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CLIL, or Deep Level ESP?
by Neil McBeath
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Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) is the new buzzword. According to Mehisto, Marsh and Frigols (2008; 9) "the term CLIL was coined in 1194 in Europe" although they claim the CLIL-type programmes actually go back 5000 years, to the Akkadians in Iraq. When, however, they claim that CLIL "seeks to support second language learning while also favouring first language development" (P. 9) then a certain ambiguity enters their argument.

This has been recognized by TESOL Qatar, whose 2009 theme is Language and Content / Content and Language. The TESOL Qatar website states that "whether you know it as Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), Content Based Learning (CBL) English for Specific Purposes (ESP), or another acronym English language teaching and content can be successfully linked."

This is milder than Khoury and Berilgen-Duzgun (2008; 26) who characterize CLIL as "an umbrella term, used to describe a whole spectrum of approaches" They expand this by saying that "Content Based Instruction (CBI) – an approach familiar to many ELT practitioners where the focus is on the topic which students learn about, but the aim is developing linguistic ability – would fall under the umbrella of CLIL. Other CLIL approaches include ICL (integration of content and language), TTE (teaching through English), CLIC (content and language integrated classrooms), FLAC (foreign languages across the curriculum), and FLIP (foreign language immersion programmes)." (P. 26)

This paper will suggest that much of what passes for CLIL is, in fact, fairly straightforward good practice, and that ESP practitioners, in particular, have been using this methodology for years.

Learning Language without Content

When I was working as the Technical English Language Specialist at the Royal Air Force of Oman base on Masirah Island, I had a request from the OC Engineering Wing to produce a short course for his junior officers. Accordingly, I went to see some of these men and asked them what, exactly, they wanted to learn.
"Grammar," they said.
"You're not interested in vocabulary, then?"

This is interesting, because it exemplifies the uninformed layman's view that "real" language learning is the learning of grammar. It is in line with Masuhara and Tomlinson’s (2008; 18-19) remark that “learners themselves do not seem to be able to articulate what exactly they mean by “grammar” apart from their wish to ‘speak/write perfect English without errors like native speakers’, the myth still widely believed by teachers as well as learners.”  It is also a view that derives from the classical syllabus that was imposed on British education until at least the 1970s, when comprehensive education forced out the old Grammar Schools.

I spoke about this at last year's TESOL Arabia Conference (McBeath 2008) suggesting that the Grammar Schools had, in some instances, relied on the ability of their students to compensate for inadequate materials and/or inferior teaching. Preparing this paper, I was reminded of my Second Year Latin class, which consisted primarily of translating decontextualized sentences from English into Latin and vice versa.

One frequent example was "The girls are going to the woods with spears and arrows." This is hardly the type of sentence that any EFL teacher would EVER use as an example. Why, one might ask, are girls taking these weapons to the woods? Why are they not taking bread and fruit, if they want to have a picnic, or taking axes and rope so that they can gather wood?

The answer lies in the choice of the nouns. "Spears" and "arrows" in Latin are feminine nouns, but they have irregular ablative plurals and that, effectively, is what was being taught. Howatt and Widdowson (2004) refer to this approach to language teaching, but its effectiveness is fairly limited in EFL. It would be possible to ask students to make the following sentences plural;

  1. The man is talking to the woman.
  2.  The child is feeding the ox.

but most of us would agree that little would be gained.

This approach is, in fact, not unlike the method that Lowe (2008) describes being used in East Bengal when Michael West joined the Indian Education Service in 1912. That method was so ineffective that West used his subsequent appointment as Principal of the Dacca Teachers' Training College (1920-1932) to introduce the New Method and develop the genre that we now know as supplementary, or graded, readers; each of which integrates content with language.

For my own part, having been "taught" Latin by the old method, it was a relief to find that, at university, Anglo-Saxon was introduced using an Anglo-Saxon Reader (Sweet 1876; 1967) which contained content from the beginning. Gordon's (1927; 1957) Introduction to Old Norse, moreover, actually appended the grammar, placing its main emphasis on selections from the sagas.

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