L2 Language Learning for Senior Learners: dissecting the construct of examination-oriented class and infusing transferable skills

transferable skills

Content and skills included  in the senior levels of L2 curricula nurture, apart from the most valuable meta-language, also transferable skills; that is a set of core, or generic skills that are not disciple-specific, but can be transferred across fields and they are skills  directly relevant to higher education.

Senior learners are gradually familiarized with the process of becoming masters of their progress, as they are invited to participate actively in learning, encounter more L2 challenges and activate target language naturally as compared to junior years’ English studies. Being more conscientious learners, they comprehend that the target language is an entity to be implemented, rather than fragmentary courses in English.

By Marina Siskou

Senior L2 learners are more willing to understand and work towards fulfilling a concrete learning goal.

Supposing that the L2 learners are typical students who observe the established route of Learning English as a Foreign Language, they might fall into the age bracket of puberty (including early and late adolescence). Puberty, cognitively and language-wise is a breeding ground of recovery, development and progress.

Namely, according to Fuhrmann, Knoll and Blakemore [1], adolescence is characterized by changes in brain structure and function, particularly in regions of the cortex that are involved in higher-level processes such as memory, for which capacity may be heightened in adolescence […]. Most research on sensitive periods has focused on early sensory, motor, and language development, but it has been recently suggested that adolescence might represent a second “window of opportunity” in brain development […].

Hands-on experience is a substantial ingredient of learning and, as all L2 learners are expected to conduct activities with the knowledge they are granted, senior L2 learners’ age group  welcomes discovery learning: the most prominent quality of discovery learning, a notion developed by Bruner (1961), is that learners have to generate units and structures of abstract knowledge like concepts and rules by their own inducive reasoning about nonabstracted learning materials (Holland et al., 1986)[2].

The meaning of Transferable Skills; L2 Learning can Secure their Development

Transferable skills can render L2 learners flexible, conscious, perceptible and culturally aware. Although this set of skills does not constitute a distinct entity of formal curricula, either in school or in second language education, transferable skills are silently prerequired in all aspects of life, majorly tertiary education and the workplace.  Transferable skills rely on the implicit ability of transferring knowledge and experience that has been acquired within specific circumstances to other, relatable field(s) of life, a uniquely human ability.

According to Deal and Hegde, survey conducted by business leaders indicates that they believe colleges generally do a poor job of developing transferable skills (e.g. writing, critical and analytical thinking) in their graduates[3].

L2 Teachers Can Be Agents of Transferable Skills Development

One consequential reflection is whether teachers of English hold their share of responsibility for the afore-drawn conclusion. If they do, then this is a blissfully optimistic response: teachers of English are gold mines of transferable and global skills, and the power they behold extends beyond the seeming impact of L2 input. L2 teachers are and can be effective privies of language knowledge and usage, as well as of valuable transferable skills; Being so, L2 teachers are attested masters of those much-desirable skills in all aspects of life: education, academia and workforce.

Attempting an  analytical peer of the reasons and the manners through which teachers of English can become envoys of transferable skills, a primary realization is that teachers of English, as graduates of schools of philosophy-the humanities in general, are equipped with (and a large percentage, also endowed with) knowledge and apparatus to invigorate learners before real-life challenges.

Deconstructing the body of talents, skills and capabilities the average L2 teacher observes:

  • The ability to understand, process and disambiguate target-language discourse (teachers have been trained to comprehend, analyse critical-contrastive literature).
  • The ability to produce L2- adjusted discourse within a wide range of difficulty: thus, they hold exquisite audience-awareness skills.
  • An eye for the detail: assessment and evaluation need effort, energy, long, specialized training, close reading, the ability to discern what normally remains unnoticed by non-teachers.
  • Refined listening skills. Teachers have excellent capability to listening for gist, listening for content, listening to assess grammar, vocabulary and mechanics-listening to evaluate formulae.

All too often, teachers employ their multi-layered listening skills within the same chunk of output.

