The Song Remains the Same


That was the buzzword at work in the run up to the holidays. New books were being evaluated and chosen for their CLIL-oriented content, syllabi were being re-written, seminars and workshops were being held and discussions were being had all focusing on this ‘new’ idea (I know it’s been around as a concept in the ELT world for a while of course but it’s new as far as the management goes).

Behind which magic window does the key to teaching English lie? Image by loungerie

Which is all very well except I couldn’t help get the feeling that I had been through this all before: critical thinking; blended learning; Cambridge YLE tests; portfolios; Common European Framework; communicative language teaching - these were all buzzwords (or buzzphrases) in years gone past. We had gone through the same process with them of re-evaluating all the yearly plans and curricula or chucking everything out and then starting again.

But that’s not really what happened now, is it?. All of the books we have used over the years have claimed to fit right in with the latest trends from coursebooks with built-in self-assessment pages and suggested portfolio tasks, or little ‘Cambridge YLE Practice’ stars next to activities, or ‘values’ and ‘real-life connections’ boxes tagged onto the bottom of pages. However, in truth, they were all very similar following a grammar-based syllabus with units themed around fixed vocabulary. As for the classes themselves, there wasn’t much change either. Everything revolved around exams before any changes were made and it still did afterwards. Portfolios were brought in but only focused on written work and just became a way to store the project work that was done before anyway. Speaking activities were much the same standard controlled affairs before and after CLT was the buzzword. Critical thinking was simply equated to end of unit reviews and even then often ignored…

Or, to quote a different song to the one in the title of this post:

It’s all the same, only the names have changed

(Note: double-necked guitars on display in both those clips - cool!)

And I can’t help but feel CLIL will be more of the same. The books that have been chosen to help with the ‘revamped’ skills programme are from the Longman Cornerstone series. The books themselves look decent enough but we are expected to cover them in just two hours a week when the teacher’s guide recommends at least three times as much!

(As a little aside, this is where dogme ELT really does stand out as something different for me - almost every other concept or idea like all those listed above, is easily incorporated into the existing mass-produced material/coursebook-driven system, where as dogme, by its very definition, rejects that… It’ll never catch on! Smile with tongue out)

I’m gonna break my rusty cage and run - Image by bulliver

So what will happen? Instead of exploring themes arising from the book, relating it to the students’ lives and going off on those tangents that can be so rich and really bring a lesson (and learning) to life, teachers will be ‘covering the ground’ as quickly as they can. Topics to focus on and others to skip will be decided on the basis of what will be featured in the exam. Any questions, tasks and quiet moments intended for critical thinking and reflection will be glossed over with a generic ‘ok, everybody got that?’

All of which means, the problems we face now of (some) students being unable to speak beyond short broken sentences or switching off because there’s just too much being covered too quickly will continue. Teaching to the test will be more rife than ever. Most lessons, whether we like it or not, will be teacher-centred. In short, I doubt it will be much like CLIL is supposed to be at all.

There were many discussions and meetings about how to cope with the demands of the new programme but I am never satisfied with those. The things that end up being agreed on often only succeed in making the situation more restrictive as ‘policies’ and ‘standard approaches’ are enforced. Personally, I always resist such restrictions. Suffering under the weight of material to be covered and then policies and guidelines to be followed, all I can think is ‘I Want to Break Free’. After all, we all, as teachers, travel to the beat of a Different Drum.

A nice quote accompanied this photo on flckr: “We all live under the same sky, but we don't all have the same horizon” (Konrad Adenauer) - Image by Norma Desmond

In an ideal world, moments of great creativity can arise when we are placed under severe restrictions and have to improvise to get the job done. In reality, we often just try to crowbar in whatever we can (like someone trying to squeeze song titles and references into a blog post Smile with tongue out). I hope I can achieve the former rather than the latter next year.

All teachers are different, all classes are different and each individual student is different. The sooner we realise that and give the time and space for our learners to grow, the better.


  1. Hi Dave! I could not agree more. I have the same feeling at school. It is as if, at one point during the year, I do not know how to squeese in all I need to cover, in the few hours a week we have of class. And to make matter worse, I have to resign myself to having more teacher-centred classes if I want to at least cover most of it. uffffffffffff. Awful moments!!!!

    1. Thanks Sabrina.

      Unfortunately, I'm very much in the minority in wanting fewer materials. Most teachers I know take the 'better to have to much than too little' standpoint and we end up here...

      I'm sure I'll find a way to do what needs to be done without sacrificing too much of the way I prefer lessons to be. It will be tough at times but whoever said teaching was easy?

