CLIL, or Deep Level ESP? by Neil McBeath


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.

CLIL Theory

All of this would lead me to suggest that CLIL is neither so new nor so radical as many of its advocates would have us believe. More to the point, for a term that was coined in 1994, it is supported by a fairly slim literature.

Alexander (2008; 6) refers to the term, but points out that, like Sustained-Content Language Teaching (Murphey and Stoller 2001) “these approaches have tended to develop in primary and secondary schools, where the content is at a lower level, and is therefore more accessible for language teachers.” This is an interesting point, as Mehisto et al also limit their study to the primary, secondary and vocational sectors. Nothing in their book refers to tertiary education, despite the fact that, as Alexander demonstrates, language is frequently taught through content in EAP.

A second problem with CLIL, moreover, is the Eurocentric nature of much of the evidence. Arnold and Rixon (2008; 43) refer to this, mentioning, specifically, “Hungary, Switzerland and Italy” Smit (2007; 3) makes a broader claim; “CLIL is a truly European topic, spanning the continent from the North (Sweden) to the South (Spain)” The extent to which such a European project can be successfully transplanted to other regions of the world, however, may be open to question. Like the Common European Framework of Languages (Morrow 2004) CLIL might become no more than “a brilliant business idea” (Smith 2005; 70), allowing publishers to churn out new titles, all of which claim to be in line with CLIL theories.

One worrying thing in this regard, however, is Mehisto et al’s (2008; 9) statement that “In Europe, in recent centuries, many people have understood the value of multilingualism.” This is a statement that cries out for a citation, as most evidence points to the very opposite conclusion.

Within living memory, monolingual Welsh and Scottish Gaelic speakers were beaten at school if they did not speak English. Until the death of Franco in 1975, it was illegal to publish in Basque, Catalan or Gallician in Spain. Following the French Revolution, the “language wars” led to the execution of people who persisted in speaking Flemish, German, Italian, Provencal, Basque or Breton. Under the Third Reich, it was illegal to speak Polish in Gau Danzig-West Preussen and Gau Wartheland, and after the Second World War it became illegal to speak German in Breslau – renamed Wroclaw.

In the last 25 years, perhaps, there has been a change of perception, but supporters of Phillipson’s (1992) theory of Linguistic Imperialism might argue that Europe’s new-found understanding of the value of multilingualism is code for appreciation of the importance of English.

A third weakness in CLIL theory, of course, is its self-referential character. The Vienna English Working Papers have published two special issues entitled Current Research on CLIL (Dalton-Puffer and Nikula 2007; Smit and Dalton-Puffer 2007b), but the second collection makes frequent reference to the first, while papers in both issues cite the same two “core” collections – Dalton-Puffer and Smit (2007a); Marsh and Wolff (2007).

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach, of course. Mackenzie (2008) may be correct in his enthusiasm “Anyone who is anyone in the EFL world these days is talking about CLIL. The general consensus is that it is the way forward…” but I wish I could be as sanguine.

To start with, CLIL appears to lack definition. Ruiz de Zarobe (2007; 47)  claims that “within the framework of European multilingualism, CLIL can apply to different levels of educational systems and programs, which can be pictured as a continuum…..Based on Met (1998) we can visualize the continuum as follows:-

Content Driven      Language Driven

but this is so comprehensive a definition that it leaves nothing out.

At one extreme we have the total immersion approach that was developed by Gardner and Lambert (1972). This approach was intended to transform English speaking Canadian children into fully-functioning, fluent English-French bilinguals. It also had the wider aim of offering a way out of the political and linguistic tensions that were threatening to tear Canada apart.

At the other end of the continuum we have the ”Spanish for your Holidays” classes that are offered by Adult Education Centres in Britain, and the new phenomenon of “French play groups” to which the British middle classes are beginning to send their children on Saturday mornings. This is not, incidentally, an unfair gibe. Mehisto et al (2008; 13) endorse what they call “language showers” – “primarily intended for students between four and ten years old, who receive between 30 minutes and one hour of exposure per day. This includes the use of games, songs, many visuals, realia, handling of objects and movement. Teachers usually speak almost entirely in the CLIL language. Routines are developed and considerable repetition is used so that students know what to expect. This creates a sense of security, lowers anxiety and boosts learning.”

