A Reflection of Curriculum Development for EAL: The Creation of a Canadian Socials Studies 10 Curriculum for a BC Offshore School


by Tom Bone

[This article was first printed in the Summer 2017 issue of TEAL News.]

Since I began teaching in China almost 10 years ago, I have been fascinated and amazed how Chinese students can learn enough English to become successful in western universities. Having failed my French classes so many years ago in high school, and having experienced a few unsuccessful attempts of learning languages on my own, I believed learning additional languages to be enormously challenging. Or, I just did not have the predisposition for additional language learning. In my second year of teaching Canadian Social Studies in a British Columbia off-shore school in China, I had started to learn Chinese despite my “disadvantages”, in hopes of better understanding the challenges that my students faced and overcame. From there, I became fascinated by language acquisition. A few years back I was approached to produce a Social Studies curriculum for a BC offshore school in China that would fulfil the requirements of the BC Ministry’s Prescribed Learning Outcomes (PLOs) and meet the needs of English as an additional language (EAL learners). I would like to share part of the process and strategies I used in this process.

When creating the new Social Studies Curriculum the first task that had to be addressed was an investigation into theories and practices around curriculum development for English language learners. A comprehensive analysis of the leading theorists was in order before the program could be implemented. I would like to discuss two of the design strategies I employed in this process: Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) and Backwards Design. But first it is necessary to define some terminology which I have adopted in my practice.


BICS and CALP are terms used to describe two distinct levels of language acquisition based on the research by Jim Cummins (Cummins 1979). BICS, an acronym for Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills, can loosely be defined as basic everyday language. Conversely, CALP—Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency—can be described as having more complexity and delves into a deeper understanding of a particular subject matter’s language by employing a more complex and abstract vocabulary. Understanding these distinctions is crucial in the development of any additional language curriculum. By knowing what level students are at as far as language development, teachers can adopt particular strategies that best suit their learning.

Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL)

CLIL is a term coined by David Marsh in 1994 that generalizes the idea of learning content and language at the same time, similar to that of the immersion model (Marsh, 1994), but with distinct differences. CLIL is more flexible in its approach and there is an equal amount of emphasis put into both content and language (Harrop, 2012). To meet both the needs of students and fulfill BC Ministry requirements, students enroll in provincially recognized subjects taught exclusively in English. CLIL meets both of these necessities as it concerns itself with both acquiring a new language while at the same time learning the content of the subject. As such, “language is the medium for achieving content objectives with language objectives being matched to content objectives” (Douglas, 2015, p. 8). English teaching strategies are incorporated in the learning of the content.

The selection of this strategy is a necessity for students in BC off-shore schools as most have very little background in English and developing English language skills. A regular EAL program can be five years in length (Coelho, 2004); however, many students are accepted into high school programs with a mere 500-word vocabulary; equivalent to that of a first year EAL student. With CLIL, students are able to learn English while still learning the vocabulary they need to succeed academically. EAL students, like students from native English speaking backgrounds, are expected to think, reflect, discuss, and debate issues using appropriate vocabulary for their grade level. This cannot be accomplished without CLIL.

As Coelho (2004) points out in when considering how to integrate language and content instruction, content-based instruction with added language support can overcome English language challenges in students who do not have the desired 5-year EAL development. Coelho also recommends language teaching strategies such as Key Visuals, Guided Reading, Response Journaling, Cloze activities, Scaffolding in writing, Frequent checks for Understanding, and Vocabulary Enhancement.

Because CLIL is content driven, it offers relevant issues for exploration. Students at the high school age scrutinize their lessons closely and easily recognize the value of what they are being taught. Content, therefore, is very important for fostering motivation. Harrop (2008) concludes that “there is increasing evidence that, as its proposers claim, [CLIL] leads to a higher level of linguistic proficiency and heightened motivation, it can suit learners of different abilities and it affords a unique opportunity to prepare learners for global citizenship” (p. 60). However, even teacher motivation can be affected by CLIL since “one of the most powerful findings of CLIL groups centres on increased motivation in both learners and teachers” (Coyle, 2008, p. 11).

However, CLIL does not present a simple solution as it still has its complications. The CLIL model does not always make accommodations for language families, age, or cultural differences. As opposed to the parallel approach which would focus on the differences and similarities in languages, CLIL does not typically distinguish between languages. A person learning English whose native language is French may have an easier time than a person whose native language is Japanese.  These families of languages must be considered when considering the progress of an additional language learner. CLIL typically also has no provisions for age specific language acquisition. Since the content matches the grade level, the learner must simultaneously acquire the target language while still learning the content. This can leave a gap between proper composition as well as form in grammar and the subject related material which students are learning (Harrop, 2012). Students may also graduate from CLIL making no connection with the rich culture from which the language has evolved. “Chi le ma?” is a common expression in Chinese which literally translates to, “Have you eaten?” This has the same meaning in English as “How’s it going?” These linguistic nuances might potentially be forgotten with the CLIL model. As a result, the acculturalization model may better explore many of these unique characteristics enriching learners’ experience with the target language. Similar languages share similar cultural references often expressed in idioms not taught with the CLIL approach. China and Korea share references to classics like San Guo Yan Yi as does England and France with the Iliad. In a practical sense, students who wish to study abroad are not exposed to the cultural differences found in other models of language acquisition, and often fall short of language proficiencies in tests like the IELTS or TOEFL where language literacy is more the focus than content. Even the grade 12 English BC provincial examination, for which universities often require a high mark, does not require subject based content knowledge. It often does, however, require cultural knowledge (the 2015 English 12 provincial contained many references to Wayne Gretzky—students taking the test overseas did not perform well on this exam due their lack of exposure to this Canadian icon). So as we have seen, while adopting the CLIL strategy, teachers must recognize its limitations and accept the shortcomings.

