For our second interview, we have a discussion with Ruth Breeze. Ruth Breeze is a senior lecturer of English at the University of Navarra in Spain. She has researched and published on various aspects of English including teaching methodology and bilingual education which include Rethinking academic writing pedagogy for the European university (2012), and the volumes Integration of theory and practice in CLIL (2014) and Essential competencies for English-medium university teaching (2017). She was interviewed by Rube Redfield. Rube has recently relocated to Pamplona, Spain after 35 years in Japan as a university professor in Kansai and is a longtime JALT member. He has recently become interested in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) and is excited about what CLIL has been able to accomplish.
An Interview with Ruth Breeze
Rube Redfield: Please briefly tell us what CLIL is.
Ruth Breeze : CLIL stands for Content and Language Integrated Learning. It’s a way of conceptualising the teaching of curricular subjects (history, music, art, maths, etc.) through the medium of English, particularly in primary and secondary education. The theory and practice of CLIL have been developed in Europe over the last twenty years, but CLIL is now widely understood and practised beyond Europe. CLIL is similar to other approaches, like immersion programmes or English medium instruction (EMI). But what is special about CLIL is that it factors in the learners’ need for language support. In CLIL, we understand that the learners have limited language resources available. The teachers are supposed to provide scaffolding for their pupils’ language development so that students can improve their English-language skills at the same time as they learn the contents of the course and acquire cognitive skills.
It’s important to understand that this makes CLIL different from the older idea of “immersion programmes,” in which the course is simply delivered in English with no concessions to the learners’ level. CLIL courses are usually taught alongside standard English courses—CLIL is an “extra,” not an alternative. CLIL courses are specially designed so that students gradually learn the vocabulary, typical grammar structures, functions, and genres associated with the discipline that they are studying. So, a CLIL science course will include help with English scientific vocabulary, and give learners support with language needed in the laboratory or for researching projects. A CLIL history course will ensure that students acquire a rich vocabulary to talk about historical events and concepts, and the narrative and argumentative skills they need to write about them. Of course, as the learners’ level of English improves, the amount of language help they need decreases. This means that by the time young people reach university, most courses fit into the paradigm of English-medium instruction, which means that the material is simply taught in English the same way as it would be for English natives, and the students’ language skills are taken for granted.
So CLIL programmes are unique in that they really take language seriously and provide the help that students need to make a big leap forward in English. When it works well, it’s a way of getting more English into the school curriculum, and it can prove very motivating for the students when they find that they are actually capable of “doing things” with their English. CLIL has been implemented very widely here in Spain, with some areas such as Andalusia and Madrid offering all students up to 12 hours a week—around half the school day—in English.
Can you explain why you became interested in CLIL?
I became very interested in CLIL when the local authorities here in Navarra launched a CLIL programme in the state school system some years ago. As with all educational innovations, there were some challenges at the beginning, particularly for the teachers. It is hard to change the way you teach—and especially difficult when that also means changing the language that you teach in! I could see that teacher training was going to be particularly important to help people get through the transitional period successfully, and I wanted to get involved. Today, the CLIL programme is going well, and the pupils reach the end of secondary school with a much higher level of English than before.
How has your experience with CLIL been?
I’ve been involved in training primary and secondary school teachers for CLIL for some years now. One of the most important things that we do is go to schools and observe good practices. It’s interesting to see how creative many teachers are. When they start to give their classes in English, they come to question their teaching methodology—and this is often a very healthy thing! CLIL teachers know that it is important to motivate their students, make their classes more communicative, use different channels of communication (images, videos, games, worksheets), and generally find more ways for students to get involved in the learning process.
I also tutor a group of students every year for the Cambridge Assessment English TKT CLIL certificate. This has been a good experience because the preparation for this exam really makes the students focus on teaching methodology and reflect about how they can give students more help with English while they are teaching their content courses.
What possible benefit could CLIL bring to Japan or any other educational system?
If the authorities in Japan are serious about improving the level of English in the young population, they should think seriously about implementing CLIL. There is plenty of evidence from Europe (particularly Spain, but also Germany and Scandinavia) about the general improvement in students’ English-language competences. CLIL students tend to be around two years ahead of their non-CLIL counterparts in terms of measurable language skills, but they also have a better general coping ability. It’s also important to note that the skeptics here predicted that students’ content learning would decline when they took courses in English—but in fact, this did not happen. There is plenty of convincing research to show that CLIL is a win-win situation, provided the teachers are well prepared and the schools allow them room for creativity and initiative.
Breeze, R. (2012). Rethinking academic writing pedagogy for the European university. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Breeze, R., Saíz, C. L., Pasamar, C. M., & Sala, C. T. (Eds). (2014). Integration of theory and practice in CLIL. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Breeze, R., Sancho Guinda, C. (Eds.) (2017). Essential competencies for English-medium university teaching. New York, NY: Springer.