  • The ability to sense emotions, read students’ moods and thereby set the appropriate atmosphere.
  • They are skilful interlocutors: they are cognizant of the maxims of effective communication, willing to listen -without the need to interrupt, they are comfortable with intense discussions. They can structure arguments and leverage persuasiveness.
  • The ability to discipline-without judgement or reprimand. They know how to guide without patronizing.
  • The attested ability to improvise -teachers are ready for the unpredictability; they adeptly manage communication breakdowns.
  • The ability to cooperate with deeply different types of personalities-applaudable interpersonal skills.
  • Admirable calculating skills: for many of us, school life has been a collection of memories trying to avoid algebraic formulae: yet, we do perform percentage calculations with awkward mastery.
  • The ability to produce spontaneous output.
  • The ability to write successfully different types and genres of discourse.
  • Knowledge of course designing, test-designing, course adapting and test adapting.
  • Let alone management, business and accountings command.

It is impossible to withhold this font of knowledge and skills to oneself.

Apart from teaching target language use, schemata and meta-language, L2 teachers provide learners with approaches and mechanisms, enabling them to navigate their progress.

Examinations can Reinforce Target Language Development and Transferable Skills Acquisition

In this part, the benefits of examination oriented L2 learning are discussed.

Running examination-preparation L2 classes can be beneficial and creative.

Exam-oriented L2 learning has been heavily disfavoured, as it is deemed to encourage automatic teaching and learning, violates L2 natural stages and pace, disrespects originality of target language, neglects individual differences amongst learners and discourages personalised approaches to language teaching. Furthermore, it is felt that exam-based learning only bears short-term and mid-term results and it doesn’t foster natural L2 development and creativity.

According to an insightful paper on the benefits and drawbacks of the exam-oriented education system in China, the authors[4], inform that “focusing solely on exams, the gaokas, often comes at the cost of students losing their imaginations and creativities” (Rob Schmitz, 2011).

[…] Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof (2011), wrote about this paradox: “Many Chinese  complain scathingly that their system kills independent thought and creativity, and they envy the American system for nurturing self-reliance-and for trying to make learning exciting and not just a chore […] An exam-oriented education system not only increases a student’s burden but also restricts a student’s ability to learn using techniques that a particular student finds most effective.

The above bleak situation is vividly reminiscent of our own education mentality.

Exam-dependent education can indeed be insidious to creativity and self-expression; it can even scar learner’s self-esteem.

Exam-oriented learning though differs- in the sense that learning and teaching is structured upon a core of prerequisites and specific skills expected to be internalized, developed and retrieved by L2 learners. If managed and practiced in prudence and with respect to proportion though, examination-oriented teaching can lead towards beneficial linguistic and cognitive outcomes.  

On condition that exams are not hijacking L2 leaners’ élan and self-esteem, their contribution to learning are multifold.  According to Brame and Biel[5], tests are most commonly used as summative assessment tools [….], also as formative assessment tools [….] and as diagnostic tools. Most interestingly, we may acknowledge that testing promotes student learning, but we often attribute this effect to test preparation. Yet, the heart of the matter is that, one of the most consistent findings in cognitive psychology is that testing leads to increased retention more than studying alone does (Roediger and Butler; 2011, Roediger and Pyc; 2012). This effect can be enhanced when students receive feedback for failed tests and can be observed for both short-term and long-term retention. There is some evidence that testing not only improves student memory of tested information but also the ability to remember related information. Finally, testing appears to potentiate further study, allowing students to gain more from study periods that follow a test [..] (Klionsky, 2008).  In addition, exams help students realize gained knowledge. Non-participatory input or passive reading can forge the illusion of knowledge. Sitting for an exam helps students clarify units of acquired knowledge and help them deepen into the resistant parts of their L2 learning.

Wisely and appropriately administered, examinations in L2 education enhance development, understanding and solidification.

They yield prosperous results not only in terms of the learning outcome, but they also enhance and structure the learning process.

As long as examinations constitute a part of the learning procedure and not the sole aim, L2 exams provide:

  • A consistent measure of L2 progress. A solid ground of deciding the extent of L2 progress and a reliable indicator of persistent errors and misconceptions-that consequently direct assessment, differentiated teaching and L2 input,
  • A measure of all learners’ achievements,
  • An assessment of individual skills,
  • An inclusive experience,
  • Motivating feedback[6].

