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October 2022 - Year 24 - Issue 5

ISSN 1755-9715

Positive Language Education: Teaching Beyond Language

Sonja Babic is a post-doc research assistant at the University of Graz, Austria. She teaches the "Introduction to Communicative Language Teaching" course to future English language teachers at the University of Graz. She is also a project deputy on an Erasmus+ funded project entitled “Global Citizenship and Multilingual Competences (GCMC)”. Email:

Katharina Platzer teaches English and German at an Austrian Middle School. Her PhD focuses on Language Integrated Global Skills teaching in the EFL classroom. A further professional interest is the psychology of language learning and teaching. Email:

Johanna Gruber teaches English and Mathematics at an Austrian Middle School. She is pursuing a PhD in which she explores the mindsets of Austrian Middle School students. She is also working as a Pre-doc research assistant on the “Global Citizenship and Multilingual Competences (GCMC)” project. Email:

Sarah Mercer is the head of the ELT methodology department at the University of Graz. Her research interests include all aspects of the psychology surrounding the foreign language learning experience, focusing in particular on issues of self and identity. She is the author of several monographs and frequently publishes her research findings in journal articles. Email:



In this paper, we describe how the remit of language education is in the process of being reconsidered and systematically reconstructed. Specifically, we discuss global skills, which refer to the competences needed to flourish in the workplace and in life more generally. These include skills such as the traditional 4Cs (Creativity, Critical Thinking Skills, Collaboration, and Communication), digital literacy as well as competences in areas such as ecoliteracy, global citizenship, and wellbeing.  Although many countries across the globe already include these in transversal curricula, there remains inconsistent implementation, training, and support for educators seeking to integrate global skills objectives. In ELT, Positive Language Education (PLE) offers a useful dual-strand model for integrating linguistic and global skills goals together in a sustainable way. Given the challenges facing learners in contemporary society, teaching these competences should be a core responsibility of all educators, including language teachers.



The world of education is possibly at a turning point. The dramatic changes seen following the global pandemic have caused many to take stock and reflect on the value, meaning, and purpose of education. Indeed, since Socrates and Aristotle up to present-day philosophers such as Alain de Botton and Sir Ken Robinson, it has been a timeless concern to critically consider the nature and goals of education. It is perhaps a sign of a healthy commitment to a meaningful and effective education system that societies and communities repeatedly think deeply about the question of what the aims of education should be. Even prior to the pandemic, there were many discussions about the out-of-date education systems, which dominate in many parts of the world and just how fit for purpose these are in light of contemporary societal and global challenges. Many educational systems have barely changed since their introduction in the 1800s – neither in structure nor content. Currently, these deeper questions about educational goals are as pertinent as ever for education generally and specifically for ELT. As we stop to reflect on where to go from here, ELT has the potential to grow in new ways and re-imagine itself with increased relevance for learners’ lives in and beyond schooling.


Global skills

One way in which education has been re-imagining its purpose in recent years has been through the incorporation of so-called 21st century skills. These were introduced in recognition of the fact that ‘pure’ academic schooling was not adequately preparing students for the contemporary workplace and was outdated in its traditional conceptualisations of narrowly defined school subjects. Instead, teachers of all subjects were encouraged to also foster the 4Cs (Creativity, Critical thinking skills, Collaboration, and Communication) alongside digital literacy. While those remain important educational competences to address, there has been a growing sense of dissatisfaction that these skills were in fact equipping learners largely for the workplace but not for life more broadly. Indeed, the focus on the 4Cs and some of the surrounding rhetoric still reflect traditional views of education, which see school as preparing students primarily for employment. However, if we understand education as also having the purpose of preparing people for life more generally and not only for the workplace, then it soon becomes apparent that these skills combined with traditional school subjects are still not enough to meet the needs of students facing contemporary personal, societal, and global challenges.

The notions of living a ‘good life’ and having the right to flourish are core human rights that can also be traced back to Aristotle and are reflected in the UN human rights charter. Countries such as New Zealand and Bhutan have chosen to focus less on measures of GDP in evaluating the state of their nations but also now evaluate wellbeing indices, such as the Gross National Happiness Index, which looks at individual and collective wellbeing, social equity issues, and sustainability. Interestingly, the importance of wellbeing life goals is also reflected in the wishes of parents for their children according to a study conducted in 2009. Hundreds of parents were asked in a survey what they would want for their children in life (Seligman et al., 2009). Their responses included factors such as happiness, confidence, contentment, health, and satisfaction. However, in response to what they thought schools taught, parents referred to accomplishment-related concepts such as achievement, thinking skills, literacy, maths, and discipline. While both sets of concepts are relevant to differing degrees, the discrepancy between the two lists serves as further cause for reflection on just how well school systems are preparing learners for their lives as people and members of their local, national, and global communities.

