The possible constraints and challenges of the CLIL approach

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №10 - 2018

Kakenova Gauhar, Kazakh-American Free University, Kazakhstan
Kikina Marina, Kazakh-American Free University, Kazakhstan

Most studies on CLIL concentrate on the many structural difficulties surrounding its implementation. From a lack of sustainable teacher supply and insufficient pre- or in-service training, to the difficulties in sourcing teaching materials and overcoming parental reluctance, the road to CLIL is not straightforward even for the most committed. This paper wants to take a few steps back and analyze critically some of the claims which rest on CLIL’s inherent characteristics. It will specifically focus on the cross-curricular model of CLIL, on which the majority of research is carried out. By reviewing some of the latest evidence and considering the interaction between CLIL’s features and contextual factors, this review will try to provide a clearer picture of CLIL’s potential and its limitations.

The claims can be summarized as follows:

a) CLIL leads to a higher level of attainment in EFL;

b) CLIL improves motivation in all learners;

c) CLIL benefits learners of all abilities;

d) CLIL increases intercultural awareness.

The first claim supposes that CLIL is to lead to an increased level of linguistic proficiency in several ways. The best example of this is Coyle’s model [1] of linguistic progression in 3 strands: language of learning (needed to access basic concepts in a given context), language for learning (language needed to operate and interact with the content in a given context), and language through learning (incidental language that results from active involvement with the task). CLIL claims thus to make transparent and accessible all language needed for successful completion of tasks and knowledge acquisition in a way that is not always found in content subjects.

The growing research evidence largely supports this claim. The outcomes of most CLIL programs are unsurprisingly positive, with CLIL students displaying higher levels of proficiency and higher communicative competence than their non-CLIL peers. However, the differences are not always substantial. Moreover, researchers suggest that the profile of CLIL learners is similar to that of their historical predecessors, Canadian immersion students [2]. CLIL students largely outperform their non-CLIL peers in listening and reading comprehension, fluency and range of vocabulary, but less often so in pronunciation, accuracy and complexity of written and spoken language.

What this evidence suggests is that the tension between language and content which CLIL theoretically had resolved still prevails. Although the 4C model was originally created in response to the lack of balance between content and language observed in some early versions of CLIL, it does not appear to be sufficiently underpinning practice [49]. It seems that in the CLIL classrooms, which are legitimately content-led, there is still an insufficient focus on form that can lead to some errors and thus to a stagnation of progress just like in traditional EFL models.

The CLIL model, like any others, has therefore obvious limitations. However, this is something rarely recognized. The risk is that an overestimation of its potential together with the current lack of definition of expected linguistic outcomes can lead to an early and unfair disappointment with results. To resolve the tension between content and form, two different measures are needed. Firstly, a better theoretical model for the integration of content and form in CLIL needs to underpin successful practice. This model could also provide the basis for a better coordination of CLIL and foreign language lessons, integrating the linguistic dimension of CLIL and the foreign language lessons in one curriculum.

A useful starting point to coordinate instruction could be Ellis’ findings that the extent to which explicit instruction of structures is needed depends on their availability in unfocused tasks through naturalistic exposure [3]. CLIL lessons, while less conducive to controlled practice on form, can nonetheless focus on it through two strategies. They can introduce tasks that encourage learners to become more aware of form, and crucially, they can engage learners in self-repair on form more systematically. In this sense, teachers’ prompts (repetition, clarification requests and feedback) act as an opportunity to elicit form practice during a meaningful interaction, by forcing learners to move from semantic to syntactic processing. This is the only way in which CLIL lessons can enable learners to reconstruct their inter-language efficiently and can sustain their linguistic growth. From a practical point of view, using joint FL and CLIL assessment policies for linguistic aspects could be a useful strategy.

A second measure to better balance content and language would be to establish what linguistic outcomes are reasonably to be expected of CLIL programs. It has been pointed out that the specific socio-pragmatic conditions of CLIL classrooms impose restrictions on all aspects of the communicative competence acquired by CLIL learners. There is a need in CLIL classrooms to ensure learners have access to a maximally rich environment, from a communicative point of view, as is possible within the constraints of an educational institution.

Another approach increasingly found in recent research is to define the objectives of CLIL from an instrumental point of view, based on what the learners are most likely to do with the foreign language. Since in most CLIL, the vehicular language is English, it has been suggested that the acquisition, manipulation and display of knowledge is the aim of CLIL. This approach, while undoubtedly pragmatic, entails however a fairly restricted and uninspiring view of what language learning is about. The issue of defining linguistic objectives is thus not a straightforward one, but nonetheless essential if the integration of content and language is to be achieved and if CLIL is going to survive as a valid methodology.

