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The life cycle of a Clil teacher

Trainer and author Kay Bentley tells Melanie Butler how a primary teacher with ELT training metamorphised into a Clil specialist

Kay Bentley has a degree in English and the Scots language and started out as a primary teacher. Her early career included teaching primary French, which she maintains influenced the way she thinks about Clil.

‘I had a Scottish higher qualification in French, and I collaborated with a secondary school French teacher to plan and teach French to eleven and twelve-yearolds. They then progressed to the secondary school where the same French teacher taught. Although I had been trained to teach crosscurricular topics such as maths, I couldn’t have taught Clil with a French level of B1-plus.

‘How do I know? In The Netherlands, I taught maths to eleven and twelve-year-old learners with a range of home languages who had difficulty learning maths in English. By this stage, I had Tefl qualifications so I knew a range of strategies for supporting language learning. This experience opened my eyes to the complexities of teaching a curricular subject to non-native learners.

‘If I had not been trained to teach primary maths as well as English language I would have found the experience seriously challenging. As it was, I embraced the lessons with relative confidence and the majority of learners progressed sufficiently to cope with secondary school maths.’

At a recent Cambridge English conference, Kay expressed reservations about the EU policy of using only teachers with a C1 level of the target language.

‘I encourage all subject teachers who are committed to developing their B2 language levels and who can demonstrate competence and enthusiasm for teaching their subject specialism in Clil. During training courses, it is teachers’ expertise in their subject areas, their pedagogical skills and ability to inspire that reassures trainers they have the ability.’

According to Kay, these strengths become apparent in peer teaching of subject concepts. Trainers can then address language issues in tutorials or by providing individual, constructive online feedback.

‘Many European teachers start teaching Clil with a B2 level or below, and as they gain experience, they expand their knowledge of subject-specific and academic vocabulary as well as develop their linguistic skills. Of course, working towards a C1 level won’t happen overnight. These teachers need time, support and understanding in order to achieve this.’

Kay has run Clil teacher training courses in every context you can think of – in-service courses for regional governments, short courses and masters modules for NILE, even online for Cambridge English – but accepts that some teachers are not suited to the approach.

‘Where I would draw the line is with those who are unwilling to go beyond their subject niches and reluctant to invest time in developing their language skills beyond B1/B2. This is certainly unfair on learners, many of whom aim to achieve B2 by the time they’re sixteen.’

Kay also believes that knowledge of content is important, especially at primary, ‘because teachers need to differentiate Clil lessons from those taught in ELT. Clil starts with subject concepts and provides a variety of tasks so learners can work towards achieving content and language learning outcomes.’

Kay argues that ELT often relies on comprehension of relatively text-heavy input, so you can end up with what she calls the ‘Clil pages’ approach. The teacher gets what is essentially an ELT book with one-off topics on a Clil subject such as the life cycle of the butterfly. It might start with a listen and read cohesive text, whereas a Clil book, which focuses on the concept of life cycles, might start with a look and read task – using simple sentences to explain the stages with the subject-specific vocabulary highlighted in the sentences rather than put in a box.

ELT focuses on language comprehension, for example using a comprehension task with yes/ no questions, while a Clil lesson focuses on the comprehension of the subject, for example putting stickers of stages in a cycle diagram and labelling them. They could then move on to the life cycle of, say, a frog. In a Clil class the teacher would look to expand the concept, not the language.

‘Clil teachers need to plan for presenting subject concepts, supporting learners’ comprehension of concepts through a variety of task types, and creating tasks so learners can apply new subject knowledge and develop communicative skills and cognitive processes.’

Kay has worked in a wide range of countries and school environments, but there are circumstances where she thinks the approach is less likely to work.

‘I think that Clil isn’t as effective when teachers are told they have to teach their subjects through English by school or regional authorities rather than when they volunteer or are given the option of saying yes or no.’

With subject teachers problems arise if they have low levels of English and little interest in developing it, or are unaware of how to support learners. With language teachers, there are problems when they attempt to teach a curricular subject without deep knowledge of subject concepts and the progressively demanding cognitive challenges they present. But what about class size or language level?

‘I don’t think class size is necessarily any more of a problem in Clil than in normal language or subject teaching lessons on their own. However, teachers need to be clear how they are going to differentiate learning. Is the difficulty with content, language or both? What form will the differentiation take: of outcome, task or support?’

Nor does Kay see learners’ language levels as an issue as long as ‘learners are keen to do something through English’.

Teachers can then motivate them through multi-sensory means and by doing creative tasks which develop their cognitive and practical skills. In science, for example, they can do simple experiments when they predict, observe and record findings using concept cartoons. In music they can read musical notes and play a variety of rhythms using instruments made from recycled materials. But Kay believes it is important to have an element of fun.

‘When I was teaching maths I included a “maths for fun” element. Clil can become quite serious sometimes.’

Image courtesy of Philippe Put