What is CLIL?
CLIL is an innovative teaching methodology practised in schools all over Europe. The name is an acronym, standing for Content and Language Integrated Learning, and should be more than familiar to primary and middle school teachers across Italy.
The aim of CLIL is to teach a specific subject in a second language, while allowing students to simultaneously develop their key language skills, these being speaking, listening, reading, and writing. While there is no fixed blueprint for us to follow, our objective as CLIL teachers is to simplify the content, theme, topic, etc. of a typical lesson, e.g., history, geography, science, technology, and repurpose it to meet the students’ needs as language learners. CLIL can be used to teach just about any foreign language – provided the necessity to learn – but for the purposes of this article, I will be drawing upon my experiences of teaching young English learners.
CLIL works best in a bilingual/multilingual setting, where students can also receive help in their native language. This might seem counterproductive, but in practice, it better facilitates comprehension. Miming and eliciting can only take you so far when a succinct explanation or comparison will clear up most misunderstandings. Most of my CLIL lessons, but not all, tend to revise topics that students have already covered in Italian, which provides much of the necessary scaffolding they need.
Equally, CLIL demands functional learning spaces, active learner engagement, and reams of creativity and ingenuity. Then again, it is equally important to lower our expectations, as progress is often slow, and students should be allowed to learn at their own pace. Italian children studying the taxonomy of animals or daily life in Ancient Egypt, for example, should not be expected to talk at great length about these subjects in English, although, more often than not, they will surprise you.
History of CLIL
While the name CLIL was first coined in 1994, in Europe, similar teaching practices trace their roots back to around 2300 B.C.E, when the Akkadians of Mesopotamia conquered neighbouring Sumer (modern-day Iraq) and united all their separate city-states under one vast empire. Evidence shows that, after seizing victory, the ruling Akkadians wanted to learn the local language (likely to facilitate communication and to ease political tensions), and so Sumerian and cuneiform were used to teach an array of subjects, ranging from astronomy and engineering to botany and zoology.
Moreover, the Romans used bilingual textbooks as a means of introducing their language and culture to subjects of distant provinces, while Latin was also used as the language of instruction in European universities for centuries; although, Latin in academia tended to favour first- rather than second-language development.
The precedent for the popularity of CLIL should be obvious, considering how English-speaking au pairs and private tutors are frequently sought after by parents wishing to expose their children to the language from an early age. The same can be said for virtually any other foreign language, be it French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, etc. – the secret is immersion. Furthermore, CLIL these days is breaking ground not only in traditional education, but also in vocational settings.
CLIL for primary and middle schools is especially effective for a plethora of reasons, as we will learn. The methodology is considerably more flexible than alternative approaches to language teaching, although, ever since its conception in the mid-nineties (if not the schools of Ancient Sumer), CLIL has crystallised into something far more concrete – a truly cutting-edge teaching method for modern classrooms.
Core Features of CLIL
Not only is CLIL a multi-faceted teaching approach, but a quality change agent based on learner centricity, autonomy, and competency-based learning & teaching. The core features of the CLIL methodology are as follows:
- Immersive environment
- Helps students in both their native and target languages
- Regular connection with students’ lives / interests
- Builds a sense of class community & rapport
- Planning between CLIL teachers and subject teachers
- Work with parents to support students’ learning at home
- Builds confidence in the target language
- Consolidates subject knowledge
- Unique experience for students
- Many cross-curricular projects & themes, e.g., history & geography, science & technology
- Learn in tandem
- Subject-language integration
- Builds on existing subject knowledge
- Challenges students to consider their own learning
- Process of continued practice and development
CLIL in Theory and Practice
What does CLIL look like, at least, in theory? There are no wrong answers, but, as I see it, CLIL is a process of deconstruction, discussion, and above all discovery. In practice, however, a typical CLIL lesson might materialise in any number of forms.
To reiterate, there is no real blueprint to follow, and I strongly believe that every class must find its own rhythm and application of CLIL principles. Easier said than done, this realisation occurs gradually, through trial and error, while the overall success of CLIL depends heavily upon the relationships you build with your students. Not merely as a collective, but as individuals with their own strengths and limitations.
Engaging with young learners in this way – showing an interest in their lives and opinions – not only builds a strong rapport, but also encourages mutual respect, both of which go a long way to maintaining discipline in the classroom.
For the past two years, I have had the pleasure of teaching mixed classes of Italian, Spanish-speaking, and Ukrainian primary school children – it can be a real handful keeping everybody happy at times – but ultimately, CLIL has provided them with a supportive and nurturing milieu in which to learn and grow as English speakers. They have told me time and again that CLIL is interesting, beautiful, so cool, etc., and this is not due solely to the content – with which the students should be somewhat familiar – but rather, the immersive and engaging learning environment that CLIL fosters.
The obvious benefits of CLIL are that English teachers get to teach the language in a novel way, to expose students to new ways of thinking, as well as to improve their command of more difficult, less interesting – dare I say – boring subjects like verb tenses. Young learners especially lose focus, and their attention spans dwindle, when material is too dull or difficult to comprehend, which is why simplification is the key to maintaining engagement. Be sure to tailor materials to each class level, while making time to nudge students out of their comfort zones from time to time. Remember, CLIL requires considerable balance, both in terms of material and in practice, and can require considerable outside-the-box thinking.
