Academic and professional skills for language learning

Author: Marina Orsini-Jones


This section of the web guide provides an overview of what Academic and Professional Skills (APS) are and why they should be integrated in degree courses involving languages. It illustrates the rationale behind the introduction of APS, the logic behind making them compulsory, the way in which their integration impacts on curriculum and assessment. It also highlights the issues to address to make the embedding of APS into the languages curriculum effective. It finally provides suggestions on how to integrate APS, using the European Language Portfolio and networked-based learning.

Table of contents

Academic and Professional Skills for language learning - what skills?

There is no general agreement in the UK Higher Education sector on what ‘Academic and Professional Skills’ (APS) for language learning should consist of. However there does seem to be some consensus on classifying skills into: key/generic academic skills, subject specific academic skills, and vocational/professional skills, even though the boundaries between them can be fuzzy. In fact, many lists exist for each of the above set of skills (e.g. QAA 2002; Cottrell 2001; Drew & Bingham 2001, CIEL 2000).

The key/generic academic skills often include learning to learn (e.g. reflecting upon learning, independent learning), working with others (in seminars, in pair/group-work, etc.), managing tasks and solving problems (e.g. time management) communicating effectively both orally (presentations, seminars, etc.) and in writing (essay writing, report writing, summaries, etc.), using information technology effectively (e.g. word-processing, internet searches, presentation software), retrieving and managing information (e.g. note-taking, research skills, library skills), revision and exams (e.g.coping with pressure, revision strategies), numeracy (e.g. statistical analysis).

The subject specific academic skills for languages are mediation skills (translating & interpreting) and language-related skills (development of the ‘metalanguage’ of language studies, use of dictionaries, grammar books, concordances, etc.).

The vocational and professional skills for languages include many of those already listed under academic skills (which can be transferred to a variety of different jobs), career management - normally developed by languages departments in collaboration with the University Careers Office, (further information for careers in languages also available at the Centre for Information in Language Teaching and Research - CILT website) and the more subject specific ones for linguists such as interpreting , translating and teaching (see websites for LTSN, CILT and Association for Language Learning).

Why Academic and Professional Skills?

It is more useful, long term, to train students to be self-managers of the learning process, able to direct themselves around the subject, recognising gaps and with the capability of updating their knowledge once they leave university rather than overloading courses with material (Cottrell 2001:4)

Cottrell’s quote provides one the major reasons why APS should be incorporated into the curriculum. As highlighted in the CIEL’s project findings (CIEL 2000: Handbook 1) present-day HE language teaching is moving increasingly towards independent learning and learner-centred pedagogies. These require teachers and learners alike to shift their focus from an individual content-based approach to a collaborative, heuristic, process approach to the acquisition of knowledge. Skills teaching is at the basis of independent learning and can promote the acquisition of autonomy in learning. Papert (1996) claims that the art of learning is an ‘academic orphan’ and should be taught. He even suggests a name for it: ‘mathetics’. Only practice makes perfect and independence does not come naturally to the majority of students (further details in Little 1991 & 2001; CIEL 2000; Davidson and Orsini-Jones 2002).

There are other considerations, which are more political than pedagogical, to support the integration of APS into the curriculum. The widening participation and lifelong learning agenda illustrated in the Dearing report (1997) and reinforced in the The National Strategy for Languages - Languages for All: Languages for Life (DfES 2002), requires the HE sector to be prepared to have the necessary infrastructure in place to provide for non-traditional entrants. The front-loading of APS, particularly of the key/generic academic skills in the first year of a degree course, could improve retention rates of non-traditional entrants.

It is also a Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) requirement that honours degree programmes map the way in which skills have been integrated into the curriculum in the programme specification documentation.

There are, furthermore, considerable pressures from HE management to promote independent learning, and the whole area of APS, for reasons of cost-effectiveness. Widening participation is not at present supported by extra government funding to the HE sector. Often Language Centres are set up as a way of making financial savings on contact hours for a subject which, because of its nature, requires a higher number of contact hours, and has a lower staff-student ratio, than others.

Finally, following the introduction of fees in HE, parents, students and employers alike have higher expectations from HE in the area of the development of ‘employability skills’ . University degrees have become expensive, therefore ‘customers’ expect good value for money and expect HE to equip them for the world of work (Leon 2002).

The values of the 80s are being revisited, as it was Thatcher who first promoted the whole area of ‘skills for work’ in HE with the ‘Enterprise in Higher Education Code of Practice’ (Wright 1992). There is also deep reciprocal suspicion in both ‘camps’ (academic skills vs employability skills). Some common ground was nevertheless found in the CVCP report Skills Development in Higher Education (1998), as reported in Cottrell: ‘a focus on skills development can operate to the benefit of both academic standards and student employability’ (Cottrell 2001:8).

