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21st century learning skills are not a new topic in the field of ESL / EFL, however, it is not a surprising issue if I were to say that not all English teachers have given their consistent attempts to nurture those 21st century skills among their learners. There are numerous 21st century skills that teachers have to expose to their learners. The common ones are the 4Cs; communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. Beyond doubt, these 4Cs and other relevant 21st century skills such as negotiating, problem solving and decision making can be developed in language classrooms.

In ESL writing classrooms, the 21st century skills can be nurtured either at pre-writing, while-writing or post-writing stage. In this write-up, I wish to exemplify a few activities that can promote the development of the 21st century skills during the pre-writing stage. Using the latest Continuous Writing questions (SPM 2019), a few activities that focus on the 4Cs are shared.



1. Critical thinking – to think of good relevant ideas

2. Creativity – to propose ideas which are valid and convincing

3. Communication – to present the selected convincing ideas to the class

WALL OF THOUGHTS gives a chance to all pupils to think of an idea and share it with the whole class. Each idea which is relevant to the essay topic is written on a piece of sticky note and then pasted on the four corners of the classroom walls. This is to allow more space when all pupils in the class visit each wall and read all the ideas/ thoughts. Pupils must jot down ideas which they regard as important for their essay and present them to the class.

SPM 2019:

Which do you think is more important, money or health? Compare the two and decide if one is more important than the other. Give your reasons.

Examples of ideas:

1. Money is more important because money guarantees happiness.

2. Money cannot buy health.

3. No point having a lot of money if you are sick.

4. We can only buy healthy food with money.



1. Collaboration – to think collaboratively with a partner about ideas /options /possibilities

2. Critical thinking – to compare and contrast ideas / options

3. Creativity – to propose ideas which are unique, strong and valid

4. Communication – to present ideas/arguments persuasively to the a partner

Mixed Pair Share promotes collaboration between two pupils at one time. Pupils will get a few different partners to collaborate with. The more partners they get, the more exchanges of ideas and thoughts can be done by them. For example, they have a lot to talk about if they are given this question:

SPM 2019: Modern inventions have made our lives much too complicated. Things used to be a lot simpler in the past. How far do you agree? Explain why.

During each exchange of ideas, pupils are supposed to jot down points and details which attract them. At the end of the lesson, pupils have to go through their notes and think critically which ideas should be taken and developed for their essay.



1. Collaboration – to collaborate with classmates in sharing ideas

2. Critical thinking – to examine all ideas but choose the best/most interesting one

3. Creativity – to create a new idea individually

4. Communication – to present the refined ideas to the audience

SPM 2019:

Write about the day you first met your best friend. Describe where you were and how you began talking to each other. Explain how your friendship has developed since that time.

Each pupil is given ample time to think about ideas to answer the question above. Then, all pupils stand up and are required to move around the class and interview at least 5 pupils. They are supposed to ask these questions:

  • Who is your best friend?

  • Where were you when you met your best friend?

  • How did both of you begin talking to each other?

  • How has your friendship developed since that time?

Then, using all the notes gathered from the interview sessions, each pupil has to decide their own content and details. Perhaps, to promote creativity and critical thinking further, the teacher may give prizes to the top five essays which are interesting.



1. Collaboration – to think collaboratively on various ideas /options /possibilities

2. Critical thinking – to examine all ideas but choose the best/most convincing ones

3. Creativity – to pose questions which are not similar to others

4. Communication – to present the refined ideas to the audience

TICKETS FOR MY SEATS requires pupils to formulate at least two questions to be posed to the whole class. Their questions are based on the given essay question such as one of the Continuous Writing questions for SPM 2019:

If you had the chance to be someone else, who would you choose to be? Explain what would be good about being that person and what might be difficult. Examples of questions:

1. Who do you want to be?

2. What are the person’s positive traits?

3. What is the person’s biggest weakness?

4. How would the person be helpful to others?

Initially, all pupils have to stand on the right of their chair. Once they have asked their first question, they are required to stand on the left of their chair. This is done to assist the teacher to identify pupils who have or have not asked questions. Pupils who have asked the second question are allowed to sit. Obviously, asking two questions is their ticket to enjoy their seat. Questions cannot be repeated – this is to encourage pupils to think hard and be different from others.



1. Collaboration – to collaborate with classmates in contributing ideas

2. Critical thinking – to examine all ideas and choose the relevant ideas for one's story

3. Creativity – to create a different story line

4. Communication – to communicate one's ideas with confidence

SPM 2019

Write a story about two people who had an argument because one of them had lost a mobile phone. End your story with: “… they both realised how foolish they had been.”

Using the question above, several chips or any suitable items are given to each group member. Each member has to put a chip in the centre of the table in order to give an idea or to say something in response to the essay question above. They are not allowed to contribute ideas until all group members have said something.

To narrow the scope of discussion, the teacher must control or decide the topics which will be discussed one at a time. Among the possible topics to be discussed are:

  • Two people (Who do you think are the two people who had an argument?)

  • The loss (How do you think the mobile phone could be lost?)

  • Arguments (What could they argue about?)

  • Realisation (What could have happened that made them realise how foolish they had been?)


Hopefully, the four activities shared above do give some insights on the possibility of nurturing the 4Cs and other relevant 21st century skills in pre-writing tasks. To me, it is indeed enriching when our learners are required to think hard and smart before they start writing their essay. When we give emphasis on those skills, we are also coaching our learners to be very critical and creative with the selection of ideas as well as details to be included in their essays.

The level of difficulty of each tasks depends on learners' maturity and definitely their language proficiency too. Therefore, it is crucial for ESL teachers to vary the tasks to suit their own teaching context. Perhaps, with lower intermediate learners, simpler tasks could be assigned to them and lessen individual tasks but have more collaborative or guided tasks.

Based on my observations, learners do benefit when they are required to ask a lot of questions before they even start planning what to write. The more we emphasize on the 21st century skills particularly critical thinking and creativity, the better it is for our learners. Self and peer questioning really improve the quality of ideas learners finally choose to be written in their essays.

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