As for what a CLIL lesson looks like in practice, I try not to overwhelm my students with too much information all at once, especially when starting a new topic. Instead, we might open with a general discussion of the content before watching a video or reading a simple text (bear in mind that level appropriate CLIL resources are in short supply; many of my materials are often heavily edited if not created from scratch).
During this part of the lesson, it is almost always necessary to pause intermittently to ask and field questions, break down the language, make inductions, elicit answers, check comprehension, and so on. Then, I usually give them a worksheet, or set them a group task and/or practical activity to keep their brains ticking over before finishing with a final review, e.g., a Kahoot quiz, WordWall game, speaking activity, etc.
Pros & Cons of CLIL
It is important to note the limitations of CLIL, so that we, as teachers, can devise appropriate solutions. In the long run, students will benefit greatly as they learn to express themselves in fresh ways – and to speak about unfamiliar topics – although, individual abilities can vary dramatically from one student to another, which is why teachers should be sure to stimulate the entire class, while also making time to challenge those students who want to be challenged, wherever possible.
CLIL can be as challenging or as carefree as it needs to be, but, despite its rather unique drawbacks, it is never unrewarding. Then again, we also should not consider CLIL as an outright replacement for general English studies. In my experience, CLIL works best in tandem with dedicated English lessons with a focus on practical, everyday language use. After all, if students still struggle to string a sentence together about their daily lives, we should hardly expect them to wax philosophically about the Bronze Age Collapse or the decline of the Roman Empire.
In any case, CLIL has the potential to transform how and what students learn, but that all depends on how teachers apply it in practice.
Strengths of CLIL
- Builds fluency and vocabulary
- Freedom to be creative
- Fun and interesting
- Immersive learning environment
- More interesting than general English
- Suitably challenging
Limitations of CLIL
- Demanding in terms of prep time
- Functional classrooms essential
- Not a replacement for general English classes
- No fixed blueprint to follow
- Precious little material available
- Results take time, progress not always obvious
CLIL Materials & Resources
The scarcity of tailor-made CLIL resources and teaching materials presents a considerable obstacle for teachers to overcome, that is, to identify appropriate worksheets, presentations, games, activities, etc., for use in class. If we consider the frightening deficit of CLIL material in wide circulation, a lot of potential resources should first be edited and/or revised completely, and if the trail runs cold, then the solution is simple – create something from scratch. Not as difficult as it sounds. This could be something as simple as a worksheet or presentation, or it could be a meticulously planned competitive group game or practical class activity. The advantage of CLIL is that it allows teachers great freedom to choose how they teach a subject, and with the right amount of creativity, the possibilities are endless.
While readymade materials may be in short supply, there happen to be several incredibly useful CLIL textbooks on the market, namely:
- Coyle, et al., CLIL: Content and Language Integrated Learning (CUP: Cambridge, 2010).
- Dale & Tanner, CLIL Activities: A resource for subject and language teachers (CUP: Cambridge, 2012).
- Grieveson & Superfine, The CLIL Resource Pack (Delta: Illinois, 2012).
- Mehisto, et al., Uncovering CLIL: Content and Language Integrated Learning in Bilingual and Multilingual Education (Macmillan: Oxford, 2008).
However, as is the case with most textbooks, these are not guidebooks. The onus is always on the CLIL teacher to adapt materials and plan each lesson according to the students’ needs. In many cases, you will be expected to share material ahead of time with the subject teachers, some of whom will give you free reign to teach whatever you want, whereas others will expect you to follow their example more closely.
Practical CLIL Lessons
Finally, here are some ideas for practical CLIL activities that have gone down particularly well with my primary school students in the past:
- Baking soda volcano – requires baking soda, vinegar, plastic bottle
- Capillary action experiment – requires celery, food colouring, water
- Light & shadow experiments – how do light & shadow work?
- Treasure hunt in the park/garden – search for plants, animals & minibeasts
- Model of a cell – teaches the geography and contents of cells
- Model of plant reproduction – helps to put vocabulary into context
- Newton’s disc – how does light & colour work?
- Paper aeroplanes – teaches principles of aerodynamics
- Water cycle diorama – helps to put vocabulary into context
- Chinese calligraphy – steady hands needed, could get messy
- Decoding Egyptian hieroglyphics – write and translate into English
- Design a Phoenician/Greek trireme ship – fun, creative, interesting
- Design a personal ‘Standard of Ur’ – encourages students to consider the defining aspects of their lives – if not War & Peace, then what about School & Family or Friends & Hobbies?
- Make an Egyptian papyrus – requires liquid glue, coffee, and gauze bandages
- Make a sarcophagus, pyramid, Sumerian chariot, etc. – takes time, students should follow step-by-step instructions with teacher’s help
- Build a papier-mâché mountain range – multiple lessons needed, way to involve all students, regardless of ability
- Route planning with Google Maps – works better in familiar areas
- Treasure hunt using a real map – lots of fun, group activity, always under teacher supervision
- Design a robot / useful machine – encourages students to use their imaginations when it comes to problem-solving
- Build a model house of the future – this speaks for itself
- Levers and pulleys activities – teach the principles of weight and distribution
- Group presentations – teamwork and cooperation required
- Make a class video – interview students about their favourite subjects
Learning timeline – make a display poster charting all the different topics studied as a class, multidisciplinary connections, e.g. history & technology.