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The what, why and how of CLIL for language teachers

6 days ago


Over twenty-five years from coining the term CLIL (1994; Coyle et al. 2010), it is time to make it more language teacher-friendly. In this short article, I would like to dissect the notion of CLIL in a language classroom and offer some suggestions on what, why and how to introduce content during regular language classes.


CLIL, that is Content and Language Integrated Learning, refers to teaching and learning non-linguistic concepts through the vehicle of an additional language. This additional language can be a foreign language, a second language or a minority language. In many cases, this additional language is English, but there are numerous CLIL classes conducted through other languages, such as Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Russian or others.

Initially, CLIL research and CLIL teacher training were limited to subject teachers, involved in the so-called hard CLIL. As these teachers often lacked linguistic mastery and methodological knowledge on combining their subject with the additional language requirements, language teachers’ involvement would mean linguistic support to the students in CLIL programs. Recently, however, language teachers themselves, followed by major publishers, have realized CLIL gives yet another opportunity to increase students’ motivation to learn additional languages, even if NOT combined with bilingual programs. This so-called soft CLIL has thus gained extra attention.

Both subject and language teachers, whether engaged in CLIL or not, would agree there is no content without the language, and there is no language without the content. Subject teachers are responsible for teaching the language of their subject, be it conducted through the students’ native language or through an additional one. Without it, there would be no communication between students and the teacher on the concepts this subject teaches (Green 2016). And the other way round – no language lesson is possible without some text to read or listen. On quite a few occasions, these texts can be related to specific school subjects, such as History or Geography. Advocating for more content in an English classroom, thus, does not mean a revolution. It just asks for more conscious selection of the content material in a language classroom.

The above content and language unity leads to one conclusion more. It revolves around the ultimate goal of CLIL education. Many CLIL-related publications suggest it is a dual-focused approach, that is a lesson’s goal is to teach both non-linguistic concepts and the language itself. This notion stems from the very name of CLIL, which is the integration of the two – content and language. However, it seems more accurate to limit the focus of any CLIL lesson to a single one, which can be described as the mastery of the language required to express the non-linguistic content effectively. And this goal, however challenging, should also be accepted by language teachers involved in CLIL.

The WHY of (soft) CLIL

The usual content included in the general English coursebooks revolves around history, literature, arts, customs or geography of various countries, especially the English-speaking ones. However, tapping into a broader curriculum might be of interest to those keen on chemistry, physics or other disciplines. Engagement in a subject-related task, when the additional language itself is used as a tool rather than an ultimate goal, might boost students’ grasp of that language. Additionally, the students’ exposure to academic vocabulary might help them in their later careers.

This tapping into the broader curriculum might also help bridge the gap between language education and other school subjects. Following its historical development, school curricula have been chopped into smaller and smaller bits of knowledge for pragmatic reasons. As various disciplines do overlap and rely on each other, teachers and educators alike often stress the need to counteract this fragmentation through interdisciplinarity, at least during some classes. Maths is the basis for physics, there are strong correlations between biology and chemistry, whereas literature cannot function without the historical background. Almost all traditional school subjects can be linked to each other, but additional languages are excluded. Language curricula, revolving around grammar points and language functions, are not related to other school subjects, especially at higher school levels. If introduced correctly, soft CLIL might help correlate the language curriculum with other subjects’ curricula to the benefit of students.



Convincing language teachers to include some non-linguistic content into their repertoire might not be the biggest challenge though. In the end, their aim is to help students master the language, and if there is a method that helps achieve just that, no teacher needs to think twice. However, a completely different issue is to give the teachers enough guidance and tools to introduce some biology or geography content into their teaching successfully.

The original rule of the 4Cs of CLIL, developed by Coyle (2010), includes Content (concepts to be taught), Communication (language needed in the process), Cognition (thinking processes involved) and Culture (awareness of self and ‘otherness’). These 4Cs can be merged with the 10 CLIL parameters, as described by Ball, Clegg and Kelly (2015) in their book Putting CLIL into Practice addressed to both subject and language teachers.

The CLIL Wheel 

The CLIL Wheel combines the two approaches to CLIL: the 4Cs and the 10 Parameters. The outer ring of the Wheel is culture, as it influences the way we use languages (communication), the way we think (cognition) and also what we teach and learn in school (content). The innermost ring has been divided into ten parts, each matched to one of the three Cs.








 1-2-3 Sequence

Contrary to additional language teaching, subject curricula follow a specific knowledge sequence. As a result, a language teacher who wants to get involved in CLIL should consider designing a sequence of lessons built around a selected theme, ideally around the time when the students are covering these topics in their content lessons. It could be, for instance, a series of lessons on life on the Tudor court (History) or a series of lessons on acids and bases (Science/Chemistry). This way, the teacher and the student will be able to refer to the previous lesson or lessons and see how the curriculum progresses.


