The Main Setbacks of Content and Language Integrated Learning - Teacher's Zone

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The Main Setbacks of Content and Language Integrated Learning

by Luis PW

1. Introduction

Content and language integrated learning, more commonly known as CLIL, is a term coined in 1994 and originally defined as a set of educational methods which aim at teaching a subject in a foreign language, thus bearing a dual focus: learning the contents of a subject and a foreign language, simultaneously. Since then, many authors have strived to further define what CLIL means, as well as to gain further insight into what it implies. Coyle et al (2010) define it as "an educational approach in which various language-supportive methodologies are used which lead to a dual-focused form of instruction, where attention is given both to the language and the content". If we look at both definitions, the former given by Kohonen (1994) through UniCOM (a project integrating the University of Jyväskylä (Finland) and the European Platform for Dutch Education), we see that most elements are repeated, namely educational methods/approach, dual focus, language and content, etc. Hence, we can see that despite time, almost a good twenty years now, the essence of CLIL still remains the same.

But why has CLIL become an important approach in terms of teaching? Although this question may be answered at length at any time by many respected authors, it may also be summarised in only a few lines. Its importance is widely understood to lie in the idea that any given language should be the means towards achieving something else. In our context, an educational one, language learning is regarded as a tool towards learning other contents, as well as an educational goal in itself. In this sense, CLIL may be regarded as the perfect educational approach. Firstly, we learn a subject's content. Secondly, we acquire a foreign language. Thirdly, we are to use the foreign language, not just to learn about it, which is as optimal as it gets. Sadly, the sociocultural and educational contexts in which CLIL may be implemented are in most cases far from perfect, making it difficult or even impossible to be carried out. In this sense, we should ask ourselves whether CLIL is actually as good as it sounds, whether it is really determining the course to be followed, or if it is simply another utopic approach that will eventually be cast into oblivion. This article aims to clarify this particular issue: is CLIL the approach for the future? In order to be able to answer this controversial query, I will outline some of the drawbacks in relation to the implementation of CLIL, dividing them into those which I consider have a greater importance in terms of difficulty, and those which may be overcome more easily.

2. Major CLIL setbacks

CLIL, just as any other teaching approach, has its supporters and detractors, and it is our goal now to focus on the arguments expressed by the latter, in order to determine whether CLIL is worth all the fuss or not. Let us now see some of the greatest difficulties that implementing a CLIL approach brings about.

Firstly, off the top of any teacher's head, arise what are surely regarded as the major obstacles when even considering implementing CLIL in any given educational context: time constraints and attainment of goals. These two issues, though they may be treated separately, should be dealt with together, as they always come hand-in-hand. On the one hand, we have to take into account that learning a language, by whatever means, is no easy feat. It takes years to master a mother tongue, how easy can it be to excel in a foreign  language? Not at all. In this sense, we ought to consider the time that  pupils under a CLIL approach are exposed to the foreign language. Ideally, if every subject were taught in that foreign language, every student would benefit from a good 25-30 hours a week of language exposure, at least. This amount of time is surely enough to become fluent in a foreign language in several years. However, thinking so is  unrealistic. Firstly, it is rather unlikely that such amount of exposure really took place, due to other related issues such as culture-related  problems, shortage of teacher training or lack of linguistic fluency or mastery. Also, some students would need a good deal of instruction in their mother tongue to take place so as to be provided with a comprehensible starting point. Besides, during these 25-30 hours, how long do students spend speaking to each other for non-academic purposes? And more specifically, which language would they use to do so, or even for academic reasons, their own comfortable mother tongue or a second language with which they might not feel confident enough? This would  deduct a considerable amount of time from the initially given figure.

On the other hand, closely related to time constraints, there come the different educational demands expected from teachers and higher spheres. In the first place, teachers ought to fulfil a set of goals in terms of what students must learn and the skills they must acquire or develop. That is, not only in a foreign language, but in every subject of the educational curriculum. In this sense, it is already difficult to meet these demands, so simply imagine how hard it would be for both teachers and students to add the element of working entirely in a language which is not their own and still being compelled to fulfil the same educational goals. This would only be possible in contexts in which the foreign language is well rooted into society, as it happens in countries such as the Netherlands, where the English language is widely spread amongst its population as well as its culture. However, in other countries, take Spain for instance, there is hardly any exposure to a second language outside an educational context. In such case, how can students cope with the dual-focus of a CLIL approach and still accomplish the same objectives as non-CLIL students? It is virtually impossible, and pupils are at risk of what it is called backsliding, meaning that CLIL may even have counter-productive effect on students' performance, not only in their subjects but also in their first language. Per contra, there may be a possible solution to this, though it may not be fair for some students. However, we will see to that at the end of this article. Let us now continue focusing on some other related CLIL issues.

