Peeter Mehisto, lead author of Uncovering CLIL and a practising CLIL teacher trainer, explores the concept of CLIL - what it is and equally as important, what it is not. He examines why CLIL is gaining in popularity and how it will affect the way you teach.

One the deepest human desires is to make a difference. It is one of the reasons many of us enter the teaching profession.

CLIL, Content and Language Integrated Learning, is a high-impact strategy with extra educational potential. Not only do CLIL students make remarkable progress in language learning, the approach is so communicative in nature that it builds communication skills in general. It also helps create a mindset that is comfortable communicating in different languages and cultures, and one that is flexible and knows how to deal with a measure of uncertainty.
As we learn content through a second language, we look for ways of reducing ambiguity and increasing clarity through a process of negotiating meaning with others. We need to concentrate on the essential information, and check whether we have understood the material at hand or the person being spoken with. Thus, we can say that in many ways our reality in the second language is socially negotiated. In fact, this applies to any language we are speaking. Ideally, CLIL students understand how easy it is to miscommunicate and, therefore, they check for common understanding. This is an essential life skill.

Why CLIL is growing in popularity

Mobility of people, goods, services, and capital is on the rise. The nations and cultures of the world are impacting on each other through an ever-increasing exchange of information and products, through a sharing of values, understandings and expectations. Cross-border issues such as pollution, migration, and the spread of disease and conflict are all shrinking the world and calling for co-ordinated solutions. Language and cross-cultural skills are the vehicles of communication that can lead to solutions and opportunities for synergy.

Today, language and cross-cultural communication skills are considered basic skills. In a globally competitive economy, these skills are an economic necessity. As a case in point, a few years ago, the Nuffield Foundation reported that 20% of UK companies felt that they had lost business due to a lack of language or cultural skills. 

Defining CLIL: What it is and what it is not

In short, CLIL is a dual-focused educational approach in which an additional language is used for the learning and teaching of both content and language. For example, CLIL has involved Malaysian children learning maths and science in English. CLIL has been used for Norwegian students to do drama in German, Italian students to learn science in French, Japanese students to learn geography in English and Australians to learn maths in Chinese. The combinations of languages and subjects are almost limitless.

CLIL programmes aim to have students achieve:

  • grade-appropriate levels of academic achievement in subjects taught through the CLIL language;
  • grade-appropriate functional proficiency in listening, speaking, reading and writing in the CLIL language;
  • age-appropriate levels of first-language competence in listening, speaking, reading and writing;
  • an understanding and appreciation of the cultures associated with the CLIL language and the student’s first language;
  • the cognitive and social skills and habits required for success in an ever-changing world.

It is not a matter of simply changing the language of instruction.

CLIL is not a sink or swim programme where the responsibility for language learning falls fully on the students. In CLIL, students are provided with language support. Their learning is scaffolded. Language and content are presented in manageable chunks, one step at a time, to make sure that students understand and apply new knowledge and skills. CLIL students also need support in managing their expectations, emotions and learning in general.

It is not a translation programme.

Teaching takes place using the CLIL language. Students are initially taught to grasp concepts and language through visuals, gestures, tone of voice, actions, routine activities, among other strategies. As language skills grow, words and expressions can be explained through paraphrasing, language that is needed can be visually displayed for easy use, and graphic organisers can be used to categorise language and draw out concepts. 

Although translation can be effectively used in CLIL, the strategy is applied sparingly. Extensive translation of classroom discourse has a tendency to eliminate the need for learning the CLIL language, as key information can be obtained through the first language.

It is not only a teacher’s responsibility.

Although CLIL classes have been successfully established by one enthusiastic teacher, CLIL is more about teamwork than going it alone. Integration is part of the spirit of CLIL, be that integration of language and content, several subjects, school and community, or students and speakers of the CLIL language. Integration assumes co-operation.

CLIL impacts on, among other aspects, school management, staffing, teaching materials development, head teacher and teacher professional development, and school stakeholder relationships. All stakeholders in CLIL need to assume their share of responsibility in making sure the programme is a success. Teachers shouldn’t be expected to do it all.  

It is not something just for ‘A’ students.

A wealth of research in diverse settings in many countries from Asia to Europe to North America demonstrates that CLIL is suitable for the average student. In particular, it is these students that stand to gain the most from CLIL. They may graduate from school with an average grade, but will have acquired a second or third language, as well as being more likely to profit from the social, economic and cognitive benefits of multilingualism.

Because CLIL holds the promise of many benefits, these programmes often attract the most active parents and committed students. If these programmes do not make an effort to cater to all students, they may become elitist. This may drive away the average student. Language and cross-cultural skills are needed by all. They do not just belong to a select few.  

It is not an attempt at assimilation.

CLIL is respectful of other languages. It is not meant to be used as a strategy to assist someone in adopting a new language at the expense of the first language. CLIL aims to support learning in the first language of the community, as well as in the CLIL language.

A host of studies show that if students also receive instruction in their mother tongue  they can acquire the CLIL language with no adverse affects to their mother tongue. In fact, over time the first language skills of CLIL students may even exceed those of their peers. 

It is not language learning at the expense of content.

CLIL programmes seek to be additive in nature, meaning that they aim to help students to learn a new language without adverse affect on the learning of content subjects such as maths and geography.
Once again, a vast array of research shows that CLIL programmes do not adversely affect content learning. However, CLIL students may lag behind their peers in non-CLIL programmes, when they first start learning through a second language. This lag is temporary. As students’ language skills improve, they catch up in the content learning. In particular, parents need to be aware of this, so they can make informed decisions based on their child’s progress.  

Moreover, as learning in CLIL is often well-structured with teachers constantly checking for comprehension, learning can actually improve in a second language context. Also, our minds are more likely to wander when we are learning through our first language, but CLIL requires heightened attention which may well lead to improved learning.   

What takes place in the CLIL classroom and how does this affect the teacher? 

CLIL cannot be separated from general good practice in education. That means that an effective teacher who has the language skills to teach in CLIL is well on the way to being an excellent CLIL teacher.

CLIL is not a scripted programme or an inflexible methodology. In fact, scripted and inflexible programmes tend to rob teachers of creativity and students of opportunities for authentic learning in the here and now. They also lead to higher teacher turnover. Despite the new challenge of CLIL, teachers should continue to rely on their common sense and remain grounded by their values and wide breadth of experience. As always, learning needs to be reflective and challenging, to create relational links and meaningful authentic experiences.

However, there are some aspects of the CLIL approach which are unique. In particular, the extra challenge of learning through a second language requires that time is used efficiently and that strategies that bring the greatest returns are used as effectively as possible. For example: setting language, content and learning skills outcomes and reflecting on their achievement in each class is likely to significantly improve student learning, as are the effective use of peer-cooperative strategies.

Here are just some ways of supporting language development:

  • word walls
  • peer self-repair
  • self and peer-analysis of taped/videoed student presentations
  • brainstorming language required during an assignment
  • setting a language goal that will receive attention in all classes for a week

Moreover, language learning, and learning content through another language are emotionally charged processes. Helping students to manage their own emotions and creating a psychologically safe learning environment are paramount to the CLIL approach.

Peeter Mehisto is a winner of several awards in education. Author, trainer, manager and educator, he has extensive experience working with teachers to support the implementation of best practice in CLIL methodology. Peeter is a frequent presenter and facilitator at CLIL conferences, seminars and workshops and has just published Uncovering CLIL, Macmillan, 2008