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What is CLIL?

This post is about CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning).

The information here comes partly from Learning to Teach Foreign Languages in the Secondary School by N. Pachler, M. Evans, A. Redondo and L. Fisher (Routledge, 2014).

CLIL is defined by Coyle et al (2010)* as follows:

A dual-focused educational approach in which an additional language is used for the learning and teaching of both content and language.

When you think about it, it's what you often do when you teach A-level MFL, where the language becomes little more than the medium through which you teach about a topic, film or literary text for example. I often thought of A-level as "general studies through the target language". So, with that in mind, many language teachers are already familiar with CLIL.

With younger classes, at KS2,3 and 4, the CLIL approach is used more rarely, but does have its fans. How does it work and what are the implications of the approach?

Firstly, CLIL is attractive because of a problem which language teachers often recognise: the discrepancy between students' cognitive levels and the level of their target language. Put simply, it's hard to find material which is both easy enough and really important and engaging. Do we really want to talk about pencil cases and daily routines? So CLIL offers a number of advantages:
  • It provides contexts relevant to students' needs and interests.
  • It can allow language lessons to be integrated with the wider school curriculum.
  • It can be explicitly linked to literacy.
  • It promotes both linguistic skill and general knowledge.
  • It may allow for more creative use of language than with traditional approaches.
  • It may offer genuine opportunities to interact face-to-face and through using technology (e.g. via international projects).
  • It may provide particularly good contexts for widening students' understanding of their own culture and those of others.
The most common way CLIL is put into practice in schools is through interdisciplinary modules where language teachers work alongside colleagues in teaching a topic, partly through the medium of the target language. The project may be led by the language teacher, whereby students see the work as primarily linguistic, or by another department, whereby the language work may be perceived as an add-on.

As a practical example of a CLIL-style project with the focus more on the language side I refer you to the work of Chris Fuller of Route 39 Academy in Devon. He describes his work here. If you scroll down his blog you'll see some detailed resources for a project he has done in Spanish on drugs legislation in Uruguay. It looks very interesting and is just one of a number of cross-curricular MFL projects he has developed.

A second example is that of French teacher Noémie Neighbour who has done a French/History project on the French revolution with Y9 pupils. Her detailed scheme of work for the project is here.

Pachler et al report that the approach adopted by most teachers in the UK seems to be a "weak" version of CLIL, where lessons still adopt a traditional Presentation-Practice-Production model with some focus on forms and structures. (This is the case with Noémie Neighbour's project, for example.) But the focus tends to be more on vocabulary and learning strategies rather than grammar.

This, of course, is the stumbling block for most language teachers who would hesitate to take on the CLIL approach. It is not easy to combine it with a syllabus design built on grammatical, "lock-step" progression. Teachers are used to using artificially written texts (audio and written) which allow for selection and grading of language material. The kind of resources you might use in CLIL are more likely to be authentic or adapted authentic, with a far less tight control of grammatical and lexical input.

Does this matter? Well, that depends on your view of language acquisition! If you believe that meaningful, motivating input is the key to acquisition you are likely to be more sympathetic to CLIL. If you believe that focus on grammatical form, selection and grading are vital, you may be more sceptical.

My own feeling is that, in the secondary school context, the traditional, form-focused approach may make more sense for most pupils if you are aiming at long term proficiency. We know that that approach works with many students with the right timetabling and good teaching. I do think, however, that even within that paradigm you could build in some CLIL. At my former school we regularly included in our scheme of work an end-of-Y9 project on the developing world and charitable associations using, as our starting point, the excellent 24 heures dans la vie d'un enfant (alas no longer available online). Activities included web searching, researching about child sponsorship, comprehension questions from charity websites and fund raising.

I can also envisage CLIL being a useful model for those pupils who are unlikely to continue with languages for very long and for whom the traditional drip-feed, form-focused approach is futile. Why not let the focus be on interesting content, vocabulary building and a more bilingual approach?

Teacher commitment to the approach is another vital ingredient. I would imagine that most language teachers, brought up on form-focused, PPP approaches are a little uncomfortable with CLIL, feeling that it is wishy-washy and distracting from the main task of serious language learning. Maybe those teachers could take a few more risks. After all, as I mentioned at the outset, it's what we do at A-level. Could we bring a bit more of that focus on really interesting content into KS2-4?


Coyle, D, Hood, P. and Marsh, D. (2010) CLIL: Content and Language Integrated Learning. Cambridge, C.U.P.

See also the FLAME (Future for Language as a medium for Education) inititiave from the Association for Language Learning..


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