In this article John Clegg outlines the language and learning skills which a learner learning a subject through the medium of English as a second language (L2) requires.

1. Introduction

What I want to do in this article is outline the language and learning skills which a learner learning a subject through the medium of English as a second language (L2) will need. This learner is typically learning the whole of the subject in English for some years or throughout schooling.

2. Language and learning skills

Learners working in a L2 need three kinds of language and learning skills: basic L2 skills, academic L2 skills and metacognitive skills for learning a subject in L2.

2.1 Basic language skills

Learners learning in a L2 obviously need to possess basic language skills. This means that they have to be able to listen, speak, read and write on a range of topics, making appropriate and accurate use of the language at the level of sounds/spellings, grammar, vocabulary, function and discourse. How do they learn these basic language skills? They do it partly formally in foreign language lessons, partly implicitly in L2-medium subject lessons and - in high-exposure contexts - informally outside school through the media and (in communities where the L2 is used in society) from L2-fluent peers and adults.

2.2 Academic language skills

But learners of subjects in L2 have to do things with the language which conventional foreign language learners don't have to do. They need language for learning or what Jim Cummins calls cognitive academic language proficiency or CALP. This is a formal, decontextualised language variety used in school. He distinguishes it from Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) which is an informal, contextualised, social variety of language. 

CALP requires learners to do the kind of listening, speaking, reading and writing which learners do within subjects; they need to understand and produce the vocabulary of subjects; to follow and generate the kinds of sentences and texts which are characteristic of formal subject study and to use the L2 to engage in the kinds of thinking which teachers expect learners to use. Let's look more closely at what these CALP skills are.


Take listening. Learners have to understand teachers talking in the plenary classroom and respond to their questions and prompts. Teacher-presentations may consist of well-organised stretches of talk with clear predictive announcements, well-placed organising signals, examples and summaries, and be supported by visuals. But they might also be poorly organised, difficult to follow and visually unsupported: teachers are imperfect. Learners might also have to take notes as they listen. In addition they have to listen to their peers discussing in small groups: to follow multiple contributions from group members, grasp an argument as it is constructed, normally fairly haphazardly by the group in the rather broken language typical of these exchanges. 


Let's turn to reading. Learners have to read handouts, boardwork, and, crucially, subject textbooks. These texts are usually fairly well signalled through paragraphing, numbering and headings. They may be supported by clarifying visuals (photographs, diagrams, charts etc). But not all textbooks are clearly laid out and many texts consist of dense paragraphs in formal language with long and complex sentences. Learners also have to search for information in reference books and on the internet and need the skills of using tables of contents, indexes, skimming and scanning and using keywords to direct their search. They also have to distinguish central from peripheral information and to take notes with all that this entails in terms of layout, truncation and abbreviation.


Students also have to write about subjects: they have to construct formal sentences accurately, to use a vocabulary specific to learning and to organise the sentences into well-formed paragraphs, using headings and numbering, according to the characteristics of the genres of writing which occur in the subject. To write longer pieces they have to plan, draft and revise.


Finally they have to talk. That means using short, infrequent responses to teacher elicitations in the plenary classroom. But they also have to talk in groups. The skills of groupwork talk are complex and many learners cannot easily use them in their L1. As mentioned above, learners have to follow and contribute to an ongoing, loosely directed discussion, make and support points, agree and disagree with others' points, direct the conversation to some conclusion and report on it in the plenary classroom. They will do this either in L1, or mainly in L2 (especially if the task provides support for talk) or in a mixture of both. Finally they often have to make spoken presentations in their L1. This is a more formal exercise in oral language use and in organisational terms is akin to producing formal writing.

In addition, school learners need to use various visual means of conveying data: they have to understand, interpret and construct diagrams, charts and graphs. Jean Brewster has been dealing with this in detail in her recent articles on the Onestopclil site.

2.3 The language of subjects

We must also differentiate between language as we describe it in foreign language syllabuses and vocabulary, grammar, function and discourse in subject learning. Grammar for CALP may be more complex, with more subordination and passives, for example. Genre is more defined: learners have to organise their writing in particular ways required by the subject, such as lab reports in science. Functions are less social and more orientated to cognition: learners have to engage in a range of basic thinking skills such as defining, classifying, hypothesising, comparing, expressing cause and effect, time sequence and so on, and need to know how to do this in L2. Vocabulary is subject-specific - that is, learners have to learn a set of low-frequency, high-precision words which belong to subjects. But it is also general and cross-curricular: the biggest vocabulary which CALP contains is not specific to subjects, but specific to school learning: words like consist, occur, increase, involve; phrases for expressing notions of structure, function, type, place, etc. Subject teachers readily teach subject-specific vocabulary, but general academic vocabulary often falls between two stools: neither subject teachers nor language teachers teach it.