If introducing the pass/fail scale feels intimidating, L2 teachers can incorporate multilevel exams, thus seizing the benefits of testing L2 learners and enhancing their progress, without depriving them of the integral self-confidence.

Stark results based on fail/pass extremes of the scale can breed negative or confirmation bias to learners’ conscience.

One primary aim of testing is memory reinforcement. Memorization is a valuable and productive muscle. Memorization cannot be employed interchangeably with rote learning, as the latter entails the extraction of information for the sheer sake of a utility purpose: The learner’s mind, sooner or later is going to  shed rote-learned material, bearing minimal connection to posterior or desirable knowledge, being non- relatable.

Memorization though, is an inherent skill of learning. It is via memorization that learners develop even their gross and fine motor skills, they internalize social manners and enable further academic progress-by generating ideas, drawing comparisons and contrasts, thus rendering defiance possible, all constituent parts of knowledge solidification.

As Brame and Briel[7] confirm, the idea that active retrieval of information improves memory is not a new one; William James proposed this idea in 1890, and Edwina Abbott and Arthur Gates provided support for this idea in the early part of the 20th century (James, 1890; Abbott, 1909; Gates, 1917). During the past decade, however, evidence of the benefits of testing has mounted.

English teachers can turn the unavoidable fact of exam-oriented L2 learning towards their learners’ favor. We can leverage learners to manage their L2 progress and encourage discovery-learning.

Teenage learners form strong language-learning groups

It is attested that puberty is a window of opportunity learning-wise; also, practice verifies that teenage learners are very active; once their effervescence is appropriately managed and their interest is attracted, the learning outcome can be promising.

One cannot neglect that teenage L2 learners are driven by the need to be expressive: they yearn for communication and vocalization more that the other age groups of L2 learners.

Except for acquiring meta-language, senior L2 learners can develop transferable skills through L2 learning tasks, activities, and examinations.

On a positive note, there is evidence that both studying for and sitting exams deepens learning[8].

Integrating examinations-preferably multi-layered testing- teachers can better evaluate effectiveness of methods and materials, enhance student memory, understand and promote high-order skills.


Bergen, P., Lane, R. (2014). Exams Might be Stressful, but they Improve Learning. http://theconversation.com/exams-might-be-stressful-but-they-improve-learning-35614 [last accessed: 25-02-2020].

Brame, C., Briel, R. (2015). Test-Enhanced Learning: The Potential for Testing to Promote Greater Learning in Undergraduate Science Courses. CBE Life Sciences Education. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4477741/  [last accessed: 25-02-2020].

Michigan Language Assessment. (2109). 5 Benefits of Multilevel English Exams. https://michiganassessment.org/blog/2019/09/09/5-benefits-of-multilevel-english-exams/ [last accessed: 23-02-2020].

Neber H. (2012) Discovery Learning. In: Seel N.M. (eds) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Springer, Boston, MA

Deal, J., Hegde, A. (2015). The Development of Transferable Skills in a Variety of Economics Courses. International Research in Education.https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/b4c3/22d87c044aa8d8697d47bcc8d7dd596ed4dd.pdf [last accessed: 23-02-2020].

Fuhrmann, D., Knoll, L., Blackemore, S. (2015). Adolescence as a Sensitive Period of Brain Development. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. https://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613(15)00172-2 [last accessed: 23-02-2020].


[1] Fuhrmann, Knoll, Blakemore. (2015). Adolescence as a Sensitive Period of Brain Development.

[2] Neber (2012). Discovery in Learning

[3] Deal, Hegde. (2105). The Development of Transferable Skills in a Variety of Economics Courses.

[4] Kirkpatrick, Zang. (2011). The Negative Influences of Exam-Oriented Education on Chinese High School Students: Backwash from Classroom to Child.

[5] Brame, Biel. (2015). Test-Enhanced Learning: The Potential for Testing to Promote Greater Learning in Undergraduate Science Courses.

[6] Michigan Language Assessment. (2019). 5 Benefits of Multilevel English Exams.

[7] Brame, Briel. ((2015). Test-Enhanced Learning: The Potential for Testing to Promote Greater Learning in Undergraduate Science Courses.

[8] Bergen, Lane. (2014). Exams Might be Stressful, but they Improve Learning.