“But I need to finish my book!”

October 15, 2020


Curriculum vs Language: what should you focus on?

I have written about this topic before.

The older blog post is called: Language and subject: a balancing act

Yesterday I hosted a workshop at a school and one of the teachers mentioned he thought  it was challenging to ask his students to learn all of the vocab in two languages.

He felt he needed to do that, because otherwise the students did not understand his instruction. He was afraid he would not be able to finish his book this year if he had to talk about vocabulary all the time.

Recognise this?

Estimated time to read this article: 9 minutes

The myth of balancing content and language

Let me start by mentioning I recognise this challenge.

And I think you do too.

You have to finish the book, have to follow a national curriculum and have lesson objectives to complete.

Don't worry: I am not going to say these things are not important.


let's have a quick look at what CLIL actually stands for:

Content and Language Integrated Learning

In other words: there should be no 'battle' between discussing content and working with language, as these should be integrated.

Remember: Language is nothing more than a tool you use to convey the message.

Or, if you describe it differently, you communicate the content through a language. Like all communication. Even in L1.

So, do you have to pay attention to language in a CLIL lesson? Yes!

Do you have to worry about balancing it, allowing for 'extra time' for language learning? No!

Obviously easier said than done...

Key Take Away

CLIL is all about integrating language and learning, not keeping these two separate

How to integrate language in your lesson effectively

Surely you must pay attention to language in your lesson.

After all: if students don't understand what you are saying, they will not understand the topic, right?

More on that in a minute.

Let's talk about the role of language in a CLIL lesson first.

In a study in Ireland in 2017 on the use of language in a CLIL lesson, the researchers found that:

"teachers firmly believed that planning for language instruction contributed enormously to the success of the CLIL experience".” 

So, preparing for language learning is definitely something that a CLIL teacher should do.

But what do you pay attention to when you have to do this?

Key Take Away

Language planning has a huge impact on the understanding of the content by students

Key elements of language learning in a CLIL lesson

During this same research, the researchers found another interesting conclusion that provides a great hint as to how to work with language effectively in a CLIL lesson:

"They (the teachers) did not focus on the language itself, but more as a vehicle to teach content. The vocabulary selection was largely restricted to nouns serving as key content concepts"

In other words: focus on keywords students might need during the lesson to make sure they actually understand what you are saying.

No grammar, but subject specific phrases, maybe some classroom English.

Let's break it down.

Say you are preparing your lesson:

  1. 1
    Check the previous lesson. Did any words appear that students did not know yet? Do they need to be reviewed?
  2. 2
    Check the current lesson: Any words or phrases students might need to know?
  3. 3
    Think about how to introduce or recap these words

As a sort of guideline: remember that having about 15 new words per page is a limit for students to be able to understand the text.

In other words: don't worry too much if they don't understand it all. Even if they miss out on a couple of words, they will still understand you.

Key Take Away

Plan ahead of time what words or phrases might be a challenge for students

What to do with students who have little knowledge of the subject language?

So, now we know:

  • We need to integrate language into our lesson without it taking too much time
  • The language needs to be practical and related to the situation

But you might just run into a situation where you need students to know more than just a basic set of words in order to understand the text.

The text might be about a new topic or it might be really content-heavy.

One thing I would like to mention about this, is keeping an eye on balancing language and content.

If the language involved is quite tricky, make sure the content is not too hard.

And the other way around: if the content is quite tricky, make sure the language involved is doable.

If you have both a difficult, new piece of content AND it involves a lot of new language, it is going to be (too) hard to do for your students.

So, if your students indeed have little knowledge of the language needed to understand the task, think of an activity that involves that language, but does involve a difficult, new application.

Language and subject

Balancing language and content

Example in a Biology lesson

You want to talk about "The Skeleton" during a Biology lesson.

In order for students to be able to discuss the content effectively, they need to be able to name the various bones of a body.

In English. In other words: quite a lot of new words!

This means you should provide some scaffolding in order for the students to actually be able to use the language, linked to the new content.

Some possible ideas might be:

  1. 1
    Provide a picture of a skeleton and provide the names of the bones. Ask students to link them by reading a text or finding the names on the internet.
  2. 2
    Write down descriptions of the words and ask students to link the correct descriptions to the correct words, again either a resource book or the internet.
  3. 3
    Scramble the names of the bones and ask students to unscramble the words.

These are just a couple of ideas, just to give you some inspiration on what is possible.

Now you might think: "But these are language activities, I don't have time for that"

But do students who would be learning in L1 not have to do similar tasks?

Sure, they might be able to do it quicker as they are more familiar with the words used.

However, remember the human brains works by association.

Just translating a new word by providing a word list (for example) does not create any association and takes very long.

By asking students to find the answers themselves and link it to relevant content, students do not only learn the new language, they are actually learning the content as well.

CLIL check: Done!

Key Take Away

Activities that help students associate new words with prior knowledge help with learning these words more effectively

Students own responsibility

If you know me a little, you know I prefer activities that involve students doing the work.

The examples mentioned are no different: students can find a lot of information themselves.

This can also be applied to using word lists.

If you do want students to have word lists, ask them to find difficult words themselves and find the description (or if you want to: translation) themselves.

That way students are more involved in the learning and become active learners instead of passive ones.

Key Take Away

Ask students to actively participate in a task to maximise their learning.

Two ideas to integrate language in an activity

I promised I would share two activities that you can use to integrate language.

1: Scan the chapter

Students scan the chapter and write down any new words they might find tricky. These words are combined into one large list and at the end of the chapter the list is reviewed to make sure all difficult words have been covered.

Asking students to do this themselves is not just a fancy way of 'not having to do it myself'

By giving the students the responsibility of finding words they find difficult, you give them room for individual answers that might very well be different from other students.

And you teach them responsibility when it comes to their own learning process.

After all: it is their own responsibility to make the list and keep track of the explanation of these words.

2: Alphabet

Students come up with as many words related to a topic as possible with different starter letters.

I actually did this activity in a teachers workshop yesterday with two different groups.

Not only was I surprised by the creativity of some participants,

but it was also very nice to notice how discussions and competition elements played a role when the words of various teachers were mentioned.

A great way to motivate language output and requires no preparation time at all!

Do you notice students sometimes need a lot of language support?

I am curious to hear your thoughts! Let me know in the comments below if you recognise this as well.

And maybe you have a great idea to share how you tackled this problem ;).

Looking forward to your responses!

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