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Concourse 2

CLIL: Content and Language Integrated Learning


CLIL refers to situations where subjects, or parts of subjects, are taught through a foreign language with dual-focused aims, namely the learning of content and the simultaneous learning of a foreign language
(Marsh, 2002: 2)


A little history

There is nothing very new about CLIL, despite the fact that it is being suggested that it is a revolutionary way to approach the teaching of language.
In Sumeria, 5000 years ago, the conquering Akkadians chose to learn the local language by using it as the language of instruction (Hanesová, 2015: 7).  In Ancient Rome, patrician families would often choose to have their sons, and, occasionally their daughters, educated in Greek.
More recently, wealthier families in many European countries employed tutors and governesses with particular language backgrounds (often French) to teach their children in a foreign language and the very wealthy would often choose to send their children abroad for a full immersion course in a foreign language.
More recently, there has been renewed interest in the idea of providing language instruction through the medium of instruction in other subjects in a range of countries, including Canada where, in the mid-1960s, a programme was undertaken in which English-speaking children were taught in primary schools in French and vice versa in an effort, which still continues, to produce a truly bilingual generation.
In Europe, The Netherlands has a long tradition of bilingual educational programmes as does Finland, Hungary, The Czech Republic and Slovakia.  Other countries are catching up fast, especially with the establishment of English-medium universities in, e.g., Italy.

Also known as ...

CLIL is known by many other names in the profession:
Bilingual Integration of Languages and Disciplines (BILD), Content and Language Integration in Primary CLIP, Content-based Instruction (CBI), Content-based Language Instruction (CBLI), Content-based Language Teaching (CBLT), English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI), Foreign Languages as a Medium of Education (FLAME), Languages Across the Curriculum (LAC), Teaching Content Through English (TCTE), Teaching English Through Content (TETC) etc.
Here, for the sake of sanity, we will refer to CLIL but it should not be forgotten that the methodology comes in a variety of guises and forms.


The European Union and CLIL

It is unsurprising that the European Union is a fervent supporter of CLIL programmes.  The Union has 24 official languages and 3 procedural ones (English, French and German) and encourages its citizens to be able to speak two other languages in addition to their native language.
Article 22 of the charter specifically commits the union to multilingualism and the EU currently spends over 1 billion Euros a year on translation and interpretation services (1% of its entire budget).
The European Union has become a driving force for research and investment in CLIL programmes.  And it is having a dramatic effect.  The ICEF Monitor (International Consultants for Education and Fairs) reports, for example, that

The number of English-medium undergraduate degree programmes in Europe has gone from practically zero in 2009 to nearly 3,000 this year [2017]

The EU also puts its money where its mouth is and provides very significant funding for international CLIL projects through the Socrates Programme in particular.
If you are looking for more than this brief guide can provide, the EU's websites and various institutions can provide an impressive amount of data.  Not all of it is relevant to all English-language teaching.


Inside the box: how does CLIL work?

CLIL has a number of characteristics and here's a summary:

  1. In CLIL content subjects such as those which appear in a nation's school curricula as well as skills that are generally acquired later in life, in tertiary or occupational education are taught and learnt in a language which is not the mother tongue of the learners.  In our case, we are concerned with English but the principles are the same whatever the language target.
  2. The principle is neither that the content of the syllabus is learned through the language, nor that the language is learned through the learning of the content but that there is a reciprocal process in which acquisition of the target language occurs simultaneously with the learning of the syllabus content.
  3. The target language is, therefore, integrated into the general educational programme rather than being a strand within it in the traditional sense.
  4. The theory is that setting a foreign language in a motivating context in which the learners are keen to acquire the topic knowledge will increase motivation by making the language more relevant to them
  5. Following Krashen, CLIL is concerned with language acquisition rather than language learning.
  6. The language is encountered in real-life communicative settings providing learners with a rich, relevant and various source of language data to work on
  7. CLIL encourages long-term learning.  Typically, it has been claimed, after 5 to 7 years of a programme, the learners have attained a level of mastery which allows them to continue their language learning independently.
  8. Mastery of written material is an essential part of CLIL training.
  9. Most CLIL course seem to take a lexical approach but there's no hard data to confirm that.


The typical structure of a CLIL lesson

All lessons are different and CLIL lessons will be very varied, not least to take account of the nature of the content.  A CLIL lesson in biology or physics will be very different and have different language focuses from one in history or literature.  In that sense, CLIL becomes an extension of teaching English (or another language) for Special Purposes, particularly Academic Purposes.
There are, however, some discernible commonalities which can be teased out of the literature in the area.

