Understanding and addressing the challenges of teaching an online CLIL course: a teacher education study

February, 2022

Source: International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 25:2, 656-675

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) teachers need three separate but intertwined abilities in order to use this new approach: target language ability, content knowledge, and CLIL methodology (Hillyard 2011; Mehisto, Frigols, and Marsh 2008; Pavesi et al. 2001).
The current study aims to address these three abilities in a teacher training program provided to pre-service English teachers.
It employs an exploratory action research design (McNeil 2016; Smith, Connelly, and Rebolledo 2014) to investigate and attend to emergent issues within an undergraduate course introducing the framework of CLIL in Taiwan.
In contrast to traditional forms of action research that begin with plans to address problems in practice, exploratory action research attempts to first understand problematic issues before plans of action are created, implemented, and evaluated.
Reflecting those processes, Cycle 1 in the current two-cycle study aimed to explore problems emerging from a course unit on CLIL theories and practices, while Cycle 2 focused on addressing the issues uncovered in Cycle 1.

Contextualizing the exploratory action research project

The course and the participants
The two cycles of this study occurred a half year apart and related to separate iterations of the same undergraduate elective course (e.g. each cycle took place in one eighteen-week course).
The course, Learning and Service, was taught by the researcher and aimed at providing first-year college students (English majors) opportunities to apply their academic skills and knowledge to address real-life needs in rural school communities.
Each eighteen-week course (a total of 36 h) included two main parts: (1) teacher training in the CLIL framework, and (2) online English teaching to elementary school pupils via Adobe Connect software.
As the goal of the course was to immerse college students in innovative teaching experiences with pupils who have limited educational resources, there was no paper-based midterm or final examination.
Instead, students reflected and shared their weekly learning through reflective journals.
In the middle of the semester the college students visited two elementary schools located in mountain areas of Taiwan and designed English-related fun activities to engage the pupils they would soon be teaching.
The students in Cycle 1 and 2 shared similar characteristics.
They were freshmen college students (English majors) in a southern university in Taiwan.
Their English proficiency lay in the B1 and B2 levels of the Common European Framework Reference (CEFR) standard.
Most of them were enrolled in the secondary teacher certificate program.
A few of them at the time of data collection reported that they had some English teaching experience.
These college students are described as student teachers in the current study as they offer online teaching to elementary school pupils as part of their work in the course.
As for the ‘students’ in this study, seventy-five elementary pupils were recruited from two suburban schools located in the rural southern part of Taiwan.
Their ages were between ten to twelve years old (3rd–6th grade).
These students are considered to have low socioeconomic status (SES) and to have fewer educational resources available to them than urban students do.
These students, with their limited educational opportunities, are the focus of the current study because the researcher believes that online learning technologies have the potential to motivate these students’ interest in learning, and also exposes them to authentic English learning environments.
These pupils were randomly divided into two groups: Group A participated in Cycle 1 (thirty-seven pupils) and group B (thirty-eight pupils) in Cycle 2.
In Cycle 1, forty-three student-teachers and thirty-seven elementary pupils were randomly assigned as 31 one-on-one groups (i.e. one teacher to one student) and 6 two-to-one groups (i.e. two teachers to one student).

Data collection
Two types of data were collected in the first cycle.
First, student teachers’ responses to surveys that aimed to understand their perceptions of CLIL online teaching were collected.
Three surveys were carried out at the beginning, middle, and final sessions of the online teaching program.
Second, the student teachers’ weekly reflection journals were reviewed.
Student-teachers were requested to jot down thoughts and ideas after teaching each online CLIL course.
Neither specific prompts nor word limits were specified.

Understanding the problems
Three main problems were identified during the online teaching section of Cycle 1.
First, there were technological issues, such as students being unable to see or hear each other or experiencing low speed Internet connections.
These technological issues continued to cause teaching/learning difficulties.
Sometimes it took almost half of the class time (around 20–30 min) for technicians to reconnect or reset the equipment.
This issue became serious because the pupils would lose attention easily and the student teachers felt frustrated because they were unable to teach what they had prepared.
The second problem was that not all the pupils were interested in the selected picture books.
Some of the content failed to arouse pupils’ interest so that they became easily distracted and didn’t pay enough attention to the student teacher.
Third, probably the most notorious one, is that the student teachers were observed to be basically using Chinese to teach English – few English interactions were applied.
They reverted to a more traditional way of teaching English which does not reflect the aims of teaching English as a lingua franca.

Designing and implementing a plan of action
As a result of an analysis of the data produced in Cycle 1, several changes were made to address the student teachers’ struggles in teaching the CLIL course online.
The changes were designed to take place in three stages:
(1) before the course,
(2) during the course, and
(3) after the course.