This move to understand how schools can prepare learners for life more broadly began in earnest already in 1996, when UNESCO presented its four pillars of education framework, covering Learning to know, Learning to do, Learning to live together, and Learning to be. Since then, notions of personal and collective wellbeing, global citizenship, and sustainability have been incorporated into a growing number of key educational frameworks such as the OECD PISA Global Competence framework, the Framework for 21st Century Learning, the Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATC21S) framework, the British Council’s framework for core skills for learning, work, and society, and UNESCO’s Education for Sustainable Development (Education 2030). The latter is embedded in the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030, focusing on one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), quality education, particularly on goal 4.7, which is to:

Ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development (UNESCO, 2017, p. 8).

The strong impetus in terms of educational change coming from international organisations such as UNESCO and the OECD has already caused a vast number of national education ministries to incorporate broadly defined global skills into their state curricula, such as Austria, Australia, Bhutan, Brazil, Finland, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Scotland, and Tanzania, among others. In most cases, these competences are incorporated into transversal curricula, which means that teaching global skills is the responsibility of teachers of all subjects. However, a potential problem in doing this is that these competences become invisible and, in reality, teachers do not feel particularly responsible for teaching them. It remains for a few committed and passionate individual educators to bring them into their teaching practices as and when they can. While bottom-up initiatives stemming from teachers should be supported and can be highly impactful (see, for example, ELT footprint as a grassroots initiative for ecoliteracy in language education), there remains an absence of any systematic promotion of all the global skills across whole education systems. If these skills are to be embedded in all subjects, then there needs to be training for all educators on how to do this in a systematic, integrated, and sustainable way for their specific subjects.

In ELT, this means we need to be thinking how to incorporate methodologies for teaching these skills into teacher education programmes (pre- and in-service); coursebooks are needed which reflect the integration of both linguistic and global skills simultaneously, not as an optional add-on but systematically woven throughout all of the exercises; national and institutional policy must provide structural support for this kind of teaching; we need empirical work on what counts as ‘good practice’ in integrating all global skills systematically in ELT in context-sensitive ways; and, above all, teachers need to feel empowered to take responsibility for promoting these competences alongside the typical linguistic and communicative competences in ELT. The lack of systematic, comprehensive, empirical, and consequential attention to global skills teaching is a problem facing all subjects and educators, and that includes ELT.


Perspectives for ELT

ELT as a field has always been open to re-configuring its role and potential. Indeed, language teaching has rarely been solely about teaching the language in isolation. Particularly in the context of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), many definitions of communicative competence include sociocultural competence as well as interpersonal skills and intercultural awareness.

One recent reconfiguration within ELT has been the development of Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), in which teachers integrate both content and language in their practice. Despite the challenges such an approach poses, it also provides opportunities for learners and teachers to connect in meaningful ways through the language with additional learning goals in mind. As such, CLIL also offers valuable lessons to be learned about the potential and pitfalls of teaching two learning objectives simultaneously – a linguistic and non-linguistic set of goals. For example, research into CLIL teaching has shown that CLIL has the potential to improve students’ L2 and content skills simultaneously as well as foster skills of collaboration and communication (Lorenzo et al., 2019). The successful implementation of CLIL in numerous classrooms around the world gives hope to those wishing to employ a dual-strand teaching approach with a focus on additional competences, such as global skills, alongside language competences.

Another model of language education that proposes an integrated approach to teaching global skills together with linguistic competences is ‘Positive Language Education’ (PLE) (Mercer et al., 2018) which focuses on promoting individual and collective wellbeing through language. PLE represents a blending of Positive Education and Language Education to integrate “non-linguistic and linguistic aims in sustainable ways which do not compromise the development of either skill set, or overburden educators” (Mercer et al., 2018, p. 11). Positive Education (PE) is defined as “the bringing together of the science of Positive Psychology with best practices teaching, to encourage and support schools and individuals to flourish” (Norrish, 2015, p. xxvii). As an educational approach, PE places student wellbeing at the core of education alongside academic subjects without either being compromised by the other. It promotes the teaching of global skills needed to flourish in life and fostering these skills in school also leads to a vast range of psychological, social, and academic benefits in the present (for example, Mercer et al., 2019; Trilling & Fadel, 2009). In other words, teaching learners such competences not only prepares them for life beyond school and the workplace, but it also helps them succeed within educational contexts in the present. An additional benefit for educators is that teaching such skills is also motivating for them too, given that it may well resonate with many educators’ motives for joining or staying in education, such as making a difference in the world and helping learners achieve their life goals. Although PLE was originally conceptualised with a focus on wellbeing (individual and collective), it has since been expanded to explicitly incorporate core aspects of other global skills models (for example, Mercer et al., 2019) including global citizenship and sustainable living – which are the manifestations of wellbeing on a collective level.

