On phonics, CLIL & other (people’s) problems

In an earlier post I made it evident that I have reservations about phonics, and about adopting approaches without adapting them. But phonics is just one in a line of ELT methodologies that Spain (and I imagine many other Expanding Circle countries) has adopted because of its success in the Inner Circle countries where it was originally developed. The case for CLIL is similar, and as with phonics the adoption of CLIL in Spain has been encouraged by both national and regional government, supported in many cases by the British Council.

CLIL was the focus of one of the sessions I attended at TESOL-SPAIN’s 38th Annual Convention last weekend. The abstract referred to ‘secondary’, ‘CLIL’, ‘scaffolding’, ‘reading’, ‘writing’. Since reading and writing about complex concepts at secondary school level is not easy in L2, scaffolding is an unquestionably important tool in the CLIL teacher’s armoury. Scaffolding, however, is another of those ELT concepts that turns up repeatedly in conferences, but doesn’t transfer so easily into daily classroom practice. At last, then, a practising expert who was going to show us how to scaffold reading and writing in secondary CLIL contexts.

Sadly, I was to be disappointed. The session was well prepared and presented, but it was, in my opinion, another case of adopting without adapting. The scaffolding presented was drawn almost to the letter from the Reading to Learn programme that is employed in Australia ‘to enable all learners at all levels of education to read and write successfully, at levels appropriate to their age, grade and area of study’.

As with phonics, I can’t question the success of the programme in its original context, but what we saw when we watched the videos of R2L being done with a small class of boys in Australia did little to persuade me that as it stood, this was what was needed in Spain.

In the CLIL session at TESOL-SPAIN we were given the text on the water cycle that the boys in the video were working on. We watched how the text was dealt with and were encouraged to tackle it in the same way in order to get a feel for this novel approach to literacy for Australian teenagers. As we followed the different stages in the R2L process, a number of issues became problematic to me. First there was the relative simplicity of the text itself – there are more complex texts on the water cycle in Spanish coursebooks for Primary 6 (11-12 years old) or Secondary Year 1, for example.

Secondly, the learners in the video we watched in Madrid (and also in the video Detailed Reading – Factual texts in secondary on the R2L website) were all around 14 to 15 years old, but were, in many cases, literally learning to read and write. That is to say, we were dealing with L1 literacy problems, and not the problems generated by L2-delivered subject content. There is a point in the website video, for example, where a subtitle highlights that the girl at the blackboard is successfully performing ‘joined-up writing’.

Thirdly, most of the students in the videos appeared to be from marginalized backgrounds. Many were Aborigine, possibly the most socially disadvantaged group in Australia. The average secondary school student in Spain isn’t marginalized and knows how to read and write (let’s not confuse lack of enthusiasm from inability). They also don’t need to be shown how to do joined-up writing. But if they do, then delivering key content to them in a foreign language (i.e. CLIL) is surely not the best path to take.

What worries me about Saturday’s session on scaffolding, then, is that once again a solution to a real problem somewhere else in the world, and with students in situations other than our own, has been adopted but not, as far as I can see, adapted. Doing this is dangerous because it can generate new problems without solving those that we already have. In addition, adopting without adapting raises unfair questions about the ability of local ELT professionals to solve their own problems.

There was one glimmere of hope in Madrid. It came from Paul Seligson (again), and I’ll come back to this in a later post, especially with regard to pronunciation.