Concept > Language

In a CLIL setting, even if delivered during a general English class, the lessons need to be concept-driven. The language is going to be dictated by this very concept. If we decide to offer students a lesson on history, they would have to use Simple Past tense even if they have not studied it in an English class. If we want to compare and contrast a plant cell and an animal cell, we need to teach specific vocabulary items, such as mitochondria and cell membrane as well as the language to express similarities and differences. It does not mean the language is not essential, but just that it is a tool or a vehicle and stems directly from the lesson content.


 Task > Language

Similar to the above, whatever task the teacher decides the students need to do in a CLIL class, it becomes the factor dictating the language. Depending on the task’s nature, the students might need the appropriate language to describe the process or talk about a sequence of events. It would require specific language items, such as first, later and then, and they need to be limited to the necessary ones.


Guided Multimedia Input

Input means all the information directed at the students. As such, it needs to be carefully designed and delivered. It also should be ‘chopped’ into smaller bits rather than delivered to students in large chunks. After every input instance, the teacher should stop and check understanding before moving on. The word ‘multimedia’ indicates the content should be accompanied by a plethora of visual tools. Although modern classrooms often use multimedia, in a CLIL setting they become even more critical. Mini-films with appropriate commentary would help students understand concepts better than a dry description of the same process in a textbook. Last but not least, this multimedia input should be guided. In this regard, CLIL teachers need to make sure they offer pre-, while- and post-watching tasks to make sure that the students do not just sit idly watching a video but have support in the form of handouts to refer to.



Three Dimensions of CLIL

The idea of three dimensions of CLIL spans across both content and communication. Besides those two, however, every CLIL lesson includes some procedures: the technicalities of what needs to be done with the content, while using the language as a vehicle. Before the lesson, the teacher needs to decide which of those three elements will potentially pose the most significant difficulty for the students. If this is the content itself, it needs to get special attention and support. In another instance, this might be the language needed to describe a process. The vocabulary thus would require extra work on pronunciation, spelling and meaning. The last element in this trio is a procedure. It may mean, for instance, reading the text on similarities and differences of the Arctic and Antarctica, and transferring the information into a two-circle Venn diagram. If the students have never seen or made such a graphic organizer, the procedure might require extra time and careful explanation. In short, during each CLIL lesson, the teacher needs to ‘tune in’ the content, the language and the procedure at an appropriate level.



Key Language

Key language items need to be highlighted and made salient. The students will not be able to discuss the studied concepts if they do not understand or cannot write and pronounce the necessary vocabulary. The teacher can follow the six-step process of dealing with academic vocabulary designed by R.J. Marzano (2004), which involves stages to present, personalise, and recycle vocabulary, or they can use elements of the Interactive Science Notebook. As vocabulary is part of general language classes, the teacher has various ways of managing this issue, from odd-one-out, crosswords, word-search squares and bingo to multiple-choice tasks and picture dictionaries.


Careful! Instructions!

The relationship between the text the students are to read or the video they need to watch and the task they are to do is based on what lies in between, that is, instructions. They should be carefully planned and staged so as not to add to the burden of understanding the written or recorded text and doing the task. An important issue here is whether the students know what to do. A simple question: Do you know what to do? is not going to prevent problems. Some students find it difficult to acknowledge they do not understand what the task entails. Thus, the teacher should ask more detailed questions, like How many pieces of information do you need to find? or What are you going to do when you finish the task?              


Student-Student Interaction

A well-designed CLIL lesson should also offer students ample opportunities to interact in pairs or groups. It might seem obvious to a language teacher that students need to practice the language. However, in a CLIL setting, student-student interaction has extra weight. It is the time for checking the understanding of the content and the correctness of language the students need to express the studied concept. It is the time to rehearse the task’s answer before it can be given to the class or the teacher. This postponed answer to the teacher’s question or the written assignment is an essential element of the CLIL lesson.


Supported Output

Another crucial issue is supporting the students’ output, both written and oral. Again, here language teachers can use their typical repertoire, like substitution tables or models of written texts. Another great tool is graphic organizers, which help organize not only vocabulary but also content and thus can support oral and written production and revision.




The fact that the students are learning non-linguistic content through a foreign language does not mean the teacher needs to simplify knowledge or spoon-feed the students. On the contrary, they need to be challenged to grasp the concepts to be learnt. They need to be physically engaged and/or mentally involved in the learning process. The tools a CLIL teacher can use include various questioning techniques based on Bloom’s Taxonomy and thinking routines.


