Bringing CLIL To Your Classroom

An introduction to CLIL

CLIL is an abbreviation of content and language integrated learning. So, the two core elements are content and language, not as separate entities but taken as an integrated whole. In CLIL, some content subjects such as science and geography are taught through the L2, the second language, and others through the L1, the first language. However, the two or more languages of schooling do not operate as if in separate silos in a student’s head. Students are bound to draw on their strongest language even when they are learning a given subject primarily through L2.

Before defining CLIL, let’s look at what CLIL is not. It is not simply a matter of changing the language of instruction. CLIL is not just for high achievers. A wide range of students can be successful in CLIL. It is also not a means for suppressing the L1. High quality and ethical CLIL also supports first language development.

It is also not just a matter of learning lots of new L2 words. Vocabulary is important, but if that is the primary focus, this is what is likely to happen. CLIL seeks to create meaningful contexts, whilst learning a new language and using the language over and over again for a meaningful purpose. Then, more language is retained, not just words but phrases, and so much more. The lesson is driven by content and the language outcome is not just about vocabulary or grammar.

CLIL definitions

  1. ‘CLIL is a dual focused educational approach in which an additional language is used for the learning and teaching of content and language.’ 
  • ‘CLIL describes all types of provision in which a second language is used to teach certain subjects in the curriculum other than the language lessons themselves.’
  • ‘In CLIL at least two languages, including the L1, are used to teach different high-status subjects such as history or mathematics.’

CLIL teachers largely separate the L1 and L2 by teaching a given subject primarily through one or the other language. The L1 however is used sparingly and judiciously by teachers teaching through the students L2 and vice versa, thereby taking into account that the L1 and the L2 continually interact in the learner’s mind. Content and language learning are systematically supported in both content and language classes. The goal is to support students using the language outside of the classroom and the cognitive and social skills and habits required for success in an ever-changing world. 

teaching clil

What is CLIL?

CLIL is more of an overall design than a detailed method. It is a system that is content driven and language is integrated into the learning. CLIL helps teachers to ensure that their lesson plans are balanced and give sufficient opportunities for the application of knowledge and the development of communication skills. It is based on the premise that students need to be more highly active and participative in the learning process, as well as work in a more student-centered environment and improve critical and creative thinking abilities. CLIL is a design that any school can adopt for teaching content such as science, music, history, art or PE in English or any other language.

If you wish to use the standards and objectives of CLIL, you need to know your content and language standards and apply them to CLIL. There are two basic ways to implement CLIL: these are known as hard CLIL and soft CLIL. If you choose to use all of the aspects of CLIL and use a content driven approach, you would be using hard CLIL. If your class is language driven and you apply some of the CLIL design, you would be using soft CLIL. Just because you’re teaching a subject in a second language does not mean automatically that you’re using CLIL.

CLIL is made up of four areas or the four Cs of CLIL. They are content, communication, cognition, and culture. All four of the Cs work together and create a design that allows us to teach multiple things at the same time. If you have a CLIL textbook that you are using, remember that the book does not do the teaching for you; it is your job as the CLIL expert to make the book come to life.

Some people ask whether language should be taught at the same time as content. The idea is that students learn language through a real subject, where they can do hands-on activities and actually use the language. The basic concept is that students need to practise the language they are learning, and subjects like science, art, and PE give the students the opportunity to do so. 

CLIL lesson planning

All of us know that it is not easy being a teacher nowadays. Many elements must be taken into account when planning, as you try to integrate content, cognition, communication, and culture into the classroom, so that your students are happy and engaged. A quality lesson is made of a clear progression of knowledge that meets the identified goals of the curriculum. In other words, what you want your students to know or what you want them to be able to do at the end of the lesson.

Students learn the language and understand the subject matter to an environment that is immersive and communicates with the target language. The teacher must make sure they use the target language as much as possible. The more connections to the subject students make, the more meaningful and memorable the lesson will be.