But what is described here is not, in fact, CLIL. It is simply good practice in primary level teaching – what one would expect in any well organized course teaching EFL to Young Learners.

Most telling of all, however, is the fact that the Mehisto et al book “Uncovering CLIL; Content and Language Integrated Learning” boasts an impressive title, but lacks a bibliography. Writers and publications are cited in the text, but the reader has no way of checking the references. I would suggest that this is a major weakness, which undermines the book’s academic credibility, and which would be penalized if the writers were even foundation level undergraduates on an EAP course.

CLIL in Practice

As a result of this flaw, it is difficult to know how much credence should be accorded to the following list (Mehisto et al 2008; 105-107). It consists of 15 items, from a “highly experienced CLIL educator called Lynda Boynton” (P. 105) who was asked what she felt “were essential elements in supporting learning in content classes.” (P. 105)

I now intend to examine this list, offering my own comments.

1. Create a psychologically and physically safe environment

It must be admitted that many places of learning fail to do this. Biographies and autobiographies frequently reveal instances of people whose early education was a nightmare. In Britain, one of the most famous examples of this is The Prince of Wales. He was educated at Gordonstoun School in Scotland, a place which Flavin (1996) admits offered nothing to any boy who was bookish or introverted.

Even so, I do not believe that any educational institution anywhere in the world has deliberately set out to produce an atmosphere in which learners feel psychologically and physically unsafe. This item is simply common sense.

2. Consistently use one language

Boynton modifies this by suggesting that the students’ L1 can be used in “bridging techniques normally only used sparingly at the start of an extensive programme” (P. 105), but I thought that we had dispensed with “the monolingual fallacy” (Karmani 2003) years ago.

Banning the use of the mother tongue is possible with small groups of polyglot students. It is almost impossible with large groups, and completely impossible with classes from the same linguistic background. Indeed, attempting to do this deprives the teacher of a very useful resource. (Atkinson 1987; Deller and Rinvolucri 2002.)

3. In the beginning, it is acceptable for students to use the first language

Am I alone in believing that this point contradicts the previous one? Is it also not obvious that, with beginning students "students at the primary level, who are at the start of a programme" (P. 105) denying the right to use the L1 will effectively leave them lost for words.

4. Speak slowly and articulate clearly

Again, do any teachers deliberately increase rate of delivery and gabble or mumble to their students? Boynton hedges this item by saying that one should "be careful not to overexaggerate words or speak unnaturally slowly" (P. 106), but this just begs further questions. How does she define "overexaggerate"? Is just a bit of exaggeration acceptable? How slowly can one speak without sounding "unnatural"? These are important questions. Even among native speakers in Britain, delivery rates are far faster in Ulster than they are in the South West of England.

5. Use an appropriate level of language

"Avoid structures that are too complicated for your students, but speak in a grammatically correct manner" says Boynton (P. 106). In other words, sedulously avoid the gaps, hesitations, stabilizers, listener code markers, renewals or anacoluthon (Wilkinson 1965; 29) that mark informal speech. Teachers are to use the "full, complex and well-organised sentences" which Jones (2005: 77) points out are a sign of written language. Speaking uses "incomplete, simple and loosely organized sentences".

6. Use facial expressions, gestures and pictures to reinforce meaning

At the 2003 IATEFL Conference I won a teaching video called Snap TV; British and American Teenage Lifestyles (Coleman and Osborne 2003). In one sequence, a presenter said "Thanks" so emphatically that it looked as if she were using her tongue to try to catch a fly. Facial expressions can be overdone. It is not necessary to use pantomime.

Similarly, Boynton's suggestion that visual aids should only be used to reinforce the verbal message "That way, the idea registers first in the target language" (P. 106) is open to question. Our students have grown up with ICT. They have highly developed visual intelligence and that can be exploited.

7. Repetition is required

Not only is it required, it is essential. Nation (1990) established this point twenty years ago. For a lexical item to be acquired, it must be repeated at least ten times, and even more if the item in question differs only slightly from a word that is already known.

Maley (1994) has also stressed the importance of repetition. As a rule of thumb, the younger the learners, the more repetition will be appreciated. This is not an argument for rote learning, but all experienced teachers know that what is taught is not what students learn. Even the old Presentation, Practice, Production model of teaching leaves room for repetition.