In the case of languages, the whole issue of employability is complicated by the variety of job destinations language graduates are attracted to. Keith Marshall’s statistics make it very clear that graduate linguists do not all become teachers, translators or interpreters – the assumed ‘traditional’ destinations for them. An analysis of these statistics provides evidence to support the teaching of wide-ranging skills for linguists.

How to deliver and integrate Academic and Professional Skills?

Practice in the delivery of APS varies considerably in the UK HE sector. In some UK institutions undergraduates undergo initial diagnostic assessment of their generic skills and are exempted (or not) from the skills course/component according to their results. This might become common practice in the future, particularly in view of the introduction of the key skills qualifications in secondary schools

In most universities the first ‘key/generic academic skills taster’ for undergraduates happens in induction week. There is evidence, however, that students suffer from information overload at the beginning of the academic year and that ‘handing study skills materials out at the beginning of the year does not necessarily do the trick of helping students to learn how to learn’ (Cottrell 2001:14). In many universities – mainly post-1992 ones - a generic academic skills course/module (or component thereof) is compulsory in the first year of studies, and is often a prerequisite for progression to the second year. The reason for making key/generic academic skills compulsory for all students, is that most of them will not take advantage of optional support (often available within the Student Union and/or Career Services in most Universities). Key/generic academic skills need to be ‘front-loaded’ in the first year of studies to give freshers a head start. This is particularly vital in the case of specific ICT skills. Many Universities have adopted online learning environments (OLEs) to support their courses/modules and the delivery of APS. It is fundamental that first year undergraduates learn fast how to engage with the OLE to make the most of their learning experience.

With reference to subject specific academic skills, all institutions pay considerable attention to the development of the language skills mentioned elsewhere in this guide, both within core/mandatory courses (or modules) and as separate discrete courses (or modules). Subject specific academic skills are also taught as part of courses/modules in linguistics and in ICT. In her How to Study Foreign Languages (Lewis 1999), Marilyn Lewis provides useful tips on how to maximise strategies for the acquisition of language specific skills, such as vocabulary learning, grammar learning and reading in the target language. Further information on language specific skills development is available at the websites for the Funding for the Development of Teaching and Learning (FDTL)/Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)-funded projects; Strategies for Managing an Independent Learning Environment – SMILE; Autonomous Language learning in Art and Design Using Interactive Networks – ALLADIN; Web-Enhanced Language learning – WELL; Curriculum and Independence for the Learner Support Network – CIEL and Transferable Skills Development for Non-specialist Learners of Modern Languages - TRANSLANG .

It is good practice to support the development of subject specific academic language skills and language specific ICT skills (word-processing in the target language, information retrieval from internet pages/databases, electronic communication in the target language via email, concordances, chat and MOOs, etc.) with a Language Centre, equipped with independent study tools - further details on this point are available at module 3.1 ‘Managing a Multimedia Language Centre’ at the Information and Communications Technology for Language Teachers website, ICT4LT, and dedicated support staff, such as the relatively new figure of the Language Advisor . The website of the Language Centre at the University of Manchester is one of the best examples of how to support the development of subject specific language skills within the infrastructure of a language centre (Wyburd 2001).

With reference to vocational/professional skills, some institutions offer undergraduate courses/modules designed with the aim of developing specific professional skills (e.g. technical translation, teaching English as a foreign language, languages for business). These options are usually quite popular with students, who value their vocational content. There is a certain overlap between vocational/professional skills and both key/generic academic skills (e.g. working with others) and subject specific language skills (e.g.mediation and language-related skills). See links below on professional associations and internal links to Translation, Interpreting and Dictionaries skills within this web guide on this point.

Embedding APS into the curriculum requires teachers to set a good example themselves and adopt the same professional rigour that they expect from students. It often also requires them to assume the role of facilitators within the language learning environment, rather than that of the old ‘magister’. This is particularly true if ICT skills become an integral part of the curriculum. For example, using an online learning environment such as WebCT or Blackboard requires teachers to become themselves part of discussion areas, where they often interact with students in a way which probably resembles more the role of an older brother or sister than that of a parent - or ‘magister’ type of teacher. Many lecturers feel threatened by this levelling of roles and can resist the introduction of APS because it implies change (Orsini-Jones 1999).

There are some issues relating to the integration of APS into the curriculum. There is evidence (e.g. Cottrell 2001; CIEL 2000) that some students often resent being taught key/generic academic skills. Also, some lecturers and even some students (particularly mature ones, who often come to HE with the expectation of a traditional content-based delivery of the languages curriculum) perceive the whole of the skills area as a threat to subject-based knowledge. It is important to prepare students for independent learning, as, if properly integrated within the languages curriculum, APS can enhance students’ motivation in language learning (Orsini-Jones & Cousin 2001) and support the acquisition of subject-based knowledge. It is true, however, that it is necessary to ‘align’ in Biggs’s terms (Biggs 1999) teaching, learning and assessment in languages modules/courses to reflect the integration of the skills element and make it relevant to learners and lecturers alike.