2.4 Metacognitive skills

Finally let's mention the more metacognitive skills which learners need to use when learning subjects in L2. These are CLIL-specific and enable learners who possess them to work efficiently in CLIL lessons. Learners need to ask teachers to explain and repeat, for example. They need to be able to look up words themselves and keep vocabulary books. They need to use their language monitor to look out for and remember key phrases which are useful in academic discourse. They need to listen carefully for organisational signals in teacher-talk and look for them in school texts. They need to pre-read texts if teachers can give them out before a lesson and to plan, draft and revise writing more carefully than in their L1.

3. Who teaches L2 CALP?

All this sounds complex but it's largely only what we expect learners to do in their L1. Most schools don't explicitly teach CALP skills in L1; they expect learners to pick them up. If you are learning in L2, however, you normally need to be taught them more explicitly. Who teaches them? L2-medium subject teachers can do it in short bursts within their subject lessons, but they are often not sufficiently aware of them. Language teachers can also teach them in foreign language lessons which are orientated to the CLIL programme. But language teachers are not normally trained to teach L2 CALP and may need to expand their language awareness to do it. Finally, as I mention in 5 below, these skills can transfer from a learner's L1 CALP and good CLIL programmes aim to facilitate this.

4. How good should CLIL learners be at using these skills?

It's obviously important to ask: how well should learners be able to use L2 skills in order to learn a subject? The answer is: it's difficult to say. But two rules of thumb apply. One is: if you have a lot of time, you can start at a low level of language proficiency. Very young learners who start on day one of schooling, for example, may have zero L2 proficiency, but they can still acquire the language over time and with enough exposure, such that after a few years their levels of L2 ability and subject achievement are good. But if you are a secondary learner at age 15 embarking on English-medium science for three years only, you don't have the luxury of time and would need a much higher entry level of L2 ability. The second rule of thumb is: if the subject teacher has high levels of CLIL pedagogy, you can tolerate lower levels of L2 ability on the part of learners. L2-medium subject learning requires a balance of learner L2 ability and teacher L2-medium pedagogy. The lower the one, the higher the other must be. For example, young learners with zero L2 ability on entry to school have to have teachers with very good L2-medium pedagogy.

Many learners in system-wide English-medium maths and science programmes have low levels of English and their teachers have low levels of CLIL pedagogy. This makes these programmes risky. Many learners in European CLIL programmes have good levels of English; some may be selected by language ability or have had booster courses; and their teachers need to rely less on CLIL pedagogy.

In addition, learners in L2-medium programmes learn language by virtue of the programme: CLIL programmes are considered to be content-based language programmes as well as subject programmes. How can we be sure that they are indeed learning language? Firstly they will develop language skills implicitly by using them for subject learning: acquisition occurs through communicative use. But they will learn them more effectively if subject teachers help them to do so. And the keystone of effective CLIL is that teachers analyse the language demands of lessons and provide language support to help learners meet them. If they don't, learners learn the subject ineffectively, but they also learn language more slowly. Thirdly, immersion studies suggest that language development (especially productive skills) can plateau. Continued development occurs only if subject teachers promote it, in particular by encouraging 'noticing': drawing learners' conscious attention to language.  In other words, the best CLIL teachers will have some skill in language development. That's something which in CLIL programmes we rarely teach subject teachers to do. 

5. Issues of acquisition

Finally we need to say a few extra things about language development in CLIL programmes. Firstly, CALP skills take a lot longer to develop than BICS skills: academics in the USA suggest that whereas an immigrant learner can learn BICS skills in 2 years, they will take 7 years to acquire CALP. We need to bear this in mind in CLIL programmes. Secondly and relatedly, we shouldn't be taken in by learners with fluent BICS. They may sound as if they can use the L2 for school learning, but may be surprisingly slow in the subject classroom because they haven't yet developed L2 CALP. Thirdly, CALP skills transfer from one language to another. They form what Cummins calls an underlying proficiency: a common base of academic language skills which may be used in both L1- and L2-medium learning. For instance, if you can scan a text in one language, you don't have to learn to scan again if you learn another. Thus a learner with good learning skills in the L1 will transfer them fairly easily to the L2, whereas a learner whose L1-medium schooling has been poor will find L2-medium learning more onerous. And finally, a school which understands the value of L1-medium academic language skills and teaches them explicitly across the curriculum will also find that it can run CLIL programmes more easily. Explicit CALP teaching in L1 is good for all learners, but especially for those learning in L2.

John Clegg, October 2009