ATL Skills: A teacher's guide

Nancy Macharia

How can the IB's approaches to teaching and learning skills be successfully embedded in your classroom?

What are the Approaches to Learning Skills? 

The International Baccaulearette (IB) has four programs namely; Primary Year Program (PYP), Middle Year Program (MYP), Diploma Program (DP), and Career Path (CP).  Approaches to Learning Skills (ATLS) are an integral part of the International Baccaulearette Programme. The ATLS  skills are designed to enable students in the IB programme to “learn how to learn.” They are intended to be applied across curriculum requirements as well as provide a common language for teachers and learners to use when reflecting throughout the learning process. There are five categories of ATL skills. In recent years, the spotlight has moved away from the development of generic skills and this has been thoroughly embraced in this approach to learning. By embracing effective learning strategies, student success can involve both the development of individual skills and subject-specific knowledge. Becoming an effective learner involves understanding some important principles of how to learn and the idea of adopting the ATL skills framework means that schools can focus on a holistic approach to classroom instruction.

The ATL Skills are presented in five broad skill categories:

This article  focuses on the Primary Years Program (PYP). The five ATLS are further broken down into sub-skills so that they are intentionally selected to align with the learning goals. For example, research skills have two main subskills which are information literacy and media literacy. In this article, I will unpack the five categories of ATLS and explain how they can be used in transdisciplinary learning alongside the Learner Profile in an inquiry-based learning environment. The learner Profile is an important element of the IB curriculum as it is attributes, that can assist students to become responsible members that can connect with  local, national and global communities (IB, 2018).  

How are ATLS taught?

Approaches to Learning Skills are transferable across different disciplines. For example, when students are taught the key tenets of research such as identifying the relevant information using skimming and scanning through the text or identifying keywords, students could use the same strategy in a social studies lesson as well as during a literacy session when they are reading a non-fiction text.  ATLS should therefore be explicitly taught by modelling how they “should look like”.

 It is vital that teachers and students collaborate to create a success criterion as this  teaching and learning practice assists students to visualize what the ATLS looks like.   When students understand what is expected from them, they are able to monitor their learning and to know when they have demonstrated the skills. Students understanding of ATLS is developed incrementally through practice.

An example of a level of understanding that can also be used as a success criterion
An example of a level of understanding that can also be used as a success criterion

Connection Between  ATLS and Transdisciplinary Learning

ATLS can be used across various disciplines as they enhance transdisciplinarity. Teachers should therefore be intentional by identifying the ATLS that best aligns with the purpose of the unit. Learning engagements should be planned that are targeting the selected ATLS. An analogy that best describes the ATLS is a wheel as all the spokes are revolving and connected at the center. Transdisciplinary learning is at the center and all the ATLS should be connected and supported by the learning.

The ATLs are effective learning strategies
The ATLs are effective learning strategies


Skill-based questions to enhance student responsibility

Questioning is an integral part of the Primary Years Program as students are encouraged to be inquirers. While planning units of inquiry, teachers should consider identifying questions that enable students to reflect on the skills that connect to the concepts that they are inquiring into. For example, when teachers ask “how” questions, students are inclined to gravitate towards a skill-related response. For example, how did you find out information about children’s rights? A student may respond by sharing that they interviewed a member of the learning community. According to Kaye (2014), students should be encouraged to research using Media, interviews, surveys, or observations (MISO) depending on the scope of their inquiry. Student engagement can also be enhanced using higher-order questioning. With the right sort of questioning, students' collaboration skills and communication skills can both be addressed. Creating an activity with students that uses an inquiry approach often brings with it ample opportunities to practice strategies that lead to greater student responsibility. Coaching students to identify when they are utilising personal learning strategies such as communication skills or critical literary skills will help to build a common whole-school approach to nurturing inquisitive learners who can think for themselves.

How ATL research skills can be developed throughout a unit of inquiry

Fourth-grade students were inquiring about children’s rights worldwide. The teachers identified research skills as a tool that would provide students with a lens on factors that impact children’s rights worldwide. Using various forms of research such as listening to current news, reading non-fiction texts that highlight various local and global issues, students were able to identify a topic that they would research further, and ultimately take action. After reflection, students were able to make connections about how different factors that affect childrens’ rights are inter-connected. These connected skills taught through explicit teaching strategies in relevant activities help children adopt the ATL Skills in purposeful ways.

