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CLIL: just a fad, or still rad? (Part 2)

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Students in biology classIn the second of two posts to celebrate the launch of Project fourth edition, Tim Herdon writes about some of the practical implications of CLIL programmes and considers where we are going with CLIL (or where CLIL is taking us). Tim is a Senior Teacher Trainer at OUP, and has been involved in CLIL for six years. Read the first post here.

When I worked as a freelance CLIL trainer in Spain for five years, I noticed that the type of question teachers asked me about CLIL gradually changed during that period. In the first couple of years it was all about what, and why. What is CLIL exactly?  And why is it good for schools and for students’ education? Towards the end of that period, the answers to those questions seemed to be more or less givens, and the focus shifted to how: How do we go about implementing a CLIL programme?  How do we deal with the practical issues?

The second part of this article takes some of the more frequent ‘how’ questions and has a brief stab at answering them. On the assumption that one day in the not too distant future a much larger number of teachers will be directly or indirectly involved in CLIL in some way (see part 1 of this article), I hope that this shines a little light on some of the darker CLIL implementation challenges.

1) Are CLIL programmes common in other countries, and do all countries adopt a similar approach to implementation?  

Until recently CLIL has been a European initiative. Now however it is becoming increasingly common in other parts of the globe. Each country has adapted CLIL to meet its own specific needs. For this reason it is felt that there is not a single ‘correct’ way of implementing CLIL.

2) Does the CLIL subject teacher have to ‘teach’ language? What happens when this teacher encounters a language problem that s/he can’t explain?

CLIL teachers generally do not teach language in the way that language teachers do, although parts of their lessons will involve teaching or recycling key vocabulary. One of the aims of coordination between language and subject teachers is to identify language problems in the topic in advance so that they can be dealt with effectively.

3) What is the balance of the teaching focus between content and language?

A thorny issue, on which much has been written. But common sense dictates that content is the main focus. The L2 supplies the medium of delivery and communication. The CLIL teacher focuses on language only in the sense of enhancing the effectiveness of this role; he or she doesn’t venture into delights such as the difference between the past simple and present perfect.

4) What kind of support does a CLIL teacher need if his or her background is not language teaching?

For a CLIL programme to be successful it is very important for the CLIL teacher(s) to coordinate regularly with the L2 teacher(s) in order to plan strategies and activities for coming lessons, and to clarify any questions about language that the teacher him/herself might have.

5) What strategies can the CLIL teacher use to help students understand the subject in L2?

Using more visual materials, speaking in shorter sentences, checking comprehension frequently and using an interactive methodological approach are some of the ways in which teachers can tackle this challenge. This is of course a very short answer to an issue that is often dealt with in training courses ranging from several hours to several months.

6) Is a successful CLIL programme mainly a question of the teacher having a good level of English?

More important than the teacher’s command of English, is his/her ability to communicate in L2, and to find ways of getting students to do the same. CLIL tends to emphasise the importance of effective communication rather than correct language usage.

7) Is it right or wrong to occasionally explain things in L1?

Finding other ways to explain ideas and concepts using all linguistic and non-linguistic resources available is one of the most interesting challenges of CLIL. However in the interests of economy, it may occasionally be desirable to clarify a point in L1 – this is acceptable as long as students do not gradually come to rely on L1 as a crutch for solving language comprehension difficulties.

8) What about the English language teacher? Will his/her role change in the English language lessons?

A CLIL programme does not change the necessity for language lessons given by a specialized language teacher. In fact it can create opportunities for cooperation between subject and language teachers that are highly beneficial for students.

What’s your opinion?  Let me know what you think of these questions and answers – CLIL is many different things to many different people, so it’s always interesting to hear a range of viewpoints.

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Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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4 thoughts on “CLIL: just a fad, or still rad? (Part 2)

  1. Thanks for this great post, Tim. It’s so nice to see some common sense being said about CLIL, especially regarding the roles of subject teachers and language staff. In my own work with CLIL (also in Spain), it’s been a bit worrying to see subject specialists suddenly thinking that they should be teaching English (and worse still believing that they know how to), leaving language teaching specialists wondering what’s in it for them. In practice, as you point out, CLIL is an opportunity for both groups of teachers, and in fact only really works at its best when all are involved, and all know their respective roles.

