Content and Language Integrated Learning in Greece: Uncritical and Unhelpful

This blog post has been prompted by a conference organized by the Greek Applied Linguistics Association, which focused on Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL). I think that it is no accident that the English Language Teaching apparatus in Greek education has taken an interest in the topic at this time, and in the paragraphs that follow I want to tease out what appear to me to be some less visible implications for the Greek educational context. But first a quick overview of what CLIL is…

What is CLIL?

CLIL involves the dual teaching of a second or foreign language and a subject matter (such as mathematics or science) in such a way that content and language teaching aims are integrated. For instance, in the Greek context, CLIL instruction might involve conducting a science lesson in English: the idea is that learners will acquire scientific knowledge and skills (the content), and at the same time they might learn technical vocabulary in English, or practice following instructions and writing lab reports in English.

CLIL purists might challenge me on this, but the broad definition above overlaps with a number of different pedagogical approaches, such as Content Based Instruction, language immersion programmes, and —if adequately stretched— what is known in Greece as cross-curricular learning (διαθεματικότητα). There are, naturally, differences in the aims and theoretical frames of reference of each of these approaches, but for the purposes of this post at least, we can disregard any such variation. Besides, anecdotal evidence from the field suggests that Greek teachers are not really purist in the ways they engage with methodology.

Extract from an ELT textbook illustrating CLIL
A form of CLIL materials (Think Teen 3 Student’s Book, p. 34)

Although CLIL has attracted a lot of academic attention, inside and outside Greece, it is probably fair to say that the empirical substantiation of its outcomes is still rather slim (link to references). That is to say, educators are asked to place a lot of  faith on CLIL but, so far, we really have no conclusive evidence that it delivers what it promises, in either the subject matter or language skills. Some studies seem to suggest that CLIL is associated with enhanced receptive skills, greater vocabulary range, creativity, risk-taking, and better affective outcomes.

On the other hand, there is also evidence that such learning leads to reduced participation from some learners and to uneven motivation. It also seems that, in some cases at least, teachers tend to simplify the subject matter content to match the learners’ unsophisticated linguistic resources. Moreover, it has been argued that any gains in the foreign language are counterbalanced by an equivalent lack of linguistic development in the mother language.

Why CLIL? An unstated rationale

Within the Greek context, it is easy to see how interest in CLIL dovetails with stated policy aims to enhance the status of the English language, and —by extension— to protect and add to the role of the English Language Teaching (ELT) apparatus. Over the past years, there have been suggestions by senior politicians that English should be elevated to a ‘second official language’, a suggestion that was symbolically implemented by changing the domain name of the Ministry of Education from the Greek-derived ‘www.ypepth.gr’ to ‘www.minedu.gov.gr‘. These were followed by a 33% increase in the provision for English language instruction across the curriculum, to the great delight of the English teachers’ lobby (for more on this increase and the way it was subsequently rolled back, see Chapter 1 of my book, A Language School as a Complex System).

Such planning, however, is complicated by the fact that many students appear to have developed, through self-study and private instruction, linguistic skills in English that call into question the utility of traditional ELT instruction, such as offered in the state education system. Despite its apparent value for some stakeholders, for the majority of students this enhanced teaching provision seems, at best, redundant.

Traditional ELT courses in Greek schools are redundant. CLIL provides a rationale for keeping them in place.

In view of this, a pressing question emerges: Is it ethically or economically justifiable to continue to offer —let alone increase— mandatory ELT courses that do not serve any apparent linguistic need? To put it in even blunter terms: whose interests are served when students are channelled into mandatory, yet unnecessary, language courses? In the past, an attempt was made to answer such questions by arguing for nebulous pedagogical aims, like an ‘intercultural ethos of understanding’, which could best be fostered -we were told, with a wink- through ELT. The sudden interest in CLIL should be seen as the product of a similar agenda, which has been revised to put forward the kind of tangible learning outcomes that are more in pace with the present economic duress and neoliberal ethos.

Road Sign indicating a pedestrian crossing near a school in Greece
Photo by Ιωάννης Πρωτονοτάριος @ Flickr, CC BY-SA

Can it be it that simple?

If the state school system has decided to protect the ELT apparatus by introducing CLIL, then any discussion of the ethical and political implications associated with this decision is a moot point. However, I do wish to problematise a number of salient practical issues that seem to have been glossed over. Specifically, I will look into three questions:

  1. Which subjects lend themselves to combination with English to form CLIL courses?
  2. Why are ELT teachers assumed to be CLIL-qualified by default?
  3. How does CLIL interact with the local linguistic ecologies?

