Nine 21st Century Assets for ELLs

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SOURCE: Louise Kreuzer (El Yaafouri), The Newcomer Student: An Educator’s Guide to Aid Transition, Rowman & Littlefield International Press, 2016.

21st century learning promotes the application of rigorous thinking patterns across content domains through performance-based activities, while encouraging learners to effectively utilize technology and other resources to achieve performance goals. For English language learners, opportunities to organically experience real-life learning are doubly critical.  In these situations, students are supported in negotiating social cues, cultural nuance and contextual shifts in linguistic expression. 

Healthy 21st-century instruction nurtures active and engaged learning by providing students with meaningful and authentic tasks throughout the school day.  Authentic learning fosters creativity, problem-solving skills, and social efficacy.  For all students, learning through authentic engagement enables 21st century efficacy.

Authentic learning is rooted in:

(a) Independent choice making;

(b) Opportunities for challenge;

(c) A range of intrinsic and extrinsic motivational factors; and

(d) Connections to the self, one’s learning, and the broader world context.


Here we’ll define nine critical 21st century assets as they specifically relate to ELLs; and we’ll explore corresponding authentic tasks that promote development in each asset domain.

Asset 1: Innovative Communication

Communication skills are evidenced through social media and email platforms, phone etiquette, interviewing skills, a firm handshake, or the means to compose a well-written proposal. These assets are observed at lunchroom tables, on the playground, and the respectful shift in tone when a child addresses an authority figure. Beyond these basics, students must be capable of inventing and maneuvering in much more progressive bands of exchange.

Innovative communication incorporates a fluid capacity to engage and interact with people across multiple platforms of age, race, culture, religion, language, political inclination, exposure, and experience. It involves an attuned awareness to social nuances, and an aptitude for interpersonal navigation—networking, negotiating, peacekeeping, contextual management, and appropriate expressiveness. Communication skills, essentially, are people skills.

In the context of ELLs, promoting communication skills begins with the cultivation of safety, trust and individual self-confidence. It is demonstrated when we allow for multiple levels of expressive ability: oral output, drawing, labeling, singing, signing, writing, building, acting, expression or body language.  

We can continue to encourage growth by activating any of the following communication support cues:

1. Let them talk. Refer back to collaborative practices . . . and let them go! 


2.Limit teacher talk. The only way to really get students talking is to give them room to speak. By most figures, TTT (teacher talk time) should only 
account for 20%–30% of overall lesson time. Less of us, more of them. 


3.Let the games begin! Small and whole group game playing encourages practical communication and strategic problem-solving skills in a non- 
threatening setting. 


4.Model behavior.Do gently correct incorrect or inventive speech by repeat
ing the question or response in the amended format. 


5.Encourage descriptive speech and writing through questioning and hands- 
on learning. 


Asset 2: Critical Thinking Capacity

Critical thinking employs higher-level applications and solution-seeking strategies that can be tied to one grounding conclusion.  It demands analyzing properties and the ability to employ inductive, deductive, and/or alternative reasoning tactics as applicable.  Consequently, creative thinkers create and explore many ideas, possibilities, and opportunities.

Critical thinking and reasoning supports balanced judgment and sound decision-making by inviting thinkers to interpret information and conscientiously reflect upon precise predictions and decisions.  These skill sets are also intertwined with outside-the-box thinking, an essential component in creative solution seeking. As educators, it becomes our responsibility to endorse critical thinking and reasoning skills as viable components of twenty-first-century instruction.

Asset 3: Creativity

Creativity is the convergence of curiosity and problem-solving abilities. It is brought to life when humans see, feel, hear, and experience the world in original ways. Creative thinking leads to innovative ideas, which may manifest into novel designs, products, tools, solution sets, or thought output. Creative functioning follows a predictable pattern, or a life span of thought from creation to execution.

