• Anita Demitroff

CLIL in Vocational Education: more necessary than ever

Updated: May 4, 2021

Got into a lift today? Used fibre-optics? Had your hair done? Enjoyed a nice meal out? If so, thank someone who studied vocational education.

And that’s why, for this week’s teaching related blog, we insist that CLIL isn’t just about the C’s and the I’s. CLIL needs to embrace whatever initials you want to use for this sector: FE (Further Education, the UK term) or FP (as it is in Spanish), where the future is. All workers will need English to compete in the job market and the students who opt for vocational education, rather than university or employment, will also need an edge in English class at school.

So, today's blog entry is based on real learners, although their names are changed, to exemplify some points about why we need to make changes at all stages of the system, not just promote languages at vocational education level.

Dani: an adult English student

Dani’s company paid for him to have English classes because he needed to service equipment on vessels in shipyards around the world. He could fix just about any machine and he had been recognised by his company for the innovation he brought to the workshop. However, when asked how he felt about English at school, his response was he hadn’t enjoyed any of his school subjects because of the theoretical way in which they were taught. Once he got onto a course related to mechanical and electrical systems, everything made sense and he excelled. But English wasn’t an option.

Before classes were postponed because of the pandemic, Dani’s colleagues and I would sit at a workbench, playing games, watching videos, doing role plays and toying with the educational material we used in schools and summer camps: robots, circuit boards and electronic devices. To teach is to learn: out came the screwdrivers to take apart a toy. As the bare guts of a device were exposed, an explanation was provided for me about how it worked. In English.

Tony Dudley Evans, arguably the guru of English for Special Purposes (ESP), warned us that this field “needn’t be a dull, long-faced affair”. Indeed, he produced a long out-of-print book called “Defining and Verbalising”, a real gem that my Spanish colleagues in Secondary used to borrow from me to make copies.

The point: bring languages back to all branches of vocational education through courses, seminars (like the one my colleagues Daría and James from You First are currently doing at a centre in Caranza, Ferrol) and Erasmus Plus exchanges; but don’t take the joy out of it. Make the approach practical, accessible and enjoyable.

The “I” of “inclusion” in CLIL

Perhaps Jorge, now in vocational education, will be like Dani in the future. When I met him years ago, he was still in Primary and I was the Language Assistant for his school in my neighborhood of Ferrol. Jorge was bright, but disruptive, until we started doing English through science in class and the real transformation came when we began a series of activities on electricity. Engaging Jorge in Primary did make a difference to his performance in English and his long-term attitude.

Once the Jorges of our Primary classrooms reach Secondary we can still reach out to them. For example, we as English teachers might do a unit on the Internal Combustion Engine (this week’s free lesson plan) to present the Passive. The electric engine may be making headway, but we still rely on petrol or diesel and many young people still like working on their motorbikes. They have knowledge to share and that might motivate them to participate.

Pablo, Ricardo, Aitana and Carmen: finding "that spark" early

Pablo was that Primary class child who would sit with his arms crossed and his eyebrows in a permanently low and straight position. How did I reach him? By introducing Cubie the robot (Cubetto, a pricey but robust model from the UK) into Pablo's class. Pablo couldn’t compete with his classmates in terms of self-expression in English, but he did display a logical mind when it came to programming. And from that point on, each time he rolled out that familiar grumble, “Ana, I don’t understand what you’re saying?”, I responded with, “Pablo, I’m saying open the window and jump out.” and our grins were ones of complicity.

It’s not all about pricey robotics, though. As I said in Blog Post 3, simple science can also have a positive impact and not just on the boys who, like Dani and Jorge, may be less academically motivated or, like Pablo, more left brain than right brain (logic over language) inclined.

When I do experiments, I am sometimes surprised by who “gets it”. For instance, Aitana’s hand was always raised when it was time to give an explanation, well ahead of her more “academic” classmates.

We are told that, with competences and multiple intelligences, some children have a great sensitivity towards the natural world and when it comes to activities about animals, Ricardo, who is normally reticent to “get down to work”, stands out. Might this be because his grandfather takes him fishing and has passed on his great knowledge of flora and fauna to Ricardo?

It wasn’t until the end of her time in Primary that I found Carmen’s secret talent. Cubie the robot needed to have its batteries changed and I was shocked that most of the children didn’t know how to use a screwdriver. Carmen, normally rather retiring but good natured, raised her hand. “I’ll do it,” she said. “My dad’s an electrician and I often help him on the job.”

Imagine a classroom environment that allows these children to excel thanks to these capacities well before they know there is an alternative to purely academic schooling later on?

Surely our challenge as educators is to make sure that learners like Dani, Jorge Pablo, Ricardo, Aitana and Carmen shine too, despite their apparently non-academic mindsets or home life. To do this I use science as a lever to open up all types of possibilities within the magical place that a language classroom can be. Interestingly. I know of many cases where students who have emerged from vocational training to then go on to university get more from and give more to their faculties than many students who have taken a more classical route. Maybe they had a great English teacher along the way ...

What’s your experience of formal (as in the case of Dani) or informal vocational education?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Photo: Learning Space, Narón, Spain.


By Ana Demitroff

Bio: Ana has been in the classroom longer than she cares to admit, but she still gets a kick from the experience and continues to learn from her colleagues and students at the You First Language Centre.