8. Make it meaningful

Boynton states that "The language, themes and content of classroom lessons must be relevant and of interest to the students" (P. 107). Scheffler (1973; 75) "remarks that to stand against irrelevance is like 'opposing sin' whilst to favour relevance in the curriculum is 'akin to applauding virtue'" (Hill 2008; 16).

Surely this point is so obvious that it needs no restatement.

9. Provide a variety of language models.

Oddly, this is another fairly obvious point, but one which is receiving less attention that it ought to. Colledge (2008; 32) recently reviewed an ESP textbook (McCulloch and Wright 2008) and commented that while the voices on the CD attempted a range of British English accents "they are clearly those of actors and too mild."

This, however, is an improvement on the recorded material offered by Garnet Press in Phillips’ (2005) Skills in English; Speaking Level 3 and Morgan and Regan’s (2008) Take-Off; Technical English for Engineering. In the first of these courses, speakers called Ali, Carlos, Lucas and Murat all sound as if they come from the South of England, while in the second, Abdulhakim, Ali and Yusuf sound nothing like the Saudi Arabians they are supposed to be. There is no excuse for this. Hore and Hore (1982;1983) produced courses whose recorded material offered an incredibly wide variety of accents – native and non-native speaking.

10. Create a wealth of opportunities to use the language

“Proactive strategies such as groupwork, pairwork and activity centres are more effective than having a class do primarily written exercises, which you then correct by having one student respond at a time” (P. 107). This is true, but how many teachers still teach in the way described? Boynton writes as if no one had heard of the communicative approach.

Secondly, while groupwork, pairwork and activity centres all have their place, the importance of that place depends on the needs of the students. The recently published Airspeak (Robertson 2008) is designed for pilots who require practice in using the phraseology standardized by the International Civil Aviation Organisation. The pilot speaks to an air traffic controller and has to respond appropriately to “the particular forms of language that are required in the circumstances” (Irizar and Chiappy 2008; 13).  This is an individual task. It would only become a genuine pairwork task if each pilot were matched with a trainee air traffic controller.

11. Communication is of primary importance

“It is more important for students to communicate than to worry about having perfect grammar” (P. 107). This is not always true. Legal documents, in particular, are notorious for the importance that they place on exact interpretation, and accident reports, incident reports and formal complaints may fall into the category of legal documents.

While I was working at the Air Force Technical College in Oman, moreover, we experienced problems with one civilian mathematics teacher, who allowed students to “round up” calculations to the next whole number. This approach actually handicapped those same students when they moved on to their engineering modules, because at that stage, some measurements had to be correct to three decimal places.

12. Create a wide variety of opportunities to develop all four language skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing

Why? At RAFO Masirah I taught a Sri Lankan airman who was working in the Paint Shop. He never had to write anything.  Oddly enough, neither did the potential F 16 pilots who were being selected for courses at the Defense Language Institute at the Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

The RAFO painter had to be able to read technical and safety instructions; understand verbal instructions, and interact with his Omani counterparts. The pilots had to listen and read so that they could complete an extended multiple-choice test, and they had to  perform well in an extended interview which included a role play.

These demands, however, are unusual. For many Gulf Arabs, particularly agricultural engineers, aircraft engineering technicians, mechanical engineers, petroleum engineers and ICT specialists, reading skills may be far more important than the ability to hold a polite conversation. For these people, English is what Walton (Association of Arab Universities; 1976) describes as a “library language”.

Conversely, those working in the service industries, and particularly in Hospitality, may be required to speak and understand far more than they are required to read and write- in English, at any rate. The limousine driver, the flight attendant, the hotel receptionist and the waiter may all require a verbal fluency that need not be matched by English writing skills. Face to face interaction may be in English, but records will be kept in Arabic.

We do our students no favours if we follow a syllabus that ignores their true learning needs, and if we ignore their needs then we are teaching them things that are, effectively,  irrelevant.

13  Work systematically to build equal status for languages used in the school

This is the fundamental difference between theoretical and applied linguistics, most succinctly described in Crystal (1980). To theoretical linguists all languages and their systems are of equal value.

