How should CLIL work in practice? by Alex Mackenzie

Anyone who is anyone in the EFL world these days is talking about CLIL. The general consensus is that it’s the way forward but there is much debate about how it’s going to work in practice and how it’s going to be integrated into EFL schools. There are many high-schools across the world who actively run CLIL programmes but as of yet it hasn’t really entered the private EFL sphere.

As Academic Director in a school that offers CLIL courses and implements its principles in General English too, my aim in this paper is to give my own ideas on the matter; ideas that are working in practice as we speak. To begin with, let’s have a look at the underlying principles behind CLIL.

Principles of CLIL

  • Content and Language Integrated Learning- pretty much does what it says on the tin- it’s dual-focused education where attention is given to the topic as well as the language. Personally, I like to think the topic is more important, English is simply the medium used. Very often the subject in the EFL classroom is the language itself- wouldn’t you prefer it if your students could leave being able to speak about rainforests rather than relative clauses! Whether the topic is a school subject or another, the principles are the same. The fact that importance is given to the topic and the language gives a more integrated methodology of learning and teaching, drawing attention to the educational process as a whole as opposed to just how languages should be taught.
  • Making content/context king means that the student is actively involved in the language; they are immersed in it, surrounded and engulfed in it. They are using the language but the context, theme and task are the driving forces. When the students are engaged and interested in the topic they are more motivated to use and learn the language needed to communicate. It also promotes a more natural use of language; simply because the scope of the language is so much wider than the constraints of a traditional EFL lesson.
  • CLIL has been called ‘education through construction, rather than instruction’ which again puts the onus on the student- they learn, they build their language because they are put in the position where they have to, not because they are being taught to. CLIL is based on language acquisition rather than enforced learning. Some people are of the opinion that students often learn despite their teachers; with CLIL teachers take much more of a facilitator role than instructor.
  • Fluency is more important than accuracy. The nature of CLIL lessons means that the students will produce (and be exposed to) a vast array of language, the focus is firmly on communication and accuracy comes with time. Making mistakes is a natural process in language learning, and as we all know, language doesn’t have to be accurate to be communicative. CLIL exposes learners to situations calling for genuine communication.
  • CLIL promotes critical thinking and collaboration skills as well as language competence. It produces life-long learners and students are sent out with real-world skills and enhanced motivation and self-confidence.

CLIL is sometimes called ‘English across the curriculum’ which I think narrows the scope of it a little. CLIL can be a Geography lesson conducted in English but it could also be a lesson on another subject such as ‘film’, ‘literature’ or even ‘sports’. The principles are the same.

Putting it in to practice

CLIL is not a new concept, the name has been around since the early nineties, but people have been learning languages in this way for centuries. Migrants, economic or otherwise, have learnt this way since time began. Let’s take the example of the recent influx of eastern Europeans to the UK, many of them without any formal language education background. On a day-to-day basis, they put themselves in the position where they have to converse, deal with situations and ‘do tasks’. The contexts of these situations force them to not only use but also develop their language. Obviously, learning this way can lead to somewhat of an imbalance in their language skills in certain cases but there is no denying that it works. How many of us, as language learners, can say that we have learnt a language this way? I, for one, certainly can. It’s a natural, proven way to learn a language- the question we have to ask is how can we replicate (and improve on) this in our language schools.

I’m going to look at four different aspects of integrating CLIL into EFL classrooms: Syllabuses, In the Classroom, Teachers and Grammar. This is obviously not exhaustive; merely four factors I believe should be discussed.

Syllabuses

Before I go into this I’ll give you a little background on my school, The Mackenzie School of English. We specialize in year-round education, culture & activity programmes for groups of high-school students. We run content-driven, task-based General English classes as well as CLIL lessons based on traditional school subjects. Both these modes of tuition operate using the principles of CLIL stated above.

Our General English syllabus is thematic and based around topics which appeal to teenage students such as cinema, sport or boys & girls. All tasks in the lessons revolve around this theme and include things such as role-play, games and project work. The lessons consist of extensive integrated skills and encourage students to feel more confident about speaking English without the pressure of accuracy. The tasks and themes lead the way for the lessons; the language taught stems from them rather than the other way around.

The CLIL syllabus follows the same pattern only the topics are traditional school subjects. Again the lessons include group work, tasks and are heavily skills based. This syllabus can actually run in conjunction with General English to provide a bulkier, more academic programme. I see these lessons, in my school, as being an extension of the students’ curriculum back home not something that by any shape or form replaces or works in tandem with it. Obviously with extended CLIL programmes this would have to be rethought.