Broadening the remit of the English language classroom in line with global curricula developments can also ensure a sustained ongoing relevance for ELT specifically. Increasingly, even though English has become a basic skill in many curricula across the globe (Graddol, 2006), there is a sense in some settings that ELT as a single traditional school subject may have to reinvent itself to remain relevant in the eyes of some learners (Haukås et al., 2021). There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, English language learners are becoming ever more proficient in English given widespread global access through technology and various media. In addition, increasing numbers of education systems are starting with learning the language in the early years, leading to high levels of competence and familiarity with the language. In addition, there is a growing number of CLIL and EMI programmes alongside regular language classes, which boost further the contact learners have with English. As such, learners in some contexts have relatively high levels of proficiency and communicative competence by the time they enter secondary school education. It seems from initial exploratory work that these developments could leave some learners and possibly also their parents asking critically about the relevance and need for single focus ELT classes in school (see, Haukås et al., 2021). Teaching global skills in the ELT classroom offers English, as the school subject, the opportunity to broaden its purposes and aims, and to impart knowledge and skills that are of crucial relevance to the students’ lives within and beyond the classroom. In contexts in which English is conceived as a basic skill (Graddol, 2006), explicitly incorporating additional global skills may be beneficial for learner and teacher motivation in remaining engaged and empowered in the ELT class.


Implementing global skills in ELT

Drawing inspiration from conceptualisations of CLIL, teaching global skills in ELT can also be envisaged on a continuum from weak to strong forms. In the most straightforward mode, teachers can reflect on their regular activities and practices considering how they might easily adapt tasks to include a global skills perspective. This could be adding some critical reflection questions, prompting students to make a connection between a text and their local community, looking for specific topics online, or discussing the implications of a text about global issues. These could, for example, include climate change, peace, wellbeing, or gender, which are also part of the UNESCO SDGs. In other words, many existent exercises in coursebooks or regular teaching activities can be looked at to think how to adapt or extend to explicitly cover a range of global skills.

In a more explicit approach, teachers can incorporate specific individual tasks to foster a particular global skill. For example, students could work on a fact-checking activity, collaboratively developing a framework to evaluate the reliability and truthfulness of news on online portals. Such a task can be designed to enhance learners’ critical thinking, collaboration skills, and digital literacy, while simultaneously focusing on aspects of language such as vocabulary and style as well as register. Another example for a single activity would be to start an eco-challenge on TikTok for which learners have to create a video about a local environmental issue. Such an activity fosters ecoliteracy, digital literacy, collaboration, and creativity and can develop use of persuasive language as well as the semantic field surrounding the topic covered.

Moving along the continuum, it is possible to work on more elaborate forms of explicit activities. In a strong form, for instance, learners could work on projects that could stretch across the term, school year, or even whole-school approaches. For example, to teach communication, collaboration, global citizenship, and intercultural competences, language teachers could get students to do a project to compare challenges posed by the UN list of global issues and actions taken in different countries. Such a project could be extended to consider the relevance of this topic in the students’ local community and possible pathways of action locally (see, for example, Mercer et al., 2019). Strong forms of integration are typically evident in schools which adhere to the principles of ‘Positive Education’, such as Geelong Grammar School which promotes socio-emotional competence, wellbeing literacy, critical thinking, and citizenship alongside academic subjects (Norrish, 2015). For example, in their history classes, genealogy is taught through the lens of character strengths – students are asked to conduct interviews with their family members asking them about their own and their relatives’ character strengths. Adapting this idea in the ELT classroom, students could interview each other about their character strengths and write stories of instances when they used their strengths for a positive outcome. This would foster skills for self-esteem as well as enable the use of language for describing people and the genre of narrative. It would also boost interpersonal competences and wellbeing skills. Inspired by another example from Geelong, students can be asked to explore the word “flourishing” and make a visual representation of what it means to them. They can compare notions of happiness across continents to further their intercultural competence and critical thinking skills, as well as exploring wellbeing literacy.