Through its integration of cognition and language, CLIL has undoubtedly the potential to lead to higher levels of attainment. However, if CLIL is to realize its full potential, it needs to resolve the tension between content and language that is emerging from CLIL practice. Both theoretical and practical adjustments are required so that CLIL can fully contribute to the learners’ balanced and ongoing linguistic development. This is the only way that CLIL can avoid producing learners whose productive skills seem “linguistically truncated albeit functionally effective” [4].

The second claim from the above list deals with the students’ motivation. CLIL, with its integration of language and non-language content, can boost motivation by providing a legitimate and authentic context for language use. In CLIL, the language becomes the means rather than the end in itself and this leads to a significant reduction in the amount of anxiety expressed by learners. The content-led nature of the lessons allows the learners to engage with them at a more creative and challenging cognitive level and provides opportunities for genuine interaction with others, oneself and the world over a varied range of contexts. CLIL proposers also mention the possibility of the so-called “double effect”, i.e., positive attitudes towards the content subject may transfer to the language subject [5].

However, in all of these studies, the CLIL effect shows also some significant limitations. In Lasagabaster [6], CLIL learners experienced a visible deterioration in their attitudes towards the foreign language, more so the case than their non-CLIL peers. What this suggests is that, as one would expect, CLIL, on its own, cannot solve the motivation problems associated with learning languages. The motivation to learn the content cannot be taken for granted, but neither is content on its own the source of all motivation. Motivation is an environmentally sensitive entity that needs to be created, but also maintained and reviewed. Other factors are at play, not least the classroom environment and specific methodology. Hood (in Coyle et al. 2010) had already identified the need to preserve the learners’ self-esteem in the initial stages of CLIL while they adjust to the new challenge [5]. The implication for CLIL teachers is the need to provide plenty of positive feedback.

To summarize, CLIL can enhance learners’ motivation and overcome the main shortcoming of communicative language teaching by proving a meaningful context for authentic communication around relevant and cognitively challenging content. While it responds to long-establish short-comings in EFL teaching, CLIL has its own limitations. It must be complemented by good practice into positive feedback and a variety of teaching styles to support the achievement of all learners. More importantly, where relevant, it must be coupled with active attempts at counteracting social perceptions of otherness and language learning. Combined with all these factors, the potential for CLIL to boost motivation could be a powerful tool.

The next claim’s proposers state that it not only increases linguistic proficiency, but that it also enhances content knowledge, cognitive skills and creativity in learners of all abilities. A substantial body of research proves that CLIL learners suffer no disadvantage in their levels of achievements in their first language or the content subjects, and that very often they outperform their non CLIL peers. This enhanced grasp of content knowledge is explained by two different factors: the relation between language and content in CLIL lessons and the so called “double processing”.

The dual focus of CLIL means that the relationship between language and content has to be totally transparent. In this sense, CLIL exposes the linguistic issues in subject content in a way that is often absent in non-language subjects. This makes CLIL teachers more aware of the linguistic needs of the learners and thus more effective at ensuring comprehension [7]. However, this approach relies on a balanced integration of content, language and cognition, which is still not always the case. A failure to analyze and provide for the linguistic needs of learners will inevitably fail the weakest because of the intrinsic challenge of CLIL.

Often CLIL teachers lack a sufficiently wide repertoire of strategies to put academic content into an inter-language that is understandable, stretching and sound from a content perspective. The problem is compounded by the fact that subject teachers involved in cross-curricular CLIL do not often recognize that their subjects are a place for language development and practice as much as content acquisition. Therefore, CLIL’s potential to raise all students’ achievement will depend on there being sufficient acceptance of the role which language plays in mediating content. The so called “double processing” refers to how CLIL learners process speech in a foreign language in order to take in new information, while at the same time integrating the new knowledge in an existing corpus. While this provides learners with a motivating challenge, it also has a number of potentially negative side effects.

Firstly, it means that a lack of linguistic proficiency may be a serious barrier to understanding and learning. The problem can be made worse if coupled with insufficient teacher proficiency or a limited range of teaching strategies to support linguistic development. A second implication of “double-processing” is that it can lead to a longer teaching process and a concentration on the basics to the exclusion of the wider elements of the subject. However, this may not necessarily have a negative impact. It can lead, in the perception of both teachers and learners, to a deeper understanding of concepts. Learners benefit from having to engage more actively with the material to overcome the linguistic barrier and, at the same time, teachers report avoiding overloading students with unnecessary information. The result of both strategies is that learners remember more of the material taught.

