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The CLIL Debate: An EFL Teacher’s perspective

Type: Article

Onestopenglish, together with Onestopclil, Macmillan and the Guardian Weekly, sponsored the 2009 IATEFL debate on the subject of CLIL, or Content and Language Integrated Learning - CLIL: Complementing or Compromising English Language Teaching?We asked Adrian Tennant to give us the EFL teacher's perspective on this contentious topic.

CLIL: Complementing or Compromising English Language Teaching? There is no simple answer to this thought-provoking question, so I've approached it by asking myself some more questions!

As an English-language teacher am I worried?

Well, yes to some extent. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, if English is integrated more and more across the curriculum in schools and students become competent English users at an ever younger age, then there will be fewer adult learners. This in itself is not a bad thing, but it does necessitate a shift in terms of English Language Teaching. There will necessarily be an increasing demand for teachers who specialize in younger learners, while the demand for teachers of adults will diminish.

Are the subject teachers properly trained to teach English?

I wouldn’t presume to be able to teach science or geography, so why should subject teachers be able to teach English? In many respects it’s a question of competency with the language. Last year I worked with a group of subject teachers from Spain. Their biggest concern was whether their English was good enough (and fortunately they had the awareness that this could be an issue and were therefore trying to do something about it). What is needed here is adequate training for both sets of teachers and, wherever possible, teachers working together across the curriculum. In order for this to happen, teachers need to be open-minded and to be given the time to liaise with colleagues as well as the training to enable them to carry out the tasks.

Are students tested on their knowledge of the subject or on their use of English?

If students know the subject but aren’t very good at English, will they lose out when they are unable to express or write the answers because of their lack of English? On the other hand, if their English is excellent but they aren’t very good at the subject, will their ability in English become secondary? In other words, will the knowledge of the subject become more important than the student’s ability to use English?

As an English teacher can I see any positives?

Well, yes I can. Here are a few: Firstly, the more exposure that students have to English, the more chance they have to learn. Although quality is important, quantity is also an issue. Students who only have one hour of English a week have little chance to ever become proficient. Could it be that by including subject lessons taught in English, the student’s general ability in English will improve more rapidly even if the level of English that the subject teachers have is not as high as that of the English teachers?

Secondly, if teachers can work together, then the results can be fantastic. One of the underlying arguments for CLIL is that students are in the position of having to learn English in order to complete their studies. This means that they are no longer learning English just in case they need it later in life, but rather they are learning it just in time for a lesson they will have later that day or week. I’m not sure how good the 'just in time' idea is, but clearly the motivational factor is likely to be higher. Personally, I’d prefer to use the term 'becomes more meaningful' but it clearly doesn’t have the same contrastive impact.

Thirdly, in many ways CLIL is not a new phenomenon. People have been combining subject-specific content and English language for decades. Many EFL books written for teenagers contain a lot of subject-focused content, including topics from the fields of history, geography, science and so on.

Finally, we have moved away from learning about English to learning to use English. Combining English with other subjects simply enhances this and has the potential of giving the whole process a better structure.

So, let’s go back to the debate topic: CLIL: Complementing or Compromising English Language Teaching? I’d have to say, done well – complementing. But, done as it is now in most situations then definitely compromising, and not just English Language Teaching, but also the education and future of those students being exposed to it! It’s not that I don’t want to shake the box, but I certainly want to make sure that what is in the box makes it worth opening in the first place.


What do you think? Have your say on this topic on the onestopenglish Forum.

You can read the subject teacher's perspective on our sister site, onestopclil:

CLIL: Complementing or Compromising English Language Teaching? An opinion from a CLIL Biology Teacher

Go to the Guardian Weekly archive to find out what was said at the 2005 debate: Learning English or learning in English: will we have a choice? A debate about global education and the role of English as the language of instruction.

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