Teaching vocabulary in a CLIL secondary school course

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №9 - 2017

Author: Gersonskaya Valentina , Kazakh American Free University, Kazakhstan

In the recent years, the change of education paradigm in the Republic of Kazakhstan has shifted the educators’ focus to CLIL technology as a means to make learners more cognitively active during the learning process, develop their functional literacy, as a result, making them more competitive in the labor market.

At present, introduction of CLIL in secondary and higher education is being enhanced. In the 2016-2017 academic years, preparatory work for the transition to trilingual education in secondary schools started. School teachers and university lecturers are taking General English and CLIL courses. Team-teaching and other CLIL varieties have already been introduced in many higher education institutions. National Academy of Education named after I. Altynsarin developed programs for additional education of schoolchildren in three languages, guidelines, and an extracurricular work program in the subjects of senior classes, where instruction is planned to be in English. Yet there are many challenges to face. One of the key problems that needs to be solved is that of language corpus that should be introduced in the CLIL-based curriculum and vocabulary teaching techniques.

The relevance of the problem under study has made us consider peculiarities of teaching vocabulary in CLIL, findings of some research on the subject-matter, general guidelines on organization and content of CLIL courses as well as recommendations of Kazakhstan National Academy of Education for CLIL teachers. By the example of Grade 7 Biology CLIL course, we present our vision of the way acquisition of vocabulary in this course can be organized.

Fostering language learning requires focus on vocabulary acquisition / learning and vocabulary growth. To develop a successful CLIL vocabulary-teaching strategy, it is vital to teach learners words, which belong to the most frequent lexemes of the language. Much research has been conducted in order to define the exact number of words the learner should acquire to accomplish a CLIL program. According to Laufer and Nation (1999), teachers of English should focus on the 2,000 most frequent words, and instead of teaching less frequent individual words they should introduce strategies for coping with unfamiliar vocabulary [1]. There is also consensus that knowledge of collocations - habitual co-occurrences of lexical items - is important for developing language skills in one’s both native and foreign languages (e.g. Bahns 1993; Zhang 1993; Сowie 1994; Herbst 1996; Kita and Ogata 1997; Partington 1998; Hoey 2000, 2004; Shei and Pain 2000; Sripiсharn 2000; Altenberg and Granger 2001; McEnery and Wilson 2001; MсAlpine and Myles 2003; Nesselhauf 2003) [2]. Besides, it is essential that the list of words and expressions for a CLIL course should include both content-obligatory and content-compatible language, as learners need to produce the academic register of science and dwell on the themes they study. Content-obligatory language is associated with the specific content of a subject whereas content-compatible language is non-subject specific language. Learners may have learned it in their English classes, and they need to use it in CLIL classes to communicate more fully about the curricular subject. We add to it conversational phrases and classroom English learners need to communicate with peers and their teachers in CLIL class and to do CLIL tasks. Considering Feldman & Kinsella’s research (2005), successful and thorough implementation of CLIL almost certainly requires:

- knowledge of some 6,000 most frequent words in English;

- knowledge of the key lexicon of the content area;

- knowledge of the key transactional lexis of the educational environment, including knowledge of the key lexis used by digital media [2].

Much support in this respect is provided by Cambridge University. In its Cambridge TKT CLIL Handbook [3] general survey of what should be taught in CLIL a course in terms of language has been given. The language to learn is specified by the obligatory language units to know, e.g. seventy six for Science (absorb / absorbent, acceleration, acid, adaptation, algae, alkali, etc.), communicative skills that are to be developed across the curriculum (agreeing or disagreeing; asking questions; clarifying what has been said; comparing and contrasting; describing cause and effect, diagrams; images; a process; evaluating work (own and others’); expressing idea; giving examples, information, reasons; hypothesizing; instructing; interpreting data; justifying answers or opinions, persuading, predicting; presenting solutions, presenting work; stating facts and opinions; suggesting changes and ideas). Indispensable verbs are connected with the cognitive skills to be developed. With “remembering” the verbs recognize, recall and the activities label, list, identify, match, name, recite, spell, state facts, tell are associated.

“Understanding” presupposes use of explain and interpret in such activities as classify, compare, define, describe, draw, give examples, order, predict, sequence, translate. “Applying” requires the verbs carry out and do and the activities calculate, experiment, find out, interview, prepare, present, research, show. With “analyzing” we associate the verbs examine and reason and the activities analyze, choose, decide, deduce, examine, give reasons, justify, show the difference between, solve.

“Evaluating” requires evaluate, assess and such activities as conclude, consider, give an opinion, judge, prove, rate, recommend. “Creating” needs the verbs make and produce and the activities build, change, compose, create, design, imagine, invent.

