Keith Kelly talks to CLIL head of department Andreas Baernthaler about his substantial teaching experience and his thoughts on classroom resources and the future of CLIL in Austria.
Can you tell our readers in a few words who you are and what you do?
I work as a teacher of English, History, Civics Education and Public Communications (communication in electronic networks) for an upper secondary technical and vocational college for electronics and informatics in Upper Austria. I also work for CEBS (Center fuer Berufsbezogene Sprachen) which is the language competence centre for the vocational sector within the Austrian Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture. Within CEBS, I am in charge of the CLIL department which has been running for the last three years.
How and when did you become involved in CLIL?
I got into CLIL as a result of my own subject teaching background. Before teaching in schools I was in adult education as a language trainer, mainly for people from the chemical industries, the transport business and information technology. This is where I got in contact with profession-oriented English for the first time. I felt very ill-equipped for this as University didn't prepare for this kind of work at all. Then I moved to schools and started in a commercial college, followed by a technical college for automotive engineering, then to electronics and informatics. It was here that I got involved in a number of EU projects which were, by and large, projects with a focus on the use of English as a working language. This brought me in touch with colleges in Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Italy, and this is where my interest in CLIL was raised.
What are the main problems and challenges for teachers working in content and language integration?
I feel that the main problem for teachers is finding suitable materials. For those who don't have a language teaching background, there is the added challenge of methodology and identifying the kind of elements of language teaching you'll need when doing 'real' CLIL. Many teachers try to find pre-prepared materials and if they can't find them they produce their own materials – this is where they spend most of their time.
If teachers are spending so much time creating their own materials, does this mean that the books available in Austria aren't really meeting the needs of teachers?
Most of the material that's available is for general subjects, say, Geography or History, bits of sciences, is for lower secondary schools. When it comes to engineering subjects or sciences at upper secondary level there are no real CLIL books available. Teachers do try to get hold of books from the UK or the US but they find that the books are not CLIL books. That's the next step, and the teachers still have a lot to do to adapt the native speaker resources.
Are you optimistic that we'll see publishers producing more CLIL books for subjects in Austria and elsewhere?
I'm very optimistic. We're undergoing a process of educational reform with a new generation of curricula for the vocational sector here in Austria, and one of the outcomes will be more CLIL teaching in all of the vocational colleges. So, for the first time, the curricula will say that CLIL is a component of the future and I'm definitely sure that not only teachers but publishers will react to that too.
What would you say are the most positive aspects of teaching through English?
The main thing is increased flexibility on the students' side when using the language. I'm very much in favour of the CLIL teacher not being the English teacher because I can see that students are much more at ease with using the language in the CLIL lessons than in the language lessons where the English teacher is at their side. The other thing is that we frequently have teachers with two specialisms, and that may be English with History or English with Geography, so you could say that they are the ideal CLIL teachers. However, I've noticed that students are more at ease with using English where this is not the case.
There are quite a lot of vocational schools in Austria offering courses through the English language. What do you put this down to?
Within Central Europe there are not too many countries that run vocational sectors like we do, though there are some in Italy and the Czech Republic. In Austria, we focus very much on employability and the focus on CLIL in vocational schools is part of this philosophy. It's about equipping young people for their lives after compulsory state education and CLIL is part of this process. Giving our students immediate language skills that they have at hand in the workplace is definitely a prerequisite as we see it.
What do parents think and say about their children learning in English?
Most of the parents are in favour of it. This has changed over the past ten or 15 years when many parents and students said, 'We're not so good at languages, we'll be engineers, what do we need languages for?' This has changed a lot. Most parents see languages as essential. The only parents who are cautious, in my opinion, are those who feel that their children are not gifted at foreign language learning and those who are concerned about the content being diluted because of CLIL.
What do you see as the future for Austrian CLIL?
I'm definitely of the opinion that it's going to expand. On the one hand there is a lot of trial and error, on the other there are many colleges thinking about implementing CLIL. The peak has definitely not been reached yet. At the universities, CLIL is offered more and more and the upper secondary schools will want to prepare students for this context, whilst in the vocational sector, the process of globalization will mean that languages through subjects will develop further.
And finally, would you put your own children into CLIL classes in Austria?
I definitely would. Both of my children have already been in some CLIL classes. My son has History in English and a subject which focuses on European issues where much of it is in English. My daughter is in the first year and does not have CLIL classes as yet, but bits and pieces in subject classes like Maths take place in English and I'm definitely in favour of it.
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CLIL in Austria: An interview with Andreas Baernthaler