What are the challenges of teaching curriculum subjects through English at Primary level? Liz McMahon looks at some of the issues.
What is EMI?
There are currently lots of labels for the concept of teaching core curriculum subjects in English. This approach is variably known as EMI (English as the medium of Instruction), CLIL (Content & Language Integrated Learning) or CBT (Content Based Teaching). For some, the labels are not interchangeable.
I personally believe that there is a distinction, in that I have met a lot of EMI teachers (especially at secondary level) who are asked, sometimes from one week to the next, to start using English rather than their mother tongue to teach their subject! The decision is often NOT accompanied by opportunities to improve their proficiency in the CLIL language or to receive proper guidance. CLIL, on the other hand, involves not only a switch from one language to another, it embraces a belief that this is the best way to teach a language, i.e., that learning other subjects in English is more meaningful and motivating. It is also underpinned by an increased ‘awareness’ of the second language, where the teacher has to check their familiarity with the key structures and vocabulary inherent in the topic. The development of cognitive skills and cultural awareness are also key elements of CLIL for most practitioners.1
Why use CLIL?
Probably the most common reason for introducing CLIL is to increase the amount of time allocated within the timetable to learning a second language.
There could, however, be other more specific reasons. A high level of English language proficiency is currently considered a very valuable ‘life skill’ and many governments or education authorities see enormous value in their school leavers directly entering tertiary or vocational qualifications without having to take additional language courses.
Researchers, including CLIL expert David Marsh, are now making bold and exciting claims about the superiority of the bi/multi-lingual brain. It appears that language learning per se results in better cognitive development. 2
So how do we take this approach at primary level?
Challenges & principles
For many teachers, the opportunity to teach through English is a welcome one as it represents the chance to use and develop their own second language skills and familiarize themselves with different resources. If the adoption of EMI is across the whole school, then there may also be the chance for positive collaboration with other teachers.
Other teachers may feel that their own knowledge of English is simply not good enough and these teachers may need support, either in the form of training or a more gradual introduction of EMI/CLIL. For example, a less confident teacher could simply start with 10 minute ‘language showers’.
As regards the methodological challenge of CLIL, then again, through training, collaboration, and the location of appropriate resources, a well-motivated teacher should gain many benefits from this opportunity. Most teachers are aware of the concept of scaffolding:
In education, scaffoldingrefers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process.3
In CLIL, the support required for the learners to progress focuses on language support and this requires the adoption of strategies which scaffold the learning in such a way that the content is taught as effectively as in the mother tongue. While CLIL may be interesting and motivating, it can not put the level or quantity of content covered at risk. This can only be achieved through effective scaffolding.
Managing your Class
Some teachers are more concerned about using the second language to run and manage the class in English than they are about teaching concepts. Often the resources chosen provide the teacher with the key language inherent in a particular topic. They feel they can ‘prepare’ for the content language quite effectively, but are anxious about all the ‘surrounding’ language. However, if the children are only exposed to the second language for brief periods of teaching, which are packaged by use of the mother tongue to personally engage with the children, conduct classroom routines and generally manage the learners, then they will not have the opportunity to acquire a wider range of functional English. They need to see that the second language is not just used in science or maths, but, just like their mother tongue, for general communication. This type of English is sometimes called BICS (‘basic interpersonal communication skill’) and contrasted with CALP (‘cognitive academic language proficiency’), which, apart from the academic topic vocabulary, covers all those functions of language the learner needs in order to engage in the learning of the content (e.g. cause and effect, hypothesising, comparing, etc). 4
The good news is that much of the BICS requires less checking as the ‘message’ is made clear through other means, usually the situational context, body language and the other paralinguistic features of face-to-face communication.
Each subject (maths, science, etc.,) has its own specific language, vocabulary and structure. Identifying this language is a prerequisite to deciding what scaffolding is required and how to provide it and this stage of planning is called the identification of the language demands.
