Should your language level be higher than your students’?

January 14, 2019


What are the criteria for a 'good' CLIL teacher?

We can all agree on the fact that a CLIL teacher needs to have an acceptable language level  to be able to teach in a second language. But does asking for an English qualification of a certain level say anything about the effectiveness of CLIL? 

And maybe more importantly: Does it matter?

Estimated time to read this article: 6 minutes

In the Facebook group "CLIL" a discussion emerged following an article stating Spanish bilingual schools are full of teachers with poor language skills.

I do not live in Spain, nor do I know anything of this situation, so the article is not really relevant to me. What was interesting though was the responses it triggered. Many people responded because they either agreed or disagreed.

With this blog post I share my opinion, but feel free to look at the post and read the other peoples' opinion as well.

It is important to learn from each other and share experiences.

A CLIL teacher needs an language qualification, right?

The first question you might want to ask is:

Does you language level or proficiency say anything about your CLIL qualifications? 

Or even your teaching qualifications for that matter?

In my opinion: no.

Effective CLIL teaching has to do with many things and language is only one of them.

I live in The Netherlands (as you might know) and we ask teachers who are going to teach in CLIL to prove C1 level.

However, teachers are allowed to teach even if they are still preparing for the examinations.

This allowed for teachers to experience teaching in a second language before having to go through examinations.

These experiences in class are actually a lot more important in my opinion, as classroom English and subject specific phrases are not taken into consideration when you take Cambridge examinations.

Furthermore, I have had a teacher in the past who never passed his exams. However, his fluency was amazing and he was able to explain and share stories without any problems.

As a student, we thought he was a great CLIL teacher with a very high language level. It was not until years after I heard he never passed the examinations because of all the other language skills required.

Key Take Away

The level of English does not say anything about effective CLIL teaching

What about CLIL in an L1 lesson?

I have argued before I think CLIL teaching should not be exclusively for second language learners.

Many CLIL activities can be applied to L1 lessons as well. Language is just as important in my L1 Maths lessons as my L2 ones.

A couple of reasons why CLIL is also important in an L1 lesson in my opinion:

  • Students have to learn subject specific phrases anyway
  • You will find students with language specific problems in an L1 class as well
  • Common CLIL topics like scaffolding also work in an L1 class.

A colleague of mine once said:

A bad teacher might get away with it in an L1 class.

A bad teacher will fail in a CLIL class.

The reason?

Simple: In a CLIL lesson the expectations of a CLIL teacher are higher.

But that does not mean L1 teachers do not need to perform

Key Take Away

CLIL is important in L1 lessons as well so language proficiency does not play a role in quality of lessons.

What about native speakers?

Let me start by saying I know many native speakers who are great teachers!

With that said, being a native speaker does not qualify as an instantly great teacher, let alone a great CLIL teacher.

As a coach and teacher trainer I have seen multiple people who thought: I cannot find a job, so I'll just start teaching.

Most of them failed. Horribly.

Teaching is hard. CLIL teaching is as well.

So: yes, being a native speaker definitely helps to make sure the language element is taken into account, but is says absolutely nothing about effective CLIL teaching.

Key Take Away

Native speakers can be a great asset, but should still train to be good CLIL teachers.

Why the experiences of students might be wrong...

Okay, so an English qualification says nothing about CLIL qualities, or even teaching qualities in general.

Yet I also hear the students talk about teachers who, in their humble opinion, speak English very badly or have a low language level.

The interesting thing is, I once heard them talk about a colleague who I knew had just passed his Cambridge Proficiency (C2!) with one of the highest scores possible.

His English was probably better than mine! Yet the students thought my English was way better.

The difference? I have been teaching in English for more than a decade, my colleague was just starting.

Again: experience teaching CLIL is a lot more important than achieving a certain language level.

Does that mean no qualification or study is needed?

Absolutely not! Just like teachers need to keep up with their knowledge concerning teaching, they need to make sure their English is adequate to teach.

But the key phrase here is: adequate.

If a teacher can explain in a way students are actively engaged with a second language and learn about this new language every lesson, does it matter if this teacher has B2, C1 or C2 qualifications?

Which brings me to the next topic

Key Take Away

Students will have an opinion about teachers. That is a given. This opinion is quite often wrong though. Do not let that discourage you.

Teacher talking time vs. Student speaking time

Notice the alliteration in the title of this paragraph? 

Sorry, never mind, moving on.

As a CLIL teacher, your priority is to help students to practice the second language.

This is not done by talking yourself most of the time.

Teacher talking time is important, it certainly has a role in your lesson.

But it is not the only part of your lesson, maybe even the least important part.

A CLIL teacher needs to think about maximizing the student output.

As such, focusing on the teachers' qualifications might not even be the best way to look at a CLIL lesson, because it should be student focused anyway.

This might also be the best way to cope with language challenges of a teacher.

If the teacher does not know a word or phrase, he or she can figure it out together with the students.

My students can correct me whenever I am wrong. That way, I keep learning as well.

Key Take Away

CLIL teachers should not focus on achieving high proficiency of L2 only, but should focus on motivating students to be engaged with L2.


Teaching CLIL requires an adequate language level of L2, in most cases English. However, this does not mean the focus of education of CLIL teachers should be on their level of English.

Achieving a high level of competency in English does not in anyway prove a teacher is a good CLIL teacher.

Sure, it helps, but other things (like focusing on student output) are more important.

I am curious what you think about this!

Share or comment below to let me know

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