Another important setback of CLIL is the fluency of the teachers in the foreign language. If a teacher is to teach a subject by means of a foreign language, he or she undoubtedly needs to be extremely fluent in this particular language, as well as versed in the subject in hand. Anyone can learn something by heart in another language, and just "spit" it. However, a teacher has to explain concepts, has to provide with examples, has to face challenging questions from students, has to be able to simplify things, has to have the necessary skills to improvise, etc. Therefore, if a teacher is not extremely fluent in the foreign language, he or she is not qualified to teach content and language in an integrated manner. It is just absurd to even consider so. This is for example the problem that some countries are facing nowadays. In the case of Spain, there is a huge demand for bilingual schools, in which every subject is taught in English by means of CLIL. In doing so, teachers, both veterans and newly-qualified ones, are expected to be fluent in the language. Be that as it may, it is quixotic to think that all of a sudden teachers are going to become fluent in a foreign language. It must be said that it is not a matter of teachers not willing to learn a language, but rather that based on historical educational tradition, even some language teachers are not fluent enough in the language they teach, let alone subject teachers, who have not received proper language instruction in years or even in their lives. It is for this reason that, although many Spanish schools, both state and private ones, claim to be educating pupils in a bilingual environment, it is a lie or rather a dream from which society will eventually have to awaken. For a school to be able to provide students  with a bilingual education, it must count with a fully bilingual staff, and that, in current Spanish state schools can simply not happen nowadays. Some private schools offer effective immersion programmes where teachers are either native or completely bilingual. However, attending these schools can only be afforded by wealthy families, which  leaves middle and lower classes at a disadvantage from a linguistic and academic point of view.

Related to teachers as well, we encounter the problem with current foreign language teachers. In this regard, if  CLIL were to be the future of all schools' approach, what would happen to language teachers? Maybe, in a primary school context language teachers would be able to adapt, since in many countries they are also trained in teaching other subjects apart from the foreign language. However, language teachers in higher educational levels would be in deep water. They would either end up out of a job or would have to transform their role drastically. In some cases, they could aid subject teachers in adapting and creating teaching materials or maybe provide linguistically weaker students with language support and assistance. Either way, the role of the language teacher would become practically extinct or obsolete.

3. Minor CLIL setbacks

We will now be looking at some downsides of any CLIL approach that even though they are not as hard to overcome as the ones previously analysed, they still need a fair share of thought and consideration.

Closely related to the issue of teachers' linguistic level and so-called bilingual schools, we have some political issues. With reference to this, one must consider that any political party that promises to improve and foster how foreign languages are taught, will no doubt attract the attention of those parents that are worried about their children's education and future. And this promise may be done by means of implementing CLIL in schools. Nevertheless, politicians only convey to voters the bright side of any political decision. Therefore, some gullible parents may be lured into believing that their children will be bilingual if they vote for one particular party or another, while in fact this "change" will only take place on paper, and not as a real enhancement or improvement of students' linguistic level.

In addition to political lies, we encounter the Trojan Horse argument. The problem in this case is that, in multilingual countries, CLIL may be used for politico-linguistic reasons (Ball, 2012). In some countries, such as Spain, there are regions in which there are various official languages. Such is the case of Catalonia or the Basque Country, where there are two official languages and the use of each is closely linked to political, cultural and social issues. In these cases and in educational contexts, there exist tensions as regards the language in which pupils are taught. Therefore, implementing CLIL in Catalonian or Basque, respectively, has consequences that transcend educational boundaries and both sociocultural and political elements come into play. As a result of this, CLIL in this type of regions must be very carefully planned and considered, in order not to give rise to further social and political tensions.

