In CLIL, Content is King

would-you-rather-be-a-king-or-be-richCLIL is not language at the expense of content. If CLIL were only interested in increasing language proficiency, it would be unjustifiable given that the focus would be taken away from learning science in a CLIL science lesson, for example. In such a scenario surely language proficiency would be achieved to the detriment of the learning of subject matter. CLIL should not be supplanting content with language by dedicating more timetable space to the attainment of linguistic aims. This is the main characteristic which differentiates CLIL from content-based learning (CBL), where language is the main focus. The following table illustrates the divide in concerns between more traditional foreign language teaching and CLIL.

Key Features Foreign language teaching Subject teaching in FL (CLIL)
Conventional FL teaching Content-based language teaching
Priority in planning Language Language Subject
Taught by: Language of class teacher Language of class teacher Class teacher
Assessed as: Language Language Subject
Viewed as: Language teaching Language teaching Subject teaching
Materials Language Language Subject
Syllabus Language syllabus: general purpose Language syllabus: CALP Content syllabus and CALP
Methodology FLT methodology Language-supportive teaching Language-supportive subject-teaching desirable

From: Clegg, J. (2003). Teaching subjects through a foreign language in the primary school. BC Germany

The key word in the CLIL acronym is perhaps “integrated.” The goal of the CLIL approach is that students simultaneously learn a foreign language without neglecting the content in a content lesson. Do Coyle emphasises that “Integration is a powerful pedagogic tool which aims to ‘safeguard’ the subject being taught whilst promoting language as a medium for learning as well as an objective of the learning process itself” (2002: 27). In essence then, CLIL can be seen as a powerful approach given that, executed well, the learning of content does not suffer and the acquisition of a foreign language in meaningful contexts is successfully achieved.

In a CLIL approach then, Content must be given primacy. To do otherwise would be to supplant content with language by dedicating more timetable space to the attainment of linguistic aims. This has a series of important implications for how CLIL lessons are devised and carried out. It seems useful to recognise here the idea that one cannot talk about science without the language of science nor history without the language of history. This is true of the first language and any additional language. In that sense, every lesson is a language lesson. Not only are learners required to acquire subject-specific language to access content, they are also required to use subject-specific language to express their learning and carry out tasks related to the given academic field. Such language is not limited to vocabulary, however, it also entails the language structures and discourse frames of each discipline. For example, it is impossible to talk about history without the language of cause and consequence such as “consequently,” “as a result of,” “due to,” “because of.” Likewise, in formulating a hypothesis for a simple experiment or writing a simple report on the outcomes of an experiment, this cannot be done without the language of predictions and later the use of the past simple. Moreover, academic language such as “predict,” “confirmed/refuted our hypothesis” are necessary in order accurately to express learning in science.

The examples above are not strictly speaking language aims, however. They certainly are linguistic, but they are inseparable from content aims because content and language are so intertwined. In the case of CLIL, content dictates what language is to be learned. In language syllabi, this could not be further from the truth. Language syllabi tend to be created in what, on closer inspection, often seem to be rather arbitrary principles. They might start with the verb “to be,” move on to the present simple, then the genitive followed by “there is/there are” and so on. Topics are chosen on the basis that they provide opportunities and vocabulary with which to be exposed to and practise these grammatical points. Often the progression of topics in language textbooks seems strange, which is not surprising given the reason for which they were chosen. A book might move from the topic of crime to the topic of the environment and the destruction of the rainforest. The destruction of the rainforest was chosen by the authors because it is a process and lends itself to studying the passive voice, for example. In a language textbook, however, nobody really cares about what happens to the Amazon, they care about the verb “to be” plus the past participle! This is not the case in CLIL. If the syllabus requires the study of the destruction of the rainforest, that is the content objective. The consequence of this, though, is that the learners will need the passive voice in order to access and talk about this process. This is not at all arbitrary; the content dictates the language needed. This may provide something of a headache for teachers considering that what has traditionally been seen as complex language structures may be required for content and tasks before language usually considered to be simpler. Nevertheless, it is the way things must be. Content is king.

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