Number one for English language teachers

Article: How do you know if you're practising CLIL?

Perhaps due to its relatively recent birth as an approach with a label, CLIL shelters a broad range of practice under its pedagogic roof. But if it is to be taken seriously as an approach, and then adopted by the world of pedagogy, it needs to have identifiable limits. We need to be able to say what it is, but also what it isn't. In what ways does CLIL manifest itself in terms of curricular types, and perhaps more simply - how do you know if you're 'CLIL-ing', to quote a new verb?

The broadest division

Those who promulgate CLIL and those who write about it seem to have agreed on a basic division of the approach into two camps: one in which the teaching and learning is focused primarily on the subject content, and the other in which the teaching and learning is focused primarily on language. The former is referred to as content-driven, and the latter as language-driven. It's an easy enough division to understand, but both approaches are perfectly valid and often work in a close and mutual cooperation. There is no civil war implied by the division. 

Strong and Weak

These two approaches are often referred to as 'strong' (content-driven) and 'weak' (language-driven). Again, no qualitative distinction is intended, and the two approaches are also sometimes labelled under 'hard' and 'soft'. What do these adjectives mean, in this particular context?

The content-driven approach means that the subject content is given primary focus. This applies to both the content and the administrative implications.  So, for example, a school that favoured total immersion – where the academic (and possibly social) medium is a foreign language – would be operating under a strong version of CLIL. 

A language-driven approach would envisage foreign language classes (for example) using more content than is typical of such programmes, or using didactic units which made greater use of subject-based content. Nevertheless, the language-driven approach has as its basic objective language learning, whereas the former has subject concepts and skills as its learning objective.  These objectives will condition the assessment procedures – a topic we will explore in more detail in the next article. 

Image illustrating content- and language-driven approaches

But is it CLIL?

Good question. Just because a school decides to practise 'immersion', it doesn't mean that it is CLIL-ing. For example, the teachers in the 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 didactic materials, which are likely to have been designed for L1 (native) speakers.

Undoubtedly, this approach can work in both its linguistic and subject-content aims. There are many examples of this in the past and the present of world education. But it probably works because of the enormously extended contact time that the pupils experience in the target language. Immersion situations do not force the teachers to change their whole methodological approach, or force them to design their own materials, or force the subject teachers to think more carefully about the crucial role of language in their specialist fields. CLIL teachers, on the other hand, do have to make these changes because most of them are not afforded the luxuries that immersion education confers, in terms of contact time. 

Is that what CLIL teachers really do?

Yes. Let's take those three 'forced' situations from above, and turn them into a positive and conscious approach to education. Nobody wants to be 'forced'!  So in CLIL, both language and subject teachers….

  • Change their methodological approach
  • Adapt existing materials or design their own to fit their particular contexts
  • Work within a more language-enhanced paradigm

Is that all?

No – but let me explain. Let's take the first one about changing their methodological approach. We mentioned this briefly in the previous article when we said that teachers who deliver their material in the L2 cannot assume that they are being understood. The implications are obvious.

  1. The teachers would have to adjust their methodology to ensure that the students were understanding the content. 
  2. That adjustment almost always entails a reduction in teacher-talk.
  3. A reduction in teacher-talk often produces an increase in student talk (or at least it should!)
  4. These adjustments gradually find their way into the materials.
  5. These materials are by default more task-based, and therefore more learner-centred. 
  6. These materials focus more clearly on the role that language plays in the students' assimilation of the concepts.

But how does all this equal CLIL?

It's obvious. If the above things happen, content teachers begin to think about language, and language teachers begin to think about content. It's a meeting of minds across what has traditionally been the 'Great Divide'. It's what the famous CLIL slogan means:

Using languages to learn, and learning to use languages

It's a powerful equation, because it also brings school departments together, and it often results in a potent exchange of skills. Why is the non-CLIL world not so potent? 

The problem of language teaching

Consider, for example, the principal problem of language teaching. What is the content of a language syllabus?Who decides on it, and what is the logic behind it? Well – without getting lost in the tricky world of educational philosophy, let's just say that there is no logic whatsoever behind it, above and beyond the structure that applied linguists and publishers have attempted to impose upon it over the years. This is because the nature of language is horribly complex, and the nature of its acquisition even more so.

Quite apart from the above, the basic flaw in language teaching seems to reside in the fact that its conceptual content – topics, themes, stories – all of which can occur in a wide range of media, are subordinated to the underlying linguistic objective. We might use Global Warming as a topic, but it's the 2nd Conditional we're really interested in assessing. So – 'What would you do if you were writing the agenda of the next Global Warming Summit?'  

The students may well respond – who cares about saving the world? As long as I get the 2nd Conditional right, I'll pass the exam. And they would be right.

So why does CLIL do it better?

I didn't say that. You did! But if you want the answer, you need to think about conceptual sequencing. This is what distinguishes CLIL from language teaching.

Conceptual sequencing

Without this, it's difficult to accept that a teacher or learner is CLIL-ing. In a language-learning textbook, the content is usually divided up into short chapters.

Chapter One: 'My family and friends'

Chapter Two: 'My School'. 

Chapter Three: 'Famous People'.  

There may be a thematic connection between the three, but when we reach Chapter Four and 'Saving the Rain Forests' we struggle to see the connection.  Of course, a glance at the contents page and the teacher's guide will reveal the underlying linguistic links, but the student may not be aware of them. 

In the world of subject teaching, concepts are generally presented in horizontal (or vertical) sequences of chronology, complexity or topical relationships. So if you study The Romans in Britain in History what might you expect on the course menu?

First Class:  Romans land in Britain in 56 BC. 

Second Class:  Early conflicts with local tribes.

Third Class:  The early years of the Roman conquest.

And so on. People seem to learn rather well in this way, with one thing following another in a logical sequence. CLIL is much closer to this paradigm. In its stronger versions, it simulates this type of sequencing, and in its weaker versions it lends 'sequential coherence' to language lessons by basing them on real conceptual material and extending the time that is devoted to this practice. A didactic unit on Global Warming in a 'weak' language-driven CLIL context may last as long as two months in the school year. In a language textbook it probably lasts two days. 

Anything else?

Oh yes. Lots more. But for the purposes of this second article, let's conclude by looking at the really powerful three-way combination of elements that CLIL enables. This 'trinity' is based on three classroom considerations:

  • Concepts
  • Procedures (skills)
  • Language

The following example sentence (see diagram) is from a CLIL project for 11-12 year old Basque students. It is from an English lesson, and is part of the language syllabus, but the didactic unit uses subject material from Environmental Science, and the objective of the lesson was to teach the basic features of the planets in our solar system. 

The students work in groups of four and do a 'running dictation', where one student from each group runs to the classroom wall and reads a description of a planet – or of as many as he can remember. He does not know the names of the planet(s) he is reading about. He runs back to his group (as many times as he needs), and dictates the description(s). The group listens, then looks at the pictures of the planets they have been provided with. They must decide which planets are being referred to. The objective could be written out thus:

Chart demonstrating the objectives of a science lesson



This is  'Content & Language Integrated Learning', where all the three crucial elements of education are working in harmony. The content (conceptual) is learned through a procedure (skills) which requires a certain type of framework (language). You cannot differentiate between the planets unless you can say that Jupiter is bigger than Mars – to quote an obvious example.

How do you know if you're CLIL-ing? Well you'll need to be doing something like this. You'll need to be taking all these elements into consideration. Sounds good? It is!

In the next article, we'll look more carefully at the marriage between language and content in CLIL, at how the teacher can use the 'trinity' to his or her advantage, as well as considering some related assessment issues.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • A great and clear article. Thank you!

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