    I also fully agree about the legitimate space for the L1, and sadly have observed classes where the refusal on behalf of the teacher to use English had left a significant group of learners lost and disenchanted. As you know, in Spain CLIL classes are often referred to as ‘bilingüe’, and I think that there is no reason why ‘bilingual’ shouldn’t occasionally mean the use of two languages.

  2. Thanks for the very useful comments Robin. And I agree – in the rush to get everyone on board the CLIL train, some key issues involving training, staffing, funding and timescales have not been thought through very carefully. CLIL programmes work best when they are grown from the roots up, slowly and carefully. Subject teachers need time to improve their language skills and prepare their subject in English. Planning between English language teachers and subject teachers needs to take place during the year preceding implementation and then at regular intervals during the programme itself. Additional funds are needed for buying or developing L2 materials. Programmes need to start small and grow slowly, otherwise they do indeed become a passing fad. And parents need to be on board from the beginning, and supporting the programme, not fighting against it. A couple of things that have made a vital difference in my experience are 1) having a head who sees CLIL as a great opportunity rather than an unavoidable headache and is therefore prepared to give CLIL the extra push it often needs and 2) employing native speaker English language classroom assistants to provide a genuine L2 element – this counteracts the ‘why are you explaining the periodic table to us in English when we’re all Spanish speakers in this room?’ syndrome.
    Implementation issues such as these are crucial – when CLIL works well with, as you say Robin, different groups of teachers involved and pulling in the same direction, it is really good for the school. And when it works badly, often becuase the right planning hasn’t taken place, it’s harmful for the school.
    Any other views out there? Let us know what you think.

  3. Pingback: CLIL: just a fad, or still rad? (Part 2) | Enseignements des langues - matériels print & online | Scoop.it

  4. Hello!

    I’d like to refer to the main interesting points tackled in Part 2 being grouped in categories.

    a. (1) Nature of CLIL implementation
    No one expects CLIL implementation to be the same in different contexts, so pluriCLILism must be opted for as an educational strategy, so as to personalise the learning practice.

    b. (2,4,6) Identity of the CLIL practitioner
    A good CLIL teacher is the one, who combines both language and content expertise. As we know though, this combination is sometimes hard to be achieved, therefore in an initial stage a language teacher with some knowledge in content area could be the right solution, whereas in an advanced level a subject teacher with a good knowledge of L2 can be more appropriate. In a high school for example a language teacher can not teach appropriately Science, or Maths through CLIL, (if CLIL is content oriented) because the lack of content knowledge can bring in negative results. Learners expect from the CLIL teacher to answer questions concerning the content area and cannot perceive, or justify the dichotomy between the language-content CLIL teacher.

    c. (3) Content -Language nexus
    The right balance between these two components depends on the needs of each context. If the L2 level of learners is high, a content-oriented CLIL may be implemented. Conversely, if the L2 level of learners is rather poor we should aim at a language- oriented CLIL. Going back to point 6, I think that an exposure of learners to a correct English is very important for a successful CLIL implementation, as the opposite may demotivate them.

    d. (5,7) Use of L1/L2 in a CLIL setting: Strategies
    I consider that the use of L1 should not be penalised, but limited as much as possible, because even when a teacher finds it hard to explain some points in L2 they can use strategies such as paraphrasing, which can be a learning model that increases learners’ cognitive processing . Other useful strategies are: the Socratic method (Maieutics) for inferencing and further deducing, experiential learning through projects etc.

    e. (8) The role of the language teacher and EFL
    The role of curricular EFL should be continously boosted and not neglected because of CLIL integration. Language and content knowledge even for learners should operate on an interdependent basis. The role of the English teacher is therefore very important into bulding up the necessary linguistic skills, that can operate as a solid background for a consecutive CLIL experience. As a result, the role of the English teacher should be active in the CLIL planning procedure.

    All in all, it is the idiosyncrasy of each context that dictates the pertinent educational choices.

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