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How I ended up teaching CLIL without realising it!

I am delighted to be introducing Alexandra Koukoumialou’s first blog post on our school blog. Alexandra’s  first contribution tells the story of a foreign language course which, unexpectedly, turned into a CLIL course !

Marisa Constantinides

It all began as a Modern Greek as a Foreign Language Course!

This is a story of what started as a simple, straightforward language lesson. Before I go any further, I have to say that up till then I had only the vaguest idea of what CLIL is. I knew of course what the initials stand for, but I hadn’t really read up on it and I was under the impression it was something quite complex and highly specialised- therefore not to be attempted lightheartedly and without a high degree of expertise. There was also my natural awe of anything that’s decribed by initials -you know, I’ve always felt it must be something quite technical, therefore quite difficult to comprehend or expressed in mere words.

Who can teach CLIL?

In hindsight, I cannot say that CLIL is something anyone can do, without rigorous preparation, quite a lot of teaching experience and a solid background of teacher training. I’m just trying to describe how natural the transition from EFL to CLIL can be, if the teaching circumstances favour such a transition.

What were the “teaching circumstances” then? It was an one-to-one contact lesson of Modern Greek, beginner level. My student was a highly motivated, highly intelligent 20-year-old girl from Albania, who already spoke fluent English and could get by in Italian as well. She needed Greek in order to study Graphic Arts at one of the leading Art Colleges in Greece. Her parents were Greek-Albanians, so she could speak Greek quite well and, despite the frequent errors, she could communicate quite effectively. Nevertheless, she could neither read or write Greek at all.

We had about a month -to begin with- to prepare her for handling quite complex reading and writing assignments, at an academic level. And we started with the Greek alphabet…

That first month was rather intensive, with daily three-hour sessions, in which we waded through a sea of Greek grammar: verb and noun conjugations, genders and cases and lots more rather unappetising components of a quite complex language system – the proverbial phrase “It’s all Greek to me!” instantly comes to mind.

That was when I got my first wonderful surprise: although this girl had never read or written or even been taught Greek before, she could master these complicated rules AND use them appropriately in context almost immediately! Obviously, the fact that she had been listening to Greek being spoken at home when she was very young -although this stopped when she was about 10 or 12 years old- had left her with a hidden depository of unconscious knowledge, which sprang to the surface at the first opportunity. Of course, over the years, I’ve studied and tried to implement all the theories that claim that speaking a language -even without ever been taught it formally- is the best way to really understand how it works and use it correctly. But this was the clearest and most impressive example of how true these theories can be that I have ever come across.

Using Authentic Content as input

Then we started looking at specific vocabulary and study skills she would need to get her through the course. It was a crucial point, since were definitely leaving simple, straightforward language teaching behind and entering the realm of Greek for Academic Purposes. We had a few study skills sessions (time management, note-taking while listening to a lecture, researching for information in the Internet summarising main points of an article etc.). And during these sessions, it dawned on me that the most suitable authentic materials to use would be art-related material, at first more general stuff and later on specific items that were parts of her syllabus in College.

Through these, I could teach vocabulary and various study skills techniques more effectively, since I would be using much more relevant material. Before I could realise it, what started as a rather simple Dali painting assignment (in which she just had to describe the painting and the impression it made on her) rapidly developed to a full-scale Internet research into various schools of painting and their influences on modern artists -all of which was part of her college syllabus.

Learning while teaching

We both enjoyed this a lot, I was amazed at how many new things I was learning about Modern Art -things I would never thought of researching and studying otherwise- and my students’ use of the Greek language started progressing in leaps and bounds!

Needless to say, this involved a tremendous amount of preparation on my part, since I had to prepare several texts of my own at first, when I couldn’t find a relevant text written in such a way that my now upper elementary student could understand. Those of you who have read even one art review can easily realise that this was no mean task: I truly believe that art critics do go out of their way to make what they write incomprehensible, even to native speakers of a language! But that’s neither here nor there! I had to do a lot of research and studying of my own, just to make sure that I wasn’t oversimplifying or even altering the intended meaning of the critic.

It was worth every second of it! To see my student be able to understand quite complex meanings and to complete demanding comprehension and writing tasks was infinitely rewarding. Add to that the fact that she managed to get some of the highest grades in her class during the autumn term, and you can imagine that we were both extremely happy.

Finding my own Solutions

The final step was when I started actually teaching her History of Art and preparing her for her final exams in the summer term. She still couldn’t understand most of the texts in her History of Art textbook (neither could I without a tremendous effort, for that matter) and she wasn’t fast enough to take notes during this and other subject lectures. So I came up with the idea of preparing some simplified texts for her, then giving a lecture on each topic -using the prepared text as a loose transcript). She took notes during my lecture and, then compared her notes with the written version of the text. The usual follow-up was a mix of oral and written comprehension and summarising activities.

It was during one of these last sessions that Marisa happened to pop in and stood and watched us for a bit. Then, she turned and asked me, with a half-smile: “You do realise you’re teaching CLIL, don’t you?”

Well, no. I hadn’t actually realised it! It had all come so naturally, as a direct result of my student’s immediate needs, that I never stopped to think about it, let alone connect it with the well-known acronym!

But that’s what it was -or ended up being anyway! And I wouldn’t have managed it without an incredibly motivated, hard-working and linguistically intelligent student. Her final exams scores were exceptional and I cannot help feeling fiercely proud of her, and myself… even if, technically speaking, I didn’t know what I was doing, really!

Alexandra Koukoumialou

About the author

Alexandra Koukoumialou has been a teacher of young learners and adults for more than 15 years. She obtained her Cambridge Diploma for Overseas Teachers in 1993 and ran her own private language school for 10 years. Recently, she has started collaborating with  CELT Athens where she now teaches general and Business English courses and, as her blog post suggests, occasional CLIL courses!  Alexandra also recently completed her Avalon Certification Course for Teaching Languages in Second Life.

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8 replies »

  1. Hi Alexandra!
    Thank you so much for a wonderful (and very well-written) blogpost.
    This is amazing and comes at the right time, because three weeks ago I started teaching an adult one-on-one; he is Swiss (he needs English for his new job). And it has now dawned on me that I too, am teaching CLIL without realising it!
    I like the methods you have used with this student and I am sure her confidence in using the language has boosted as well. I have never read a post like this and I am very happy to have read it! Congratulations and hope to read more of your work in the future!
    Hi Marisa!
    Thank you for having Alexandra on your blog. I really loved her post!
    Kindest regards,
    Vicky

    • Thank you, Vicky!

      I’m so glad you enjoyed this and that it has given you ideas about what
      you can do with your students :))

      I promise I’ll try and blog more!

      Thanks again,

      Alexandra

  2. Great post Alexandra, thanks for writing it! I recall a similar CLIL experience during which I had to learn binary math theory to teach to my student. Luckily, it’s all gone now, no permanent damage!

    Keep writing!!!

    Marisa

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