Employability and Enquiry-Based Learning in Languages

Authors: Julie Lawton and Catherine Franc


The UK seems to be experiencing a dilemma regarding languages and employment, with a reduction in the number of students taking languages at specialist level and yet an increase in demand for competent linguists in all fields of work worldwide. This paper will address some of the issues facing both recruiters to language programmes in HE and language graduates embarking on the job market. Since, currently, British language graduates are something of a minority, we will consider the “added value” qualities they can offer to employers, and what employers are seeking in job candidates that linguists might uniquely fulfil.
In French Studies at the University of Manchester, we have been engaged in several innovative projects exploring the use of Enquiry-Based Learning (EBL) within our grammar and oral programmes and also in a project designed to maximize students’ linguistic experience of their residence abroad (not discussed in this paper). We believe that EBL methods enable students to achieve both an expert “product” and a transferable “process” as the outcome of their studies, thus providing them with valuable employment skills: successful group-working strategies, confidence in giving presentations, practice in time-management, administrative and organizational skills, the ability to research independently through a variety of resources, and a flexible, open-minded attitude to new situations and tasks.

This article was added to our website on 18/06/09 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

Table of contents

Languages in Higher Education Conference 2008: transitions and connections

This paper was originally presented at our conference: transitions and connections , 8-9 July 2008.

EBL in Languages and Employability

Speaking to our students in Manchester as they obtained their final results recently, we asked what they had lined up for the future. Their answers reflected the great variety of careers pursued by language graduates. One of the important issues of higher education currently is the development of the employment potential of our students and in that context, Richard Brown from the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) stated: “...[in order to achieve] a greater permeability between the worlds of business and higher education [...] individuals and even teams might be seconded [...] to address research issues, support knowledge transfer, refresh the curriculum or help develop better employability skills in students of all ages” (CIHE 2005: 2).

This statement points to a dilemma: do people in HE and those in business share the same vision for our graduates? Specifically in our case, do we prepare our language students for the world of work?

In this paper, we shall look at the concept of Enquiry-Based Learning (EBL) in language learning, which we believe can stimulate students’ development of linguistic and transferable skills.  We will begin by presenting the situation for graduates and employers in a highly competitive global market, highlighting the skills valued by employers. We will argue that EBL can develop these skills, as demonstrated through two case studies: EBL in phonetics and EBL in grammar, each being part of a project devised by the Senior Language Tutors in French Studies at the University of Manchester.

As Thomas Friedman states in his book on globalisation, the world is “flat”. He asks: ‘Where do I, as an individual, fit into the global competition and opportunities of the day, and how can I [...] collaborate with others globally?’ (Friedman 2007: 11). In the past 20 years the increasing globalisation of the economy has resulted in a growing demand for linguists. Moreover, sophisticated technology has transformed business practices; in a world where instant communication is vital, a graduate linguist can be a key figure in any organisation with international dealings (King 1997: 3).

However, it is not always easy to get a job. Employers have a large pool of candidates to choose from: 42% of the UK’s 18-21 year-olds study in higher education i.e. there are approximately one million students (CIHE 2007: 2). Furthermore, migration within Europe and from overseas means that a pool of very competent polyglot workers now offer potential employers a larger choice of linguists. It is therefore pertinent to ask where linguists who have studied in Britain stand in the face of such competition in the multilingual job market. Linguists in British universities have to offer something extra because candidates from other countries are often able to offer more languages. Developing employability skills is therefore vital, especially since the employability factor attracts many students nationally and internationally to our universities (Drew 2000), and they will invest much time and money in their courses, often with the specific intention of enhancing their career prospects.

In the case of languages, one might wonder if it is better to choose vocational or semi-vocational courses such as Business and French.  Specialist skills are not always essential to potential employers (King 1997: 10) yet academics may fear compromising their values if their specialisms are not respected. In French Studies, for instance, there is no clear vocational element for most students, except those aiming to become teachers or translators i.e. developing strong discourse competence in the target language is not necessarily the main attraction of the degree programme. The knowledge acquired in cultural content courses might also not be of direct use in a professional context, although students will develop essential critical thinking. This situation is, of course, not unique to language degrees (King 2000: 13-14).

What do our students do after graduating? The CIHE states (CIHE 2007: 39) that language graduates can be found in ‘occupations where language is central.’ Thus, King (1997: 40) gives the figure of 3.5% of students going into teaching. They are also found entering ‘a wide range of occupations including chartered accountancy, the diplomatic service, distribution and logistics management, teaching English as a foreign language, event organisation, marketing, executive and market research, recruitment and the law’ (King 1997: 40-41). Overall, only 21% of employers consider language skills an important ability (Archer and Davison 2008: 10) but language graduates ‘have the highest employability rates of all humanities graduates’... ‘Second only to graduates in more narrowly defined vocational subjects such as dentistry’ (Kelly, QAA Benchmark: iv). Language students are clearly valued by employers.

