Identifying, teaching and assessing key skills in Linguistics

Date: 23 May, 2003
Location: CILT, London
Event type: Seminar

Programme | Abstract | Event report | Some relevant statements on key skills

Past event summary

In undergraduate and postgraduate education there is an increasing emphasis on the acquisition of general skills in addition to subject specific knowledge. However, while departments have a great deal of experience in constructing academic curricula, they may find it less straightforward to outline the key skills being taught for a particular programme and to indeed to state how those skills might be assessed implicitly as part of academic tasks and activities. It is also not always clear how, in practice, the development of key skills can be most effectively fostered or measured. The Subject Centre Linguistics Group organised this event to discuss these issues in the context of current practice in the discipline. The event aimed to provide an overview of the key skills agenda and to identify particular key skills of most relevance to Linguistics which might be of particular interest to colleagues devising programme specifications. There are several interpretations of key skills and we aimed to consider them in their broadest sense (practical and cognitive) with reference to the sources listed below. This event was designed to be of particular interest to colleagues involved in curriculum design, especially as part of subject review etc.


10.30 – 11.00 Registration and Coffee
11.00 – 11.10 Welcome and introduction
Keith Brown – Chair Subject Centre Linguistics Group
11.10 – 11.50 Introduction to Key Skills
Henry Macintosh – Centre for the Developing and Evaluating Lifelong Learning, University of Nottingham
11.50 – 12.40 Key Skills and Linguistics
Roz Ivanic – University of Lancaster
12.40 – 13.40 Lunch
13.40 – 14.30 Criticality and the ‘key skills’ agenda in undergraduate linguistics
Rosamond Mitchell, Florence Myles, Brenda Johnston and Peter Ford - University of Southampton
14.30 – 15.10 Discussion: How can key skills “sell” Linguistics to students and employers
Dick Hudson – University College, London


Title: Criticality and the ‘key skills’ agenda in undergraduate linguistics

Presenters: Rosamond Mitchell, Florence Myles, Brenda Johnston and Peter Ford University of Southampton

Abstract: The development of criticality among undergraduates is a longstanding aim of higher education. Many contemporary government and employer statements now include ‘critical thinking’, ‘critical analysis’ etc. among the skills which are expected of graduates. However such aims are often sloppily formulated and narrowly conceived (Barnett 1997), and the ways in which disciplinary undergraduate education develops these skills are poorly understood.

The presenters are engaged in an ongoing study of the development of criticality among undergraduates (for details see In this presentation, we will outline the theoretical model of criticality underpinning our project, and examine formulations of criticality/ critical thinking advanced in subject-specific linguistics documentation both at national level, and in documentation for Modern Languages/Linguistics students produced by a single university. We then evaluate the degree of consensus/ coherence which exists across these levels, regarding the nature of criticality in linguistics education, and its relationship with broader concepts of ‘graduateness’.

Event report: Key skills for Linguistics

by Ali Dickens

The Subject Centre's recent workshop which looked at the key skills agenda within the context of Linguistics included four complementary sessions which explored the following issues:

  • how to make key skills meaningful and appropriate for the HE context
  • how to devise teaching methods and techniques for Linguistics that contribute to key skills development
  • how to foster criticality as both a cognitive and life skill
  • how to relate key skills more specifically to Linguistics


The event was introduced by Keith Brown (Chair of Linguistics Specialist Group) who took us through some key definitions of key skills as embodied in the Benchmark Statement for Linguistics, QAA guidelines, ESRC approach to postgraduate key skills and the materials offered by CDELL (see below)

Session 1

Henry Macintosh's (CDELL, University of Nottingham) talk centred around the issue of how to make key skills meaningful and useful to learners, teachers, employers such that they are not merely a list of skills bolted onto programme specifications but become an integral element of a programme. He outlined 3 possible perspectives on key skills:

  1. That they are nothing new as everyone is already impliciting incorporating them in students' learning
  2. That they are only relevant to employment and have value in an increasingly competitive global market
  3. That they are part of lifelong learning and can be acquired at different times, to different levels and for different purposes throughout life (not just as part of formal education)

There is a great deal of documentation detailing key skills but they generally include 4 main elements:

  1. Communication
  2. Personal autonomy
  3. Working with others
  4. Problem-solving

However, these are very broad descriptors and while benchmarking and other documents have contributed to clarifying them there is still a need for greater specificity. At pre-university level students can obtain certification in key skills (QCA key skills) but this is less appropriate to HE and does not allow for a holistic approach to key skills as they are too compartmentalised separate qualifications for communication, number and IT. Something that could prove more useful at HE level where key skills need to be embedded in and related to other learning (academic, study and personal development), is the PDP (Personal Development Planning). This document compiled by a student throughout their studies is designed to help learners while they are still learning. It involves both a recording element (of work covered) and a reflective element (how learning has taken place). It will also enable students to include their non-academic learning and to become more formative in their approach to assessment. Some of the key skills developed include:

