The Missing Link: How EFL can get to CLIL

In my last post way back in May, I suggested that a little bit of communicative language teaching (CLT) is unlikely to make much difference in high school English courses in Japan. My reasons were that just dabbling with CLT is not enough. It results in short, mostly unconnected utterances, and it rarely displays age or grade-appropriate thinking. The teachers are not used to this approach, even if they find it appealing on some levels–I mean, where is the high school English teacher who thinks that English shouldn’t be used for communication, at some point, somewhere? But it is not just warm feelings about a language that help decide what actually happens in classrooms. What teachers are used to, what they have been trained to do, and what just about everyone seems to expect them to to do, are also forces that shape the culture of teaching in Japan. Among them is little knowledge/experience or clear vision of how to give CLT more prominence in classrooms.

Image: This way to the future

MEXT’s policies are actually pretty good, in my opinion (as limited as my perspective is). But the world of HS teaching is one of schools at vastly different levels, with vastly different types of students. Textbooks to be covered, (school, and entrance) exams on the horizon, and students increasingly distracted, are realities in teachers’ lives. A little CLT probably cannot do much to address these realities, even if it might be a little more pleasant than the norm now. What I think is needed is a new system, a system not organized by sequences of grammar structures but by sequences of performance skills and discourse/socio-cultural/linguistic knowledge. The goal should be to develop learners to the point where they can functionally continue to learn in English, gaining more detailed familiarity with the language and topics they need–in other words, get HS students to the point where CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) lessons are possible. This is an interim goal, to be sure, but after students can basically function in a CLIL classroom, they can further develop their familiarity and competence with content related to their needs/futures. You may  be thinking that CLIL is an approach, a way of teaching language and content at the same time. How or why should it be a goal? Why not just go ahead and institute CLIL in high schools? Then you could have kids learning the language they need and the content, too. The problem with this is that it is not possible to just switch to a CLIL approach given the current mindsets and limitations of teachers. Sorry, but for many of the same reasons why CLT won’t fly even if you push it off the cliff, CLIL is impossible to just deploy in classrooms. Plainly put: you can’t get there from here.

I think CLT sometimes fails to gain traction because it is seen as a distraction from serious learning. Part of the reason is washback from entrance exams to be sure, but part is also the lack of perceived academic rigor of activities such as asking for directions, explaining your favorite dish, or inviting someone to a movie (or any of the many language functions commonly put in the eikaiwa column of teaching content. In my present job as a teacher trainer I regularly encounter this mindset. My colleagues and I find that the majority of teachers do not understand how reading can be taught communicatively, for example, since they have always thought of communicative language teaching as being all about speaking and writing. And now MEXT is suggesting a greater focus on productive skills and teachers are scrambling to try to make time to add just a little bit more to the status quo, a token bit of CLT. Will it be better than none? Absolutely. Will it result in the kind of integrative 4-skill lessons MEXT is aiming for? Well, the central mindset problem still remains: CLT is seen as a less-than-rigorous add-on to the “main” part of the lesson. Very, very  few teachers know how to teach language integrated with content. Very, very few seem to be able to break down the essential skills into teachable chunks that can then be sequenced. Those few who do are doing it by inventing their own curricula. And they are pointing the way forward.

Come with me for a moment to a small mid-level high school in Gifu Prefecture. Let’s listen in on some students who are discussing Rosa Parks’s quiet act of subversion. Was she right to not stand up? What would you have done, and why? After students complete a mindmap of their opinions, they get into groups of four and begin discussing the topic. The students have been told that they should try to use words, phrases, or sentences from the textbook as reasons to support their opinions.

Student 1: So you would stand up because you are scared to arrested?

Student 2: Yes.

Student 1: Someone will…you…not you?

Student 2: Yes.

Student 3: No, no, no, no. I disagree with [Student 2]. If I were [Rosa Parks], I would not stand up.

Student 4: Not stand up?

Student 3: No.

Student 4: Why not?

