Number one for English language teachers

The language dimension of CLIL

Type: Reference material

Keith Kelly argues that language, and an explicit focus on it, is at the heart of CLIL methodology.

There is a good deal of debate going on in CLIL about the role of language within this approach to learning. Some colleagues place little stress on the foreign language in their classrooms believing that their job is to teach through the medium of the foreign language and not to develop that foreign language. This article offers discussion on the role of language in CLIL approaches and argues that language, and an explicit focus on it, is at the heart of CLIL methodology.

Range of contextual support and degree of cognitive involvement in language tasks and activities

Figure 1: Range of contextual support and degree of cognitive involvement in language tasks and activities (Cummins 2001).

Need for an extra dimension

I've used this diagram for a long time and yet had a feeling that there is an aspect missing or that the shape is not right when applied to CLIL situtations. I envisaged language as being embedded within the axes, for example the 'context embedding' axis has the foreign language as part of the context. The problem with this is that a learner may be familiar with an area being studied, but may not have the foreign language to function (to listen, to read, talk, to write) in the topic. Instead of two axes representing context and cognitive challenge, we need three with one of the axes representing 'has FL' / 'doesn't have FL'. I think instead of having language throughout the diagram as Cummins intended on all axes it needs to be lifted out and given its own axis.

Adding a language dimension to cognition and context

Figure 2: Adding a language dimension to cognition and context

More information on learners

By adding a third dimension dedicated to second language competence, we begin to describe learners in more detail and in doing so provide the teacher with more information with which to prepare the learning. This third dimension raises interesting questions about CLIL learning contexts. We can imagine a learner who is familiar with the topic, has content background knowledge and has met simliar concepts before and so the learning is highly context embedded. The same learner has also carried out similar tasks in different topic areas and can apply these skills to the task in hand and so is cognitively unchallenged. Lastly, the same student has no L2 knowledge of the content area or the foreign language needed for the task. One question this student raises for the teacher is 'Does lack of foreign language knowledge increase the cognitive challenge?' If the answer is 'yes' for this student then the following question may be 'How can I best support the language demands of the content and the task for this student?' If the answer is 'no' and the language is easily accessible to the student, it may be that the teacher needs to make strategic decisions about how much time to dedicate to the content and task, do the topic quickly and move on to something more challenging.

Example student profiles

We are now beginning to describe virtual students. Let's continue for the purpose of asking questions about learners and preparing for their learning through a foreign language.

Student descriptors

A - cognitively unchallenged, doesn't know topic, has L2.

B - cognitively unchallenged, doesn't know topic, doesn't have L

C - cognitively unchallenged, knows topic, doesn't have L2

D - cognitively unchallenged, knows topic, has L2

E - cognitively challenged, doesn't know topic, has L2

F - cognitively challenged, doesn't know topic, doesn't have L2

G - cognitively challenged, knows topic, doesn't have L2

H - cognitively challenged, knows topic, has L2

Locating learners in the three dimensions of learning

Figure 3: Locating learners in the three dimensions of learning

We can briefly describe Student A as follows: Student A is cognitively unchallenged, doesn't know the topic but has the L2 required by the task.

Asking the right questions about learning

There are many questions we can ask about students placed in the above diagram. The questions themselves will depend to a great extent on local classroom cultures. There is one question we can ask which will be relevant for most CLIL contexts. Is Student E the ideal CLIL student? Do we want all our students to be in the situation where they have all the L2 they need to be able to learn their curriculum subjects through the foreign language? However attractive, it's unlikely that this will actually ever be the reality in many contexts. Even with a high L2 competence, there may still be a need for teacher thought to be applied to the language of the subject. Content subjects after all carry a rich range of text genre and structure which learners whatever their L2 competence may need guidance to access and support to produce when asked. Note that it is not always safe to assume that these genres and structures are transferable across borders and so what one students know about them in the 'mother' culture of learning may be different from those in the foreign language culture of learning.

Another problem with the above diagram concerns new concepts. Should we place new concepts along the context axis or does it belong on the cognitive demand axis? It could be argued that it fits on both axes. It may be that in CLIL we need some new terminology to describe variations in students to inform lesson preparation. At the risk of straying from Cummins' diagram even further, I suggest that we need a new diagram and completely new language.

New dimensions and new language

Phil Ball in his initial series of four articles outlining CLIL offers three terms for consideration when thinking about preparing for CLIL. He suggests that CLIL learning will need 1) conceptual skills, 2) procedural skills and 3) linguistic skills. I tend to agree with this description and appreciate it all the more for its simplicity and workability. Let's apply these labels to the CLIL Skills Cube.

The CLIL Skills Cube

Figure 4: The CLIL Skills Cube

With this diagram we can begin to place our students in a sector of the cube based on what skills they have and what skills they will need. With the cube we can ask the right questions about learners in our CLIL classes to best inform our teaching and respect the three learning dimensions. i) We can ask questions about procedural skills. We can decide if our learners have the practical skills they need to carry out a task. These may be complex experiment procedure skills for lab work in Biology. These skills may be simpler skills needed for carrying out a small group discussion and feeding back to the whole class in plenary. ii) We can ask if our learners have the conceptual skills they need for work in a particular area of the curriculum. How much have they understood about the main ideas. How abstract are the concepts in the next topic? Will I need to use L1? iii) We can identify what foreign language students will need to work in a particular area of the curriculum, including the language they need for the concepts and the tasks. This may focus on receptive language skills or language needed for production within the subject.

Knowing the language means providing the right support

Once we have located our learners within the CLIL Skills Cube, we can then begin to make strategic decisions about the supporting the learning experiences they will undergo in our lessons. At the heart of this process in CLIL is the foreign language. John Clegg in an article in the methodology section of onestopclil writes about this very strategic planning and asking questions about language. Cummins' diagram is so relevant because language is embedded throughout the bilingual learning process. With CLIL, however, the learning dimensions need to be broken down into more detail to include the foreign language itself in order that teachers can identify possible challenges for learners, including linguistic ones, and then provide appropriate support in the classroom.

Keith Kelly, October 2009

This article is partly in response to Adrian Tennant's article last month on the need for a more inductive approach in CLIL. Do you agree or disagree with Keith's or Adrian's point of view? If you'd like to comment on any of the issues raised please do so in the onestopenglish Forum.


Keith Kelly has been working as a freelance education consultant since August 2003 on education projects mainly focusing on the teaching of content through the medium of a foreign language. He is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer, a team member of Science Across the World, and an Associate Tutor for the Norwich Institute for Language Education (NILE). Along with John Clegg, he is co-author of the CLIL MA Module for NILE and Leeds Metropolitain University. Keith is also a founder and coordinator of the Forum for Across the Curriculum Teaching (FACT) and author of the Macmillan Science  and Geography Vocabulary Practice Series. 

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