Evaluating the action plan
The research questions guiding the evaluation of the Cycle 2 action plan were:
(1) Compared to Cycle 1 student teachers, do Cycle 2 student teachers exhibit more pedagogical features of the CLIL framework?
(2) Compared to Cycle 1 pupils, do Cycle 2 pupils demonstrate better English development?
In addition to new items on the survey related to issues identified in Cycle 1, the questions were investigated using the same data sources (i.e. surveys and reflection journals) and methods of analyses that were described in the first cycle.

Reflecting on the outcomes
Based on the struggles observed in Cycle 1, four major changes were implemented in Cycle 2.
These changes effectively improved the student teachers’ cognitive strategies in the way they approached their teaching and improved their ability to teach English to their online pupils. More importantly, these changes also resulted in improved CLIL teacher competence.
First, student teachers’ language competence was enhanced.
Student teachers in Cycle 2 were instructed to be consciously aware of their English language use while teaching the CLIL course.
Explicit instruction on common phrases used in classroom English was provided so that the amount of English that student teachers spoke increased.
Second, student teachers in Cycle 2 were given the freedom to select the teaching materials that met their pupils’ needs.
Many of them chose story themes that they were familiar with, such as colors and emotions.
As a result, the student teachers were willing to explore the story themes in-depth and thus built up the content knowledge competence of their pupils, while, at the same time, increasing their students’ ability to communicate in English.
Motivated teachers ‘breed’ motivated learners.
Third, the changes in Cycle 2 improved the student teachers’ methodology-based competence in two important ways.
For one, instruction in the translanguaging approach increased student teachers’ awareness about the important role that students’ native language can play in effective CLIL instruction, because allowing the use of a native language makes it possible for students to leverage all their language resources to learn English.
Furthermore, the student teachers became aware that their pupils’ nonverbal actions were not random, but sometimes indicated an improved ability to communicate.
Given the online learning context and the pupils’ low English proficiency, this understanding about the importance of learners’ gestures and facial expressions was quite crucial for instructional purposes.
In addition, the hours dedicated to pedagogical instruction where the student teachers practiced planning and teaching immediately after the CLIL concepts introduced were better integrated with the student teachers’ online teaching sections.
Once they met problems while teaching, the student teachers could bring questions for discussions to the next training phase.
This dynamic procedure for connecting teaching and learning helped the student teachers to learn the CLIL concepts more thoroughly and prepared them better to deal with teaching difficulties in their online CLIL courses.
Lastly, in regard to the technological problems encountered while using the Adobe Connect platform, extra resources were introduced to provide more support for both the student teachers and the pupils, such as the employment of technicians and other training opportunities.
Although the student teachers’ experience of CLIL was positive and they found that enriched content gives language learning a purpose, limitations of this exploratory action research study indicate the need for further research.

This exploratory action research study first identified problematic issues in a CLIL training and teaching program during its first cycle (Cycle 1) and then implemented plans of action, such as restructuring the training-teaching module, reinforcing the concept of ELF to promote students’ communicative competence, selecting authentic materials to better enhance students’ motivation, and introducing supporting technological practices in the online teaching context.
These measures were applied in Cycle 2 with a different group of pupils.
Differences in student performance were then evaluated through English proficiency tests.
The results from the pretest and posttest showed that the elementary students who participated in this study made improvements in their reading and listening skills.
A higher percentage of students in the second cycle were able to identify and write the letters in the English alphabet.
Considering the short time of instruction and the low English proficiency backgrounds of the pupils, it is interesting to see the degree to which their English language learning improved.
More importantly, although the course adjustments in Cycle 2 were planned to support improvements in pupils’ English abilities and content understanding, data from the study also revealed that the student teachers appeared to become better able to carry out related CLIL pedagogical approaches.

Hillyard, S. 2011. “First Steps in CLIL: Training the Teachers.” Latin American Journal of Content & Language Integrated Learning 4 (2): 1–12.
McNeil, L. 2016. “Understanding and Addressing the Challenges of Learning Computer-Mediated Dynamic Assessment: A Teacher Education Study.” Language Teaching Research 22 (3): 1–21.
Mehisto, P., M.-J. Frigols, and D. Marsh. 2008. Uncovering CLIL. Oxford: Macmillan.
Pavesi, M., D. Bertocchi, M. Hofmannová, and M. Kazianka. 2001. CLIL Guidelines for Teachers. Milan: TIE CLIL.
Smith, R., T. Connelly, and P. Rebolledo. 2014. “Teacher-Research as CPD: A Project with Children Secondary School Teachers.” In Innovations in Continuing Professional Development for ELT, edited by D. Hayes, 111–132. London: The British Council.

Updated: Jun. 27, 2022