It is perhaps important to note that teaching global skills in the EFL classroom does not have to be an add-on or require additional projects; rather, existing topics and exercises language teachers already use could be amended to achieve teaching with global skills in mind. To become a global skills language educator means becoming aware of the potential within our classrooms and curricula, and exploiting this to boost our learner’s personal as well as professional development alongside their linguistic growth.


Empirical studies

To date, there has been very little empirical research examining the integration of global skills and language teaching in practice. Some publications offer suggestions on how to integrate certain skills specifically, such as creativity, global citizenship, and ecoliteracy into one’s teaching practices (for example, Mercer et al., 2019). However, an empirical investigation of a sustainable approach to this form of teaching in practice or on curriculum-wide interventions remains absent. At present, the limited empirical evidence stems from a focus on specific isolated individual global skills, rather than a comprehensive systemic-wide approach within language education. As such, there is an urgent need for intervention programmes and accompanying empirical work.  

Examples of studies of individual competences, however, are promising and offer critical insights for sustainable global skills teaching in ELT. For instance, Stefanova and colleagues (2017) conducted a study on teaching critical thinking skills through literature in the language classroom. They used literary texts with activities to prompt critical thinking, while developing language skills through debate and discussion. They found that critical thinking skills could be enhanced by explicitly relating discussions of literary texts to current global issues. In another example, Hossain (2018) conducted a study on teaching eco-literacy in his EFL university course. He provided learners with reading and listening materials on environmental issues and focussed on environment-related vocabulary and writing tasks during classes. After the course was completed, 72% of the students claimed to have more environment-friendly behaviour and approximately 40% of them attributed a positive change in their behaviour to their participation in the university course.

A global skill that has received a lot of attention to date in ELT is digital literacy. Indeed, Hockly (2012) argues that:

It is increasingly difficult for us to separate language from the digital environment in which it is being used. As such, one could argue that by integrating new technologies into our classroom, we can also help learners develop key digital literacies and that is indeed our duty as language teachers to do so (p. 110).

A study that investigated digital literacy in EFL classrooms was conducted by Allen and Berggren (2016). In this study, educators from a Swedish upper secondary school tried out different activities on digital literacy in the EFL classroom. They reported that integrating digital literacy into their regular classes inspired their learners and increased their learners’ motivation for learning English suggesting the benefits for language learning of integrating additional skills.

Hillyard (2008), for example, reported on a global citizenship project which included undergraduate learners of English from a second language acquisition institute in Buenos Aires. To educate their learners about global citizenship, teachers in this institute designed a course entitled “A critical approach to global issues”. This course sought to teach English language and global citizenship skills, such as creative and critical thinking skills, through activity-based collaborative learning. The topics covered human rights, health, impact of social media, conflict and peace, peoples of the world, social (in)justice, and sustainability. The study revealed learners’ experiences of this dual-strand approach to ELT, who reported that the course improved their English language skills as well as their knowledge and awareness of global citizenship and global issues. Beside strengthening their English language skills and global citizenship awareness, the course reportedly empowered learners to try to make a positive local, and eventually, global impact. This project evinces that global citizenship can become the content of the language classroom, which is highly likely to motivate both English language learners and their teachers (Hillyard, 2008).

Contexts of global skills in ELT

Although the example activities offered above are typically suited to secondary school level learners, in theory, all language teaching could incorporate such skills including adult or young learners with adaptations accordingly. One specific population who could also potentially benefit from such an approach would be refugees and migrants. As such populations are often at greater risk of psychological problems and practical difficulties, they might particularly benefit from a dual-strand approach. It could enable them to learn the language alongside global skills, such as emotional regulation and wellbeing when approached in culturally sensitive ways. A study by the British Council and UNHCR shows how languages used by the refugees helped them build resilience at individual, family, and community levels and they conclude that, “psycho-social interventions do not always need to be seen as separate interventions to language learning” (Capstick & Delaney, 2016, p. 7). Additionally, given increasing mobility in general and the rising popularity of exchange programmes such as Erasmus+, all educational institutions could benefit from teaching ELT from a dual-strand PLE approach. As students adapt to new environments, they benefit from support not only in linguistic and cultural terms, but also in socio-emotional terms and as global citizens.