As in 2016-2017 academic year Kazakhstan secondary schools started preparatory work for the transition to trilingual education, in this connection, many regulations on organization and content of CLIL courses have appeared, one of them being the “Integrated Learning to English Language and Sciences and Mathematics (IT, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Science)” guidance book, published by The National Academy of Education named after I. Altynsarin [4].

It provides general guidelines on the essence, organization and content of CLIL technology, as well as recommendations on what each particular course should focus on. In general, everything should be aimed at developing functional literacy - the ability to use knowledge and skills acquired in school to solve a wide range of life problems in various spheres of human activity, as well as in interpersonal communication and social relations. Types of functional literacy, assessed in the framework of external evaluation of students' academic achievements are reading literacy (Kazakh and Russian languages), mathematical literacy, natural science literacy (Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geography).

As most of the school subjects to be CLIL-based refer to the Natural Sciences, in this article we focus on them, in particular, on Biology. In general, natural science literacy is understood as the ability to use knowledge of natural sciences, to identify problems and draw valid conclusions necessary for understanding the world around us and for the changes that human activity brings to it, as well as for making appropriate decisions.

The peculiarity of teaching natural science subjects is in the formation of understanding the impact of natural sciences on the environment, economic, technological, social and ethical spheres of human activity; the need to create conditions for the development of skills in educational, design, research, creative activities, motivating learners to develop themselves; formation of safe work skills during the educational, project research, experimental, extracurricular and extra-curricular activities, i.e. learners should be provided the conditions for the development of the ability to describe, explain and predict natural science processes and phenomena; the ability to interpret arguments and conclusions; of understanding research methods, identifying issues and problems that can be solved with scientific methods [5]. Particular attention in the lessons of Geography, Physics, Chemistry and Biology should be paid to the development of cognitive skills necessary for the successful development of natural science literacy – an ability to understand the problem, characterize the problem, to present a problem, solve the problem, reflect on the solution and report the solution to the problem. Of particular importance is development of the research qualities of schoolchildren, attention and observation, logical thinking and creative imagination, memory, language skills and multilingualism, the development of skills in using subject-matter educational, scientific and methodological information, periodical publications, the Internet, digital educational resources. At the lesson, it is recommended, that authentic materials from newspapers, magazines, films, video and audio materials, websites and literature for collecting and processing information be actively used. For the formation of academic vocabulary on the subject, there should be systematic work on the use of terminology in the classroom. Written and oral assignments are to allow students to improve the correct use of terms.

Therefore, designing vocabulary exercises for the secondary school Biology CLIL course, one should take into consideration the high and low order thinking skills to be developed in the learners, the academic vocabulary to be taught, the requirements for developing motivation, learners’ autonomy, ability to practically apply knowledge and skills, teaching the learners to search and process information from different sources. The basis for developing vocabulary exercises should be a thoroughly selected glossary, which will allow the teacher and the learners to focus on the indispensable content-obligatory vocabulary for the course.

However, the lists of content-obligatory vocabulary, provided in the Cambridge TKT CLIL Handbook and the “Integrated Learning to English Language and Sciences and Mathematics (IT, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Science)” guidance book, do not support the study program in Biology for Grade 7 and the content of the Biology textbook for Grade 7. The Biology Textbook for Grade 7 for secondary schools is the textbook by Kayum at al. (Almaty, 2012) [6]. The textbook focuses on classification and systematic study of living beings, their morphology and activities (Low Organisms, Fungi, Plants, Low Plants, Moss and Ferns, Flowers, Cereals, Animal Kingdom, Invertebrates, Vertebrates, Domestic Animals). After each unit there is a list of terms (4-12), with the number of terms per chapter ranging from 4 (Chapter 5) to 67 (Chapter 9). The majority of such subject specific words are names of some organisms: Мангольд (Mangold), Ежовник (Bur Grass), which are not essential for the CLIL purposes. There are also many endemic plants like Инсегек or Биюргун, which do not have English counterparts. Therefore, for practical purposes a different glossary should be compiled. We suggest it that it should include the subject specific vocabulary from the Cambridge CLIL Handbook for Teachers [3], the corrected version of those terms from the “Integrated Learning to English Language and Sciences and Mathematics (IT, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Science)” guidance book [4], that conform to the content of the Biology Course for Grade 7 and the content-compatible vocabulary on the themes of the course. It is advisable that the glossary group the terms not on the basis of their reference to some branch of biology or semantic group, but basing on the content of the chapters. It will give teachers the opportunity to make new vocabulary exercises and design other CLIL activities.