  2. Sounds like resistance of one sort or another. It's very difficult for teachers to accept something new and completely go with it. It would be silly really unless you have complete faith in it. CLIL seems to have some great ideals but you have to take a leap of faith, same with dogme. Half-hearted teaching is very transparent. My colleague was like that and the students knew so one day he just said that he thought what he was told to do was stupid. But there you have the eternal struggle of change. Yes, upstairs make the change and tell downstairs to bring it in and they 'on paper' do but can you force teachers to accept, take on and use something new which may mean abandoning their own style?? We aren't robots who simply follow our programming after all. Although I do feel like I'm supposed to be sometimes.

    1. The fact is CLIL is just a word like all the others before it. I doubt that 'upstairs' has a clear idea of what it is or is meant to be either. It just sounds good and other schools are doing it (or claiming to do it at least). As I said in the post, exams will continue the same, grammar points will be attached to each unit/section of the book even though there aren't supposed to be any and a list of 'key vocab' will be drawn up just like it's always been done before.

  3. Big CLIL fan typing over here - CLIL works, it's fun, it's enriching.... BUT..... it is not a case of "buy the book and become CLILled". The whole school has to back it, the whole school needs specific training and the English teachers (if you're doing it with English, that is) are the absolute pivotal point as they have to ensure the staff are 'doing it' properly (e.g. how do you pay attention to subject-specific vocab in a chemistry lesson? Is your own language level up to scratch). Perhaps you could look on the positive side and see this as a promotion - you've now become THE most important person at your school as you are the one with all the know-how! (incidentally, the only change you would necessarily see in the English lessons are that the kids become more fluent - absolutely no need to change anything else, just up your game a bit).

    1. Hi Louise,

      This is exactly the problem I feel we are facing. Youa re absolutely right that CLIL should be a whole school initiative rather than just something done in the English department. In fact, that makes me question the validity of having a 'CLIL' coursebook in the first place. Surely that book would need to change from country to country and quite possibly school to school, wouldn't it?

      The other concern with the particular book we have been asked to use is that it seems heavily angled towards science and social science with a little bit of literature thrown in... Shouldn't CLIL also delve into other areas? Drama, sports, history to name a few. Cornerstone is also very much rooted in American culture and American English whereas our school is supposed to base it's programmes on British English and we also have to prepare the kids for the Cambridge tests (British English again)...

      Like I said, the song remains the same. CLIL is the new buzzword but nothing is really any different to before

    2. Who the heck chose the books and based on what? Daft b***ers! You're right, CLIL should be paying attention to the language used in other subjects, the English part should be aimed at improving your general standard of English (i.e. a 'headway' would suffice). If your school specialises in sport then there's likely to be more emphasis on this, but if it's a general primary/secondary school then English should be English and the other subject being taught in English should be just that.
      I'm a fan of ensuring kids are exposed to every type of English accent but for the sake of clarity (and exams) a school should make a choice for one particular 'system' and stick to it. Sounds to me like the 'important folk' at your school have simply adopted their own version of CLIL without going back to the roots of why. Any chance a mega enthusiastic Dave can mail them with "look at the fantabulous results achieved with CLIL at 'x' school!" - i.e. sound mega enthused about the matter and sneakily send them a link to a CLIL site showing the kids talking perfect English but where there's also plenty of writing about what how CLIL really works? There are plenty of links out there.
      I think you're going to have to spent huge amounts of time cleverly adapting your book so it fits your style and your classes. (been there, done that, bought the t-shirt!). Good luck!

    3. I think this is a case of reps from the publishing companies coming along and saying "hey, here's this new book - it's different from the others because it uses CLIL" but in truth it's just full of 'factual' readings and project work.

      Mega-enthusiastic Dave has been trying to push a materials light approach for a while now and is always met with nods and murmurs of approval. He's done workshops on it and showed the results of his students producing English well beyond what is expected of them at this stage but, ultimately, the change that has come about has been this... I think he will leave the rest of them to it and keep doing his own thing the same as before.

  4. So, what happens when one teacher decides enough of this bullshit and does their own thing, with some lip service to the curricula?

    1. That's what I've been doing for the last two years! (Just click on the 'Lessons on the Fly' tab to see how I approached getting the kids ready for the Cambridge Flyers test while largely ignoring the book). Last year, for example, with just a Flyers prep book and some graded readers, I had plenty of time to do my own thing.

      The problem facing me next year is that the syllabus is so overloaded now that we will have to cut corners and skip things just to get through it anyway...

    2. Doesn't it make sense that not all classes will be weak in everything in the curriculum? Skipping seems likely.

      But I get it. The fact that some teachers are so afraid of being without a planned minute and desire more more more materials baffles me. Well, I pity them and I pity me because they end up often winning out administration.

  5. Dave of course you have "hit the nail on the head" . After 30 years of teaching they are always bringing in some new buzzwords and some new theories but the work we do is really much the same. Technology of course makes a big difference but the "paper" books seem to be treading water.

    1. Funny you should mention tech - that will form part of my attempts to lighten (or at least distribute) the load but that's for my next post. ;)


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