young English Learners

image of pumpkins

It’s almost Halloween and the ghosts and vampires will soon be coming out to play! Did you know that although we often associate Halloween with pumpkin carving and eating candy, the festival has much older origins?

Samhain is an ancient Gaelic festival which celebrates the end of the harvest and the start of winter. This is why people often associate the colors of orange and black with Halloween: orange is the color many leaves turn in autumn and black is the color of the darker winter months.

People used to believe that spirits walked the Earth on the night of Samhain. The tradition of dressing up as ghosts and demons started as a way to hide from the spirits who walked the streets. Similarly, people used to leave treats outside their houses for the spirits and from this came the tradition of trick-or-treating.

It’s always fun to engage with students in Halloween activities to get them into the Halloween spirit while they learn English. Even though many programs are teaching remotely during the Covid crisis, we can still engage in fun Halloween activities. Here are a few ideas to get students playing and learning, even when remote.

1. Who or What Am I?

In this activity students will practice using descriptive words and learning Halloween vocabulary. Search images online that include Halloween imagery (jack-o-lantern, pumpkin, ghost, black cat, bat, vampire, etc.) Email each student one picture ahead of the class. During class, give each student one to two minutes to describe their picture to the class without telling others what it is. The student who first guesses the object correctly gets a point. Play until everyone described their object. After each guess is completed, you can show the picture to everyone on your shared screen. The student with the most points wins the game.

2. Pumpkin Oranges

Pumpkin carving is fun – but it’s also messy and pumpkins can be really heavy! Instead, have students use an orange and a black marker! Get them to draw a scary face on their orange and then write a short text describing it. Here’s an example you can share with your students:

pumpkin orange

My pumpkin orange, Ghoulie, has two big eyes. He’s got a small nose and a big mouth, with lots of teeth. This Halloween, he’s going to sit outside my house. He’s going to scare people but he doesn’t scare me! I think he’s very funny!

3. Let’s Play Halloween Bingo!

This is a great activity to review the Halloween vocabulary. Email students a blank bingo board or have them draw one on a piece of paper. Then have them draw Halloween items, one for each box. You might want to give them some ideas, such as ghost, black cat, pumpkin, bat, etc. Then play bingo, calling out different Halloween-related words. Students listen and mark their boards if they have the item that was called out. The first person with five in a row wins the game.

4. Halloween Theater

This activity will let your students be creative while they are practicing modals. Put students in small groups, and give each group a scary scenario. For example: Frankenstein has stolen your lunch. A big black hairy spider is chasing you. A vampire asked you to go for a walk with him. Have the groups discuss what they would do in each situation. Encourage them to use modal verbs (should, could, would). Then have groups share their ideas with the rest of the class.

5. Tell a Scary Story

Have the class create a scary story. Students take turns adding one sentence to the story. For example, Student 1: One night I was home alone when the lights went out. Student 2, All of a sudden, I heard a big bang coming from the basement. Continue until everyone contributed to the story. For a larger class, you might want to put students in groups to work on their story, write it down, and then present to the whole class. You might also want to give students sentence starters or some vocabulary to get them going.