Can CLIL deliver? Phil Ball looks at some of the challenges facing CLIL, as it attempts to both gain a foothold in standard educational practice and at the same time convince its doubters that it can really deliver.

Funny acronyms | Production first | Rough output | Splashing around | Language in CLIL | Methodological frames | Language focus | Activity types | And finally

There is still far too much discussion about the alleged powers of CLIL to solve everything from school failure to bubonic plague when there is scant demonstration on both the web and in the scholastic publishing world of what a CLIL lesson actually constitutes. In this mini-series of four articles, we've tried, as far as possible, to put that record a little straighter. In this final article, we'll look at some of the challenges facing CLIL, as it attempts to both gain a foothold in standard educational practice and at the same time convince its doubters that it can really deliver.

Funny acronyms

PPP - another of those funny-sounding acronyms that really should have known better - actually stands for 'Presentation, Practice, Production' and was the sine qua non of controlled communicative practice, which came to prominence in English language teaching in the 1980s. PPP is still alive and well, and is, of course, no crime. But it assumes that students cannot use language for communicative purposes unless they have practised it first, under controlled conditions. It assumes that they cannot cope with new language unless it is gently 'presented' to them first. To be fair, PPP is not a monothematic approach, and authors such as Jeremy Harmer (1) have put forward subsequent methodological frames to replace PPP, such as ESA (Engage, Study, Activate).

However, we're interested here in CLIL, and the contrast is illuminating. Both PPP and ESA continue to regard the study of thematic content and language as separate things, as separate processes. Remember how we remarked in Article 3 that topic content often seemed to be 'disposable'? Well it seems that for both PPP and ESA it is too. The language seems to count for more than the ideas it was originally designed to express.

Production first

To use a swimming metaphor, CLIL throws students into the deep end of the pool. PPP seems to prefer students to enter the pool at the shallow end, perhaps dipping their toes into the water first. It then assumes that they will gradually make their way to the deeper end - but assumptions can be dangerous!

CLIL, therefore, seems to prefer an approach that could be defined as 'Production, Practice, Presentation', especially where the language - if it is focused on at all - is looked at post-partum - after the act - but always in context. It seems to be more focused on inductive than deductive thinking, but that's for another article!

Rough output

There is no value judgement intended above, no good or bad here. Education requires both deductive and inductive thinking. But although PPP can obviously include inductive practice if it so requires, the belief that presentation must precede practice inevitably leads to an approach which suggests that a student's ability to speak (for example) can be measured incrementally, and that for it to develop, it needs to be controlled. The problem with this view is that it appears to contradict language acquisition theory. Human beings do not seem to acquire their first languages through a process of conditioned output. Reality seems to be more a case of 'try it out and see what works'. Whilst CLIL does not wish to be seen as an anarchic rebel, it seems reasonable to ask the question - why not do this with a second language too?

Splashing around

CLIL requires students to speak and write, regarding concepts that are often beyond their linguistic range. It is this attempt to express oneself that is the key to language development in CLIL. To return to the metaphor, it is jumping into the deep end of the pool, and attempting to swim. The swimmer splashes around and makes waves. It can be messy (though one hopes that no-one drowns)! The speaker attempts to express him/herself similarly immersed in deeper concepts. That can be messy too. The output is inevitably rough, but it is supported by the presence of content which enables (some) production guarantees. 

Language in CLIL

: cognitive level v linguistic level
One problem that opponents of CLIL often cite in this context is the problem of the concept-language gap. This is a real issue. On the conventional language-learning developmental curve, a learner (whether child, adolescent or adult) always knows more than he/she can express. For adult learners, the decision to learn a foreign language has often been described as a 'reversion to childhood' Stern (2). The adult learner cannot express his/her conceptual understanding of the world because he/she does not have the language to achieve this. Sensitive and judicious teaching can keep frustration down to minimal levels, but it is not only a case of adult beginners. In foreign/second language classes, the learner never has the same resources that they know they possess in L1.

In CLIL, the breach is exaggerated even further. There is a definite tension between the cognitive demand of the material and the linguistic level of the students. In any given country, whilst the 'conventional' school down the road is teaching the Solar System in the L1, the poor CLIL students are forced to learn the same content with a relatively impoverished set of linguistic resources. What is the point? Is this not sadistic?

Methodological frames

: the primacy of 'task'
If you study history in a foreign language, for example, then you are immediately faced with a large amount of text. The text has often been designed for L1 consumption. In this example, for Spanish sixteen-year-old students, the activity attempts to differentiate between Socialism, Communism and Marxism. Here is an extract from the text:

The German philosopher, Karl Marx, went further than socialism. He thought that Liberalism was 'false liberty' and thought that the famous 'Declaration of the Rights of Man' of 1789 was focused too much on the individual. The individual had liberty, but to do what? Marx wanted society to be communal and controlled, not individualised. He thought that eventually the proletariat would come to dominate the bourgeoisie and then control the means of production.…

The above is an intimidating text for a native speaker, let alone a CLIL student. But the reigning philosophy of CLIL would appear to be that there is no such thing as a difficult text.

This is easily illustrated. Look at the possible questions that could follow (or precede) the above (partial) text on Marxists, Socialists and Anarchists.  Which of the four questions do you think is the 'easiest' to do, and why?

Q1.  Read the text on Socialism, Marxism and Anarchism. Compare and contrast the three ideologies.

Q2.  Define the three movements in terms of their principal ideological bases.

Q3.  Read the text on the three movements and answer the questions that follow.

Q4.  Do not read the text yet. Below you will see various opposites to the philosophies of socialism and communism. 

Now read the text, extracting the word or phrase that opposes the idea expressed below. The first one is done for you.