The major challenge is to implement the change in assessment practice which is brought about by the embedding of APS into the curriculum. It is necessary for all language lecturers involved with the same students to discuss assessment issues together, in order to practise consistency across the board. Students are quick to spot inconsistencies in teaching, learning and assessment practice and they are becoming more and more litigious. Robust assessment practice, collaborative staff development and cross-languages staff-student dialogue are all vital for the effective implementation of APS. If, for example, students are taught how to use Power-Point as part of the APS syllabus and are encouraged to use it for their group presentations in the target language, the marking scheme for that presentation should include a component which assesses the effective use of the package. Similarly, their ‘team work’ effort should be assessed too, if they have been taught presentation skills and working with others. If word-processing is taught, students should be expected to hand-in word-processed coursework in the target language, showing effective use of both word-processing skills (including the correct use of accents in the target language) and of other language specific skills as appropriate, according to the task given.

Even if they are front loaded in the first year of studies, key/generic academic skills should be customised to language specific needs and also embedded into language specific modules throughout the degree course. For example, if students are taught how to write essays as a key/generic academic skill in APS (in English) in the first year, individual language teachers should try and time their teaching of language specific matters relating to essay writing in their language with the APS teaching. In the second year essay writing skills could be further developed in the target language only, and students could be taught more about register, style, genre, etc. Students could then provide evidence of proficiency in writing skills for their year abroad activity(ies) (be it a dissertation, a placement report or a portfolio) and be made aware of the importance of effective writing skills as a professional skill.

Only the embedding of skills assessment into language specific tasks will make skills relevant to students. Needless to say that this also implies a steep and ongoing staff development curve.

Current trends: the Language Portfolio and networked-based APS learning.

The development of the Language Portfolio. both in its European and UK versions (see elsewhere in this guide) ; Davies & Jones 2001), has tried to bridge the gap between generic, subject specific and professional skills. It has provided language learners with a tool to reflect upon, monitor and record language learning performance and progress. It is a languages specific response to the recording of progress in learning for students, teachers and employers alike.

There are many types of portfolios and no general agreement on what the language portfolio should consist of. In some Universities, for example, the portfolio is a collection of language exercises set by teachers, and usually administered to students on Institution Wide Language Programmes (IWLP,) to monitor and assess their progress. In others it is used more as a reflective journal. Here we shall refer to the European version of the language portfolio: the European Language Portfolio (ELP). This is designed for adult learners and is ‘a record of an individual’s language experiences across a life-time of learning.’ It contains a language passport, a language biography and a dossier: There are various examples of how the ELP has been integrated within a language-specific skills provision across the UK HE sector (Davies and Jones 2001, Orsini-Jones 2001, Lewis & Edkins 2002).

The ELP also complies with the QAA’s stress on the development of the key/generic academic skill ‘learning how to learn’. In the Dearing report (1997), recommendation no. 20 states that all Higher Education institutions should develop a ‘Progress File’, ‘a means by which students can monitor, build and reflect upon their personal development’. It is a QAA requirement that all HE academic programmes include personal development planning: ‘a structured and supported process undertaken by an individual to reflect upon their own learning, performance and/or achievement and to plan for their personal, educational and career development’ (QAA 2001). The ELP helps learners in developing independence and autonomy. With the ELP students take responsibility for their learning: they think about what they are doing and why. They plan their learning: they set their own targets and identify the means to achieve them. They reflect upon learning: they think about what they have done, are doing and are going to do. Effective APS teaching should enable students to learn how to transfer their reflections upon learning to other tasks both in academia and in the world of work. The ELP is an ideal tool to monitor and record progress in skills development for this purpose.

Choosing the ELP for progress assessment of APS development of language students is not an easy choice though (Davies & Jones 2001). In the experience of the writer, students feel very threatened by what they perceive to be an unknown assessment ‘entity’. The introduction of the ELP must go hand in hand with the teaching of Papert’s ‘mathetics – art of learning’ (Papert 1996). There is evidence that the introduction to students of an electronic version of the ELP, supported by a course/module delivered both face to face and via an Online Learning Environment containing material to help students with their reflections about language learning, can enhance students’ motivation towards both APS and language learning, and lower their anxiety towards the ELP. This is because the OLE is a dynamic environment and students benefit from their own contributions in ‘discussion forum’ during the span of the APS course/module.

