Number one for English language teachers

Conference report: Innovations in Teaching Children and Teenagers, IATEFL SIG Milan, 20-23 March 2009

Amanda Holmbrook provides a summary of the opening plenary session of the IATEFL Special Interest Group on CLIL in Milan, given by Richard Johnstone.

The opening plenary was given by Richard Johnstone, who looked at different models for implementing content-based language learning, from the traditional (foreign language as a school subject), to total immersion in the foreign language across the curriculum, with some studies that looked at the effectiveness of such approaches. Although an advocate of CLIL, he was honest about the commitment required and the problems teachers and students faced in implementing it. Non-native speakers need a high level of L2 proficiency to cope with CLIL, and must be prepared to maintain a strict and focused approach to the accuracy of their students’ language. Johnstone said that CLIL was so effective because it reinforced semantics and the language system at the same time: form-focused instruction and negative feedback could not be sacrificed to fluency.

The research Johnstone presented concluded the following:

  • CLIL can result in students having a low self-concept in the foreign language compared to other subjects, although this has not been shown conclusively;
  • there is a trade-off between knowledge gained in the subject of study and the foreign language: the language benefits are greater but knowledge of the subject is less than what could be achieved through L1;
  • intensive immersion is more effective than extended immersion; project work has been used effectively to achieve this;
  • CLIL is most effective with Young Learners, as their natural ability to acquire language combines with the cognitive challenge of study;
  • Despite fears to the contrary, tentative research suggests that learning a foreign language intensively (that is, so more hours are devoted to L2 than L1) improves students’ use of L1.

Johnstone finished by stressing that effective CLIL required planning, good teachers and good practice to be successful.

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