The challenges of CLIL

As a CLIL teacher, these are the challenges you will most likely face:

  1. Is the language appropriate? What happens if they don’t have the language level to teach the subject, twinning the content and the target language? Apart from the students, the subject teacher needs to have an advanced level of English as well.  
  2. Techniques. Language teachers have all these techniques of eliciting, scaffolding, pair work, group work, that subject teachers may not be used to.
  3. Assessment. What are we assessing? Are we going to assess the language or the subject content? This can be done in different ways.  For example, the English teacher may look occasionally at something that was done by the students (a report, a project, etc.) and check the language.
  4. Materials. Most textbooks are written for teaching subjects, but what happens if the subject content in the book doesn’t match your national curriculum, or it is for different ages and exams?
teaching clil

The content of CLIL

CLIL is a system that is content driven and language is integrated into the learning. Content means anything that you will use to teach your unit. Your content should be multimodal; this means that your content should come from multiple sources. Your textbook is a guide. It should not be the only source of content. Examples of multimodal sources are articles, images, video, listening activities, student generated content, teacher generated content, blogs, projects, library resources, games, case studies, asking experts and so on.

If you are not sure where your content should come from, do a little research and see what already exists. Maybe someone has already created a project or activity that you could use as inspiration. There are many websites where teachers share plans for projects that have already been done and have been successful. If you find a YouTube video that you could use to reinforce or replace some of your unit material, that would be considered adding multimodal content.

When you do the research and get ideas for hands-on activities you could teach your unit material through, make sure the content of the videos, articles, books etc. are sources of rich input. This means that the material should be meaningful, authentic, and challenging.

When we teach the new content, we need to make sure we connect it to what students already know. There are many ways to activate prior knowledge: you could use an anticipatory set. A good way to start working with prior knowledge in your classroom is by using a KWL chart. A KWL chart, is a graphical organizer designed to help in learning. The letters KWL are an acronym, for what students, in the course of a lesson, already know, want to know, and ultimately learn. It is probably one of the easiest and quickest ways to activate prior knowledge on any subject. You can easily do a Google search for a KWL chart or simply draw one on your board. To go through the process, you talk with the students to document what they know, what they want to know, and then after the lesson what they have learned.

There’s also a technique called the SQ3R method. SQ3R is a reading comprehension method named for its five steps: survey, question, read, recite and review. The method was introduced by Francis P. Robinson, an American education philosopher in his 1946 book Effective Study. The method offers a more efficient and active approach to reading textbook material.

This means that before you begin a new unit, you would have the students survey the unit. They should read all of the titles, headings, and picture captions. This helps to give the students an idea of what is to come in the unit. While surveying the unit, you could also ask the students which of the sections they already had some information on and which sections were new.

Both the KWL chart and the SQ3R system work to activate prior knowledge. They also act as scaffolding. Scaffolding is anything the teacher does to help the students in acquiring the content and language more easily. When we activate prior knowledge on a subject, it gives us a chance to assess the students in a formative manner. We can see if any content or language needs to be reviewed before moving forward.

Pros and cons of CLIL

As we have already mentioned, CLIL means that you’re basically teaching another subject like science or history, but you’re also teaching another language, like English, at the same time. This way you are basically integrating the two together. It’s an approach where students learn obviously a second language and a subject at the same time. They are taught the actual content of science, while learning those language skills and vocabulary in English.

A distinct advantage of CLIL is when a subject is taught in a second language, it provides concrete reason to learn both. It provides that context for them to learn the language and in turn makes them more motivated to do so. They’re not just learning that language in isolation, which can become boring. They’re actually learning science while learning the second language.

Another benefit of CLIL is that it also prepares students for further studies. If the student wants to go and study in an English-speaking country, they will have more knowledge and more exposure to the target language that they are learning. So, they will be exposed to it a lot more.

On the other hand, a disadvantage would be that CLIL lessons need more planning. Teachers need to structure the classes carefully, so that the students understand the context of the lesson as well as the language being taught. This can be quite time-consuming, especially if you have many lessons throughout the day.