CLIL has the potential to lead to better understanding of content and to raise achievement for all, but this will only happen if CLIL is put in the context of optimal teaching practice that provides language development as much as content development. CLIL can be seen as an entitlement for all, with different outcomes for different learners, but it must be accepted that even the best delivered CLIL program because of its intrinsic difficulty may limit the extent to which learners can overachieve. Competitive pressure in the current educational markets and a social attitude still skeptic about foreign languages may limit severely the interest in such programs.

The final claim has already been mentioned above and states that CLIL is generally linked to the development of greater intercultural awareness by providing learners with experiences that would have been impossible in a traditional EFL setting. Although language and culture are inseparable, language work in itself does not necessarily lead to the sort of self-awareness and tolerance of difference linked to intercultural understanding. In CLIL, the key difference is the provision of a meaningful context and the use of the foreign language as a tool to explore and construct meaning. An intercultural ethos is thus a defining feature of the CLIL classroom both a micro-level, through meaningful interactions in the vehicular language and potentially, at macro level, by providing students with the linguistic tools and knowledge to extend their interactions beyond the classroom. The use of new technologies and school partnerships abroad can make CLIL a catalyst for living intercultural experiences, and teachers are encouraged to be proactive in order to fulfill CLIL’s potential.

There are potentially some theoretical and practical limitations to this claim. In the CLIL cross-curricular model, it is often the case that the learning of a subject is not culturally located at all, such as in science, mathematics or physical education. In these contexts, the amount of knowledge developed by the learner can be limited. It is also interesting to note that not all CLIL models accord the same central importance to culture and intercultural understanding as Coyle’s 4C model. Whereas her model places culture at the centre of the 4C pyramid, other European models place language and communication at the core and culture as a peripheral element [8].

The motivation to learn English is linked less to an interest in the culture, it is associated with and more to its usefulness as a lingua franca. However, even if the motivation to learn English is purely instrumental, developing the full range of knowledge associated with intercultural awareness is still essential, because a lingua franca is never culturally neutral. CLIL in English, in many ways, has greater potential to develop intercultural awareness than CLIL in other languages, because it multiplies exponentially the range of possible opportunities for contact with a broader range of cultures. It can therefore contribute to placing learning in a truly multilingual context. It is thus essential not only that the intercultural ethos is maintained in the classroom, but also that the cultural elements that underpin English as a language are incorporated in the process. Failure to do so would result in an impoverished CLIL experience for learners.

In fact, this is probably its most solid claim. Its integration of context, language and cognition creates the perfect environment to encourage reflection and self-awareness, while allowing learners to re-appropriate the language as a learning tool in their own context. In this sense, CLIL can allow the learners to step outside their own experience and develop a perspective consciousness of cultural processes more effectively than traditional classrooms. With the growing need for a genuinely global sense of citizenship, this dimension of CLIL programs is probably its most valuable asset and one that cannot afford to come second to the more practical aims of enhancing linguistic proficiency.

To summarize all the above mentioned statements, the CLIL learners can have an imbalanced linguistic development which favors their receptive rather than productive skills, while their motivation is still subject to contextual and social influences. The extra level of difficulty which CLIL entails can leave the weakest learners very vulnerable if insufficient scaffolding is provided for linguistic development, and finally, while CLIL’s greatest potential lies in its intercultural dimension, the role of cultural awareness in CLIL models where English is the vehicular language is less well established.

If CLIL’s potential is to be fully implemented, a number of measures are needed. A clearer theoretical model is required to better underpin the integration of content and language in CLIL lessons and the relationship between the CLIL language curriculum and the traditional EFL lessons. In this sense, CLIL could make a crucial contribution to addressing the long standing tension between content and form in all models of language teaching. If CLIL is to be accessible to all learners and leave behind its selective past, it should trigger more integrated and socially inclusive language policies, with a clearer focus on the role that language plays in assimilating concepts across subjects. Its motivational potential needs to be complemented by broader initiatives which counteract social perceptions, and its intercultural aspect needs to be protected from a utilitarian approach which sees CLIL as the way purely to achieve greater linguistic proficiency.

Addressing these limitations is essential for the future of CLIL, not less because there is currently an unmistakable tone about much of the CLIL literature. It is presented as a timely and perfect solution to the demands of the global knowledge society for a multilingual, adaptable workforce, and this has led to a lack of definition and occasional over-estimation of its expected outcomes. Yet CLIL is a costly model, in terms of financial and human resources, and its implementation must be seen to deliver maximum benefits. The risk of implementing CLIL under the weight of unrealistic expectations and without specifically addressing its emerging shortcomings is one that we cannot afford to run. It would lead to CLIL being perceived as a quick fix rather than a timely solution and to a logical yet regrettable disappointment with a model that is genuinely promising.


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Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №10 - 2018

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