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HomeFeatures and CommentPoint of View“Content must cease to be a slave to the language.”

“Content must cease to be a slave to the language.”

Language classes shouldn’t be language led. CLIL shows us that concept and competences are key, argues Phil Ball

There’s an extract from an EL textbook I often use as a warmer for CLIL training sessions. The chapter is about ‘Routines,’ but before the learners can dive into this topic they are exhorted, in pairs, to ask each other questions about their daily activities.

The example at the top of the page features a boy asking a girl, ‘Do you have breakfast in the morning?’ She dutifully replies, ‘Yes, I do’.

The task that I give to the teachers, also in pairs, is to imagine what the girl would really say. Over the year, answers have ranged from, ‘Is that a trick question?’ to, ‘Are you mildly insane?’

Having just returned from addressing the UN in her second language, Greta Thunberg, still at school and still learning English, is unlikely to be convinced by such a drill.

The book is not as old as you think, it is nevertheless comforting to reflect on the fact that this sort of empty drill – and all that sails in its methodological boat – is gradually disappearing, replaced by units of work bearing some resemblance to real experience, either scholastic or extra-mural.

Has CLIL helped turn the tide, or has the world just become a more problematic place, worthy of serious discussion even in language classes? Probably a bit of both.

CLIL has certainly contributed to the idea that in class we can talk about real things, and do real things with real objectives. We can use the language that derives from those sensible aims, instead of using a textbook unit on global warming as an excuse to practise the 2nd Conditional.

This is where the notion of competences fits snugly into 21st-century educational discourse, riding on the wave of approaches such as CLIL, which have conscientiously prepared the ground.

“CLIL champions the principle of language as vehicle: you do something 
with it.”

Competences are not ‘skills’. Skills are a component of competences, as are thematic contents and subject-based procedures. They are the ‘resources’ of a competence. In order to assess a competence, a student’s behaviour must be observable, which requires the student to ‘perform’ in some way.

This performance requires a ‘situation’ (Roegiers, 2000), which is why CLIL has become such a useful conduit for competence-based approaches. In simple terms, and to stick to the theme of global warming, a teacher of, say, environmental science, no longer needs to teach this topic merely because the syllabus determines randomly that this will happen in February – but because the ‘situation’ is real. Students tend to be motivated by reality, as opposed to talking about breakfast.

The performance of students within the curricular frameworks of these subjects can be tightly related to the particular curriculum skills prescribed. Yet the situation they might resolve could be, ‘Convince the UN delegate who is visiting your local region that global warming is real, using evidence from the local context’.

The interest for language teaching is obvious. Yet in the scholastic context, situations in which students can demonstrate competences authentically can be difficult to come by.

But even within the relatively limited parameters of the classroom, we can provide valid frameworks for competence-based action (Ball et al. 2015). The internet has left us with no excuses: it enables genuine communicative opportunities with other schools, or with public and private institutions.

Why not do this in the language class?

One possible hurdle is that CLIL has traditionally divided itself into two camps – hard CLIL, which is ‘content-led,’ and soft CLIL, which is allegedly ‘language led’. It’s a cute distinction, but within a competence-led framework it is probably less necessary to make it.

CLIL champions the principle of language as vehicle: you do something with it. So, if the language teacher wants to work on saving the planet, they can ask the students to prepare a presentation of, ‘what they would do to reduce the climate crisis if they ruled the world’. Then, we might reasonably ask how the teacher and the other students might assess their peers’ performances.

The presenters will require the 2nd Conditional to make their proposals, but the proposals will need to be scientifically (and ethically) valid. This is a language class, but it is not ‘language led.’ it is concept-led.

The language for this particular competence must be accurate and persuasive, yes, but it must also reflect the discourse of the particular science involved. Greta Thunberg is not effective because she happens to be a C1 on the CEFR. She’s effective because she uses the discourse of climate-crisis science accurately.

Since 1995 and the birth of CLIL, subject teachers have been exhorted to become more ‘language aware’ (to paraphrase Bullock, 1975), but how about language teachers? They have not really been asked to do anything new, nor have the notions of ‘content awareness’ or subject-based literacy ever been proposed as useful elements in their professional development. But there is no use in playing around with content, just to satisfy linguistic objectives. Content must cease to be a slave to the language. It needs to be the other way around. The function of language is to serve content-based objectives. Amen.

Learners are no longer convinced by the older, out-of-date paradigm. Ask Greta Thunberg. I’m sure she’d agree.


  • Ball, P. Kelly, K. and Clegg, J. (2015) Putting CLIL into Practice. Oxford University Press. Bullock. A. (1975) The Bullock Report: A language for life. London: DOE. Met, M. (1989) Learning language through content: Learning content through language. In K. E. Müller (ed.), Languages in elementary schools (pp. 43–64). New York: American Forum. Roegiers, X. (2000) Une pédagogie de l’intégration. Brussels. De Boeck.
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Phil Ball
Phil Ball
Phil Ball is a CLIL materials writer and teacher-trainer based in San Sebastián, Spain. He was closely involved with the award-winning Basque project, ‘Eleanitz’, and the CLIL textbook series for the Basque competence-based curriculum (EKI), for which he was nominated for the ELTONs Innovation Award in 2016. He is co-author of Putting CLIL into Practice (Oxford University Press 2015), co-designed the new CLIL Essentials online course for the British Council, and works as a consultant and tutor for NILE in England.
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