The advantage of using Networked-Based Learning (Warschauer & Kern 2000) for reflections on APS learning is that it captures the interactions and outcomes of the learning process. The immediate benefits for students are that they find more opportunities to plan their discourse, reflect on their production in a collaborative way, compare their production with that of their peers and of their lecturers and share knowledge in a democratic setting. As for lecturers, the advantage of using an OLE for the delivery of the ELP and to encourage students’ reflections on APS online, is that it can help with their staff development, as they can carry out virtual peer-observation, share practice with colleagues while interacting with students, reflect upon their teaching, acquire new ICT skills, diagnose students’ weaknesses and address them on an individual basis. (Davidson and Orsini-Jones 2002).


Biggs, J. (1999) Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Cottrell, S. (1999) The Study Skills Handbook, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Cottrell, S. (2001). Teaching Study Skills and Supporting Learning. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

CVCP, DfEE (1998). Skills development in Higher Education: Short Report. London: Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.

Davidson A. & Orsini-Jones, M. (2002). Motivational factors in students' online learning. In S. Fallows, & R. Bhanot, Educational Development Through Information and Communication Technologies, 73-85. London: Kogan Page

Davies, V. E. & Jones M. R. (2001). The European Language Portfolio: a major step on the road to learner autonomy. In J. A. Coleman, D. Ferney, D. Head & R. Rix Language Learning Futures: Issues and strategies for modern languages provision in higher education, 63-70. London: CILT/SCHML.

Dearing, R. (1997). Higher Education in the Learning Society. Report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (The Dearing Report). London: HMSO.

Drew, S. and Bingham, R. (2001). The Student Skills Guide. Aldershot: Gower Publishing Ltd.

Leon, P. (2002). Graduates say degrees leave them short of skills. The Times Higher, November 22, no 1,565, 6

Lewis, M. (1999). How to study foreign languages. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

Little, D. (1991). Learner Autonomy 1: Definitions, Issues and Problems. Dublin: Authentik.

Little, D. (2001). How independent can independent language learning really be? In J. A. Coleman, D. Ferney, D. Head & R. Rix Language Learning Futures: Issues and strategies for modern languages provision in higher education, 30-41. London: CILT/SCHML.

McDonough, S. (1995) Strategies and Skill in Learning a Foreign Language. London: Edward Arnold.

Orsini-Jones, M. (1999). Implementing institutional change for languages: online collaborative learning environments at Coventry University. ReCALL 11 (2): 67-84.

Orsini-Jones M. & Cousin, G. (2001). Focus Research in Modern Languages: creating a 'powerful learning environment' for students with students. In J. A. Coleman, D. Ferney, D. Head & R. Rix (eds.), Issues and Strategies for Modern Languages provision in Higher Education, 71-82. London: CILT/SCHML.

Orsini-Jones, M., Lewis, J., Edkins, S. & Kohler-Ridley, M. (2002) Academic and Professional Skills for Language Learning via WebCT. Presentation delivered at the Joint CILT/SCHML/UCML/AULC conference, Setting the Agenda. Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in Higher Education. University of Manchester, June.

Papert, S. (1996). A word for learning. In Y. Kasai & M. Resnik (eds) Constructionism in Practice: Designing, thinking and learning in a digital world, 9-24. Mahwah, New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Warschauer, M. & Kern, R. (2000). Network-based Language Teaching: Concepts and Practice. Cambridge: CUP.

Wright, P. (1992). Learning through Enterprise: the EHE initiative in Higher Education Quality Council (HEQC). In Learning to Effect. London: HEQC.

Wyburd, (2001) ICT and Independent Language Learning at the University of Manchester. In Autonomous Language Learning in Art & Design Using Interactive Networks (alladin), 127-134. Farnham: alladin.

Related links

Association for Language Learning

Autonomous Language learning in Art and Design Using Interactive Networks – ALLADIN

Becoming an Interpreter LNTO Factsheet

Becoming a Translator

Case studies of integration of WebCT into the curriculum at Coventry University

Centre for Information in Language Teaching and Research (CILT)

Curriculum and Independence for the Learner Support Network – CIEL (2000)

Department for Education and Skills (DfES): The National Strategy for Languages - Languages for All, Languages for Life (18/12/2002)

Information and Communications Technologies for Language Teachers (ICT4LT)

Internet for Modern Languages tutorial - designed by Gavin Burnage for the Modern Languages section of the RDN Virtual Training Suite – Internet for Humanities (HUMBUL)

Key-Skills Specifications

Language Centre University of Manchester

National Language Standards

Programme Improvement Through Alumni Research – PITAR

Strategies for Managing an Independent Learning Environment – SMILE

QAA 2002: Subject Benchmark Statement for Languages and Related Studies (2002), The

The Dearing Report

The European Language Portfolio$t/208-1-0-1/main_pages/welcome.html

Transferable Skills Development for Non-specialist Learners of Modern Languages - Translang

Web-Enhanced Language learning – WELL

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