In the classroom

Tasks are all important and lessons are skills based. The theme of the lesson is adhered to throughout. Students are encouraged to explore topics and their own knowledge of the world is essential. We acknowledge that learners are well-informed, creative individuals and encourage them to bring their own personalities and backgrounds into the lessons.

Very often there are end products to lessons, or a block of lessons, such as videos, magazines and reports. Our lessons are motivational, engaging and entertaining. Language is picked up and mistakes are looked at but the themes and topics lead the way. What the students can actually produce is the language which is worked with and extended. I wouldn’t say this is level specific; even post-beginner and elementary students have enough grasp of the language do this. Vocabulary and Grammar is revised and recycled on a regular basis and students are encouraged to ‘notice’ language.

I have to say we have been overwhelmed by the students’ feedback on the courses we have run so far. They recognise that this is a different way of learning and teaching; they find it intriguing, rewarding and fulfilling. We try our best to instil a ‘can do’ attitude in our student and we’re doing a pretty good job!

 

Teachers

Obviously for the General English classes we employ enthusiastic, suitably trained EFL teachers. Our teachers are both energetic and energising. For the CLIL courses we look for teachers who hold an EFL certificate as well as a degree related to the subject they are teaching- as EFL teacher s have degrees in everything but language it isn’t too difficult.

One potential pitfall is the way teachers are currently being trained; this article is not the place to go into the failings of this but many teachers, even experienced ones, can be quite against changing their ways. To adopt this style of teaching you have to be open-minded and confident about running a class in this manner.

We have our own in-going training programme at the school; we open teachers’ eyes to the possibilities of this type of teaching and, so far, it has been very successful.

Grammar

 We’re all aware of the endless debates there are about grammar- how best to teach it, can we teach it at all, etc. One thing I think we can all agree on is that focusing on single (or even 2 or 3) grammatical structures and practicing them intensively in class doesn’t really do the trick. The minute the student walks out the door they will, more than likely, be making the same mistakes. We, in the industry, have been looking at grammar in this way for years; think of it from a student’s point of view- they look at the same language time and time again. By the time a student reaches upper-intermediate, for example, they might have studied certain forms three or four times. It’s true that learners need to know different things about the same grammar at different levels but I feel that you often reach the point where you are going through the motions- you teach grammar simply because you think you should.

CLIL is not language teaching without grammar; it’s present and it’s contextualized too. The idea that grammar can be dissected into individual chunks doesn’t really work in my opinion. Grammar, I believe, should be looked at in a more holistic sense- using contexts and functions to lead the way- using the students own language competences as a starting block for what to teach- using grammatical awareness raising activities like in TBL.

The Future of CLIL

I’m not going to hypothesise on the future of secondary school education throughout the whole world and whether bi-lingual schools and tuition is the way forward but I will say that I believe CLIL has a lot to offer us, as EFL teachers. It’s a methodology which presents student-centered lessons, recognises that the students are worthwhile individuals and allows students to really communicate in a classroom environment. It is a move away from how things are presently done but, I believe, it’s a positive shift.

As language teachers we should always be looking forward, always looking for ways to better our teaching and for ways to make the language learning process easier and more enjoyable for students. The principles behind CLIL do just that.

I very much hope you have found this paper informative and thought-provoking. It’s not intended to be a rant, sermon or bible, but is my opinion of how things should work and how we are going about it in my school.

References

CLIL Matrix: Central Workshop Report 6/2005 Marsh et al.

Profiling European CLIL Classrooms Marsh et al.

Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) at School in Europe Eurydice Survey

Content Based Instruction: A Shell for Language Teaching or a Framework for Strategic Language and Content Learning? Fredricka L. Stroller

CLIL Content and Language Integrated Learning Lena Tidblom

Biodata

Alex Mackenzie is Academic Director/Co-owner at Mackenzie School of English, Edinburgh. The school specialises in providing innovative education, culture & activity programmes to groups of learners at secondary school age with task-based, content-driven General English lessons as well as CLIL courses. He taught in Poland for six years and has been based in Edinburgh for three, working in both public and private sectors. His main areas of interest are CLIL, task-based learning, syllabus design and learner motivation.
amackenzie@mackenzieschool.com

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