  • recording
  • observing
  • relating evidence to skill
  • reflecting (which is becoming more important practically and academically)

Session 2

In her talk Roz Ivanic (University of Lancaster) presented some ideas from her own teaching in which she has developed Linguistics tasks that foster skills that are both appropriate to the discipline and to the development of key skills in general. She emphasised that this relevance to the discipline is essential otherwise key skills become an end in themselves rather than an additional outcome. She gave the example of how a group work task might be incorporated in a module because it enhanced understanding of Linguistics research skills not simply for the sake of the key skills it fostered.

Session 3

Ros Mitchell (University of Southampton) presented the background to an ongoing research project which is looking at the ways in which criticality is progressively developed by students in the course of their studies. The project is using a model of criticality developed by Ron Barnett which sees criticality from a number of perspectives - knowledge, self and world - each of which operates on a variety of levels which take learners from basic critical skills into criticality that is transformative. In the course of the project the researchers have been examining specifications for key skills at university, faculty, programme and module level and have found that the term has been used somewhat differently at each level and as the subject specificity increases, but that all seem to favour a view of key skills that is heavily cognitive (knowledge based) with the self and world elements less clearly articulated.

Session 4

In the final paper Dick Hudson (UCL) looked very specifically at Linguistics as a discipline, in the context of key skills, and demonstrated the ways in which particular aspects of key skills, such as communication, can be defined more closely and seen as 'special' features of Linguistics. He looked at three areas: Application, Understanding and Self-reflection and analysed the aspects of key skills particular to each area. For example, the analytical systems and classification systems which students are required to master will foster skills of attention to form, respect for accuracy and confidence in approaching new systems. On the level of understanding Dick highlighted the hard thinking that is required in many aspects of Linguistics and, while this may not be an attractive prospect for some students, having gone through the 'pain' of hard thought they might be considered to have a valuable skill for their future careers. Self-reflection is also a key aspect of Linguistics exemplified by fields such as semantics, sociolinguistics and varieties of language. These examinations of language in relation to the self and others provide students with an opportunity to develop greater self-awareness and openness to difference.


To sum up this event proved very effectively that approaching key skills as an integral and integrated part of learning (at a general and at a subject level) can make them both meaningful and useful for HE. Far from being the obligatory tick list that goes into an institutional learning plan or programme specification, key skills can enhance the learning experience of students and be given 'added value' in the context of particular subjects, in this case Linguistics.

Further resources

Some papers from this event have been published as part of the Subject Centre's Occasional Papers series and can be found in Liaison , issue 4, October 2003

Some relevant statements on key skills

Linguistics Benchmark statement (QAA 2002)

“3.3 Generic intellectual skills and personal transferable skills
Degrees in Linguistics offer students the opportunity to develop generic intellectual skills and personal transferable skills. A curriculum which enables students to develop these skills can be important for students wishing to continue their studies at postgraduate level. For those students who do not pursue Linguistics beyond the first degree with Honours the development of these skills may be even more important, as the skills outlined [below] are a vital asset on today's job market.”

QAA Guidelines on programme specifications state that the following skills for undergraduates should be identified.

  • Key skills: communication, numeracy, the use of information technology and learning how to learn;
  • Cognitive skills, such as an understanding of methodologies or ability in critical analysis;
  • Subject specific skills, such as laboratory skills.


ESRC Guidelines for Postgraduate Training:

“Whatever career paths PhD graduates may follow, there are clear advantages to students if they have acquired general research skills and transferable employment-related skills. Broadly-based training should enable students to think through how they can use their existing knowledge and skills in different contexts and apply them to a variety of problems; and, progressively, to identify their own needs for training.”

The Centre for Developing and Evaluating Lifelong Learning, University of Nottingham:

“The term 'key skill' is being used widely as a synonym for 'core skill' or 'transferable skill'. It refers to skills that are common to a wide range of programmes of all types. Key skills are used as a means of enabling other objectives in a variety of contexts to be realised more effectively, rather than as ends in themselves...

Many skills models and lists have appeared since the 1980s. Common to the majority are skills falling into a number of categories, such as

  • personal skills such as improving own learning, action planning
  • interpersonal skills such as working with others, group work, teamwork
  • communication, numeracy, skills in using information technology
  • problem solving, critical thinking, objective reasoning, reflection, lateral thinking.”