Student 3: I’m scared to be arrested, too. It’s true. But…[she opens her text book]…please look at this page. She said, “One person can make a difference.” That means we should move. If she had given up her seat, Barak Obama may not be president of the United States

You must visit a large number of classrooms to realize how remarkable this activity is. The students are communicating–exchanging opinions about the textbook content–interactively. They are saying something. Not something as in anything, but supported opinions. They are listening actively to each other and building on each others’ ideas. This, ladies and gentlemen, is an academic discussion. It’s not perfect, and it shows only a few of many necessary skills, but it’s happening mostly successfully.

Image: Discussions to CLIL

Discussions are big in L1 classrooms now in the US and many other countries. They are powerful tools for learning. They promote good thinking skills, good listening skills, social interaction skills, and language skills. The big question is: can EFL learners get the same benefits? The example above suggests that it is possible in a Japanese high school context. One example may not be all that convincing, but experience from the US suggests that language learners do benefit from this approach. Fisher, Frey & Rothenberg (2008) make the case of using content-area discussions for EFL learners. They also explain how to scaffold for these learners. Most of their activities include cooperative learning of some sort, and they show how through modelling, clear tasks and objectives, and careful support for less proficient learners, discussions can be a means of learning language and an activity that yields considerable academic benefits. As in the example above, students are trained how to act and interact. Talk is seen as a way of developing literacy, which facilitates the learning of reading and writing skills. Talk in groups comes with content and outcome goals, but also with language and social goals. The importance of this final point should be highlighted: discussions allow learners to learn much more than language, and much more than content. They learn how to learn with others, how to interact with others, and what to do when different ideas and opinions emerge in groups. These are, I’m sure you agree, important skills that are closely linked to language skills.

Zwiers and Crawford (2011) in another book on discussion focus on academic conversations. They identify key skills and show how to teach and train students in their use. Sometimes the words “discussion” and “debate” are thrown around in the world of language teaching. If you would like to know what skills are involved with discussion and debate, Zwiers and Crawford is a good place to start. We language teachers have been poor at identifying or focusing on the kinds of micro-skills that are needed for expression, disagreements, presentation, or interaction. Rather than seeing these things as skills that emerge naturally over time as our students gain proficiency, perhaps these skills can be used to drive the learning of language and thinking skills. In EFL settings,  we should be pushing our students to think better, interact better. Zwiers and Crawford are concerned only with the L1 classroom. Not everything will be teachable to EFL classes in Japan, but much will, and the potential benefits are certainly there. It seems to me that these benefits are also prerequisite skills for CLIL classrooms. Unless students are ready and able to engage with the content and each other, any CLIL lesson will be dead in the water.

Image: Two textbooks for teaching discussion

This post may not have convinced you of the importance of heading toward CLIL-type lessons at the high school level, or the necessity of  developing discussion/conversation skills to reach the point where CLIL is possible, but I hope it has given you something to think about. CLT without more rigorous thinking and opportunities for use seems unlikely to improve the state of English education in Japan. Content-focused academic discussions (along with presentations and debates) is an attractive option, I believe, though certainly not one that will be easy to implement. Like the teacher whose students we met above, we have a lot of curricula to develop.



Is CLT the Right Approach for Japanese High Schools?

Image offerening

In 2013, I observed a sample lesson at a middle-level high school in Japan. The purpose was to demonstrate a style of lesson and convince the attending English teachers to emulate it. One of the targets of emulation was teaching English in English, and the other was teaching English communicatively. Dozens of English teachers from across the prefecture were there, dutifully and cautiously observing the sample lesson, in which a teacher managed to conduct a textbook unit explanation and lead a productive task almost entirely in English.

Few doubts or complaints were aired by the observing teachers. They know which way the wind is blowing. They know that the education board staff running the lesson observation/training have an agenda, and that agenda comes down from the Ministry: teach English in English; do productive tasks; teach communicatively. They understand that  it is something that they should probably be doing, even though they did not experience this type of lesson themselves as students, even though they were never really trained to teach this way in college teacher training courses or on the job, even though they have doubts about their own English competence and are reluctant to put their shortcomings on display too much. So, they nodded politely, and promised to take the ideas back to their schools for further consideration.