  1. Aims
    The aims of all CLIL lessons are, fairly obviously, to deliver syllabus content in tandem with language learning.
  2. Priorities
    • to integrate language skills
    • to use subject-specific reading or listening texts
    • to allow the text content to determine the functional language to be learned
    • to ignore structural complexity
    • to teach language lexically rather than grammatically
  3. Test handling
    • texts should, wherever possible be presented in parallel with visual data (charts, graphs, time lines, tree structures and so on)
    • activities are based on the text structure and involve some analysis of the text organisation.  This is a genre approach to a text.
    • activities focus both on the language in the text and the subject content that the text is endeavouring to present
    • tasks will frequently compel the learners to reproduce the central ideas of the text in either their own words or by designing diagrams and posters to present the information and concepts
    • the language needs of the learners will be functionally rather than structurally based so, for example, the teacher may introduce and practise the language of linking cause and effect, using references to make the text cohesive and so on.
    • the main vocabulary focus will be subject specific
  4. Tasks may include, for example:
    1. Listen / read for specific dates, times or figures
    2. Read and fill in a table
    3. Read and label a diagram/picture/map/graph/chart
    4. Read and label the stages of a process on a worksheet diagram
    5. Listen and fill in a gapped text with subject-specific noun phrases
    6. Spoken information-gap activities in which learners explain particular concepts or vocabulary to each other
    7. Presentation activities in groups or to the whole class

There is nothing in this list, incidentally, which is not also common in most CLT classrooms and certainly nothing which a class in English for Academic Purposes would find unusual.
This promiscuous mix of methodologies, which includes elements of The Lexical Approach, Task-based Learning, genre theory and English for Academic Purposes, has led some to wonder if CLIL is not simply a form of principled, or unprincipled, eclecticism.


Claimed advantages of CLIL

Proponents of CLIL claim a number of advantages.  Some of these are applicable particularly to those in compulsory education; others apply more broadly.  CLIL, it is claimed:

  1. prepares students for an increasingly internationalised world in which mastery of more than two languages will be essential.  A number of major international companies already use English as the sole medium of communication within the business and more are expected to follow the trend.
  2. introduces students to a broader range of cultural contexts than is possible in a mono-lingual educational setting
  3. allows students access to international qualifications and certification
  4. enhances the profile of the school
  5. improves both overall and language-specific skills
  6. prepares students for work
  7. develops multi-lingual interests
  8. diversifies the classroom both in terms of materials and teaching approaches
  9. increases motivation


Criticisms of CLIL

The central criticism is that there simply is no reliable empirical evidence to suggest that CLIL is a more effective way to learn languages.  There are other more specific criticisms:

  1. Subject teachers in secondary schools and tertiary education may resist the adoption of CLIL because they do not have the necessary language skills or language teaching training.
  2. Subject teachers may feel that their concerns (to teach the content of the curriculum) is being made harder by the imposition of foreign-language-medium instruction.
  3. Many current CLIL programmes are money-making enterprises in the private sector which have little or no interest in doing or participating in empirical research to discover what is and is not effective.
  4. Most CLIL programmes in compulsory education settings happen in mono-lingual settings in which implementing a programme which demands immersion in the target language is both impractical and unnatural.
  5. There is a serious shortage of teachers who have both the subject knowledge and the language teaching skills to operate effective in a CLIL setting.  The majority may, therefore, be ill-equipped and ill-trained for the demands of a CLIL programme and not delivering a high-quality experience.
  6. Understanding of the content wing of the syllabus may well be reduced if it is accessed through the students' incomplete and patchy mastery of a foreign language.  In particular, subtleties within concepts may be masked or remain unappreciated.
  7. Some aspects of CLIL programmes are unnatural and forced such as teaching national history or even the appreciation of national literature in a foreign language.

It seems likely, therefore that CLIL will remain a borderline or parallel methodology until the needs of teachers are met.  Notwithstanding, it is clear that CLIL programmes are becoming increasingly popular in mainstream education, in the private sector and, especially, in tertiary education worldwide.

This is, as was said, a brief guide to the main aspects of CLIL.  For more, try a web search for CLIL.  It is not possible to supply a list of links here because many of the sites move around with bewildering rapidity and are often unfindable or simply abandoned.

Related guides
Krashen and the Natural Approach for a little more on the distinction between acquisition and learning of language
Lexical Approach for more on a focus on vocabulary rather than grammar and structure
genre theory for more on text-based approaches to teaching languages
English for Academic Purposes for more on how many of the techniques described here have long been utilised
post-method methodology for more on eclecticism in ELT
task-based learning and teaching for more on another strand evident in CLIL
activity types if you are interested in distinctions between skill-getting and skill-using activities (in the initial plus training section)

For some more about CLIL (and STEM) try https://stemgingereducation.com/
Hanesová, D, History of CLIL, in Pokrivčáková, S. et al., 2015, CLIL in Foreign Language Education: e-textbook for foreign language teachers, Nitra: Constantine the Philosopher University
International Consultants for Education and Fairs: http://monitor.icef.com/2017/09/fifty-fold-increase-english-taught-bachelors-degrees-europe/ [retrieved November 2017]
Marsh, D, 2002, LIL/EMILE – The European Dimension: Actions, trends and foresight potential, Public services Contract EG EAC. Strasbourg: European Commission