In the first part of her series on language for CLIL, Kay Bentley explains what content-obligatory language is, how it affects CLIL teaching and what do you need to know about content-obligatory language for TKT: CLIL.

Content-obligatory language is a term used in CLIL and bilingual contexts to describe the vocabulary, grammatical structures and functional expressions that learners need in order to gain knowledge of a curricular subject, to communicate that knowledge and to take part in classroom tasks in a non-native language. Every subject has its own content-obligatory language.  

What are examples of content-obligatory language?

Let's take the subject of Mayan art. Content-obligatory vocabulary might include: line, shape, patterns, vases, carvings and sculptures. Content-obligatory grammatical structures would include passive forms, such as it was made in the 8th century, they were used in ceremonies, and also connectives for reasoning, such as Decorated art work was used in ceremonies because the Mayan rulers wanted to show their power. Content-obligatory functional language would include expressions for describing objects. 

Why is knowledge of content-obligatory language important in CLIL?

Teachers need to analyse resources, tasks and texts so they can be prepared to pre-teach the language or help learners to notice the subject language which they listen to, read and produce. Teachers may decide to use vocabulary 'word banks', sentence substitution tables or writing frames so that learners have support while using subject language. It is easy to forget that the reason learners may not communicate in class is that they are unsure of the subject-specific language. Many learners, particularly teenagers, are happy to do subject tasks such as draw a design from a decorated Mayan vase, but would rather remain silent than make mistakes with the language they need to describe what they have drawn. Younger learners like the security of visually attractive language support.

Content-obligatory language across the curriculum

In TKT: CLIL content-obligatory vocabulary cannot be tested as the scope is just too enormous. However, there are examples of it in most of the test questions. To help teachers develop their knowledge of content-obligatory grammatical structures, there are, for example, tasks from across the curriculum which match functional expressions with their language forms or contextual tasks which involve choosing the most appropriate grammatical structure from three options. Many CLIL teachers appreciate this opportunity to think about the language of their subject.

For more information about the TKT: CLIL visit the Cambridge ESOL TKT: CLIL website.