Opposite ideaSocialist or communist idea
Working alone, to improve your life.Working together
Class-based society 
Wealth for the minority 
A society of individuals 
A 'free' society 
The bourgeoisie control the proletariat 
The bourgeoisie control production 

If you chose Q4 as being the most accessible, then you will have thought about various reasons for your choice.  But whatever you thought, it should be very clear that it is not the text itself that is the problem, but rather the relative complexity of the tasks. It is simply untrue to say that you could not ask a 9 year-old child to work on the text above. It simply depends on what you ask the child to do. If you asked a 9 year-old child the following questions about the previous text on Marx et al:

a) What was Marx's other name?
b) Which country did he come from?
c) When was the Declaration of Rights written?

…then the child would have a decent chance of getting the questions right. The tasks are rather 'light', but it might depend on our didactic objective. Similarly, we might say that Q1 above is, if not exactly 'light', then maybe unnecessarily complex - and what is our objective? Q4 is much better because it provides 'scaffolding'. Scaffolding breaks down the ideas into digestible chunks. Q4 provides a conceptual framework whereby the contrasts become the reason for doing the task. The instruction even tells the student not to read the text beforehand. The text is read as part of the task.

Language focus

Q4 is also much more linguistic in its scope because it is asking the students to focus on the language that enables them to find the contrast.  So 'privileges' can now be contrasted as 'Lack of privileges' - employing a useful formal item (lack). Class-based society will be 'Classless society', enabling the teacher to show how this word is formed by using the suffix 'less' (where other words in social science may later behave in a similar fashion). The term 'minority' will now become 'majority', the society of individuals will require the word 'collective' or 'communal' to form its contrast, etc. The activity is powerful, on both a cognitive and linguistic level. Once it has been done, the student might then be asked (more reasonably) to attempt questions 1 & 2. The complexity/simplicity of the text is not an issue. There is no such thing as a difficult text in an educational/scholastic context.  But there are such things as difficult and easy tasks.

In case you're still unconvinced, consider the following opening line from the most famous of all English children's nursery rhymes:

Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall.

An easy text, of course. Now consider the following task:

Discuss the opening line of Humpty Dumpty in relation to the development of the English Civil War and the role of Royalist propaganda in its initial stages.

The above is a perfectly legitimate task, given the origins of the rhyme. Easy text, but a rather more difficult task.

Activity types

If we look at the practice of teaching within this new equation, we need to be able to limit the approaches that reflect the combination of communication and skills. By limiting, we clarify the boundaries of practice that can achieve this goal. 

In CLIL, there appear to be four basic types of activity that can help students to prosper, despite their relative lack of linguistic resources. These types are applicable to both primary, secondary and post-compulsory education.

1.  Activities to enhance peer communication
(assimilate conceptual content + communicative competence)

2.  Activities to help develop reading strategies
(where texts, often authentic, are conceptually and linguistically dense)

3.  Activities to guide student production (oral and written)
(focus on the planning of production - 'minimum guarantees')

4.  Activities to engage higher cognitive skills
(make students think - offer more opportunities for employing a range of operations)

Number 1. Here, the activities are designed to enhance the assimilation of the conceptual content at the same time as developing communicative strategies.  We've already seen two examples of this - the 'Running Dictation' about the planets from Article Two ('How do you know if you're practising CLIL?') and the Information-Gap Crossword about 'The Accumulation of capital' in Article 3 ('Language, concepts and procedures.  Why CLIL does them better!'). In order to breach the 'gap' in both cases, the students had to write definitions, and then communicate them. The activities revise concepts already learned in a unit, but not necessarily assimilated.

The students:

o Write
o Speak
o Listen
o Interpret
o Engage in contextualised grammar

… whilst assimilating the economic concepts that form the conceptual objective of the lesson. How many birds would you like to kill with one stone?

Number 2 is well illustrated by the Marx example from this article. The activity type recognises the probability that if the students engage in real content, they are more likely to confront a greater amount of text, often authentic. The students are therefore guided in their reading. Instead of reading the text in order to then perform a deductive task (so often the case in standard language and subject teaching), the task involves the reading itself and leads the students to the key content. The key content will relate to the conceptual objective.
In Number 3, the activity type acknowledges the fact that in order to speak (or write) students need to have something to say! So instead of the instruction so beloved of language-learning textbooks:

Turn to your partner and ask him/her if she plays any musical instruments.

…an exchange that can logically culminate in the dialogue 'No' (Or, 'No I don't' if the author's intention were more linguistically ambitious!) In CLIL it is possible to do rather more. The students simply work on more complex content, with activities which involve stages of preparation for subsequent production. The preparation provides a 'minimum guarantee', after which students (depending on their ability or interest) can improvise further.

Number 4 acknowledges the power of meaningful engagement. According to psycholinguists, the more higher operations are involved in a task, the greater the probability of linguistic retention. The higher the level of thinking involved, the more likely the assimilation of the vehicular language. 

And finally

To sum up, whether or not the acronym CLIL will exist in ten year's time is probably irrelevant. The educational approach that it seems to encapsulate is in the here and now.  David Graddol's important book 'English Next' (3) has made this very clear.  The future is about 'competences', not about discussing the differences between the Past Simple and the Present Perfect. This is not to imply that CLIL does not work on, or that it is uninterested in, accuracy. What it does imply is that the development of competences is much more likely to occur within an approach that prioritises thinking skills and communication.
That's what CLIL does. Welcome aboard!

1. Harmer, J. (1998): The Practice of Language Teaching, Longman
2. Stern H.H.  (1983 OUP)  Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching
3  Graddol, D. (2006 British Council Publications) English Next