Aside from the aforementioned critiques, the CLIL model is best suited for the design of an EAL curriculum. CLIL leads to greater language proficiency, increases motivation in both students and teachers, and also offers a many strategies best suited for EAL learners. More importantly, it directly addresses the needs of EAL students in offshore schools regarding the learning objectives prescribed by the BC Ministry of Education. While CLIL on its own lacks the necessary tools to suit the requirements of offshore schools, CLIL augmented with extra learning support best suits the needs of students in these schools.

Backwards Design

Backwards Design was introduced in 1998 by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins and can be loosely described as a design with the goal in mind. In this model, there are three stages of development: 1) Identifying the desired result, 2) Determining acceptable evidence, and 3) Planning learning experiences and instruction (Wiggins & McTighe, 2001). For the sake of this type of curriculum design, assessments are created that incorporate all the learning outcomes prescribed by the BC Ministry first, and then unit plans and lesson plans that align themselves with those goals are created.

At first inspection, this model presents itself dangerously as an assessment based method to learning, and I will address some of these criticisms here. The Backwards design model appears to well suit students in BC offshore schools, who may be culturally adapted to the “teaching-to-the-test” approach that puts an emphasis on the assessment, rather than a holistic approach to learning (Culatta, 2013). While the utterance of such a phrase insights angst in many teachers, the reality of its implications resides in mandatory provincial examinations prescribed by the Ministry of Education (Clark, 2014) (Note: the ministry is now in the process of removing provincial examinations and replacing them with Math and English Literacy exams). Teachers have a right to complain, as many observe such a stratagem removes creative and critical thinking and replaces it with memorization. Also, there is an inherent danger that the course instructor might perceive or confuse the outcomes to be knowledge-based and assess by only a single criterion. For example; the question might be, “What are the causes of World War I?” The answer is simply, “Militarism, Imperialism, Nationalism, and Alliances.” This can be easily memorized without having a deeper understanding of the roles each played in society, which is more closely aligned with the PLOs than the superficial straight-up answer provided in the test. For example, a question often appearing on the Social Studies 11 provincial examination is “In what battle was gas first used?” This is especially true for additional language learners who are already struggling with basic language and look for simple answers to content based questions. I have experienced this first hand while teaching Social Studies that students typically wish to memorize all the possible answers rather than learn the deeper meaning behind the questions. Again, in practice, this approach to curriculum design appears not to meet the requirements of EAL learners in offshore schools.

To quickly condemn Backwards design, however, would be to ignore its benefits.  Backwards design provides an instructional framework from which educators and students may meet learning outcomes more effectively with educational tools and a hierarchy of organization. The Backwards Design approach allows for better organization and planning, and assessments can be created to avoid the pitfalls of superficial learning. Clark’s (2014) guide to framing a curriculum breaks down the structure into three levels: the Curriculum level which includes benchmarks, summative assessments, and scope and sequence; the Macro level which discusses the prerequisites, elaborative and thematic; and finally, the Micro-Design level which includes the craft of teaching, strategies, and formative assessments. These can easily be translated to be the Course Overviews, Unit Plans, and Lesson plans. The organizational approach to Backwards Design is a crucial element that focuses the curriculum writer’s energies into a clear path of understanding that can be shared within the system and easily adapted to the needs of each subject. It reminds us to start with a learning outcome or question and helps us keep focused.

With CLIL integrated into Backward Design, a curriculum can be tailored to best suit the needs of EAL learners in offshore schools using the BC curriculum. While there are still challenges to overcome in creating the perfect EAL curriculum, this approach surely meets most of the pressing issues. Teachers can be organized and plan better, they can assess and provide feedback better, they can motivate and inspire better, and mostly, they can prepare students for college or university better.


Clark, B. (2014). Thoughts on Framing a Curriculum & Teaching Review. University of Calgary. p. 6.

Coelho, E. (2004) Adding English : A Guide to Teaching in Multilingual Classrooms. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Coyle, D. (2008). Content and Language Integrated Learning Motivating Learners and Teachers. Retrieved from http://blocs.xtec.cat/clilpractiques1/files/2008/11/slrcoyle.pdf

Culatta, R. (2013) Instructional Design. Retrieved from www.instructionaldesign.org/models/backward_design.html

Cummins, J (1979), Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency Linguistic Interdependence the Optimum Age Question and Some Other Matters. Working Papers on Bilingualism No. 19.

Douglas, S. (2015) Multilingual Classrooms and Higher Education: Leveraging Content to Support Academic English Language Acquisition. BC TEAL News. (p. 8). Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/BCTEAL-Mag-Fall-2014-Final.pdf

Harrop, E. (2012). Content and language integrated learning (CLIL): Limitations and possibilities. Servicio de Publicaciones de la Universidad de Alcaláp. p. 60

Marsh, D. (2012). Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL). A Development Trajectory. University of Córdoba.

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2001). What is Backward Design? in Understanding by Design (1st ed). Alexandra, VA: Pearson.

Biographical Information

From the Summer 2017 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter:  Tom Bone has taught in China for over nine years. At the time of this article, he had been the Vice Principal for Maple Leaf International School Systems in Tianjin and taught Social Studies and Psychology in Wuhan for five years. He has a passion for language acquisition and has been a major contributor in curriculum development for BC offshore schools.


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Original reference information:

Bone, T. (2017, Summer). A Reflection of Curriculum Development for EAL: The Creation of a Canadian Socials Studies 10 Curriculum for a BC Offshore School. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/TEAL-News-Summer-2017.pdf