by Brad Blackstone & Jock Wong
National University of Singapore
In late January 2014, we attended the 34th Annual Thailand TESOL International Conference in Chiang Mai. In one of the keynote addresses, Russell Gordon Cross provided an update on the state of Content and Language Integrated Learning, especially as it was being implemented in various foreign language programs in Australia. One of the vignettes he presented was of a multi-modal approach to Italian history and culture using the Italian language. Watching a video rendition of the Italian culture class, the conference audience could note the excitement in the students’ faces as they were dramatically interacting in Italian, their non-native language. It was clear that this was more than a language class, and more than a history or culture class. This was CLIL.
We have both had our own experiences with CLIL. In Ohio in the 1970s Brad studied Russian in high school and in university, and while the term CLIL had not yet been coined, he fondly remembers once when he was asked by an instructor to not just ‘play act’ Russian language dialogues but to produce and deliver short plays. This sort of task became more than a linguistic endeavor for everyone involved (play writers, student actors, the director) because alongside the language skills both acting skills and an interpretation of character were required. There was that very sense among the learners that Hollywood was beckoning. Granted, the course/curricular goals were still clearly focused on the side of language development, but something more immediate was rising to the surface in the minds of the students: the role of language as an instrument for real communication and engagement with significant content within an authentic context.
Jock experienced language learning from a similar perspective as a student in Singapore. During that time (and now too), the Ministry of Education required all students to study English language as a subject. That was fine. However, when he was in secondary school, he faced a major challenge; all subjects (except Mandarin) were taught in English, including history and geography, which had been taught in Chinese in primary school. Additionally, he had to study literature (e.g. works by William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, and George Orwell). Coming from a family that did not speak English (but Cantonese) meant that to study and pass the various non-language subjects to receive his education certificate he had to additionally study the English that would allow him to access the subjects. He remembers vividly reading mathematical texts about functions, equations and inequalities to understand them. He was interested in mathematics and wanted to do well in it but had to master the English that allowed mathematics to make sense to him. It was truly a CLIL experience.
Having had our own CLIL experiences as learners, and now as teachers, we talked about the expanding role of CLIL and, along with the growing preeminence of English as the foremost global language, a wider recognition of CLIL programs across the globe. The time was right, we thought, for ELTWO to host a special issue dedicated to a discussion of CLIL in higher education.
But CLIL is not without its critics, and the very definition has inspired positions. There are those, for example, who argue that the content factor becomes “watered down” in some courses with a CLIL focus (Ioannou Georgiou, 2012, p. 497). This reasoning follows from the idea that if students are struggling with the target language, their learning of the content will necessarily be impaired. At the same time, it is often suggested that CLIL requires certain conditions and is based on a set of principles. One of the more arguable “principles” includes the idea that CLIL is a “foreign language enrichment measure packaged into content teaching” (Dalton-Puffer, 2011, p 184).
This is when we turned to David Marsh for advice and assistance. David’s name was everywhere in the literature, not just as the person who had identified this educational approach for what it was, and as the creator of its key terminology, but as a steadfast advocate. If there was a person who could help us tread through the varied opinions and offer insights to us and the writers who had agreed to walk with us on this journey, it would be David.
After consulting David, we reflected upon some of the questions we faced and came to a certain understanding. Concepts evolve over time. While some scholars associate CLIL with ELF learning, which was what CLIL was originally about, we think that it does not have to be. After all, there are many aspects to language learning. The Centre of English Language Centre at the National University of Singapore runs a program called ‘Ideas and Expositions’, the objective of which is to use ‘content’ to teach academic writing in English (see Brooke; Angove et al., this issue). Each lecturer teaches a humanities subject like one would in a faculty, except that much emphasis is placed on academic writing – e.g., how to support one’s stand using evidence and argument; how to organize and express ideas to guide readers through a line of argument. Most of the students can speak a form of English with a high degree of fluency, which means that they are generally not EFL students. However, many of them do not fully understand what academic writing in English, at least at the university level, is about. Because the students learn content and academic writing in English at the same time, for all intents and purposes, their endeavors may be considered CLIL. Wanting to explore CLIL from this evolving perspective, we decided to pursue the theme. We issued a call for papers and invited David Marsh to be our Guest Editor. The rest, as they say, is history.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank David Marsh, who worked closely with us to review all submissions, even when he was travelling, and wrote the introductory piece for us.
Together with our CELC/ELTWO colleagues, we now present you with the long-awaited CLIL special issue.
Dalton-Puffer, C. (2011). Content-and-language integrated learning: From practice to principles. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 31, 182-204.
Ioannou Georgiou, S. (2012) Reviewing the puzzle of CLIL. ELT Journal, 66(4), 495-504.