CLILing two birds?

To be honest, I’ve often been a bit sceptical about the value of CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning). The idea that languages are best learnt when the focus is on something else (ie Science, Maths, PE or music etc) is an attractive one, but is there a danger that, rather than killing two birds with one stone, neither the content or the language gets learnt and learners end up leaving the lesson with nothing?

My scepticism partly stems back to a summer course on CLIL I was leading for 30 Spanish primary school teachers a few years ago. The teachers on the course had suddenly been informed that from September they would have to teach their subjects in English, rather than Spanish, and most of them were not happy about this at all!

The were two main reasons for their concerns. Firstly, many of them felt that their own level of English wasn’t high enough to be able to do this. How could they teach Science in English when they didn’t have a large enough science vocabulary themselves, or an appropriate  level of spoken fluency?

Secondly, they were concerned that if they taught Science in English to young learners it would be at the expense of developing a Science vocabulary in Spanish, and knowing how to talk about Science in Spanish was important of course since the children lived in Spain.

In the video below you can see me doing a HUP online session with a group of eighteen, 15 year old girls in a Ministry of Education school in Hebron, Palestine. They are on the Scientific stream, but they are not studying Science in their regular classes in English, they’re doing it in Arabic. However what we are doing in this session is, in my opinion, a form of  CLIL, and I think the problems that the Spanish teachers identified in their own context aren’t really an issue here.

For a start their teacher, Nabiha, is an English teacher not a Science teacher and, like most Palestinian English teachers she has a very advanced vocabulary in English and an excellent level of spoken fluency.

Also, these students are older and have already developed a Science vocabulary in  Arabic. The learning happens when they try, with support from their teacher and from me, to reformulate this into English. And it’s interesting to me that they are also taking on the role of teacher. I was rubbish at Science at school and I’m actually learning about Science myself through the questions they ask me.

What do you think?

Learners as authors

I’ve just returned from a very fulfilling 10 day trip to Gaza and the West Bank. There were so many highlights to this trip for me. I am so proud to be able to witness the creative drama work which is being produced by Palestinian young people and teachers.

We were very excited when we heard the news (right at the last minute!) that the creators of the 3 top plays in last years competition would be granted exit permits to leave Gaza with Melissa and I, and perform their plays in the West Bank – a place none of them had visited before. They performed their plays brilliantly at Alrowad cultural centre in Bethlehem and at the Freedom Theatre in Jenin to huge, very welcoming and excited audiences, and conducted a post performance discussion in Arabic in both places about what the experience of creating and performing a play meant to them.

Post performance discussion at Alrowad Cultural Centre in Bethlehem

It was also an absolute joy to visit so many new drama clubs in different UNRWA schools all over Gaza. These were set up after the drama club leader training I’d conducted for teachers in July. I saw wonderful performances of plays that the children and teachers had created themselves, and observed teachers conducting drama based sessions with the kids.


Drama activities in a circle at an UNRWA school in Khan Younis, Gaza
Group task in Amal Agha’s drama club in Khan Younis, Gaza

Another huge highlight was being able to present all of the 150 children who have one of their plays published in, ‘Toothbrush and other plays’ with a copy of the book.   Seeing their faces when I gave it to them and told them that their plays may now be performed by other children learning English around the world, has brought me more personal satisfaction than any other writing project I’ve ever been involved with.


The cast of ‘Sarah’s dream’ from Jabalia Elementary A UNRWA school, Gaza
The cast of ‘The Bullied’ from Palestine B UNRWA school, Gaza

Thank you to Gilgimish Publishing for your very generous support with this. If you would like to buy a copy of the book you can do so here. All proceeds from book sales go towards supporting the costs involved in this year’s competition.

Rosa Parks - books
The cast of ‘Rosa Parks’ receiving their books in an UNRWA school in Beit Laqiya, Gaza  

Dogme Team Teaching


dogme 3

In Teaching Unplugged (Delta 2009) Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury list the three main principles of a dogme approach to language teaching; namely that teaching should be materials light, conversation driven and focussed on emergent language.

These principles make perfect sense to me. They mirror they way I’ve tried to learn languages myself, and they’ve guided much of what I’ve done as a teacher since I first heard about the approach in the late 1990’s. In fact, if I think back to the first ‘teaching’ I ever did (in Japan in 1991 before I’d had any training as a teacher at all) this was pretty much the way of it too.

