These are not soft skills: The long-lasting literacy empowerments every student needs to become truly college, career and civic ready

Three elementary students talking while sitting at a table together

As educators, we are charged with ensuring that our students leave our classrooms with skills that will take them to college, the workplace and beyond. We know intrinsically that what have been historically designated as “soft skills” actually matter, a lot and are not so “soft” after all. When meeting someone for the first time, one automatically evaluates signs such as how accessible and open they seem, whether they appear curious about the world and how they speak to convince you about them or about their ideas. This will be true of our students in the world, no matter what kinds of tablets or apps they are using in the future. With technology changing at such a rapid pace, we cannot know what the future holds for our students. Yet teaching our students critical thinking, curiosity, collaboration, persuasive writing and cultural competence are skills that far from soft, are “hard-wired” to build leaders in all careers and civic minded global citizens no matter how the world changes. What are these skills and how can we promote them?

Critical, Flexible Thinking

Encouraging students to look for different meanings in the books they read will expand their mindset away from thinking that there’s always one right answer. Let’s encourage teachers to ask students open-ended questions, challenge their original beliefs and allow the time and space to form full thoughts and opinions about relevant world issues. You can ask their students what they think the theme is in a story instead of prompting them to state the theme. Ask: “What themes might be present?” rather than “What is the theme?” We can ask our students if they notice anything about the character instead of asking for a specific list of character traits you have already identified. “What are you wondering about this character?” “What might be a flaw in this character?” Asking purposefully open-ended questions shows our students that there isn’t always one correct answer, and their observations, evidence and background knowledge come together to build thoughts on text. Asking: “What are you thinking?” Is a great way to help students practice getting their own critical thinking perspectives into the world.


Have students to research and report on topics important to them prepares them for college and the workplace, where they will have to use their curiosity to find out more about an unfamiliar topic and use their wonderings to pursue new ideas. In the classroom, we can promote curiosity by taking student wonderings seriously, allowing students to research topics that they choose and present their findings to the class. I am a co-author on Pearson’s new integrated literacy program ReadyGen and I am very excited about the clear and easy to use online classroom library you will find there. We can expose our students to a wide range of topics, allowing them to choose what they would like to read when by giving them more voice and choice in their reading lives. We can use online applications to keep track of students ideas for how to better run the class period, how to improve their surroundings and anything they wonder about in school. We can also use online applications to poll students to find out their preferences. A very user-friendly app is Kahoot, which will allow you to promote discussions in your classroom, poll students and check for understanding. In ReadyGen, students write across three text types. Have them leap off the whole class instruction to find ways to do real life writing in the world off the topics they are learning about in the cross-current reading experiences of ReadyGen.  Giving students ownership over how they publish and for whom they publish their writing, builds investment in their learning and encourages their sense of curiosity.

Persuasive Writing and Speaking

Presenting information and persuading an audience are the cornerstones of great business and getting ahead. Let’s help students craft their arguments, select proper texts to persuade their audience and make their opinion known. Teachers can promote speaking and listening habits of citing evidence and giving reasons for opinions. Let’s allow students access to the ways of speaking that will make them sound credible. Put up sentence starters in your classroom such as “In the text, it says..” “I think this because..” “the evidence shows..” “in my opinion..” “I want to add on to what you are saying…” to encourage students to speak and listen purposefully. Using an application like Quandry generates problems for students to debate on, form an opinion and persuade others to their side. These skills will build a work team leader who can do the same. Encouraging thoughtful analysis of advertisements, infographics and other non-traditional forms of persuasion creates careful consumers of text. Listening to great speeches and analyzing the persuasion used will translate to students being able to use these same skills to persuade others. Let’s lead our learners in


When students collaborate with each other, they are learning how to get along with people who might not have a similar background or share the same opinions.  Collaboration in literature comes naturally, as students can work together to tell stories, compose written responses and read and discuss books. With all kinds of virtual communication technologies, we can now host book clubs across cities and countries! Connect with my organization to find a partner school to match up with. Students can create written responses together, use joint research projects to persuade others and work with their peers and adults on a project that will bring about positive change in their community. Community projects are a great tool for collaboration as students have to collaborate on the proposal as well as on the presentation and implementation of their ideas with stakeholders from all walks of life.

Cultural Competence

Books are windows into other worlds. By studying other cultures and people, students will be better able to interact with others from different backgrounds. Promoting books that teach about other cultures and different places allows students to access these books on their own, generates interest in other places and creates global citizens. Building understanding of other cultures can also be done through skyping classrooms from around the world to read aloud pieces of personal writing, collaborate on projects or just learn about each other. Building cultural competence while students are still in schools gives them this skill for the rest of their lives. Make sure classroom libraries are rich with diverse authors and perspectives on cultures near and far. Reading aloud from a variety of genres, from the news to op-eds helps students to become informed about issues affecting our globe in an engaging way. Recognize that children who come from different cultures and linguistic backgrounds have so much to offer, as do their families, and celebrate those wonderful aspects with writing celebrations for family stories and oral history interviews.
We all want the best for our students always. By promoting the “soft” but not soft at all!! skills of cultural competence, curiosity, persuasive writing, collaboration and critical thinking, we are ensuring that our students are ready for the world no matter what the future holds.


About Pam Allyn
Pam Allyn

Pam Allyn

Pam Allyn is a world-renowned literacy expert, author, and motivational speaker. She is the founding director of LitWorld, a global literacy initiative serving children across the United States and in more than 60 countries, and LitLife, a cutting-edge consulting group working with schools to enrich best practice teaching methods and building curriculum for reading and writing. She has written many books including an English/Language Arts Core Ready series that offers teachers ideas to make the most of their time in the classroom.

Pam received the 2013 Scholastic Literacy Champion Award, and is Scholastic’s Open a World of Possible Ambassador. She is a spokesperson for BIC Kids, championing BIC’s 2014 “Fight For Your Write” campaign. Pam was selected as a mentor for the 2013 Bush Institute’s Women’s Initiative Fellowship to help young Egyptian women develop leadership skills. She was chosen as an inaugural W.K. Kellogg Foundation Fellow in April 2014, becoming a part of a national cohort of 20 fellows focusing on racial healing and equity. She is on the Advisory Boards of the Amherst College Center for Community Engagement, James Patterson’s ReadKiddoRead, the Pearson Foundation’s We Give Books, and the Millennium Cities Initiative Social Sector.