The creativity platform involves three elemental steps:

·      Naming the challenge,

·      Solution seeking (problem solving) for the challenge, and

·      Defining resolution.

Inventive skills aid our students in navigating their future lives. They fit into managing finances, negotiating travel itineraries, and coordinating college schedules. They also inspire works of art, the wording of a term paper, or a personal decision to alter a daily task for greater efficiency. Essentially, creative individuals are better equipped to meet the challenges of 21st century life.

We can nurture creativity in the classroom in an infinite number of ways. We can begin by setting aside time for imaginative exploration. Inventive thinking can be further supported through cooperative talk and technology integration, where applicable. As we plan our lessons, we can be cognizant in our efforts to provide students with multiple formats in which to demonstrate efficacy and understanding. Some learners feel more inspired when soft music is playing, when they can craft, act, or sing out their thoughts, or when they are able to kinesthetically problem solve for a solution.

Mechanisms for encouraging creativity in the classroom are also indicators for sheltered instruction. That is, we very likely nudge our students’ imagination as an existing byproduct of the Newcomer/ELL instruction model. If we consider creativity as an essential 21st century virtue, then we can be inspired to (creatively!) continue and expand upon our efforts to reinforce these skills.

Asset 4: Flexibility

Flexibility is demonstrated by an individual’s capacity to accept and adapt to change. These particular skill sets are usually situational; and thus are influenced by time, variable outcome, artistic influence, personality, feedback, negotiation, and other sensitivities. They are essential 21st century competencies.

Flexibility carries various faces and weights. It can mean adjusting to variant schedules and routines; adapting to shifting roles, such as weekly changes in classroom job assignments; or the ability to digest and respond to both positive and negative feedback. Ultimately, this form of intra-personal dexterity is a reflection of a person’s capacity to cope with unpredictability and other unknowns.

For our Newcomers ELLs, flexibility can carry a pronounced load. Our learners must adapt at extreme levels to situations that may be entirely new. Newcomers may be experts in flexibility long before they reach our classrooms. Many have learned to make creative adjustments when predicted food sources are not available; when home takes on a very mobile meaning; when loss and uncertainty occurs; and when financial resources exist as ebb and flow commodities.  In laying the groundwork for these demographics, structure, stability and predictability must be established, as essential markers of security.

Preparing our students for twenty-first-century success also means making room for opportunities to practice flexibility, but with safety nets in place. This can be accomplished by occasionally shifting reading group compositions, or by reversing the order of learning stations for a day. It sometimes helps to create the shift for something fun and memorable, such as an outside scavenger hunt during a scheduled block, or hosting unannounced reading buddies for an afternoon.

Asset 5: Self-Initiative

Self-initiative calls for independent goal setting, as well as the ability to effectively prioritize, monitor, and manage resources- including time, learning, and productivity. This family of skill sets is grounded in self-regulation, self-management, and strategic ownership. Self-initiating learners find direction with limited outside prompting, and are inspired to continuously develop in a target area or areas.  Self-initiation strengths are key indicators for 21st century success; and for Newcomer students, self-initiative can also enhance the possibility for timely and vigorous integration into the host society.

In the aim of fostering self-initiation skills, we can:

·      Offer a range of learning materials to pique a spectrum of interests.

·      Aid students in naming and understanding a baseline data point for a specific aim, such as math facts competency.

·      Offer guidance in identifying a goal point (advanced students can provide reasoning and explanation).

·      Mentor students in record keeping (such as graphing score values weekly) throughout the goal-seeking process.

·      Praise unyielding efforts as efforts in any regard, and celebrate failures as incredible opportunities for new understanding and growth.

Our mindfulness to these basic foundations helps us guide our students as they evolve from reactive to proactive participants in learning, and ultimately, develop as self-initiating individuals.


