Accidental English

Content and Language Integration

Should students be left to develop language skills entirely through their interaction in other subjects? Heather Martin (2014), head of languages at St Faith’s prep school in Cambridge, has stirred up strong opinion through her suggestion that English lessons are in fact unnecessary and, at worst, damaging to students. In an article in the Times Educational Supplement, Martin suggests that English as a discipline would be better left to advance naturally, in much the same way that a young child acquires basic linguistic ability through interaction with the wider world.

The idea behind this process is a fairly well established one: content and language integrated learning (CLIL). CLIL is a methodology that combines the teaching of one subject, such as science, with a foreign language. The idea has long roots. In Ancient Rome, the method was used by the upper-middle classes, who preferred to educate their children in Greek. The practice has continued in many places right up to today, with children schooled in a second language through the practice of education in the target language. Cross-curricular content can result in a better understanding of both subjects, as the focus shifts away from a purely linguistic objective to conceptual content (topics and stories) studied in a wide range of media. It also saves curriculum time through the combination of more than one subject. Additionally, different subjects require a different lexical and structural basis. Scientific discourse, for example, is very different from that of arts.

Advocates of CLIL highlight the potential anxiety that English can cause when taught as a stand alone subject. Martin notes that dedicated classes in the subject, covering disciplines such as spelling, punctuation, and grammar, can cause children more stress and therefore undermine their natural enthusiasm and creativity with language. Analysing and interrogating the language, rather than simply allowing students to absorb it during its use in other subjects, had a negative effect on their willingness to intuitively interact with English and instead cultivated a more detached view.

Induction Over Natural Assimilation

Although CLIL can be a useful method of delivery, there are some questions regarding the practicalities of employing CLIL in the classroom without proper understanding of how to effectively implement it. Students will likely struggle to accurately differentiate between the different varieties of subject specific language without some instruction. By reading and using examples, they will get a better feel for the vocabulary and structure, but subjects teachers will need further training to ensure that the language is conspicuous enough for students to fully absorb both the different linguistic rules and the content itself. An English teacher may not have sufficient understanding of mathematical terminology, while a maths teacher may lack linguistic discernment.

More, Not Less

There have been concerns voiced by several business leaders in recent times that young people are all too often leaving school with only a poor grasp of English; unable to compose a sentence correctly, spell difficult words, or write a coherent letter or email. There have been numerous complaints that thousands of young people enter the workplace lacking even basic levels of literacy, and if anything, English skills should be tackled with more rigour if the next generation of workers are to compete in the business world. Rather than diluting the subject, it should be viewed as vitally important and more systematic focus given to skills such as grammar.

In its 2013 policy, the Department of Education noted that despite the proportion of young people achieving good grades increasing in the last few years, around 42% of employers feel it necessary to organise additional training for young people joining them from school or college. In an effort to address the problem, the Coalition has stated they will introduce a dedicated spelling, punctuation and grammar test for 11 year olds in English state schools, and teenagers will be penalised for poor writing skills in GCSE exams. As supporters of standalone English lessons have argued, the creativity that children show with language should certainly be fostered. However, before a student can write well, they must be secure in the building blocks of that language. Understanding the different technical tools of English is an important part of developing creativity, independence and initiative in communication.

Although some, like Heather Martin, may advocate a return to a more pragmatic and entertaining English curriculum where children learn by happy accident, it seems that for now at least structured English lessons are to remain and become more disciplined.


Photo: Jo Naylor 

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