Veering towards non-political issues, another setback that we encounter when thinking about CLIL is the issue of materials. This affects not only teachers, but also publishers. On the one hand, teachers under CLIL circumstances would  have to invest a considerably larger amount of time in creating and  adapting materials so as to make them suitable for pupils. This is not only rather difficult to do, but also quite unfair. Teachers already have enough work and responsibilities for a couple of lifetimes, so undertaking such a time-consuming task is just not fair on them. On the other hand, since CLIL is difficult to export across frontiers, publishers seem reluctant to publish any general textbooks (Ball, 2012). In consequence, all the work falls upon teachers, and for them to painstakingly adapt everything is almost impossible. Furthermore, how would publishing most materials in a foreign language affect the industry of publishers of subjects such as history, maths or science? How would they react to having to translate and adapt everything? I do not believe that they would be willing to do so overnight.

Finally, an important change has to take place when testing and assessing students being taught from a CLIL approach. Since CLIL has a dual focus, content and language, teachers have to create a different means of "measuring" students' performance that took into consideration both content and language performance at the same time. As a result of this, the task of assessing students becomes remarkably harder than it is nowadays.

4. Conclusion

Throughout  the course of this article I have focused mainly on the downsides of Content and Language Integrated Learning, and not on its upsides. However, and although I believe the drawbacks are numerous and somewhat tough to overcome, CLIL probably has greater advantages than disadvantages. By saying so, I mean that whilst CLIL is far from being perfect, it is definitely closer to perfection than what came before it. In my view, CLIL is an approach towards which we should steer our educational system. The fact that something is utopic does not mean that it should be disregarded. All to the contrary, it means that it is what we should be seeking.

Humans use language to communicate. Thus, communicating is the only reason for language to exist. In education, communication is the basis for conveying and transmitting knowledge. Therefore, if we can use a foreign language as the main tool to share  and acquire knowledge, we are learning a second language in the most  meaningful way possible, and that is, or rather would be, the perfect way to acquire any foreign language, by using it. And, fortunately, CLIL meets this requirement. Accordingly, I believe that CLIL is the approach for the future. However, I believe that in my country, Spain, it is not being implemented in an appropriate way. I feel that the cart is being put before the horse. Teachers leave college with barely any  knowledge of CLIL, and they are expected in so-called bilingual schools to teach subjects in a foreign language. The government sells to parents the idea of raising bilingual children, while they pressure teachers to attain a B2 level of English that is hardly enough to be teaching English at a primary level, let alone to teach all the different subject contents, such as Maths, History, Science, Philosophy, etc.

From my point of view, CLIL is an ideal approach. But it calls for a change that cannot happen overnight. It cannot even happen in the course of ten  years. I am in no position to say how long it may take, but I know that  if it is to be implemented flawlessly it must be done from the bottom, starting in kindergarten and moving up through primary, secondary and  college levels. It is either that or stumbling once and again over the same mistakes that we are currently making. Pupils must start with CLIL from the very beginning of their educational stages. And, although this seems ideal and somewhat viable, it would be highly unfair to previous  generations of students who would miss out on a great opportunity of  being by far more fluent in a foreign language. Nonetheless, I still believe it is the only way of making things right. With regard to teachers, these should be fully qualified and competent in the use of a  foreign language, and should have received specific CLIL training throughout their studying days. Besides, veteran teachers should not be  forced to learn another language. It is unfair that they are being made to do so nowadays, after so many years studying and teaching in their own mother tongue, as, in most cases, it is impossible for them to acquire a level that would enable them to competently carry out their service in a different language from their own.

After having  expressed my views on the subject, I believe that the only thing left to  say is that CLIL should either be carried out properly, or not carried out at all.

- Ball, P. & Master in Applied Linguistics (University of Essex) (Eds.) (2012). Content and Language Integrated Learning. FUNIBER
- Coyle, D., Hood, P., and Marsh, D. (2010). CLIL. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
- Kohonen, V. (1994). Teaching Content through a Foreign Language is a Matter of School Development. UniCom. Jyväskylä University of Jyväskylä, Finland.
Luis PW is an English teacher, blogger and translator currently working at:
- uTandem ( )
- Keep Smiling English ( )

He owns a Master's Degree in Applied Linguistics and is specialised in Cambridge English exams. He is also a certified Cambridge English Test Sitting Administrator and Invigilator.
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