Asset 6: Leadership Skills

Leadership skills involve persuading others toward the accomplishment of a specific aim or aims, meanwhile exercising integrity, ethical maturity, interpersonal skills, strategic problem solving, and awareness for the common good.   In as much as leadership entails guiding, it must also encompass diplomacy, fairness, and equity. True leaders bear in mind the best interests of the whole, and they comprehend the divergence between imperiousness and spirited, pragmatic headship.

Opportunities to exercise leadership in the school setting should be governed by parameters of equity and accountability, virtues that should also be modeled by adult guides.  In the classroom setting, leadership skills are fostered through interactive activities that include project planning, team building, time and project management, goal setting, problem solving, and diversity awareness.

Leadership skills are unique in that they can be directly applied to all other faculties of 21st century development (and may effectively enhance or diminish the efficacy of any area where they are applied). The school setting, with all its safety nets in place, is an ideal ground for testing, modifying, and strengthening healthy leadership abilities.


Asset 7: Accountability and Productivity

Accountability and productivity are two separate 21st century functions that are inherently linked to one another.  Productivity entails envisioning a goal, and then implementing the specific procedures and protocol necessary to ensure completion of the overall task or objective. The process demands preplanning, careful management of time and physical resources, the ability to work under pressure and satisfy deadlines, and a willingness to accept and grow from positive and negative feedback.

Accountability is the ownership piece. Accountable individuals demonstrate a sense of duty and proprietorship for their work and personal choices. This is where the doing and the character of the doer meet.  Combined, these skill sets require that individuals work hard, work effectively, and take responsibility for their work

Accountability and productivity skills are encouraged through:

·      Partnerships with essential skill sets, such as creativity and collaboration.

·      Collaborative exchange

·      Clearly communicated objectives

·      Carefully defined rubrics (picture rubrics are appropriate for Newcomers)

·      Diminished teacher talk time

·      Sentence stems, which lay the groundwork for on-task talk.

·      Brain breaks provide, which fresh blood flow and focus energy

·      Use of appropriate technology input, which saves time and develops expertise.

·      Involving parents can also deeply enhance students’ accountability and productivity aims.


Asset 8: Civic Duty and Social Fluidity

Civic competency involves a cognizance of social structure and policy. It invokes an understanding of personal choices and liberties that are available under a given civil framework, as well as the duties and obligations that define good citizenship.

Civic education assumes additional complexity in the Newcomer setting as new customs, expectations, holidays, and citizenship protocol in the host setting are absorbed, learned, and embraced.  ELLs might also be responsible for transferring an awareness of basic laws and citizenship frameworks to adult family members or to grow into their roles as citizens in the new country alongside their adult counterparts.

Civic learning in the classroom occurs through:

·      Direct instruction about the government, governmental leaders and history, and normative social values (Ex, creating a classroom city, government and/or court; designing character maps of a good citizen; giving news reports; or conducting relevant author studies)

·      Modeling of essential platforms, such as democratic participation and good citizenship

·      Explicit teaching of civic dispositions  (or character virtues), including:

  • moral responsibility

  • integrity

  • self-discipline,

  • respect

  • the ability to compromise,

  • empathy

  • a commitment to obeying laws, and a cognizance of human interconnectedness.

  • Community engagement, such as volunteer service or interviewing.

  • Civic-minded interactive classroom activities     

Asset 9: Technology Literacy

21st century learners must become adept manipulators of technological resources.  In order to fully contribute in the modern workforce, students must enjoy ownership of technological mastery and online etiquette- but should also recognize and aspire to a healthy balance between technological connectivity and direct social interaction. How do we integrate technology in our classroom and at our school? How could we increase and expand upon learners’ opportunities to employ technology in their educational processes? How do we define, model, and hold students accountable for issues of ethics regarding technology and digital information?


Our students, inclusive of our English language learners, will be expected to achieve proficiency in every facet of 21st century functionality. The tools needed to thrive as productive adults begin in our classrooms today. By striving to incorporate authentic tasks, we can help students develop their nine key assets and foster true 21st century success.


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