Are all subjects suitable for CLIL?

When it comes to teaching CLIL, the Greek ELT apparatus has enthusiastically expanded all over the curriculum. In a recently published collection of proposed and implemented CLIL projects that was showcased in the Greek ELT academic press, it was suggested that English can be combined with a wide range of subjects, ranging from PE to geography, in primary and secondary education.

What is conspicuously absent from these publications, and our professional discourse more broadly, is any serious debate of how the aims and methods of the linguistic and content areas are integrated, and what criteria are to be used to judge how successful this integration is. From this, one might infer that the motivations of combining English and content areas are not grounded on pedagogical theory or learner needs; rather, the ELT apparatus appears keen to take over any subject as long as it serves its interests, regardless of pedagogical suitability or actual learner needs.

Who should teach CLIL courses?

The prevailing methodological orthodoxy in Greek ELT is that CLIL must be delivered by language specialists, both in primary and secondary education. This preference, it is argued, reflects “the foreign language specialisation and qualifications of CLIL instructors” (Matthaoudakis & Alexiou, 2017, p. 112). What is not said is that, at the same time, the policy devalues the specialisation and qualifications of other teachers. It might therefore be more accurate to argue that, more than anything else, it reflects the power of the ELT apparatus.

Of course, it is not at all self-evident that this is the only, or best, division of labour when it comes do delivering CLIL courses. Ideally, such lessons should be delivered by teachers with dual qualifications and training in their integration. Where such expertise is not available, a compelling argument could be made that a linguistically qualified content teacher is just as (in)effective as a subject-matter-informed language teacher. On the short term, this means that ELT teachers have to play nice and share.

On the long run, serious thought must be given about how professional development should be designed for teachers who want to deliver CLIL. Is it easier to train subject-specialists so that they can help students attain linguistic aims? Or does it make more sense to language teachers with the pedagogical content knowledge required to teach a diverse range of subjects? Given the diverstity of possible topic areas which might be combined with English, the former seems like a more efficient option.

And what about L1s?

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, some serious thought must be given to the effects that CLIL projects may have on the linguistic ecologoes. It hardly needs to be said that any resources that students invest in learning a subject through a foreign language come at the expense of their native language. This creates two dangers:

To begin with, it is not at all unlikely that CLIL instruction leads to an atrophy of the students’ ability to engage with certain subjects in Greek. At minumum, some way needs to be found which ensures that technical vocabulary is taught in Greek as well as English. The only two options I can think of are: (a) parallel delivery of both Greek-medium and CLIL courses, which creates duplication and redundandy; or (b) alternate delivery of Greek-medium and CLIL courses, e.g., every other year, which creates incoherence and discontinuity. Neither makes much sense.

The second danger relates to the academic progress of linguistically disadvantaged students. It is unclear how suitable CLIL courses are for students who are not native-speakers of Greek: those who are fluent in English may find it easier to engage with content in that language; those who are not, and who have to invest a lot of time mastering Greek, might might find that their linguistic disadvantages lead to content deficits as well. Similar challenges might be faced by students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. In the Greek education system, extracurricular support is one of the main determinants of success. However, parents who are not fluent in English and who cannot afford extracurricular tuition in a foreign language, may find their ability to support their children compromised.

To sum up…

The pedagogical implications of CLIL in Greece remain largely unexplored and may be precarious

In summary, a sudden interest appears to have developed in exploring the pedagogical affordances of CLIL, as they relate to ELT. This interest is, in my opinion, related to a protectionist agenda that serves the interests of the Greek ELT apparatus. However, the pedagogical implications of implementing CLIL in the Greek context remain largely unexplored and may be precarious.

In recent years, the enthusiasm of the English Language Teaching apparatus has generated a number of projects of dubious value, including the introduction of English to Very Young Learners, the attempt to salvage a commercially unsuccessful examination suite by latching it onto compulsory education, and the publication of a scandalously expensive but largely under-exploited Language Portfolio. It is only to be hoped that this new fad will be given more serious thought before being ushered into practice.


About this post: This post was originally written in December 2012, when I was working in the Greek education system. It was revised in September 2018, at which point: I added information from a Special Issue in Research Papers in Language Teaching and Learning; the section on problems was expanded; and the title and URL were changed to their current form.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.