Saturday, 24 March 2012

Working with resistance to CLIL

When we do training sessions at schools there are some recurring issues about CLIL that come up. Here are three such concerns and the sort of responses that we try to give.

1. “For my students, listening to me speaking English is CLIL enough.” “I just teach the same as I always did in my Dutch lessons: my students like listening to me and my stories”

This idea might be called the ‘immersive’ argument. In other words, exposing students to lots of English in the classroom when they listen to their teacher is enough for the students to then learn through it. The problem with this idea is that the students in Dutch bilingual programmes are coming into these programmes at secondary school level. This means that they are too old to learn a language simply through exposure like this. Do note, though, that rich exposure to the target language from various sources and the teacher always speaking English are both vital ingredients of an effective CLIL lesson.

In order for teenagers to learn a language - and in a CLIL context that also means learning the language of a specific subject as well as more general academic language - they need to have their language learning supported. Students need to be encouraged to experience and experiment with the language by producing output - both spoken and written. This means an effective CLIL teacher can:

Identify the language that students will need for a specific lesson;

Identify which language skills - reading, listening, watching, speaking, writing – students will use in the lesson;

Identify what specific support learners will need to develop those language skills;

Identify what the particular language learning aims for a lesson will be.

2. “CLIL takes too much extra time.”

It’s true that developing new student centred lesson materials can cost more time for a teacher, but here are some points to think about regarding this issue:

Once a teacher has made some materials, they can use them again next year or with another class;

Student-centred or active tasks can often increase the motivation of students in lessons;

Active lessons encourages more positive communication between learners and teacher within the classroom;

It’s possible to design assignments in which the students make materials for lessons themselves. For example, they create their own questions for each other, or build board games focused on learning about a specific topic that can then be played by other students.

Finally, it has to be stressed that there can be ways to “CLIL-up” lessons that do not require extra time for a teacher. Increasing the amount of time of “student talking time” (STT), where students talk with each other, for example, is really just a matter of a teacher shifting focus in their lesson planning so that time is planned for speaking tasks. As a result, there is less “teacher talking time” (TTT). To do this, get students to ask questions to each other, read aloud to each other instead of to the whole class, talk about the lesson topic, an image or intriguing question with each other in pairs or in small groups. Aiming for a higher amount of STT does not need to cost lots of extra preparation time for the teacher.

3. “Becoming a language teacher, on top of being a subject teacher, is a step too far.”

When we talk about a subject teacher becoming a language teacher, we do not mean that they become a language expert. Clearly, that role is for a language teacher – in the case of TTO in The Netherlands, the role of the English teacher is to provide the kind of detailed focus on, for example, grammar or language skills that students need. However, being a language teacher as well as a subject teacher in a CLIL context does require a teacher asking themselves, sometimes, some basic questions such as these:

What are the language aims for my lesson?

How can I select varied input to expose my students to different ways of talking about the lesson topic?

How can I sometimes involve the students talking and/or writing about lesson topics?

How will students use language in the lesson?

What specific kinds of scaffolding (or support) do they require?

We don’t expect, for example, a history teacher to start teaching in detail about the different past tenses in English in their lessons or a science teacher to teach the different forms of conditional sentences when talking about scientific hypotheses. However, we ARE suggesting that a history teacher needs to be aware that students need to use the past tense in speaking and writing about their subject. Similarly, a science teacher needs to know that there are a lot of conditional forms used in science. Moreover, teachers need to be aware that students will need support to do this. This might be support from the English teachers or, if they feel confident enough, from tasks that the subject teacher creates.

Becoming aware of the various ways of supporting language learning is the challenge here for subject teachers. And it’s not just a matter of giving a list of vocabulary. Teachers can be aware of language at three levels:

How to activate vocabulary at a word level;

How to scaffold at a sentence level using activities such as substitution tables or gap fillers;

How to work with speaking and writing frames and tasks to guide students’ output at a text level.


  1. Do they also need to have output rehearsed long before they do presentation if front of their class related to a project, let's say?

  2. Thanks for your comment. Rehearsal is important for building up confidence and perhaps to practise before a presentation. Pupils in a CLIL classroom sometimes need rehearsal and wait time (for example, after a teacher has asked an open question); this rehearsal/thinking phase can include pair or small group discussion, before contributing to a whole class discussion.

    It also depends on your aim as the teacher - do you want something spontaneous or something more rehearsed? Are you aiming at fluency or accuracy?

    The issue is also to do with the amount of support that the pupils need. For example, a speaking frame can be used to help pupils to scaffold their presentations. However, our main point in the blog above is about encouraging teachers to support their pupils in speaking, and the resistance to this that we experience. As CLIL teachers, we can encourage spoken output from the first lessons and not wait until they can speak perfectly!

  3. As an Arts and Crafts teacher, I know the benefits of using CLIL to learn English and the benefits for my pupils related to thinking skills, but If I only have one hour a week (sometimes less) to teach Arts and I have to focus no only on the contents but also on the language, I think that undoubtedly the subject contents will loose focused time. If I´m not right please tell me, how and if you have any bibliography better, so that I can have reasons for defending the proposal. I´m trying to investigate about it.

    1. Dear Berta,
      Thanks for taking the time to respond to the blog entry. I work with many teachers who have limited time to teach their subject and who make similar comments to yours. I understand your frustration.

      Of course, as an Arts teacher, the teaching of Arts comes first. You don’t need to do long CLIL activities in order to help your students learn English, though. Socializing at the start of the lesson in English is one way to get your students going. Some other (short) ideas to incorporate more language work: (a) get students to write a short paragraph on their artwork (for an exhibition), (b) get students giving each other feedback (spoken or written) on their artwork – scaffold their sentences if necessary, (c) ask students to watch videos in English for homework about the kind of art you are working with, (d) plan your questioning in advance – in that way you can work on HOTS in the classroom. Have you taken a look at either of these books? CLIL Activities (CUP) and CLIL Skills ( The website also has some readymade ideas for teaching art: type art into the search box.

      By the way, I wonder where you teach? Are you working in primary or secondary education? What level are your students?

    2. Thanks a lot, Rosie.
      I teach at a primary level in Madrid. I´m making a research about this, and I only find articles about the benefits of CLIL in order to learn a second language, but I haven´t found anything about how CLIL benefits the subject. Only about how good it is for devolving some skills such as thinking or comprehensive reading.

    3. Hi Berta,

      I don't know if there is research about the specific benefits for the learning of a subject, but bilingual education in general helps students to develop their brains better 9since their brains are used more) and to be more able to learn another foreign language. I would also hope that they would learn more about other cultures (the C of culture in CLIL) through input given by the teacher. These are, of course, advantages for the students.

      Advantages for the teacher might be the improvement of your own English, contact with other English-speaking colleagues (through e-mail or other projects between countries), continual professional development since you need to think about and plan your lessons and think about lesson aims in new ways.

      But reading your posts, I sense some resistance to CLIL. What are you concerned about?

    4. Well, it´s not exactly resistance, I actually believe in the benefits of the methodology 100%, but I´m almost sure about the disadvantages for the contents, but only as a matter of time consuming. With more time for the subject there wouldn´t be disadvantages. The thing is that I cannot find any research about it, and I would like to. Even if it´s for telling me that I´m wrong, that it´s also completely possible.
      Any way, thanks a lot for your help, and If I find something else I´ll let you know ;)