The glossary is a teaching resource that can be used by the teacher to make tests or new exercises on the vocabulary of the course, or it can be used as a word bank for learners. Another opportunity to use the glossary for practice and consolidation of the active vocabulary is to divide the glossary for the chapter into two parts – English and Russian and make the learners work in pairs. As all content - compatible vocabulary cannot be included into the glossary and we should observe the requirement of personalizing learning, instead of providing the learners with the ready-made glossary, we can make them build up their own glossary of scientific terms and useful expressions as they learn about new science topics. Examples of key words can be highlighted in bold or italics on their worksheets. The teacher can help the class build up definitions of the terms, and allow time for learners to add each term to their glossary. It is a very useful activity as in this case the learner is to decide for himself / herself which words are relevant. It also results in greater learner autonomy and reflection, contributing to the formation of LOTs and HOTs.

Terms of the course can be revised with the help of the “matching” exercise when the terms are written on cards of one color and the definitions on cards of the other color. Periodically, such sets of cards can be handed out to small groups or pairs to match each word with its definition. It may be accompanied with the web-search activity, very helpful for extending the students vocabulary and developing learner autonomy, e.g.: Match the words with the definitions. Then go to the Macmillan Online Dictionary www. macmillandictionary.com and check your answers by typing the words into the search box. The same activity can be used with the labelling task.  In this case the teacher gives learners an unlabeled picture with the task to label it and useful Internet links. If a teacher gives the learners a picture to label as a part of home assignment, he / she can instruct them to find some other organisms of the same class / order / etc. In this case, we also develop learners’ thinking skills as the learner is to search for information, analyze and systemize it for proper selection. Moreover, this activity is person-oriented and contributes to better acquisition of new words and concepts as the learner chooses the organisms he / she finds interesting.

For consolidation of active vocabulary gap-fill activity and flashcards can be used. Accuracy can be developed with “Choose the right word” exercises and jumbled letters. If words with jumbled letters are given in the context, the jumbled letters activity both enhances vocabulary acquisition and develops reading skills.

Vocabulary is also focused on in the activity “Find the words in the word square”. The exercise “Find the odd word” implies analysis and is good for systemizing knowledge and vocabulary. It can be accompanied with a web search. It can also be the basis for speaking activity, as the choice in each case is made on a different ground, thus, developing of reasoning is possible with this exercise.

Of analytical nature is the exercise “Complete the table with the words”. Revising the content-compatible vocabulary, it develops in learners the ability to apply theoretical knowledge in practice and critical thinking.

“Word Map” activities should be developed for all the themes of the course as this exercise is a good tool for consolidating previous knowledge, may be used as a pre-listening or a pre-reading activity or for checking the learners’ understanding of the theme. In terms of vocabulary, it helps learners set logical connections between the concepts and words which results in better language acquisition.

Developing vocabulary exercises for a CLIL course, one should make sure they contribute to better acquisition of the content-obligatory and content-compatible lexicon, development of high and low order thinking skills, motivation, learners’ autonomy, ability to practically apply the knowledge and skills, learners’ ability to search and process information from different sources.

In general, a corpus-informed approach to the subject matter contributes to elucidation of the problem of vocabulary acquisition in CLIL courses. The key to success in a CLIL environment is the acquisition of a productive vocabulary that includes knowledge of the most frequent vocabulary items in the target language, the key vocabulary in individual subject areas and the key vocabulary needed to function in the educational environment. Effective vocabulary acquisition is achieved by making glossaries of scientific terms, flashcards, “A Word Bag” activity, worksheets with exercises for introduction, revision and extension of the vocabulary, including crosswords, web-quests for words to label a picture/fill in a chart, jumbled letters, finding words in word squares/grids, finding odd words, completing sentences and doing quizzes, using factual information, choosing the correct word out of two/three options, completing a table using words from the list, and intensive use of ICT.


1. Laufer, B., & Nation, I. “Vocabulary”. In S. M. Gass, & A. Mackey. The Routlegde Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. - Oxon: Routledge, 2012. – P. 217

2. Coyle, Hood and Marsh. CLIL: Content and Language Integrated Learning. - Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2010. – 419 p.

3. Cambridge TKT CLIL Handbook for Teachers. Retrieved February 22, 2017 from: http: // www. cambridgeenglish. org/ images / 22191-tkt-clil-handbook. pdf

4. Интегрированное обучение английскому языку и учебным предметам ЕМЦ (информатика, физика, химия, биология, естествознание). Учебно - методическое пособие. – Астана: НАО имени И. Алтынсарина, 2016. – 300 с.

5. “On Organization of the Educational Process in the Schools of the Republic of Kazakhstan in the 2016-2017 Academic Year” Methodology Regulations, Almaty, 2016. – P. 13

6. Кайым К. Биология Учебник для 7 кл. общеобразоват. шк. / К. Кайым, Р. Сатимбеков, А. Ахметов, Ж. Кожантаева. – 3-е изд., перераб. – Алматы: Атамура, 2012. - 272 с.

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №9 - 2017

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