However, 70% of students graduating have only a vague idea of how or where they want to be employed (Best, CIHE 2005: 6). Universities today have to recognise that they need to develop soft skills as well as specialist knowledge to widen their students’ opportunities. These skills can be delivered within the curriculum, as in our own case, or may come from extra curriculum activities, as is the case at the University of Westminster through its Multilingual Project (Robertson 2008) which aims to give students a professional experience while still studying for their degrees and helps to break down the barriers between learning and working in business.

Just what are the needs of business employers?

In 2006, the Leitch Report expressed a concern over the apparent gap between the skills present in Britain and those required to respond to market needs in an increasingly competitive world (HM Treasury 2006). From several studies on student skills, it is clear that although hard skills are important to employers, a large majority of employers (70%) consider soft skills even more vital in the graduates they recruit.  The International Employer Barometer conducted studies to determine which skills were most valued by employers and also how well graduates demonstrated these skills once employed (Archer and Davison 2008: 6).

Skills (or attributes) % of employers favouring these skills
Communication skills
Team-working skills
Intellectual ability
Planning and organizational skills
Literacy (good writing skills)
Numeracy (good with numbers) 
Analysis & decision-making skills

(Archer and Davison 2008: 7)

Archer and Davison comment: ‘The findings here illustrate that universities need to equip graduates with “deep” intellectual capabilities and a battery of applied practical skills which make them more “work ready” (Archer and Davison 2008: 8). The market is increasingly ‘customer-focused’ and these skills are still not present in a significant number of students. Indeed, the difference between the importance ranking and the ranking of satisfaction expressed by employers clearly highlights this gap.

  Importance rank Satisfaction rank Gap
Commercial awareness
Analysis & decision-making skills
Communication skills
Relevant work experience
Planning & organizational skills
Personal development skills 

 (Archer and Davison 2008: 10)

The CIHE thus recommends that: ‘Universities [need] to ensure [that] their degree programmes and the overall student learning experience meets the needs of business’ (CIHE 2005: 13). It adds: ‘Many employers remain concerned about the lack of certain “soft” skills and the universities will want to consider where the curriculum can address these [...] or where the wider university experience can help’ (CIHE 2005: 14).

The skills developed by language students, according to CIHE in their profiles (CIHE 2007) and the QAA Benchmarks (2007: 7-10), largely correspond to those quoted above:

Skills needed by employers Skills developed by language students
Communication Efficient communication
  Ability to work with others
  Support and motivate others
  Operate effectively in teams
Self-management Efficient with time management
  Flexibility and adaptability
Interpersonal Leadership
  Cultural awareness (to value diversity)
Intellectual/cognitive Produce material and think under pressure
  Reflect and judge critically
  Organize & structure ideas in a coherent manner
  Mastery of the studied language
  Subject-related knowledge
(politics, history, literature, linguistics...)
Practical and applied Use of reference material, library research
  Language-related skills
(self-aware independent language learners)
  ICT skills

(King and Honeybone 2000: 18; CIHE 2007: 38; and QAA Benchmark 2007: 7-10)

We believe that EBL reinforces many of the above categories of skills valued by employers. The strengths of EBL have been highlighted by Bill Hutchings (April 2006: 4; December 2006); Peter Kahn and Karen O’Rourke (2006: 2). The advantages of EBL or PBL (Problem-Based Learning) in developing professional skills in Engineering, Computing and Medical courses have already been demonstrated (Powell, Moore, O’Rourke, Freeman, Sattenstall, Gough and Jenkins 2006).  In our own French project, we acknowledge such earlier work and hope to have added to the body of evidence supporting the value of enquiry-based learning, particularly its enhancement of skills relevant to employability.

What is EBL?

EBL is an approach to learning which puts the student in charge of his or her process of learning. The term “process” is important here, to be distinguished from any concrete “product” achieved. Thus, while the end product may be important in itself, the process of going along the path towards the making of that object is equally important. That process will require the student to engage in activities and thinking which can be considered as valuable in their own right, such as setting agendas, team working and self-awareness.

Enquiry-Based Learning, as its name implies, takes as its starting point the notion of enquiry. EBL grew out of PBL, an approach widely adopted in the Sciences and Medicine whereby a ‘problem’ is presented to students who, through a process of problem-solving investigations as a group, arrive at a solution to the problem. EBL is both an adaptation of that method in the Humanities and also a term encompassing a wide range of teaching and learning modes, all of which share the common aim of allowing students to lead their own individual and group enquiries into a given question. Some types of EBL offer completely open-ended tasks enabling students to pursue a variety of paths and create a variety of end products and clearly such openness must be taken into account in any assessment.