It was certainly materials light, since it was just me and a group of students in a room together, as well as conversation driven and focussed on emergent language  – we just started talking and I would try to help them say the things that they were saying more effectively, or accurately. At least this is what they asked me to do, but I’m not entirely sure that my own language awareness was good enough at that time to really help them very much!

Now, after teaching for 28 years, I know a lot more about English and I know what kind of problems learners can get into when they converse in English. More importantly, I’ve learnt that these problems are generally learning opportunities, and part of my job as a teacher is to make the most of them.

Dogme isn’t easy of course. To be an effective dogme teacher we need to do two things at once; we need to listen to what the students are saying but also listen to how they are saying it. We also need to be aware of the forms that we’re using in our own speech in order to help leaners to notice language. I’ve never been very good at multitasking though, and I find that the moment I start paying too much attention to form I stop focussing on content (and vice versa). There’s a danger that classes become all talk without any attention being paid to new language, or conversely all about focussing on language without really any genuine language use.

When we do dogme type sessions in our online link ups with young people in Palestine we have developed a way of overcoming this problem. We have two teachers!

In the picture below you can see Atiyyeh, a teacher in a village near Ramallah working with a small group of teenage boys in a classroom. Projected onto the white board is the face of Michael, one of our volunteers based in the UK. Michael is having a conversation with the learners through Zoom.


dogme 4

They’re asking him questions and he’s asking them questions. They’re discussing football, why Britain is leaving the European Union, how Palestinians are viewed in the world, and a host of other topics. Atiyyeh is writing up language that emerges on the board. Occasionally he’ll stop to check whether they’ve understood something that Michael has said, and maybe translate into Arabic and/or elicit further examples of a language point. He’s also ready to help the leaners out with questions they want to ask, or things they want to say to Michael.  In many ways I think this is the perfect language learning environment. What do you think?

Dogme team teaching






In last year’s playwriting competition for Palestinian children we had several very inspiring entries which unfortunately were not eligible because they didn’t fulfil the entry requirements. This video made by sixteen year old, Yafa Slemiah from Hebron is a film of course, rather than a play, so it didn’t qualify, but it’s one of my favourite pieces of work made by young people in Palestine.

In June I had the pleasure of attending a huge event in Ramallah, in honour of Dr. Sabri Saidam, the Palestinian Minister of Education, supported by the British Council, and attended by around 800 MoE teachers of English. There were many brilliant performances by Palestinian young people at this event, but none more so than when Yafa came up and stood on the stage. The video was played on the huge screen with the sound turned down and Yafa stood in front of it with her back to the audience, saying the lines. The audience there were very moved and inspired, and I’m sharing this now because I hope that people all around the word will see this too. Thanks Yafa for making a very powerful film about life as a Palestinian girl in Hebron.

From Gaza with love…

When I’m speaking at conferences for language teachers around the world I sometimes wonder why the voice of the most important resource we have – the students themselves – is somehow missing from the talks and workshops that we deliver. It’s all very well talking about techniques and strategies that we can use in our classes, or even demonstrating them with teachers, but do they work with real learners? What do students actually think about our approaches? Can they see the benefits of what we are trying to do?

At the ADRIES conference in Split, Croatia I was hoping to redress the balance a little in my talk about drama and language learning by linking to a group of girls in an UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun, Gaza.  But I’d sent them a zoom link and not heard anything, so I’d assumed that sadly the internet wasn’t strong enough for them to be able to connect.

In fact their timing couldn’t have been better! They joined by zoom just as I was showing a slide with an extract from Scott Thornbury’s introduction from our just published book of thirty of the plays from last year’s playwriting competition. So I was able to ask the audience to read the slide and hold it in mind as they watched the remote performance of a play the girls had created, ‘Live your life’, and as they listened to the girls’ reflections afterwards. I now invite you to do the same.

“More importantly still, drama is expressive: it invests an imagined world with the thoughts, experiences, feelings, fears and hopes of its creators. In the context of Palestine, this is an incredibly important function – it provides a means of thinking the unthinkable, of saying the unsayable, of dreaming the undreamable. And it is transformative: it empowers its creators by enhancing their English skills, and hence giving them a powerful voice in the wider world. But also, by construing their lives as narratives that can be performed and shared, drama eloquently affirms their identity as Palestinians and as global citizens”

(Scott Thornbury, Toothbrush and other plays – Gilgimish 2018)

The 2018 Remote theatre competition

So here’s a little video that George and I made about this year’s remote theatre competition for Palestinian children. (The full rules and requirements are underneath) Last year was incredible but here’s hoping that this year we get even more amazing entries from all you creative kids in Palestine. Good luck to you all…

The Hands Up Project Remote theatre competition 2018

A play writing and play performing competition open to young people living in Palestine, launched, administered, and judged by the Hands Up Project, a UK based educational charity (Charity number 1170272)


-to provide a motivating context for young people in Palestine to practise and develop their spoken and written English.

