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Engaging Young Learners Through CLIL

Kids lying in a circle making goggle eyesCharles Vilina, co-author of the new Young Learners series, Oxford Discover, offers some practical tips on making the most of CLIL in the young learner classroom.

As a teacher of young learners, it’s easy for me to see when my students are engaged in the lesson. I see it in their faces, in their posture, and in the way they inquire and respond. The class is almost vibrating with positive energy.

What are the qualities of learning in such a classroom? Here are just a few suggestions:

active, useful, meaningful, productive, experiential, challenging, rewarding, shared

Students who see value and purpose in their learning, who are challenged to think actively and to ask their own questions, are going to be engaged in the lesson. Take those qualities away, and students become bored and disenchanted.

Discovering the World

This brings us to the subject of content-based language education, which many teachers know as CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning). In a CLIL lesson, we open the windows of our classrooms and invite our amazing world inside. Students discover the world for themselves, using the tools of language in a meaningful way as they move through the lesson. As a result, language fluency is increased.

For our young learners, a successful CLIL lesson is meaningful, challenging, rewarding, and requires them to think deeply and learn actively.

Eight Points for Success

There are eight points to remember when incorporating CLIL into your young learners’ classroom.

1. Introduce the world through many core subjects

Since our purpose as language teachers is to build fluency, students should be introduced to a wide variety of core subjects (in the areas of social studies, the sciences, the arts, and math) to build strong language skills. Each core subject has its own particular vocabulary, grammar, and approach to learning. Social language (BICS) and academic language (CALP) are used in these CLIL lessons, integrating and strengthening both.

2. Let students lead the way by asking their own questions

When we introduce a subject, students should first have the opportunity to discuss what they know and what they want to know about it. This inquiry-based approach to learning engages students from the start. Students are invited to discuss their prior knowledge and experience of a subject, making them feel that they are active participants in the learning process. When students then go on to wonder, to ask their own questions about the subject, they create a personal interest in finding the answers. This supports strong student engagement.

Questions might include, based on the subject matter:

Why do butterflies have four wings?
Why are there 365 days in a year?
Why are cities often built near rivers or lakes?

The teacher can contribute to this process by wondering, too. As the teacher also has questions, this changes student perception. They begin to look at their teacher as a partner in learning.

3. Present content through both fiction and non-fiction

Everything in our world is enriched when presented through fiction as well as facts. Our young learners need exposure to stories as well as to expository texts, giving them fresh examples of how knowledge can be presented. This builds literacy skills as well as knowledge.

Here is an example of providing both fictional and non-fictional content for students, taken from Oxford Discover. The core subject is natural science, and it poses the big question, Where are we in the universe?

Extract from Oxford Discover Student's Book 4

Extract from Oxford Discover Student’s Book 4

Extract from Oxford Discover Student's Book 4

Extract from Oxford Discover Student’s Book 4

In the first reading above, the subject is presented through a fictional poem about a little girl and her imaginary spacecraft. In the second reading, a science article presents information about our solar system. Through both readings, students approach learning in a unique way.

4. Match the content to the students’ language ability

Be sure that the content you present is at a level of vocabulary and grammar that is comprehensible to your students. This means that the majority of the vocabulary and grammar in the readings has already been explicitly taught and learned in previous lessons.

However, every CLIL lesson will introduce additional vocabulary and grammar that are needed to understand the particular subject or topic. This additional vocabulary and grammar are taught explicitly, either before or after students are introduced to them in the readings. As students experience the new words and grammar through the context of the readings, their understanding increases.

5. Present content in an interesting and challenging way

The world is a fascinating place, but material is often presented in a dull way. Find content that triggers a child’s natural spirit of curiosity. There should be a sense of wonder, exploration, and discovery within the words of the readings.

6. Allow students to organize the content in a meaningful way

Once students have discovered information about a subject, they should have an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge. This can begin with comprehension activities, but it should soon move to higher order thinking tasks.

A successful CLIL lesson often uses graphic organizers such as time lines, Venn diagrams, mind maps, or charts (illustrating cause and effect, chain of events, etc.). Graphic organizers require students to analyze the information and make sense of it.

Here is an example of a graphic organizer used for the reading shown above about our solar system. It is a Venn diagram, asking students to compare and contrast Earth and the planet Venus.

Extract from Oxford Discover Student's Book 4

Extract from Oxford Discover Student’s Book 4

By challenging students to think more deeply, you create a much more active and motivating learning experience for them.

7. Give students an opportunity to talk about what they have learned

Throughout the CLIL process, students are building literacy skills through intensive reading. However, they need an opportunity to build their listening and speaking skills as well. Many opportunities exist in a CLIL lesson for this. For example, students should be encouraged to create their own questions about the readings. This lets students take control of their own learning, as well as to demonstrate what they know. As students share questions and answers, fluency is improved.

In addition, the graphic organizers described above can be a jumping board for dialogue. Students can work in pairs and complete the graphic organizers together while discussing their choices. Later, student pairs can work with other pairs to discuss what they have learned.