For language work, it is more appropriate to look at the other end of the EBL spectrum, where a constrained task is set for which there is only one correct outcome - but this does not prevent the students from engaging in the process of working towards that outcome in a self-determined way. Again, what distinguishes EBL from other modes of working is the way of engaging with all that is involved in solving the task: what is being described here, what is actually being sought in terms of solution or response, what activities must we engage in to solve the task? Where constraints are present, this is sometimes called “Task-Based Learning (TBL)”, as defined by Songhori (2005) who offers this explanation: ‘The purpose of the task is not to solve a problem but to be a carrier for the language items to be taught...’ Crucially in terms of the job market, such task-solving or enquiry-based processes allow, indeed require, students to engage in the general transferable skills sought by employers.

In 2006-2007, Catherine Franc, Julie Lawton and Annie Morton ran an EBL project attached to the first year compulsory language programme in French. This programme has three elements to it each week: one oral hour, one seminar on argumentative writing skills and a separate hour for grammar. The EBL experiment was conducted in the oral and grammar sections of the course. Franc created a project on phonetics, while Lawton and Morton devised a grammar project.  The whole project was funded and supported by the University of Manchester’s Centre of Excellence for EBL (CEEBL). 

French Studies in Manchester has approximately 220 students per year and a team of nine language tutors, all providing parallel groups for the three elements within the core language programmes. The phonetics EBL project was carried out across the whole first year i.e. every student and every tutor was involved, but the grammar project ran outside the formal programme with a volunteer group of 22 students.

For the phonetics project, Franc created short scenarios to help students with their pronunciation in French based on an understanding of phonetics. Students were put into small groups and each group given a particular scenario to research; they then presented their findings to their peers a fortnight later. (For details of all the scenarios and the overall project, see Franc, Lawton and Morton 2007).

Example of a phonetics scenario: Les Liaisons

(In this task, enquiry into phonetics and pronunciation was linked with grammar and spelling):

‘A friend has noticed that you pronounce the ending of words differently e.g. leader [lidæR],

particulier [paRtikylje],  particulière [paRtikyljeR]. Find out why these terms are pronounced differently. To which aspect of phonetics is this linked? What are the particularities of this problem?’

In addition to these linguistic questions, the students were asked to provide a bibliography of all the sources referenced and sites visited, as well as a work plan of the ways tasks were distributed among the group members and each person also filled in a self-assessment sheet on their engagement with the various aspects of the EBL task. In all cases, the groups had to create their own additional practice exercise for their fellow students. This was also true for the grammar project.

For the grammar project, Lawton and Morton worked on adjectives and adverbs. We wanted to make the learning or revision of adjectives more interesting and open to independent research.  We created a number of scenarios which illustrated how adjectives or adverbs are used, each scenario concentrating on a particular concern, such as gender and number agreement, or the formation of adverbs.

A major issue that raises its ugly head when allowing students to work independently on grammar is the simple but inescapable truth that, although there may be more than one correct answer, there are some answers which are downright wrong! It is only ever la belle France and never le beau France, for example. We needed, therefore, to guide our students towards fairly constrained routes of enquiry that would result in correct language. We adopted the TBL version of EBL, using scenarios as triggers or contexts for a directed enquiry, but which nevertheless allowed flexibility in terms of group decisions, individual research and format of presentations.

Example of a grammar scenario: Who is X?

A magazine-style logic puzzle gives statistical information about three boys; at the end a question is asked about the identity of which boy is being described in a brief comparison between him and the others (e.g. X lives close to school but Y lives even closer; Y is 15 years old but Z is older than both X and Y; etc). The task asks students to create a similar puzzle themselves for their peers to work out and requires students to identify the grammar rule illustrated in these puzzles (formation of comparisons and superlatives) and to provide references.

Further to this first experiment, in 2007-2008 Lawton and Morton have run a follow-on project involving peer-assisted facilitation for grammar revision sessions. The main difference in this later experiment was that the tutors did not themselves organize the EBL revision sessions but created scenarios for use by senior students who, following a brief training session, acted as facilitators to the first year groups.

It is worth mentioning here that with all EBL /PBL situations, the role of the tutor changes from fount of knowledge to that of facilitator. Rather than delivering information as in conventional classes, the facilitator guides the groups, if needed, by asking questions designed to help them consider ways of tackling their task or suggesting directions they may follow. In the first instance, the facilitator avoids giving the answer but it may be appropriate at the end of an enquiry session to step in with corrections. Additionally, as happened in the projects outlined above, facilitators can make themselves available at designated times for guidance if required.