Content to consider

Once we know the what, why, and how of CLIL in a language classroom, there is one issue more to address: deciding what content to choose. Language teachers may be tempted to stick to CLIL pages offered by coursebooks they use in their everyday work. Such an approach, although it does focus on some subject-specific content, is somewhat crippled. First of all, in no way can it be connected with the students’ themes in the subject lessons at that very moment. Thus, such a random CLIL lesson still does not tune into the real-life school curricula in non-linguistic subjects. Moreover, CLIL pages offer a little bit of everything with no continuation in the content. A CLIL page on 2D figures in maths in one unit has no connection with the types of animal groups in the following unit.

To make CLIL pages a meaningful learning experience, why not consult the subject teacher on what the class is studying in their lessons at the moment? Maybe they are not doing 2D figures but some completely different Maths topic. Then the English teacher can decide whether to postpone the CLIL page content or maybe substitute it for something that the students are covering. Whatever the decision, it would be great if the content was extended into a series of lessons on a given topic, rather than just one incident.

Another suggestion is to extend the traditional content offered by coursebooks, such as clothes, food or technology, and introduce some global issues. In terms of the first theme, this can be a project studying the class’s shopping habits, exploring the information on sustainability and social programmes of leading clothes producers or checking what it takes to produce one pair of jeans. Food can be explored in terms of its origin (food miles) or food waste, while a technology project might explore what goes into producing a mobile phone and what happens to those devices we have stopped using.

The teacher can act irrespectively of the English coursebook and consider teaching non-linguistic content that he/she feels comfortable in. Whatever the subject, it is highly recommended to consult the subject teacher to either cover a similar theme (e.g. practising fractions in English at the same time the students are doing it in Maths) or extend the theme the students are studying in the subject class (e.g. get a more detailed insight into the court of Henry VIII at the time when the students are learning the history of the 16th century). One theme that always works well with younger students revolves around science experiments, like making a lava lamp or catching gas in a balloon as a result of an acid and base reaction. Such content is both engaging and academic language-rich. A really good tool here might be a carefully selected CLIL reader, which would mean the ‘tuning in’ of the language is taken care of.

Yet another idea is to plan a project revolving around single themes, such as water or time. Students can then work in pairs or groups to prepare presentations that reflect school subjects. In the case of water, these can be the physical and chemical properties of water (Science, Physics, Chemistry), water as a living environment (Biology), water in a human body (Biology), water sports (PE), water in biosphere (Geography), water paintings (Art), etc. This approach to soft CLIL would mean that these are the students who have a say in which content they choose.

Final remarks

Whatever the content the language teacher chooses, there are a few challenges ahead. One of them might be connected to the fact that the language itself takes the secondary role in a CLIL setting. As a result, there is no need to correct every linguistic error as long as the students are communicative and show a grasp of the concept we were trying to teach.

Another issue might be the language teacher’s lack of confidence in their content knowledge, so they should consider the themes that are closest to their hearts. Besides, there is nothing wrong with admitting that we do not have the expertise to explain all the CLIL lesson’s theme issues. In such a case, the teacher may simply refer the students to their subject teacher or ask them to research the issue independently. These are also the language teachers themselves who can seek the subject teacher’s advice. It is them, in the end, who are experts in their subjects.

Finally, there is the question of what and how to assess at the end of a series of CLIL lessons. Soft CLIL refers to teaching selected content in a language class, but the content should be included in the assessment. This way, we would send a signal to the students that it does matter how they deal with the soft CLIL lessons’ concept. Whatever the teacher’s decision, the students need to be aware of what lies ahead in the assessment.

Preparing a series of soft CLIL lessons may be truly challenging to language teachers. If in doubt, they can use the CLIL Wheel as a checklist while planning their lessons.


Aleksandra is a Geography and English teacher from Toruń, Poland, with 30 years of experience in Geography and EFL/ESL teaching, teacher training, translating, examining and materials writing, including over 15 years of Content and Language Integrated Learning. She has worked extensively as a teacher and teacher trainer in Poland, France and the UK, as well as Asia (Qatar, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iraq, China). In 2014 her geography workbook for lower secondary ‘Earth and People 1’ was nominated for the British Council ELTons Award in the category of Local Innovation and in 2016 she was the winner of the award as a Tigtag CLIL team member. She regularly contributes to EFL magazines, both online and traditional. SHe has presented at national and international conferences, such as IATEFL World, IATEFL Poland and HERODOT network, mostly on topics related to CLIL and Global Issues in an English classroom. Her website is


Ball, P., Kelly, K. & Clegg J. (2015). Putting CLIL into Practice. Oxford Handbooks for Language Teachers. Oxford: OUP.
Coyle, D., Hood, P. & Marsh, D. (2010). Content and Language Integrated Learning. Cambridge: CUP.
Green, C. (2016). How to Teach Secondary Science. Carmarthen, Wales: Independent Thinking Press.
Marzano, R.J. (2004). Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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