On Content and Language Integrated Learning

This blog post has been prompted by a recent conference organized by the Greek Applied Linguistics Association, which focused on Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL). The paragraphs that follow aim to provide a concise overview of what CLIL is, and the affordances and implications for the Greek educational context.

What is CLIL?

CLIL involves the concurrent 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 so that learners might acquire scientific knowledge alongside technical vocabulary and communicative skills in the English language.  This broad definition covers 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, such variation as might exist can be safely ignored.

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

Despite recent academic interest in CLIL, it is probably fair to say that the empirical substantiation of its outcomes is still rather slim. That is to say, educators place a lot of good 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. There is, however, some evidence that such learning leads to reduced participation from some learners and uneven motivation. It also seems that, in some instances 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. (link to references)

Why CLIL?

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. In recent years, there have been suggestions by senior politicians that English be elevated to a ‘second official language’, which were followed by a 33% increase in the provision for English language instruction as expressed in contact hours. 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 place doubts on 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.

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. CLIL supplements such aims by putting forward more tangible learning outcomes that are more in pace with the present economic duress.

It is not my intention to pass judgement on the ethical and political implications of introducing CLIL in state education. However, I do wish to problematise a number of salient issues that the Greek ELT apparatus seems keen to gloss over:

  • First, it is unclear to me which subject matters are more suited for CLIL instruction, and what criteria are to be applied in their selection. The absence of any serious problematisation in this regard seems to suggest that the ELT apparatus is keen to take over any subject as long as it serves its interests, irrespective of pedagogical suitability or actual learner needs.
  • Secondly, I do not see why CLIL should be delivered by language teachers at all. A compelling argument could be made that any linguistically qualified teacher could deliver their subject matter in English equally well as a language teacher. At very least, serious thought must be given to whether it is easier to train subject-specialists in the rudiments of language teaching as required by CLIL, or to provide language teachers with the pedagogical content knowledge required to teach a diverse range of subjects.
  • Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it should be born in mind that any resources students invest in learning a subject through a foreign language come at the expense of their native language. There is a clear danger that CLIL instruction may lead to an atrophy of the students’ Cognitive and Academic Language Proficiency (i.e., their ability to use technical vocabulary and academic discourse) in Greek. The implications for students of non-Greek background need not be spelled out.

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 Foreign 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.

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