Applied linguistics, by contrast is “A branch of LINGUISTICS where the primary concern is the application of linguistic theories, methods and findings to the elucidation of LANGUAGE problems which have arisen out of experience. The most developed branch of applied linguistics is the teaching and learning of foreign languages, and sometimes the term is used as if this were the only field involved.” (Crystal 1980; 28-29).

Along with the teaching and learning of modern languages, of course, we encounter issues of power, access to information and areas of sociolinguistic concern. With regard to the teaching and learning of English, its present role as a global language is currently so widely accepted that few would dispute its importance. There may be those who are uneasy about the implications of the hegemony of English, or who oppose its spread on political or religious grounds, but they are unlikely to be found in English classes. Our students in the Arab Gulf, like their counterparts in Hong Kong and Singapore, “learn English because they want to compete with the Anglo world, rather than join it. (Babrakzai 2004).

14. Set high, but realistic expectations

Once again, this is no more than good pedagogy. In 2000, the former President George W. Bush spoke about "the soft bigotry of low expectations" (Morel 2000). In that instance he was referring to racial bigotry, but many of us have experienced the same obnoxious phenomenon in terms of social class.

Even so, this is a statement that cries out for greater definition. Earlier, I referred to Gordonstoun School in Scotland. The motto of that school is “Plus est en vous”, which at first glance could be regarded as an example of the type of hortatory slogan that schools tend to like. On the other hand, depending on the way it is interpreted at the school and by the school faculty and student body, that motto could set an impossibly high standard that no one could ever attain. It leads to the situation described by Gore Vidal where “It is not enough to succeed, others must fail.”

15. Find ways of recognizing student effort and success

Boynton hedges here. She correctly suggests that “Every student needs well chosen moments in the limelight”, but then says “Avoid constantly saying well done – the big pitfall of empty praise.” (P. 109).

Unfortunately, for some students, the only time that they EVER receive praise is in the classroom. For these students, no praise is empty. This does NOT mean that teachers should go around scattering “A” grades at random, but it does mean that work that is correct, that is handed in on time, that shows any sign of extra effort should receive acknowledgement.

There is, of course, a problem with this in the tertiary sector in the Arab Gulf. Many of my foundation level students at Sultan Qaboos University, particularly the girls, have been used to obtaining quite absurdly high marks at school. On arrival at SQU they have been mortified to find that they did not pass effortlessly into the Credit Programmes, and they are further horrified to find that they are receiving marks like ONLY 80% for essays that they expect to get 99%.

The problem here, of course, stems from the fact that they are the ones who are setting themselves unrealistically high expectations. They have to adjust to the fact that what was “excellent” at school may be only “good” in a more demanding university environment.


This last example, one might argue, has been taken from a specialist context; from the context of EAP, which is itself a branch of ESP (Robinson 1991; 3), but I believe that the example is pertinent.

At present, at Sultan Qaboos University, I am teaching on the Level 5 and Level 6 foundation programmes for future teachers. I am teaching English for Education Specialists, which is another branch of ESP.

Obviously, we integrate content and language, but so, I would argue, do all ESP practitioners. The integration of content and language goes with the territory; that is why it is called ESP.

On the EES programme we use, among other texts, Phillips (2005). I have already criticized the poor recorded material for this course, but in one respect, and for my EES students, Phillips is excellent. The very first unit of Level 3 (Pp. 7-10) introduces the concepts of aural, visual and kinaesthetic learning styles.

Similarly, Anderson’s (2009) Active Skills for Reading Book 3 contains material on both Home schooling (Pp. 150-154) and Lozanov’s theory of Suggestopedia (Pp.155-160). This material is linguistically appropriate for my foundation level students, and it also gives them a base of content that can only aid them when they move on to their Credit courses.

Another aspect of the SQU EES course is the Poetry Project, where students are required to choose two or three short (15 to 25 line) poems by an established poet, and present – NOT teach – one of these poems to the class. The presentation must include biographical information, and must refer to the poet’s use of figures of speech and their effectiveness within the chosen poem. This is, in other words, a project that involves both research skills and the ability to systematically analyse and interpret a poem.

