Sunday, 15 January 2012

CLIL: cooperation, cognition, context... and eTwinning!

I was given the guidelines for CLIL activities I'm going to share with you today, during two different training courses I was able to attend in the past. And this time I've not only to thank Dr Diana Hicks, but also Mrs Cathy Pickles: she was my teacher in Cork, Ireland, in a brilliant CLIL course that was a turning point in my life as a (CLIL) teacher.

When talking about CLIL activities, we usually wonder what kind of tasks we should give our students.
Dr Diana Hicks started by introducing to us Jim Cummins' theories, then gave us examples of how to apply them in the everyday lesson.

In a task, we should pay attention to context (embedded/reduced) and cognition (demanding/undemanding). Now, if we look at the different combinations, a task can be:
  1. context embedded (students have some support - map, picture, chart, etc) + cognitively undemanding (not much thinkink needed). An example of this can be matching tasks (matching words and pictures for instance)
  2. context reduced (no support for students) + cognitively undemanding. Examples of this can be listing tasks (list the causes of global warming/the causes of a war... list the different sources of energy you know... etc)
  3. context reduced + cognitively demanding (it needs a strong effort of thinking on the students' part). The typical task here is writing essays.
  4. context embedded + cognitively demanding: Dr Diana Hicks called this "the Holy Grail". This is the perfect kind of CLIL activities. Those ones where the students are given a context and asked to work on it by thinking. Examples of this are transfer of information/genre. Students have to use what they learnt in a different context.
Do have a look at Dr Hicks video (of course she's much better than me at explaining)! (thanks a lot to the teacher who recorded this and shared it on youtube, and to my colleague Frederique Cayrier who found it on the web!)

Dr Diana Hicks said that the ideal CLIL activity should include cognition, context and cooperation. In the simple and direct way that is typical of her, Mrs Cathy Pickles said that students need scaffolding. What I learnt there (and I always try to keep it in mind, in the activities I make up for my classes - and later share with you) is that we cannot build on air. CLIL activities are more complex than monolingual ones, that's why our students need more support than ever (read: context embedded tasks).
That's where eTwinning comes, providing us with that element of "reality" (it's a real-life context) and cooperation (the do-it-together factor) that can help our students feel involved - and enjoy their learning. 

No holy Grail for me to be honest. Still, I think we're moving in the right direction.


  1. Hi Laura,
    this post reminds me of an interesting activity we were asked to perform in a CLIL training course for teachers. We were divided into two groups:
    - group 1 was given a list of (unusual) words + their meanings
    - group 2 was given a text with the same words (in bold) embedded in it (there was no explanation, we had to guess the meaning of those words).
    We were given some minutes to go through our papers. Then the papers were taken away and we were given individual sheets: we had to do a very simple exercise of matching the words with their meaning.
    Well, it turned out that the members of group 2 (those ones who read the text) performed much better than the others (who had the list of words).
    We were very surprised, but our teacher said "now you know how your students feel when you give them no context. If they learn out of a context, they will forget".
    Well, I've never forgotten this!

  2. Thank you Laura for this post. I agree with you and Teresa, learning out of any context is difficult and ultimately useless for students (they don't really learn, they memorize).
    That's what I like of eTwinning: it allows the teachers to make connections between different subjects and in this way the context is widened. What's more, when you work with a partner you never lack the support you need for a positive learning process.

  3. Hi Tommaso and Teresa,
    thanks for your comments. Yes, cooperation programmes really help us give our pupils a true and motivating learning context. A couple of years ago I attended an interesting Ambassador Professional Development Workshop in Nottingham, and one of the eTwinners said "with eTwinning, students stop pretending". It's true, we don't have to tell them any more "imagine you have a penfriend in England: now write a letter to him/her...". Communication, exchange, sharing, suddently become for real. There's someone real writing to you at the pc. You can see them on skype. You can meet them online.
    That's one of the reasons why I love partnerships and projects across Europe. They provide me and my students with the context we need for learning (all of us!).