Communication Skills

Communication skills are concerned with how one  expresses themselves confidently and creatively in diverse ways. Students are encouraged to collaborate and share their ideas using different learning modalities. Communication skills are grouped into sub-categories such as:

  • Exchanging information, listening, interpreting, and listening.
  • Literacy, reading, writing, and using language to gather and communicate information
  • ICT- communication using to gather, investigate and share information  

For example, during class engagements, teachers should aim and create opportunities for students to share their learning with other learners and reflect. Whilst enforcing communication skills, teachers would also assist students to connect with the learner profile of communicators which focuses on students ability to express themselves confidently and creatively using various learning modalities. The emphasis should therefore be on listening carefully to the perspectives of other students. In order for students to see the connection between the ATLS and Learner Profile, teachers may consider using Guy Claxton’s (2010) split-screen which assists students to understand what they are going to learn and  how they will learn the concept;

  • what we are going to learn (knowledge),
  • how we will learn (skills),
  • what we are becoming/ will become during and after the learning (disposition ie Learner Profile)

Example of a 3-split screen
Example of a 3-split screen

Thinking skills

Teachers should be intentional about teaching objectives that enforce thinking skills. The lessons should be planned in a way that encourages students to become more skilful in their thinking. Thinking strategies such visible thinking routines assist students to focus their attention on certain concepts and ultimately develop high order thinking skills. In the classroom, making  thinking more explicit would provide students with opportunities to think more clearly. A consideration or adjustment is for teachers to create learning engagements that allows students to reflect on their thinking process using skilful crafted thinking skills- related  questions. An example of a practice that may support students thinking  is ongoing reflective journaling where students can document their learning throughout the unit. Teachers can connect thinking skills to the Learner profile of thinker by using the attributes through the unit. Students demonstrate the Learner Profile of thinker when  they  use critical and creative thinking skills in various contexts to explore complex problems and to take action. Students show initiative in making decisions that are ethical. 

ATL Thinking Skills
ATL Thinking Skills

Self-management skills

Self-management refers to the ability for students to manage their behaviors, thoughts, and emotions in a manner that supports the progression of learning  productive way.  This has been a skill that has been brought to the fore during Covid-19 period where students have had to work independently when schools transitioned to Distance Learning. Self-management like all other ATLS require time to develop and they look different depending on the age and context. Students demonstrate that they have acquired self-mangement skills when they can plan learning strategies and take action to achieve their goals. The goals should be realistic and achievable but teachers may be required to scaffold the process.  A checklist may be a useful strategy for students to use as they develop their independence and ultimately mastery

Social Skills

Social skills are concerned with students cooperating and accepting responsibility as they work with other students. Students are expected to respect others,  resolving any conflict that may arise and to be involved in group-decision making as they  adopting a variety of group roles during the learning and sharing process. Depending on the focus of the unit, the teacher may assist students to make connection with the Learner profile attribute of principled. Students demonstrate the Learner Profile of principled when they interact with others with integrity and honesty. The teacher may set up learning experiences  where students work in pairs or in groups so that students can collaborate and while doing so be able to have a sense of fairness and respect other students perspectives. The set up can take the form of games or discussions. For example students can watch a video together and then discuss its content.

ATL skill progression
ATL skill progression

Final Thoughts on the ATL Skills

In conclusion, by incorporating the ATLS and Learner Profile in instruction, students are provided an opportunity to use their skills and to develop the desired attributes. It is worth considering using the ATLS and Learner Profile in the reflection process each day. For example; 

“How did you use your research skills?”

“When did you use self-management skills today?

“ What skills did we use today?

Student success encompasses more than just passing exams, providing a focus of approaches to 'how we learn will provide students of all ages with the effective learning strategies they need to be successful lifelong learners. Providing children with opportunities to practice strategies is as much a part of the education experience and passing SATs. Developing stronger, more self-regulated learners doesn't mean reinventing the wheel. Embracing the ATL skills clusters sits side by side with your subject content. If anything, promoting skills development using deliberate strategies will help the next generation take on the complex challenges that life throws at them.

Nancy Macharia is an experienced IB Educator and Primary Years Curriculum Coordinator at an IB school. She is an instructional designer and is passionate about developing students’  Service and Action learning capabilities. She can be contacted using this email address: