Five Tips for Developing Students’ Communication and Intercultural Skills

More and more English language educators understand the importance of focusing not only on developing our learners’ linguistic competence, but also on helping them use English to connect with people who have different perspectives, beliefs and behavioural norms from their own. The push to help students develop global competence by the OECD PISA (2018) and the promotion of pluricultural competence by the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) further highlights the significance of intercultural skills today. 

However, while many of us might be experts at teaching grammar and vocabulary, sharpening our students’ communication skills and intercultural skills might be unfamiliar territory. Some of us might shy away from this because we feel we lack the knowledge or expertise to help students develop these skills systematically. And some of us might get students to speak in groups in the hope that they will incidentally develop these soft skills. However, developing our students’ communication skills and intercultural skills does not have to be a daunting undertaking—we might already know more about it than we give ourselves credit for! 

 Here are five simple tips that can help us (and our students) develop these crucial skills. 

Tip 1: Encourage self-reflection

Self-awareness is the foundation of effective communication skills and intercultural skills. And the ability to self-reflect can lead to greater self-awareness. Self-reflection is the ability to observe and evaluate our own emotional, cognitive and behavioural processes. It allows us to look inward and become conscious of what drives us and what makes us feel, think and act the way we do. 

Self-reflection is a continuous process and can be incorporated in different ways during a lesson. For example, we might get students reflecting on their communication style and how it affects their interactions with others:

An infographic on different communication styles from Voices Upper Intermediate

We could also have our students reflect on their cultural norms and the behaviours they are used to. Quizzes are an engaging way to promote self-reflection in class:

A quiz from Voices Elementary

Tip 2: Explore emotional intelligence

One of the effects of increased self-reflection and self-awareness (see Tip #1) is a heightened understanding of our feelings. Emotional intelligence takes self-awareness to the next steps – the ability to be socially aware, i.e. aware of the feelings of the people around us; and the ability to self-manage, i.e. to manage our feelings and respond in a way that is appropriate and effective.  

When we encounter unfamiliar behaviours that we are not used to, we might jump to conclusions about reasons for that behaviour based on our own experiences and cultural filters. These behaviours might upset us and lead us to react in ways that might undermine our communicative goal.

For example, if our conversation partner is consistently interrupting us, and if we are not used to being interrupted, we might see their behaviour as rude or even belligerent. We might feel annoyed and instinctively explode at them after being interrupted for the tenth time (which we are certain to regret later), and this might damage the relationship in the long term. What has happened here is you have automatically reacted, instead of taking time to understand your emotions, consider the situation, and manage how you might respond to it.  

When we help our students become more emotionally aware, they will be better able to manage their emotions and their reactions so that they can have more effective interactions and successful relationships when communicating in English. 

We can explore emotional intelligence with learners in many different ways. This Communication Skill box from the Intermediate level of Voices shows students a three-step process for responding productively to unexpected behaviours:

A ‘Communication Skill’ box from Voices Intermediate

Tip 3: Make use of the materials and resources

When we were taking on a new exam preparation class or teaching an ESP course for the first time, we probably were not experts on the exam requirements, or the English used in that specific field. We relied on the materials and resources written by experts in these areas to help us understand what needed to be taught. In the same way, we can make use of courses like Voices that feature lessons in every unit (all labelled “Lesson Ds”) to provide the strategies and the systematic step-by-step development of communication and intercultural skills.

This example Lesson D from the Pre-Intermediate level of Voices features activities that introduce the essential soft skill of showing interest when listening to others:

A ‘Lesson D’ from Voices Pre-Intermediate

Just as you might read alongside your students when doing a reading lesson on the invention of the automobile (and realising you’ve learnt something new yourself), you can read the stories, listen to the audio files and watch the videos in these Lesson Ds as they take your students through a step-by-step process for learning a new communication skill. After doing several of these lessons, you might start to see the system and approach that is being used to develop these skills, thus giving you more confidence to improvise, supplement and tailor the materials to suit your students and your classes. 

You can teach global communication skills in your classroom — Voices can help!

Tip 4: Embrace emergent language

In any lesson where there is meaningful communication, or any speaking lesson where students are focused on expressing what they are trying to say to their teacher or classmates, there will be emergent language. Emergent language, as opposed to target language, is unplanned language that is needed or produced by learners during meaning-focused interactions (Chinn & Norrington-Davies, 2023).  

Instead of scouring the materials of a communication skills lesson for grammar and vocabulary to teach, listen to what the students are saying (or what they are trying to say) and help them find ways to express themselves. Notice the language issues that are causing communication breakdowns, provide ways of saying things in a more precise or appropriate way, and be prepared to answer incidental questions students might have about language. By embracing student-generated language, we can increase learner engagement, encourage learner agency, and provide useful language inputs that will be more memorable for students.  

Tip 5: Encourage curiosity

Curiosity pushes us to engage with people and motivates us to understand them. Research has shown that curious people are better at building rapport and trust when interacting with others (Kashdan et al., 2012), and are more flexible and adaptable (Kashdan, 2013) – skills that are crucial to intercultural communication.  

Many of us might see curiosity as a fixed personality trait, but it is actually a skill that can be developed over time.  We can promote curiosity in our classrooms by praising students who want to know more, encouraging students to ask questions about each other, and providing opportunities where students can explore, think more critically and dive more deeply into topics that come up in the classroom. But most importantly, we can encourage curiosity by modelling curiosity. If we are curious about our students and ask genuine questions about what they think and how they feel, our students are likely to be encouraged to do the same.  

This Communication Skill box and image from a Voices Elementary lesson encourage students to be curious about other people’s points of view: 

If we regularly provide opportunities for self-reflection, explore emotional intelligence, and encourage curiosity in the classroom, while embracing student-generated emergent language and making use of the expertise in materials and resources to guide our approach, we can gradually build a classroom space in which students can strengthen their communication skills and intercultural skills in preparation for their interactions with the world beyond the language classroom. 

Watch the recording of Chia Suan Chong’s webinar for more ways to implement her “five tips” in your classroom!

Author: Chia Suan Chong

Chia Suan Chong is a writer, communication skills trainer and teacher trainer. She is the author of Successful International Communication, where she presented her ADAPT model as a framework for dealing with intercultural conflict. Delivering both online and face-to-face training to teachers and learners around the globe, Chia specializes in interactive workshops that encourage reflection for more effective international communication and improved collaboration. Currently based in York, Chia was English Teaching Professional’s award-winning resident blogger between 2012 and 2019. Chia has contributed extensively to the British Council Learn English website and holds a DELTA and a Masters in Applied Linguistics and ELT. She is a co-author for National Geographic Learning’s integrated skills series VOICES, for young adult learners and adult learners of English.


  1. This is amazing! Encouraging self-awareness, critical thinking and and community sense are essential in class.

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