Another disadvantage is that many language teachers may sometimes lack the knowledge on that specific subject. Which means they won’t have all of the information and they won’t be able to assist the students, as opposed to a teacher that studied to become a science teacher, for example. As a result, they won’t have all the necessary resources.

Another challenge is the way you introduce subject-specific terminology. It’s always very important to introduce lots of different types of media, because it’s a great way to enhance your students’ understanding. You can use lots of different pictures or even videos as an introduction to the different types of terminology. And that’s also a great way to ask questions and to check their understanding and to get them talking a lot more. For example, you can ask the students if they know the meaning of the word, which will give you a bit of background as to if they’re familiar with this terminology or not. And if they do know the meaning of the word, ask them to explain it and check their understanding that way. And for the students who struggle, you can use synonyms, repetition and using words in context to provide that initial understanding.

teaching clil

The language of CLIL

When teachers look at identifying supporting language for learners of subjects to English as a foreign language, it is useful to consider three types of language.

Firstly, subject-specific language, the language you can’t do without when you’re teaching a subject. You can usually find all these words in the glossary section in the back of a textbook or the highlighted bolded words on the page of a textbook.

The subject-specific language to that subject cannot be taught without another type of language, general academic language. This is a language which tends to be less visible from the textbook page. For that reason, one of the tasks of the CLIL teacher is to find that general academic language and make it visible and accessible for learners. This can be done either through handouts or board work or visualizing language in PowerPoint slides.

Another type of language, which is useful to pay attention to, is peripheral language. That is the language of classroom chat, and classroom management, and interaction. Our task as teachers is to consider and moderate where necessary.

Looking at general academic language and subject specific language, the best source of input is the textbook itself or the curriculum document. Look through collections of textbooks to find what the most frequently used words are and create collections of themed vocabulary items based on their necessity in the theme and also their frequency of use. This is very important for teachers because they want their students to become fluent in the language of the subject.

How to bring CLIL into your classroom

With CLIL, language is learned and used to build subject knowledge, which we call content. The reverse is also true; subject knowledge becomes the motivation for students to learn new language just as students do in native English speaker classrooms. These subjects come from many areas of learning, such as history, social studies, art, music, science, and math.

When students are introduced to a CLIL lesson, such as a lesson on explorers, they use the four skills of reading, writing, listening, and speaking to learn about and discuss the subject. In addition, students analyze and evaluate the information using critical thinking skills. This allows them to understand the information more deeply.

Many CLIL lessons also expose students to different cultures and perspectives, broadening their intercultural awareness. Most importantly, CLIL lessons connect language to real-life. Students build vocabulary, grammar, and language skills naturally by asking questions and seeking answers. In this way, students develop their English skills in much the same way that they develop their native language skills in the L1 classroom. CLIL lessons work because they’re motivating and fun.

They can be done in a number of ways but here are some simple steps to help you plan your CLIL lesson:

  1. First of all, choose a topic that will be of interest to your students. It might be a science lesson about rainforest animals or our solar system or a history lesson about inventions or transportation.
  2. Next, choose the target vocabulary you want to focus on for the lesson. This may be six to ten words depending on the level of your students. Also choose a grammar structure to focus on.
  3. Then use a text or create a reading or article about the subject or find a suitable one through books, magazines or the internet. It should match the reading level of your students and include your target vocabulary and grammar.
  4. Next, create a graphic organizer that allows students to think critically and analyze the information they have learned. This graphic organizer may be a Venn diagram, a timeline, a cause-and-effect chart or any number of organizers.
  5. Finally, give students an opportunity to use this information creatively through a class project or through a writing or speaking assignment. This will help them to personalize what they have learned.

CLIL lessons are very useful because a good CLIL lesson builds 21st century skills as well as strong language skills.

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Anita Lindquist is the Head of Curriculum in a Secondary School in Stockholm. She is an advocate for excellence in public education and passionate about learning and teaching methodologies.


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