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A view to a CLIL

September 8, 2013

I used to think that CLIL was just an example of taking a bad situation and making it look good. CLIL, or Content and Language Integrated Learning, involves teaching language through a different subject. So, by teaching geography (for example) in the target language, and (possibly) including some kind of language focus within each lesson, the idea is that the students are motivated by the content and therefore learn the language more effectively, while learning the curricular subject at the same time.

There were a few reasons for my scepticism. As an English language teacher, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea that geography teachers could be responsible for teaching English; surely they would need to be trained language teachers as well, and if not it could make us real language teachers seem redundant. Nor was I comfortable with the possibility that I might be expected to teach geography – this would be taking ESP a bit too far, to my mind. Moreover, I have been exposed to the English used by a generation of Malaysians whose English had been learnt while being taught maths and sciences, rather than as a separate subject. The fact that they then feel the need to attend places like the British Council to learn English “properly” suggested to me that it was certainly possible for CLIL not to work very well.

I also harboured suspicions that CLIL was an idea borne out of necessity rather than choice. There are many colleges and universities around the world that, rightly or wrongly, are able to gain considerable kudos and marketing pull by using English as the medium of instruction on all their courses. However, their market tends to consist of students who don’t have the English skills to cope with such a course. This leads to a need for some kind of language instruction to be built into the course, hence the growing popularity of CLIL. However, I doubted whether CLIL was an approach you would actually choose to adopt as your preferred means of teaching a language.

However, recent changes in circumstances at work mean that I’ve found myself designing and implementing a syllabus that is, for want of a better expression, a bit CLILy.

Maybe I should start by explaining what these changes have been. First of all there’s the whole citizenship agenda, which is prevalent throughout ESOL in the British FE sector. ESOL learners who want to apply for UK citizenship need to do a course that includes citizenship topics.

Then there’s the curriculum for excellence, which has been in place in Scottish schools for a number of years and is now finding its way into the FE sector. Something that C for E values is a more holistic approach to learning, so teachers of all subjects are expected to include a bit of literacy here or a bit of numeracy there within their teaching. “Interdisciplinary learning”, where learners develop their knowledge and skills in different subject areas within the same course, is something that the Scottish government (and Education Scotland, its inspecting body) values highly.

The most recent development has been a need to include more accredited qualifications within our programme. The Scottish Funding Council, which provides funding for most college delivery in Scotland, is becoming increasingly particular about the types of courses it funds. The main focus at the moment is on full-time programmes that can develop the employability skills of learners, and the more accredited qualifications that students can gain on a course the better. As Scottish national ESOL qualifications alone don’t provide enough hours of study for a full-time course, we have to go outside the subject area to find other qualifications for students to achieve. Furthermore, now that our college has merged with another that already includes non-ESOL qualifications within its ESOL courses, the need for us to do the same has become more urgent.

So, circumstances have put me in a position where I’ve needed to develop a curriculum which:

  1. Includes an overt focus on topics related to citizenship
  2. Provides opportunities for students to learn more than just English on the course
  3. Allows students to gain qualifications in non-ESOL subjects.

Based on these requirements you can see how we’ve ended up with something quite CLILy.

What we have done is to include a component (6 hours per week) within our full-time ESOL courses that we’re calling ESOL Projects. The syllabus is topic-based, and the topics are the ones that need to be covered for citizenship. The students do a range of varied projects throughout the year, and while they do this they generate evidence to achieve accredited units in the core skills of Problem-solving, Working with Others and ICT. The focus on outcomes that are not overtly language-based means that language content is derived entirely from what emerges as students do the projects. There are plenty of opportunities for language input, obviously, but this is not the driving force behind the syllabus, so it’s quite a different approach from what we have done in the past.

It’s not quite the same as CLIL; rather than using English to teach other subjects, we are using other subjects to teach English. Or maybe that’s the same thing?

Going back to my original suspicions about the effectiveness of CLIL, I can now see how the approach we are adopting could in fact work very well for our learners. They already seem to be motivated by the relevance of the topics to their everyday lives (most of them intend to remain in the UK long-term), and the prospect of attaining qualifications that improve their employability is also a motivating factor.

I don’t know enough about CLIL to know whether our approach is a good one. I don’t even know whether it counts as CLIL – maybe it’s just Project-Based Learning. Either way, I would welcome any comments from anyone who uses a similar approach to language teaching. As the year progresses I will probably post more about this topic.

Further reading:


On UK Citizenship topics: 

On Curriculum for Excellence:

On Core Skills: 

  1. Mary B. Mc Manus permalink

    How do you get around the problem of Asylum Seekers not being allowed to study for more than 15 hours?

    • Hi Mary,
      As far as I’m aware, asylum-seekers are only restricted to part-time study if they are studying something other than ESOL. We have very few asylum seekers these days anyway – most of our students are refugees or migrant workers – and we also have part-time courses available.
      In any case, a similar format could be used on a part-time course.

  2. Gordon Wells permalink

    CLIL is certainly a buzz-word – which doesn’t necessarily mean it is devoid of all meaning or value, but can lead the wary professional to interrogate the concept quite closely, which you appear to be doing. I look forward to further posts! Project work certainly sounds good, especially when you throw in ICT, as you can have lots of fun with “digital literacies” etc. The challenge is to satisfy the certification requirements without letting them dictate the direction the creative juices flow… Here’s a hypothetical question. If there was no requirement to earn certificates that, among other things, unlock the door to “citizenship” would your CLILy course look any different, in terms of having a project component, and would fewer people be interested in taking it? I mean, don’t people want to learn English anyway, and don’t they want to learn it so that they can use it to do things?

    • Hi again Gordon,
      I certainly agree if we had a project-based course without all the accredited units we could still ensure that it was both pedagogically sound and appropriate in terms of meeting learners’ needs. As you say though, one challenge is making sure the unit requirements (gathering evidence, completing tasks, reflecting on performance etc) are used to enhance the course rather than getting in the way of it. Assessment for learning rather than assessment of learning, if you like.
      We, the teaching staff, are still feeling our way in this respect. At the moment my colleagues aren’t exactly thankful for these curricular changes – the project work is taking up a lot of time just now. We all see the potential value to the students but it’s working out a way to implement it in a pedagogically sound way that is the challenge.
      If there were no accredited outcomes it would be far easier to deliver, but less valuable to the students.

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