-to provide young people in Palestine with an international audience for their creative work.

-to raise awareness around the world about the creative work of young people in Palestine.


-The play must be a maximum of 5 minutes long. (It can be less than 5 minutes.)

-It must be with a maximum of 5 actors (it could be fewer than 5 and each actor may play several parts)

-All participants must be aged 15 or under and attend an UNRWA or Ministry of Education school in Palestine.

-Participants need to send a video recording of them acting the play to this email address: The file will probably be too large to send as an attachment so it can be sent using

-Participants also need to send a written version of the play in the form of a script (with stage directions if necessary) to

-The main language of the play must be English.

-It must be an original piece of writing. Participants may choose to use an existing, well known story but the lines of the play must be their own words.

-The video and the script must reach us by 31st December 2018.

-Anything reaching us after this date and which does not fulfil the other requirements will not be considered for the prize.

Suggestions for plays

Providing the requirements are fulfilled, the topic of the play is very flexible. Plays could be performed with or without narration. Some suggested topics could include:-

  • An adaptation of a traditional story
  • An adaptation of a modern story
  • A story about life in Palestine
  • A story created entirely by the participants
  • A play about an event in history, or a famous person

Suggestions for performance

Since the play will initially be performed through video, rather than face to face, it’s important to ensure that the actors are as close to the camera as much as possible and that they make eye contact with it as much as possible. Incorporating gesture and physicality wherever possible will also make things clearer for the audience. It is fine to include, masks, puppets, music or singing in the play but none of these things are a requirement.


The best entries will be published in a Hands up project book and credited to the group who created them. If desired, the videos will be published on our youtube channel. All finalists will be awarded with trophies at an awards ceremony and invited to perform at conferences in the West Bank. One group from the finalists will be randomly chosen to spend a week in the UK at the beginning of April 2019.

Judging criteria

The panel of judges will pick the best play based on quality of acting performances, quality of the play, creative expression and clarity of expression. Though English should be used, the plays will not be judged on the level of English of the participants. So it will be possible for learners of English at a low level to also take part.

We very much look forward to seeing your entries. Good luck!

Nick Bilbrough, Founder and Coordinator, The Hands Up Project

Drawing out language

Asking students to draw and then share their images through the webcam has become a staple activity of the Hands Up Project’s online sessions. In the video below we can see how Palestinian teacher of English, We’am Hamdan, one of the latest volunteers to join us, expertly uses student drawings with her group of Syrian children in Zaatari. They are used as both a springboard to personalise learning and to practice and activate a range of areas of vocabulary and grammar.


Here’s the sequence of activities that We’am sets up. It’s great to see that despite the fact that there are no materials whatsoever (except paper and pens) the students are engaged and motivated throughout, and there’s lots of language being drawn out and activated.

  1. The students are asked to individually draw pictures of something that they want to have, or a place that they want to go to.
  2. One by one, students come up to the webcam and describe their pictures to We’am. We’am draws what they describe, asking questions to check understanding. Teacher and student then show their pictures to each other and they discuss differences. We’am asks further questions to activate more language.
  3. We’am reads out a sentence (Eg. In this picture there are two tables) and the class have to say which student’s picture it refers to. They do this as a competition between two halves of the class.
  4. Now students are asked to write down five sentences that they can say about each picture. One person from each team then comes up to the webcam and reads out their sentences to We’am. We’am scaffolds and corrects what they say.
  5. We’am describes two thieves to the class and the students draw them based on her descriptions.
  6. Students take it in turns to come up to the webcam with their pictures and We’am asks questions to check understanding and reactivate the language. (Which thief is tall? Which thief has big ears? etc)
  7. Now the roles are reversed and the students take it in turns come up and ask questions to the teacher about the pictures (Who’s got round eyes? Who’s got long arms? etc)

Do you ever ask students to draw in your language classes? If so how do you use their drawings to develop activities which practice and activate language. Please share your ideas in the comments below.