Number one for English language teachers

Article: Defining CLIL parameters

Type: Article

In this article, Phil Ball challenges the idea that CLIL is an ‘umbrella term’ that covers many educational practices. Instead, he suggests that CLIL is actually a specific methodological practice and gives his own six-point definition.

Approach or method?

When you walk into a classroom, how do you know it’s CLIL? Apart from the obvious fact that the lesson is taking place in a language that is not native to the learners, what features of the lesson (materials and methods) could you isolate in order for you to exclaim, "Aha! So that's CLIL?"

If we are to train teachers in the approach that is allegedly encapsulated by CLIL, it would be useful to know exactly what that approach consists of. It would be equally useful to establish whether CLIL is indeed an 'approach', similar to a philosophy of teaching, or a 'method', whose features and parameters are instantly identifiable to us as we walk into a classroom that appears to be following a CLIL programme. Why is this important?

It’s important because there seems to be a growing tendency to label CLIL an ‘umbrella term’.

CLIL as an umbrella term?

According to Mehisto, Frigols and Marsh:

“CLIL is an umbrella term covering a dozen or more educational approaches; e.g. immersion, bilingual education, multilingual education, language showers and enriched language programmes.” (Uncovering CLIL, 2008)

Note that the authors use the word ‘approach’ in the broadest of senses, since it would be problematic to describe language showers and immersion as likely allies. The former is similar to a technique, the latter to an entire concept. One lasts for a few hours, the other for several years. CLIL may have some connection with these approaches, but we need to know to what extent it is simply a constituent or an entity in itself. The longer it remains a constituent, the less likely it is to be of future importance. If you can’t identify it, you can’t use it.  

Over a decade ago, Nikula (1997), described CLIL in similar terms:

“… the term CLIL is broad enough to cover both immersion education where all instruction is conducted through a foreign language and other types of foreign language enhanced education where students only receive certain parts of their education through the medium of a foreign language.” (Terminological Considerations in Teaching Content Through a Foreign Language, in Marsh, D., Marsland, B. and Nikula, T. (eds.) 1997 Aspects of Implementing Plurilingual Education. Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä.)

CLIL would therefore appear to have been broad and all-inclusive for some time now and, although this may appear to be an advantage, it could prove a barrier to its continued acceptance. If CLIL cannot be clearly defined, it can be anything it claims to be. Never mind the quality – feel the width. Is CLIL just good practice? Some of it undoubtedly is. But we need to beware of the natural link – that good practice is CLIL.

CLIL as a methodological concept?

It seems undesirable, therefore, to label CLIL an ‘approach’ if by this we mean that it is a ‘philosophy’. The very fact that the spread of CLIL requires a variety of willing but widely differing host countries means that it cannot possibly come packaged with explicit ideological manuals. The recipient contexts, both educational and socio-cultural, are too mixed. What CLIL needs to do, to court acceptance, is to present itself as a methodological concept, whose parameters are both identifiable and limited. If it cannot do this, then it becomes everything – and everything is ultimately nothing. 

If a teacher observes a successful CLIL lesson, and thinks, ‘Yes, I fancy doing some of that!’, then he/she is making a value-led decision which will relate to his/her educational beliefs. But the teacher is in control of the method, not vice-versa. CLIL can only realistically manifest itself in terms of a set of methodological criteria. After that, it is up to the customer to decide whether the consequences of its adoption fit into the curricular philosophy that already prevails. CLIL methodology may well contain implicit cultural and political messages – it may also change things and shake them up, of course – but the stakeholder saw this coming. This may well have been part of the original reason for the adoption of CLIL.

Present and future obstacles

Following on from this, it is worth highlighting two problems currently associated with the development of training materials and courses for a future CLIL workforce:

  1. There are not enough clear definitions of what the practice of CLIL constitutes.
  2. The differing socio-cultural and educational contexts to which CLIL is being applied means that the development of parameters for a generic training model are difficult (but not impossible) to establish. 

Problem one

The difficulty with defining CLIL stems partly from the acronym itself, coined in the mid 1990s in the Finnish context. The definition from Marsh, D. (2002), demonstrates the problem:

"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.”

This is a good explanation of the acronym only in the sense that it specifies ‘foreign’ language. Otherwise, in the most basic of senses, a 'dual focus' in teaching and learning cannot be avoided. The teaching of content always requires language, and the teaching of language always requires content. 'Content and language integrated learning' can once again mean everything and nothing. Add to this the aforementioned idea that CLIL is an 'umbrella term covering a dozen or more educational approaches' and the picture becomes even more incomplete. CLIL becomes an interface term within a bewildering network of connections.

There is no reason to assume that total immersion, for example, has either a necessary or sufficient connection to CLIL. The teachers in an immersion school may simply decide, as a matter of policy, to treat the children as if they were native speakers, and to 'immerse' them in an academic and social context that attempts to simulate, as far as possible, the type of educational conditions and experiences that a native-speaker pupil would expect to undergo. This would extend to the teaching materials, which are likely to have been designed for L1 (native) speakers. CLIL teachers, on the other hand, have to work much harder, because most of them are not afforded the opportunities that immersion education offers, in terms of contact time.

Do we need a new acronym? How about LEST? The notion of 'language enhanced subject teaching' (perhaps a narrower but clearer term than CLIL) was the driving philosophy behind LAC (Language Across the Curriculum), developed in the wake of the Bullock Report (1975) and evident in the cross-curricular literacy strategies now adopted by the English National Curriculum in its Key Stage framework. ‘All subject teachers are language teachers’ – fine.

