In this article, Keith Kelly explores the definition of CLIL and gives advice to ELT teachers on how to maximize results in the classroom.

It has been argued that CLIL for ELT is just a repackaging of a task-based, topic-focused approach to language learning. The jury is currently still out. Definitions are still being developed, compared and bounced off each other. Much of this discussion can be followed in any number of the e-lists available via the Internet today. Some of these include:

The best way to define what CLIL is and what it offers for language teachers is to examine the various factors involved in any CLIL learning context. These include: the methodology, the curriculum, the resources, the skills and the language involved in any one learning moment. First of all, we need a basic outline of what we understand when we talk of CLIL for language teachers.

A curriculum focus

My understanding of CLIL is that it has a focus on the content curriculum. This means that the content comes from the subject curriculum programme rather than the foreign language curriculum. The language focus is the content curriculum, but a number of other aspects of learning come from content subject areas as well. CLIL includes key skills which come from content subjects. It includes content subject concepts. The amount of concept focus in the ELT strand of CLIL depends on the background knowledge of the teacher as much as the learning needs of the students.

The methodology

Clearly, the focus described above will dictate, to a great extent, the methodology adopted by a teacher of language wanting to follow a CLIL approach. By way of example, if a language teacher wants to develop student presentation skills in a content subject area, there are certain generic aspects of presentation work which are likely to appear in any classroom where presentation work is the focus. One aspect of CLIL, in my opinion, which is central to any definition of this approach to learning, is that it includes language support. Language support refers to strategies and techniques teachers use to a) highlight core language in a content subject, and b) make this language available and accessible to learners of a given subject area. Gibbons (2002) expands this concept very clearly and in detail in an exposition of the need for 'scaffolding' for learners working in the curriculum in a second language.

CLIL opens doors for language teachers who would like to introduce their students to content that is relevant to what they are dealing with in other areas of their curriculum. There is a great deal language teachers can do to support the work of content subject teachers that teach professional courses such as engineering or tourism. This does not suggest that language teachers become content teachers, rather it means that language teachers focus their lessons on the specific language / conceptual / skills demands that the content curriculum places on the students.

The curriculum

Language teachers have to be willing to go and visit the content curriculum 'space' of their colleagues to take what they can for their own classes. It is worth becoming acquainted with the content curriculum students are working on in their other classes at school. The curriculum guideline documents for all subjects are usually easily accessible in schools. In the UK, the government has set up a useful website for teachers to be able to access all of the National Curriculum, as well as catalogues of resources and examples of students' work.

The resources

The content curriculum can be a treasure trove of goodies for language teachers prepared to look for materials they can use in their classrooms. Arguably one of the best places to look for materials, project ideas, language embedded materials and many other valuable educational experiences for learners working through a foreign language is the wonderful Science Across the World programme.

Science Across the World offers teachers three things: a) a bank of resources for general science projects; b) a database of contacts for carrying out a curriculum exchange project with a school in another country; and c) an Internet-based and ICT focus to learning. Students study a science topic and consider how it is related to their personal lives, how it is linked to their local community and how it fits in with their global environment. All of this is done in a foreign language (or MT).

The skills

There are too many subject-specific skills to mention here. Each subject carries its own set of skills: some are specific to the subject and some are common across subjects. One example which can be seen in a number of subject areas is research work. This is a broad label I am using to include a number of sub-skills, two of which are:

  • dealing with data (gathering and presenting it on paper)
  • presenting findings to a group

If we examine this subset of skills, we will see that there are specific language demands that the teacher will need to identify, stress, practice and support for the CLIL learner to be able to make the language their own.

The language

This refers to language in the context of skills which occur in a number of subject areas across the curriculum. We can refer to this as general academic language, as it is not specific to any one subject. There are three broad areas of language in any one content classroom:

  • subject-specific language
  • general academic language
  • peripheral language

Knowing what this language is and what to do with it, i.e. how to scaffold or support it, is what CLIL is all about.

Discourse analysis in content subjects is already a field of linguistics with a very strong tradition and history. Law, medicine and business are just three areas which have their own bodies of specialized study for delivering the specific language of these subjects. CLIL is an attempt to bring discourse analysis techniques to primary and secondary education, with a view to identifying the curricula language so that it can be made accessible for learners working through a second language.


Take a look at your content colleagues' curriculum, their resources, the skills they try to develop in their students and the language they use in teaching the subject in question. Identify an aspect of this context you find appealing, and that your language students would find interesting in your language classroom. This may be a skill, e.g. giving PowerPoint presentations in plenary to the rest of the class.

It may be that your students need practice in using the passive voice because it is prominent in describing how a machine works in their engineering class. You could take images of machines, along with texts, and prepare them in the same way you would work with images and texts in your regular textbooks.

Expand your students’ general academic language so they meet the needs of the content curriculum. For example, they may need to describe the 'structure, function and location' of sectors of the economy. Offer a focus on this in your language lesson.

There are many ways to integrate the language class with what goes on in other areas of the school curriculum. Take a look. You might be surprised what you find!


  • Cummins, J and Gibbons, P. Scaffolding Language Scaffolding Learning: Teaching Second Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom. Heinemann, 2002.
  • Science Across the World