This is something that the students have never been required to do at school, and to the extent that it introduces them to very basic literary criticism, it is ESP. It also produces genuine communication, because the students are presenting their research findings to each other.

In this respect, the project is similar to the EST work conducted by Skeldon (2008) at Sohar College. In that instance, students read about a solar chimney that had been devised by an engineering lecturer at SQU. Intrigued by what they had read, they drafted questions about the solar chimney, sent them to SQU, and received prompt replies.

What is particularly interesting about Skeldon’s account, however, is that nowhere does he mention CLIL. He refers to EST – English for Science and Technology – another branch of ESP. He automatically assumes that at his level of teaching, language and content go together.

I doubt, to be honest, if many ESP practitioners would ever suggest that the integration of content and language were anything but routine. The last two books that I reviewed Robertson’s (2008) Airspeak and Emery and Roberts’ (2008) Aviation English, are aimed directly at pilots, and pilots and air traffic controllers, respectively. Anyone teaching those students, and using those books, would have to take responsibility for a certain amount of content teaching; it would be foolishly irresponsible not to do so.

This does not, obviously, mean that the ESP practitioner has to be a pilot, or an air traffic controller. You do not become a doctor by teaching English for Medical Purposes. It does mean, however, that teachers should follow the advice given by Micic (2005; 5) “The ESP teacher should not become a teacher of subject matter, but rather an interested student of the subject matter.” ESP teachers should also regard themselves and their students as “professionals who both learn and complement each other” (Irizar and Chiappy 2008; 13).

I do not, for one moment, suggest that this is easy. Mellor-Clarke (2006; 46) points out that “In LSP teaching, some teachers may feel threatened by dealing with specialist ‘content’ in the classroom.” I have seen the results of this unease in both the Air Force Technical College in Oman, and the technical Studies Institute at Dammam in Saudi Arabia. Teachers who felt out of their depth have complained about teaching “specialist” vocabulary like “fuselage” and “cockpit”. Even so, this unease, or downright hostility, can be overcome if teachers only follow Bell’s (2006; 36) advice and “adapt their teaching to suit the context in which their students are studying and approach the teaching of specialist vocabulary accordingly.” To that I would only add that teachers may sometimes have to deal with specialist structures and genres as well.


So where does all this leave us. I would firstly suggest that CLIL is not a matter of putting old wine in new bottles. CLIL, to me, looks more like putting old wine in old bottles and slapping on a new label. The theoretical definitions of CLIL outlined by both Mehisto et al and the Vienna Working Papers appear to be so wide as to admit any form of language teaching. Boynton’s 15 points, moreover, are no more than good teaching practice, with several of them being as applicable to mathematics, physics or ICT as they are to languages.

ESP, by contrast, is supported by a wide body of theory. The lists of publications in Robinson (1980; 1991) alone are extensive. Added to that, there is an increasing number of coursebooks, covering more and more specialized domains. Those of us who are engaged in ESP, regardless of the branch or sub-branch, know that ESP is, in every sense of the word, engaging. It engages the attention. It engages the interest, and it does this by offering definite content; content that is geared to the students’ wants and needs.

Rinvolucri (1999; 14) criticizes the “soft, fudgy, sub-journalistic, women’s magaziney world of EFLese course materials”, and to some extent he has been backed by Reda’s (2004) research, which showed that most “general English” courses were constructed around different variations of some 24 standard themes. ESP, by contrast, “is protean, as it is responsive to all three realms of language, pedagogy and content studies.” (Robinson 1991; 1).

 General English and ESP are different. They are based on different methodologies. They examine different linguistic domains and they are taught to different groups of learners. The definitions between them are not always watertight, but by and large, those of us engaged in the teaching of EFL understand what we mean when we use the current terms. I would suggest that we have no need of a new acronym, particularly one that is based on shaky and self-referential theory, and which does nothing but blur the distinctions that currently exist.   


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Neil McBeath worked for twenty four and a half years as a uniformed officer in the Royal Air Force of Oman. During that time, he taught EFL, ESP and English for Military Purposes (EMP). He declined to renew contract in June 2005, and took at two year contract with BAE Systems, teaching at the School of English Language, Technical Studies Institute, Dhahran, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He has now returned to Oman, and teaches at Language Centre of the Sultan Qaboos University.

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