Language teaching?

But a further difficulty emerges with the idea that CLIL can include language teachers in its broad sweep – a phenomenon described as 'Weak CLIL' – one where the content is allegedly 'language driven' (Met M. 1996). All language teachers are subject teachers? In the absence of clear guidelines, this is surely impossible. Since all educational practice, be it an activity, a series of activities or a teaching unit, requires the operational framework of a clear outcome objective, how will the language teacher describe the incorporation of 'more conceptual content' into his/her lessons? Since the language teacher's objectives remain exclusively linguistic, how can the other content aims be included in order that they might be assessed? If the content aims are not assessed as the outcome objectives (as they are by the subject teacher), then the approach is unlikely to either interest or convince students. Who cares about recommending solutions for global warming when in truth the lesson assessment revolves around the correct use of the Second Conditional?

The problem of objectives

Where does a language objective stop and a content objective begin?  Along a seemingly infinite continuum of practice, it is difficult (though not impossible) to say. However, this does not mean that the language teacher cannot be a CLIL practitioner – but it would appear that there is a need for a more prescriptive framework as to what CLIL constitutes. The approved training courses and Masters programmes that do exist in the UK, in Spain, etc. obviously constitute an attempt, but their contents need to be shared more widely. 

Language teachers need to be made aware of the ways in which language functions in academic subjects, and how the discourse and text demands can be incorporated into language classes. This might constitute the ‘content’ at the language-driven end of the continuum, but it requires training and careful planning. It is unlikely to occur as a result of mere goodwill:

“The language teacher, working together with teachers of other subjects, incorporates the vocabulary, terminology and texts from those other subjects into his or her classes.” (Uncovering CLIL, ibid.)

But only in an ideal world. Language teachers rarely posses the time or the expertise to carry out the above, and even if they did, the ‘how’ of such collaboration above needs to be more clearly stated. The incorporation of subject discourse into a language syllabus is a complex and time-consuming operation, but this is not to dismiss the possibility that it may well represent the future of language teaching.

Problem two

The second problem under focus is mentioned earlier in the article:

The differing socio-cultural and educational contexts to which CLIL is being applied mean that the development of parameters for a generic training model for CLIL are difficult (but not impossible) to establish.

This links clearly to the above issue regarding a lack of clearly defined parameters. If a teacher operating in the L2 were to ask his/her students to learn all the mountains and seas of the Iberian Peninsula by heart for the next lesson, we would say that although this is Geography content and language, we would be unlikely to give the activity the label of CLIL. The reason – that mere memorization is both procedurally poor and cognitively unchallenging (and should therefore be avoided) – helps us to define what we consider to be defective practice, but we cannot simply define the converse as ‘CLIL’. CLIL itself requires more specific boundaries if it is be judged as a purveyor of good practice.

A six-point definition of CLIL

Below is a six-point definition of CLIL. It is based purely on methodological considerations, rooted in the framework of task design.  

  1. Conceptual sequencing. The materials must contain a substantial element of conceptual sequencing, such as one finds in standard subject teaching. One concept follows logically on from another. Language teaching, by contrast, is characterized by the relative absence of such sequencing. 
  2. Conceptual fronting. The criteria for assessing the assimilation and understanding of the material must be based primarily on conceptual and/or procedural (skills-based) content.
  3. Language as vehicle. Language is not assessed as a separate entity, but as the core vehicular element in the accomplishment of production objectives. Language occurs naturally in the discourse frames associated with the conceptual content, and as a result of the communicative exchanges required by task-based methodology.
  4. Specific task design. Teaching material is subjected to particular patterns of task design, in which the content undergoes a greater procedural ‘breakdown’ than one might associate with standard L1 materials. Language support is either scaffolded or embedded into the text.
  5. Three constituents: The outcome objective (that one can assess) of a CLIL activity must be expressed in terms of a trinity, beginning with the conceptual aim, carried out by means of a procedural decision, supported by the language that occurs as a result of its particular discourse.
  6. Activity types: There are four activity types best suited to CLIL practice.
    These are:
    a) Activities to enhance peer communication(assimilate conceptual content + increase communicative competence)
    b) Activities to help develop reading strategies(where texts, often authentic, are conceptually and/or linguistically complex)
    c) Activities to guide student production (oral and written) (focus on the planning of production and the criteria of assessment)
    d) Activities to engage higher cognitive skills(make students think – offer a variety of procedural opportunities for employing a range of operations)

The success of any educational programme depends on how successfully its principles are carried out by its practitioners, the teachers. In this light, the most effective way to exemplify the methodology – and as a logical link, the approach– is through the development of specific parameters for task design and materials. The development of exemplar materials enables teachers to get a feel for what CLIL is.

In the light of the above, CLIL is hardly ‘an umbrella term’ but rather an approach which can be identified as a specific methodological practice. Furthermore, unless we are prepared to limit its scope and define its characteristics in this way, it may cease to exist as a working concept.


If Phil’s article has you nodding in agreement or shaking your head in frustration (or if you’re somewhere in between) and you’d like to take part in some friendly debate, you can have your say in this special area of our Forum.

You can read a more in-depth and in-context explanation of the idea of CLIL as an ‘umbrella term’ in Mehisto, Frigols and Marsh’s Uncovering CLIL (Macmillan, 2008).

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