CLILA or the Content and Language Integrated Learning Activist

This blog collects bits of the work I have written over the years as a language teacher and it reflects the changes in the trends that have influenced me (and everyone else) in this strange “trade”– part clown, part priest, part technician, part judge, part writer, part parent, part campaigner, part learner, part audiovisual artist, part gambler….Its title will become clear at the end of this mini-story of my career.

Before I became an English teacher I studied English with a combination of the grammar translation and structuralist methods. Not audiovisual, just structuralist, with no tapes and hardly any audio input. It was not my plan to become an English teacher, but I ended up being one, and had to move from walking into a classroom with zero preparation work to spending 20 hours planning just one lesson; all in one year in which a couple of eye-opening courses changed my life and kindled a real vocation. They were run by the British Council and International House respectively, and the first was paid by the then Ministry of Education.

That year was 1986-87, and the word “communicative” was not a welcome one in most teacher circles. It was a real challenge to transform “opaque” materials into communicative activities introducing the tension of the “information gap”. Pre- and post- reading and listening activities, jigsaw grouping, the use of authentic materials, the demise of old-fashioned dictation and group work dynamics were at the thrilling core of the newly discovered world. Not to speak of the use of songs, games and drama, the soul of motivating, fun-loving practice. Communicative teaching got so popular as years went by that it became an umbrella term for a number of different movements that kept changing and reacting to practical classroom feedback in all sorts of ways.

After the initial shock of moving from total concentration on form (grammar and vocabulary) into total concentration on content (functions and notions), the pendulum went fast in the other direction and a need to deal with language was reflected in the debates between inductive and deductive approaches to teaching grammar. This was followed by the self-discovery techniques, which ran parallel to the development of the model “Observation-Hypothesis-Experimentation”, as opposed to the landmark and fetish of the first communicative wave: the PPP (Presentation, Practice and Production). The background of these changes was the shift of a paradigm where learners who had so far been passive receptacles of knowledge were now the active protagonists of their own autonomous development, with the teacher as a facilitator ready to elicit language and give feedback.

The need to do “grammar proper” has never abandoned the profession, though. It´s a kind of gut feeling that good old teachers always love to agree on. It kind of gels colleagues together in the face of adversity. Grammar, however, had to make an awkward return to language learning, sandwiched between reading texts and listening extracts in which samples of structures provided  contextualised input, and tangled up with communication practice where the newly learnt or revised form was a mere instrument to aid navigation.(And shouldn’t it just be like that?)

There was also, at some point, an attempt to replace grammar with vocabulary, when the importance of lexical chunks was revealed as the way in which people naturally learn the language without the rational intervention of rules or logic. I remember a textbook published by Collins where the tenses and almost every grammar concept was turned into a lexical label.

But vocabulary and expressions were soon flooded by lexical fields or topics and blustered away by skills and strategies. Even pronunciation was caught in the chill ( is it a list of  items or a skill?). The story of syllabus design steered away from product-oriented items to process-linked ones and since the eighties no textbook with a reputation has failed to articulate its objectives around the four axes: listening, speaking, reading and writing.  Strategies were discreetly sprinkled here and there in a more anecdotal way. They never forced their way to the centre of the curriculum although their presence is pervasive and nobody would deny their importance.

All these changes paved the way for task-based learning and the endless dilemma of language vs content-oriented tasks. The first tasks were sheer communicative activities with an objective and a result. That classed them as something different from “only exercises”; but when language oriented tasks wedged their way in, the definition got too blurred and what remained was a new way of working: matching, ranking or  reaching consensus have become the staple of a lot of English teaching materials, at least on a par with gap- filling or multiple choice answers.

Classroom observation was a fascinating fashion and still a great tool for learning about one’s own teaching; somehow a natural extension of the evaluation and feedback process that all teachers, intuitively of in a planned way, carry out with every class. Bringing a camera into the classroom frightened a few of my students but provided feedback and a greater understanding of classroom dynamics. One had to counter, of course, the natural antipathy some students feel for the crystal eye.

The year 2K saw the emergence of a new phenomenon: the European Framework. This awesome work is a compendium of criteria against which all language learning can be measured, compared and pigeonholed in a complex system that covers all European languages in every aspect of reception and production, in all manner of social contexts and situations, from beginners to near native speakers. The framework was a much needed document because of the diversity of labels and yardsticks thitherto employed in an increasingly globalised world. Like all bibles, however, it was destined to be betrayed: scheduling progress from our bureaucratic constraints was simply a non-starter.

The next stage of the journey is the infectious spread of new technologies: blogs, wikis, epals, webquests and so on can stimulate the mind and widen the horizons of our students providing new angles in the way we look at language and interact with it. Developing blogs and sharing texts, chats and IT projects with my students has been an immense pleasure and very powerful tool of communication, and that brings me to the last point:

Why do people learn English? Do they unequivocally love the culture and the prestige attached to it? Or is there a part of them which resents this imposed need and stops them relaxing and enjoying it? What aspects of English speaking culture do we choose to share? Who shapes these decisions?

English has become such a necessary world language that lots of Spanish and Valencian schools are involved in bilingual or trilingual education projects; and lesser mortals use CLIL in one or two subjects, that is, they teach them through the medium of English (or the language they want their students to learn).CLIL, or content and language integrated  learning, is the ultimate communicative method. The object is to learn your subject matter and the language is picked up as you go along. Now, the “A” I have added stands for “activist”, the teacher who takes students on a journey of discovery questioning social mores, media misinformation, corporate irresponsibility and the world we live in as a given. The activist will set tasks such as measuring one’s footprint, signing a protest letter or making a campaign poster: real world action.

Language is a human construct modelled in the changing culture of its set of speakers. Becoming aware of  their relative merits and shortcomings is understanding it at a deeper level. Articles, suffixes and tenses may be the bricks and the cement of the building, but who wants to live in a room without a view?