8. Provide a summative project to complete the CLIL lessons

A summative project allows students to take what they have learned and create something original with it. A strong summative project is collaborative (getting students to achieve something together) as well as creative (contributing their own original ideas) and communicative (listening, speaking, reading, and writing through the process). In addition, there should be an opportunity for students to present their projects to the class, building their public speaking skills.

Here is an example of a summative project around the subject of our solar system, taken from Oxford Discover. Students work together in small groups to create a model of our solar system, and then present it to the class.

Extract from Oxford Discover Student's Book 4

Extract from Oxford Discover Student’s Book 4

To conclude, a successful CLIL lesson is a student-centered approach to learning. The teacher facilitates the learning process by moving around the class, ensuring that students are actively involved and using the language tools they need to succeed. It is inquiry-based, encouraging students to ask their own questions and seek their own answers together.

Most importantly, CLIL allows students to use their language skills in a meaningful and productive way, building fluency and confidence as they seek and discover knowledge.

Would you like more practical tips on using CLIL and teaching 21st Century skills to your young learners? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.


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5 Ways to Prepare Your Students for the 21st Century

Young boy writing equation on chalkboardIn the first in a series of blog posts about 21st Century skills, (to accompany our teacher training videos on the same subject), author and English language teacher Charles Vilina provides some great tips on why 21st Century skills are important, and how to incorporate them into your classroom teaching.

When I was a small boy in the 1960s, drawings of the 21st Century always showed the same visions. People of the future would wear shiny space clothing, travel on moving sidewalks and in flying cars, and talk on portable phones.

Isn’t it interesting that many of these visions have come true? We now have personal computers and smartphones that let us share information instantly around the world. Modern air travel can take us anywhere on the planet. And while I don’t wear space clothes, I do use those moving sidewalks in airports! I think we can all agree that the 21st Century is a very exciting time in human history.

So when I talk to teachers about new developments in English education, and go on to mention the term 21st Century skills, why do so many begin to look uncomfortable?

Let’s start by looking at these skills a bit more carefully. 21st Century skills can actually be listed as a group of words that begin with the letter “C”.

Communication          Creativity          Critical Thinking          Collaboration

To state it simply, these are the four skills that your students will need to be successful in the 21st Century.

21st Century skills are being taught in primary classrooms in many countries. Many international schools are also committed to teaching these skills. However, I would argue that your English language classroom is actually the PERFECT place to build these 21st Century skills. Here’s why:

In essence, the English language classroom exists to prepare students to communicate across cultures, across borders, across perspectives. As the world evolves toward greater interconnectedness, it is our students to whom we entrust the responsibility of building a better global society. Yes, basic language skills are essential. However, equally essential is an individual’s ability to think outside the box, find future solutions to future problems, collaborate and reach a consensus across cultural and national borders.

So let’s get to some specifics. How easy is it to teach 21st Century Skills in your classroom? Well, chances are good that you’ve already started. The English language classroom has been evolving for decades, and continues to do so.

As a general guide, however, here are five “essential strategies” I would recommend that you develop in your classroom to encourage 21st Century thinking and learning. They may involve a change in perspective about how your students learn best, so feel free to take small but steady steps toward these goals. Practical information on how to implement these strategies will follow in future blogs.

1. Let Your Students Lead The Learning

Learning takes place best in environments where students feel empowered to learn. Effective teachers are more like moderators, offering inspiration and guiding students to discover for themselves. Give students the opportunity to be self-learners, which guarantees lifelong learning. This brings us directly to the second point.

2. Create an Inquiry-Based Classroom Environment

If students are to lead the way to learning, they need to be able to ask questions – and then find the means to answer them. Students (and teachers) need to “wonder out loud” as they encounter new information. A KWL chart (What do you Know? What do you Want to know? What have you Learned?) can guide students toward true self-motivated learning.

3. Encourage Collaboration

We are greater than the sum of our parts.”  Herein is the heart of collaboration. A healthy, active classroom is a sharing classroom. Students are social beings, and even more so in a language class. Find every opportunity to allow students to form pairs and small groups. Not only does this encourage the development of speaking and listening skills, but it also teaches students how to effectively achieve goals together.

4. Develop Critical Thinking Skills

Learning is more than memorizing and remembering. Critical thinking skills take students well beyond simple comprehension of information. Students use these skills to solve problems in new situations, make inferences and generalizations, combine information in new patterns, and make judgments based on evidence and criteria. Introduce activities in your lessons that build critical thinking skills along with language skills.

5. Encourage Creativity

Encourage your students to be creative throughout each lesson. Creative activities allow students to express what they’ve learned in a new way. This synthesizing and personalizing of knowledge consolidates learning, and creates an experience that remains with students long after the class is over.

By keeping these strategies in mind as you plan each lesson, you will be encouraging the development of 21st Century skills. Of course, your students may also need time to adjust to this new way of learning. However, they will soon begin to feel empowered to think more critically, to ask questions and seek answers, and to express themselves creatively. Most importantly, their communication skills will become much stronger as a result, which always remains our main objective!

Keep an eye out for more in-depth blogs in the 21st Century skills series. In the meantime, I wish all of you the greatest of adventures in this wonderful vocation that is English education!