The strategies and techniques used to meet these demands are referred to as language support. For example, if the topic is fractions, then the target vocabulary will include numerator, denominator, equivalent and the structures may be x is divided by, y is divided into, the numerator/denominator represents, etc. The meaning of these terms and phrases should not pose too much of a problem for the content teacher. The pronunciation, however, may be more challenging, and teachers may need support to allow them to model the correct pronunciation. Keeping a vocabulary list on the board for reference during practice activities, or providing language support on a ‘word mat’ or language support sheet can help learners to internalize the vocabulary as it is recycled and encountered over the term or semester.
Supporting Receptive Skills
Aside from vocabulary and structures, there is a further consideration in language teaching: the four language skills. Listening and reading, the receptive skills, are often regarded as less challenging than the productive skills.
Whilst there can be a lot of variation according to individual strengths and weaknesses and indeed the proficiency of the mother tongue, generally speaking the receptive skills tasks require rather less scaffolding. It must be remembered that at primary level the children are still learning to master these skills in their mother tongue.
In the early stages of CLIL, the majority of the listening practice will come in the form of listening to their teacher. This can be scaffolded easily and the techniques are very familiar to most primary teachers. Speed of delivery, reducing sentence length, using body language and visuals to reinforce meaning are all sound strategies. When using other sources of listening, (e.g. songs, videos) then pre-teaching of key vocabulary, discussion of the topic in the text and careful grading of accompanying tasks can effectively reduce language demands.
The language demands of reading, in the context of a subject like mathematics, are generally not too great. However, the same is not true of subjects such as science. Here, longer texts and tasks which include a lot of written instructions will need to be shortened, simplified and accompanied by visuals or even a short glossary. Again, the teacher will need to reduce the language demands of reading in contexts where the children have the added challenge of using a different script in their mother tongue.
Supporting Productive Skills
As mentioned above, actually getting your learners to use the second language may be more challenging. In tasks which require speaking or writing the teacher needs, at the planning stage, to identify what structures and vocabulary the children need to produce and then how best to provide support. A focus on pronunciation will be important here, with modeling and repetition of key words and phrases.
Teachers often remark that, while the learners seem happy to use English with them, it is a challenge to get them to use the second language with each other in pair and group work. Pairing more confident with less confident learners can help with this, as can keeping expectations realistic in the early stages of CLIL/EMI and praising any contribution in the second language! However, the learners will be far more willing to participate if the teacher has provided them with the language that the task requires. This can come in the form of words and phrases on the board or a word mat provided to each pair or group. It’s also important to remember to include here any language that the process of completing the task requires, e.g.: ’It’s your turn’, ‘This goes with this’, ‘We need to put this here’, etc.
When it comes to the other productive skill, writing, then the teacher will need to scaffold tasks very carefully. Studying subjects such as maths at the Primary stage often requires very little extended writing. In science, on the other hand, the reading and writing demands tend to be higher. As mentioned above, children at early primary are still acquiring the writing skill in their mother tongue and where a different script is concerned the language demands need to be carefully monitored.
The writing tasks themselves should be staged carefully. Initially simple copying, labeling and table completion are appropriate. Although it is important to mention that the teacher will have to monitor the children purposefully and show them quite explicitly how to use any support material. As they become more proficient, the teacher can move on to providing sentence starters/frames or wordbanks, creating a language rich environment (word walls, posters, student work, etc) and thus constantly exposing the learners to the second language is also advantageous.
Teaching curriculum subjects in English at primary level can seem daunting at first, but with the right training and support, it can be an immensely satisfying experience for a teacher.
1 C.L.I.L. Content and Language Integrated Learning by Do Coyle Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (5 April 2012)
About the author
Liz McMahon has been teaching and leading teacher education courses for many years, in Europe, Asia, Australasia and the Middle East.
She specialises in writing and delivering courses in CLIL, writes materials for OUP training courses and is a CELTA/Delta trainer. Find out more about our partnership with NILE and available courses:
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Advancing Learning: EMI: English as a medium of instruction
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