There will inevitably be debates around the moral, political, and interpretative nature of teaching global skills including wellbeing, global citizenship, and sustainable living; however, such debates would be a welcome reflection that this major educational reform is being taken seriously and engaged with on all levels of the ELT ecosystem from individual practitioners, schools, policy makers, curricula designers, publishers, and academics. Together, there is a responsibility to consider what ELT looks like when these global skills are truly an inherent part of practice in actual classrooms for real learners across the globe. This means also investigating the effectiveness of approaches ensuring a harmonious integration of global skills and English in diverse settings and with diverse populations in ways that are manageable and sustainable for educators. The future of the field is certain to include some form of global skills and collectively we need to be taking more affirmative action as a community to reflect on how best to do this and what kinds of support are needed.



In our view, the question is no longer whether we should be teaching global skills in ELT, but rather how we should do this (Trilling & Fadel, 2009). If we are serious about ensuring the durability and relevance of ELT as well as meeting the contemporary needs of learners of all ages and levels of proficiency to flourish in their local, national, and global communities, then we need to start taking the teaching of global skills seriously. Even though many education systems, policy makers and individual educators across the globe already recognise that the goals of education have shifted, ELT as a whole has yet to fully integrate global skills systematically at all levels into its identities and responsibilities. Rather than conceiving of these educational objectives as an optional addition, they need to be deeply embedded in all forms of practice and thinking. This requires systemic changes. The irony is that in many cases the curricula are already in place to address this reform, but still the teacher education programmes, majority of coursebooks, and research agenda of the field do not yet reflect this. Teaching such skills can meet many contemporary and social challenges as well as contributing to greater social equity on an individual and global level by empowering the agency and wellbeing of all learners. Global skills are not new but perhaps in this new era of education, we will engage with them with a new level of purpose and seriousness.



Allen, C., & Berggren, J. (2016). Digital literacy and sustainability: A field study in EFL teacher development. In S. Papadima-Sophocleous, L. Bradley, and S. Thouësny (Eds.). Call communities & culture (pp. 14-19). Research Publishing.

Capstick, T., & Delaney, M. (2016). Language for resilience: The role of language in enhancing the resilience of Syrian refugees and host communities. British Council. Available at (accessed on 25 July 2021).

Graddol, D. (2006). English next. British Council.

Haukås, Å., Mercer, S., & Svalberg, A.M.-L. (2021). School teachers’ perceptions of similarities and differences between teaching English and subjects other than English. TESOL Quarterly, 56(2), 474–498.

Hillyard, S. (2008). English language and the global citizen: voices from an Argentine classroom. In T. Gimenez and S. Sheehan (Eds.). Global citizenship in the English language classroom (pp.13-19). British Council.

Hockly, N. (2012). Digital literacies: Technology for the language teacher. ELT Journal, 66(1), 108–112.

Hossain, M. (2018). Enacting green pedagogy in the EFL classrooms in Bangladesh: prospects, challenges and pragmatic breakthroughs. Language Education Forum, 1(1), 1–5.

Lorenzo, F., Casal, S., & Moore, P. (2009). The effects of content and language integrated learning in European education: Key findings from the Andalusian bilingual section evaluation project. Applied Linguistics, 21(3), 418–442.

Mercer, S., MacIntyre, P., Gregersen, T., & Talbot, K. (2018). Positive Language Education: Combining positive education and language education. Theory and Practice of Second Language Acquisition, 4(2), 11–31.

Mercer, S., Hockly, N., Stobart, G., & Galés, N. L. (2019). Global skills: Creating empowered 21st century citizens. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (accessed on 9 November 2021).

Norrish, J. (ed.). (2015). Positive education: The Geelong Grammar School journey. Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M., Ernst, R., Gillham, J., Reivich, K., & Linkins, M. (2009). Positive education: positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education, 35(3), 293–311.

Stefanova, S., Bobkina, J., & Sánchez-Verdejo Pérez, F. J. (2017). The effectiveness of teaching critical skills through literature in EFL context: A case study in Spain. International Journal of Applied Linguistics & English Literature, 6(6), 252–266.

Trilling, B., & Fadel, C. (2009). 21st century skills: Learning for life in our times. Jossey-Bass.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. (2017). Education for sustainable development goals: Learning objectives. UNESCO.


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Tagged  Various Articles 
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  • Positive Language Education: Teaching Beyond Language
    Sonja Babic, Austria;Katharina Platzer, Austria;Johanna Gruber, Austria;Sarah Mercer, Austria