Where, of course, it would be back to business as usual.

Nishino (2009) produced a paper that I still have trouble comprehending, but which I believe continues to sum up attitudes to teaching English communicatively in high schools in Japan. She found that Japanese teachers have pretty positive attitudes toward communicative language teaching (CLT), but mostly choose not to engage in it themselves. The reason, I guess, comes back to the lack of experience, training, and language proficiency on the part of teachers. But in my present position, it is my job to promote a greater use of English in the classroom by teachers and students, and that naturally involves more communicative activities.

For most Japanese teachers of English, however, this goes against their strengths, which often include techniques for grammar and vocab explanation, classroom management skills, and a proficiency with tasks that raise awareness of language features and encourage memorization. The CLT techniques my group (and the Ministry, and the BOE) are recommending often seem less than exemplary when observed in real classrooms, despite the authority of SLA research that stands behind the approach. This becomes painfully obvious when it is put on display, as in the class mentioned above, where the teacher had students write a short opinion about the topic and then share it with a partner and then the whole class. Even I couldn’t help thinking that the intellectual level was pretty low, and the pace was very slow. I’m sure many of the teachers observing with me had the following thoughts going through their heads: this is dumb and really inefficient.

And this brings me to the main point of this post. The dabbling with CLT that I have seen in classrooms here makes me wonder if it is worth the effort of teacher awareness raising, of teacher skill training, particularly if we see it as a goal unto itself. It seems that a little more CLT in classrooms is unlikely to make much of a positive difference in language classrooms. Students don’t seem especially more engaged, and the trite bits of incorrect language that often get produced are depressing–and are often incomprehensible to other students without a quick translation from the teacher. I know that  the system is failing pretty much at producing kids who can use the language right now. But I don’t think the fix will come with a few more CLT activities and a strict English-only policy on the part of teachers.

Of course, the answer cannot be business as usual either. Teachers have been yakking at students for years, explaining and translating, and that hasn’t worked out well at all. Van Patten (2014) in Interlanguage Forty Years Later, is particularly blunt in his assessment of the teaching of language by the teaching of rules, the kind most common still in Japan: “competence is not derived from explicit instruction/learning…[and that] holds true for all learners and all stages of development…” (pg. 123). Yes, instruction gets you something, but it is not competence. Form-focused instruction is very limited in what it can do for language learners, that much seems obvious to everyone–well, almost everyone….

So what it is the answer? I’m not sure, but more language, more language use, and more focused teaching seem to be the only way forward. Standing in the way, though, are the lack of proficiency of teachers (along with their lack of training/familiarity with alternative approaches), the culture of expectations that makes change difficult (the parents, the cram schools, the perceptions of entrance exams, the publishers, etc.), the passivity of students and their unfamiliarity with the kind of active use of the language needed to leverage learning, and the well-meaning souls whose hearts warm satisfactorily when students produce any kind of utterance (even when it is intellectually low, and mostly incomprehensible). Framed another way, what we need is more language processing and more responsibility for doing so in a comprehensible and academically appropriate manner.



The image above (from a presentation on vocabulary by Rob Waring) shows a bookshelf with Korean English textbooks on the left and Japanese ones on the right. Notice the size difference? That translates to Korean students being exposed to thousands of words more during their years in mandatory education. The poverty of input argument for Japan is pretty easy to make if we look at just the amount of language students are exposed to, compared to Korea or Mexico (as Mr. Waring did), both of whom now handily beat Japanese scores on high stakes tests (TOEFL iBT, 2013: Japan 70, Korea 85).

There may be other reasons why Korean TOEFL test scores are higher. But certainly language exposure is one of them. Perhaps it is time to admit that in Japan, teachers explain too much in Japanese about too little target language. Adding a little “communicative” jibberish to that is unlikely to make a big difference, and may actually be detrimental in the long run if it lowers expectations further. In my opinion, more language immersion in the form of CLIL-type lessons at the high school level might be an interesting option to explore , since it provides CLT with sufficient input, thinking rigor, and responsibility.