Now let us demonstrate more explicitly the link between EBL and employability. It is true that when we planned the EBL projects, our objective was to enable our students to improve their actual grammar and pronunciation. However, as the projects evolved, we discovered that what the students were actually improving was not only their competence in French but rather their skill in engaging with the general activities involved in this mode of working. This was borne out very strongly in the participants’ feedback at the end of the project.

Regarding the soft skills, here are some of the comments students wrote in their feedback:

I have learnt what type of group player I am’;
‘I feel much more confident about giving presentations’;
‘I’ve learnt to take account of time issues such as the time needed to prepare a presentation and yet also take into account other commitments’;
‘I’ve now seen that there are alternative ways to learn things’;
‘EBL is a relaxed environment, it’s all about making mistakes and then correcting them’;
‘I feel more confident in working things out independently now’.

We can see from these comments that studying in an EBL mode combines independent research plus the coordination skills needed for all group-work, and this enabled our students to experience and enhance those very competences which employers value.

In conclusion, we can summarize by reiterating that EBL develops the following skills:

  • Time management
  • Administrative and organizational skills
  • Ability to investigate sources independently
  • Ability to produce a clear presentation
  • A mindset able to identify and analyse problems
  • A flexibility of mind to allow one to be open to new ideas and willing to adapt to new situations

What more can an employer ask for?


Archer, W. and Davison J. (2008) Graduate Employability: the Views of the Employers. London, the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE).

Brown, K. and Brown M. (eds) (2003) Reflections on Citizenship in a Multilingual World. London, CILT.

CIHE (2007) Degrees of Skills, Student Employability Profiles: a Guide for Employers. Available from: www.heacademy.ac.uk/ourwork/learning/employability/disciplines.

Drew, F. (2008) Employability for international students. Conference presentation at Conference Employability and Professional Learning, Sheffield Hallam University, 25 April 2008.

Franc, C., Lawton J. and Morton A. (2007) EBL for EBL: Enquiry-Based Learning for an End to Being Bored with Language Learning. In Case Studies: CEEBL-Supported Projects, 2006-07. University of Manchester Centre for Excellence in Enquiry-Based Learning.

Friedman, T.L. (2007) The World is Flat: the Globalized World in the Twenty-First Century. London, Penguin.

CIHE (2005) Higher Education: More than a Degree.  Summary of Consultation held at St George’s House, Windsor Castle, January 19-20 2005. Available from: www.cihe-uk.com/docs/PUBS?0503HEMoreThanADegree.pdf

Hutchings, W. (December 2006). Principles of Enquiry-Based Learning. Available from: www.campus.manchester.ac.uk/ceebl/resources/general/ceeblgr002.pdf

Hutchings, W. (April 2006) Problems: Defining Learning Outcomes. Available from: www.campus.manchester.ac.uk/resources/general/ceeblgr002.pdf

Kahn, P. and O’Rourke, K. (2006) Guide to Curriculum Design: Enquiry-Based Learning. Available from: www.campus.manchester.ac.uk/ceebl/resources/general/kahn_2004.pdf

King, A. (ed.) (2000) Languages and the Transfer of Skills: the Relevance of Language Learning for 21st Century Graduates in the World of Work. London, CILT.

King, A. and Thomas, G. (1997) The Guide to Languages and Careers.London, CILT.

King, A. and Honeybone, A. (2007) The language of graduate skills. In King A. (ed.) (2000) Languages and the Transfer of Skills: the Relevance of Language Learning for 21st Century Graduates in the World of Work. London: CILT, pp.14-31.

HM Treasury (2006) Lord Leitch publishes Review of Long-Term Skills Needed. Available from: http://hm-treasury.gov.uk/newsroomandspeeches/press/2006

Powell, N., Moore, I., O’Rourke, K., Freeman, S., Sattenstall, M., Gough G. and Jenkins P. (2006) Developing Professional Skills in Three Professional Programmes Through Enquiry-Based Learning. Available from: www.campus.manchester.ac.uk/ceebl/resources/general/AISHE07_profskills.pdf

Quality Assurance Agency (2007) Languages and Related Studies in Subject Benchmarking Statements. Available from: www.qaa.ac.uk/academicinfrastructure/benchmark/default.asp

Remedios, L., Clarke, D. and Hawthorne L. (2008) Framing collaborative behaviors: listening and speaking in problem-based learning. The Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 2 (1).

Robertson, P. (2008) On the meaning of employability. Conference presentation at Employability and Professional Learning, Sheffield Hallam University, 25 April 2008.

Songhori, M.H. (2007) Two models compared: problem-based learning and task-based learning. English for Specific Purposes Word Online Journal for Teachers. Available from: www.esp-world.info/Articles_8/Mehdi.htm