Developing 21st Century Skills in the Foreign Language Classroom

AP German and Guest Blogger Kristin Young

“That won’t fly in ‘the real world.’” “Just wait until you get out into ‘the real world.’” These are comments often heard within the classroom, and yet how is “the real world” defined? How do we, as educators, prepare and equip our students with the skills which will be required of them in their futures? The 21st Century places high demands on its citizens. Jobs have been created, and will continue to be created as society and technology develop, which did not exist when teachers entered the work force. As teachers consider these concepts, they begin to encounter the necessity to prepare their students not only with content knowledge, but also with skills to play a meaningful role in society.

As a foreign language teacher, my primary objective is communication. Global language as a whole is considered to be a part of 21st Century skills (Framework, n.d). By effectively connecting content of other curriculums to the language, students are able to delve deeper into the language, cultures, and perspectives of those with which they may be working in their future careers. They develop respect for their international colleagues, which will spur successful relationships in their work fields. By exposing them to content from other disciplines they learn to apply their knowledge of the foreign language to a variety of contexts.

In my classroom I focus on interpersonal communication because it is what they will most commonly encounter in their daily lives. As I speak German 90% of the time, students are constantly asked to process what I, and others, are saying to them, and then accurately respond. This takes a great deal of skill in the language as well as critical thinking because it demands them to solve the problem of not only comprehending the question being posed to them, but also to consider possible solutions. Additionally, speaking in the language forces them to have strong interpersonal skills. Berliner (2009) identified social skills necessary to the workplace to be “active and tolerant listening, helping to define problems and suggesting courses of action, giving and receiving constructive criticism, and managing disagreements” (p. 135).

Students need more chances for collaboration, real world experiences, and the opportunity to test their theories after working with one another to collaborate on potential solutions. By giving their learning purpose, they will be better engaged in learning the information. For instance, I have given my students the opportunity to collaborate while employing critical thinking skills to create a lesson plan to teach a seventh grade German class greetings, good-byes, and how to exchange names. Throughout the process students had a variety of opportunities to collaborate in small and large settings to come to an agreement as a class as to the best way of teaching the material. In general students did very well exchanging ideas, compromising, and creating an action plan, even the students who were normally less engaged.

Throughout the lesson students were required to maintain the target language so it was simulating a real world situation. Additionally, they were charged with analyzing the language acquisition process, which many reported to be quite valuable as they moved forward in their own learning. They were ready to prove themselves capable and to stretch their wings to test their abilities, which was what I found most inspiring. After the lesson had been implemented, students reported they felt empowered by the experience. It is an art to assist when needed, however, I enjoyed watching my students take ownership of the lesson as it also validated my teaching practices. They knew how to apply the language in a real-world setting, which has always been one of my goals.

Though students often struggle with maintaining the target language at first, and request translations or for English to be spoken instead of the target language, it is these kinds of experiences that they will be able to use in the future. By maintaining the language students receive more comprehensible input, but they are also forced to manipulate critical thinking skills. They learn to multi-task, and meet high standards. Students struggle at the beginning, but it is well worth it in the end as they are better able to communicate interpersonally as well as present information to a group of their peers.


Berliner, D.C. (2009). The incompatibility of high-stakes testing and the development of skills for the twenty-first century. In Marzano, R. (Ed), On excellence in teaching (pp. 113–143). Bloomington: Solution Tree Press.

Framework for 21st century learning. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2017, from

Pickering, D. (2009). Teaching the thinking skills that higher-order tasks demand. In Marzano, R. (Ed), On excellence in teaching (pp. 145–166). Bloomington: Solution Tree Press.

Kristin Young graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2010 with a double major in German and Secondary Education. She has been teaching for 6 years, two of which were in Ohio and four in Kentucky. Currently at Highlands High School in Fort Thomas, Kentucky she instructs German 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and AP.

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