Kill CLIL Activities: How to Truly Integrate Content and Language

Two birds with one stone. Sounds easy enough.

The founders of Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) must have thought so too.

Why teach one world history class and one French class when you could teach both at the same time?

Whether you’re a language teacher or a subject teacher asked to take on a CLIL course, it may be a few days before you find your groove.

But once you do, you’ll see that content and language is a match made in heaven.

Start with these tips on how to think on your toes and accommodate speakers of all levels without veering from the course subject.

Why Use CLIL Activities?

  • The interactive nature inherently makes language learning feel more relevant.
  • They foster true bilingualism by letting students achieve goals in their new language.
  • They emphasize fluency and application.
  • They work for all ages and skill levels.

The Teacher’s Checklist for Creating Killer CLIL Activities

1. Adapt learning level while preserving authenticity

CLIL is inherently authentic because it stays true to language’s raison d’être: being a tool for communication. However, if teachers aren’t careful, their courses can easily slip into the realm of content-based learning—a respectable approach in its own right, but not what we’re after here.

Content-based learning activities let students complete real-world tasks in the target language. In a CLIL class, language is always employed as a tool for completing the “real-world task” of learning the course topic.

If you need to adapt your coursework to respect the lower speaking levels of your students, there are ways to do so without switching to language-teaching mode and losing that language-content blend that makes CLIL special.

What does this look like?

In a classroom of nearly-fluent speakers it may be possible to do an activity or assignment only once. In a class with lower-level speakers, you’ll have to mix it up, adapt the activity and maybe even repeat it. These adaptations can take infinite forms. Here are a few:

Illustrations: If your activity involves text, try using books with illustrations. Pictures help students better grasp what they’re reading and more easily follow along. Nowadays there are some excellent comic books for adults that handle complex material in a simple way. You can also check out Great Illustrated Classics or similar lines of illustrated novels.

Subtitles: Consider watching videos with subtitles in the target language so students can read as they watch. Many videos have subtitles already built into them, and some are completely interactive such as those from FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

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If subtitles aren’t available or they are still too difficult for your students, hand out a transcript of the video so that they can read through during or after their viewing.

Huddles: Whether your follow-up to an activity is a presentation or a worksheet, let students take five minutes to discuss it with the people sitting next to them. This gives them the opportunity to address points they may not have understood.

The idea is to adapt activities without going off-topic. We’ll go deeper into this in the next section on scaffolding.

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2. Know your scaffolding techniques

Scaffolding is a technique common in language classes that helps prime students before an activity. It’s essentially a form of pre-teaching that makes a task more accessible.

Scaffolding is a broad strategy and there’s no one way to carry it out. The trick is to break down the lesson into bite-sized pieces. It doesn’t matter how many times you have to break down and simplify a lesson as you “scaffold” your way to the final goal.

This strategy of building up to an activity slowly through complementary exercises can also be used in CLIL classes.

What does this look like?

Let’s say that at the end of your CLIL literature course your students will have to write a six-page essay comparing two of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In a normal English class you would probably just assign the essay and assume the students were capable of completing it.

Review: In a CLIL class, assuming comprehension is particularly risky. To ensure that they’ll be able to ultimately complete the essay, first check to see if students understand the sonnets you’re reading. At the end of each sonnet, have the class work in groups to summarize the meaning of the sonnet and its metaphors, writing down a short summary in their “sonnet journals.”

Reference: By the time the final essay rolls around, students will have a journal to reference while writing their essays. Having some piece of reference material is always great, but having one that they themselves created is even better.

Apply: You could have students underline challenging vocabulary from each of the sonnets and then write their own sonnets incorporating the words they underlined. You could even ask them to act out the sonnets.

This all qualifies as scaffolding. You’re preparing students for their final project and they don’t even know it.

3. Put language acquisition before language learning

Humans learn to speak naturally without an awareness of grammatical rules, intuitively understanding what’s correct and incorrect. This is language acquisition.

Language learning on the other hand is carried out through focused instruction and isn’t necessarily communicative. CLIL employs language acquisition, the strengths of which are numerous and include:

  • Using time effectively, since students are simultaneously learning a subject and a language.
  • Working well for all ages and skill levels.
  • Making grammatically-complex languages like Russian or Mandarin Chinese more approachable because it doesn’t require students to memorize grammar rules.

What does this look like?

You’ll need to constantly check yourself to make sure you aren’t slipping into language teacher mode. Remember that with CLIL you’re becoming a subject teacher who happens to be teaching in the target language.

Here’s what you can do to keep your activities safely wedged in the sphere of language acquisition.

Goals: Define clear goals for each activity that aren not linguistic. This ensures that the language is being used authentically to complete a larger task and that learning the language is not the task itself. Passing out a fill-in-the-blank worksheet is handy because, although you’re evaluating comprehension and reiterating vocabulary, you’re ultimately checking subject knowledge.

Simplicity: Don’t over-adapt or over-scaffold your way off track. Stay true to your curriculum, adapting as you go and only when needed. For example, assign a book report like you would to a normal class and just change the level of the reading material to match. If you stick to authentic subject-learning goals and don’t put too much emphasis on the fact that it’s a CLIL course, you’ll end up preserving the CLIL language acquisition model.

Language acquisition activities in a CLIL geography classroom are almost identical to activities you would find in a normal geography classroom. In both cases, students are learning a subject through the medium at hand: the classroom language.

4. Find the right content-language ratio

CLIL classrooms allow for twice the learning. For a new teacher, this can sometimes feel like twice the work. Early on, it’s important to find that sweet spot that supports the perfect language-content ratio.

That perfect ratio is different in every classroom and achieving it depends on your incorporation of points 1-3: authenticity, scaffolding and acquisition.

In general, a lower language level will mean a higher emphasis on language in the classroom. Higher language levels will be able to handle more content and a decreased focus on language.

CLIL courses usually focus on one subject at a time. Students can therefore acquire the language necessary to function in that context more quickly than in the real world where there are endless “subjects.”

What does this look like?

Focusing more on language doesn’t mean breaking out the grammar worksheets or verb tense exercises. Instead, slow down, stick to the subject matter and build up your students’ vocabulary along the way.

Pacing: In some ways, the content-language dilemma is really about pacing. Set realistic goals that don’t exhaust students linguistically. A class at a lower speaking level won’t be able to cover a subject as extensively or as quickly as one at a higher speaking level.

Normalcy: Try your best to remember it isn’t a language course. If students don’t understand the terminology, employ the same learning strategies you would to teach it in a normal classroom. Play a game of jeopardy focused on the course topic, use handouts that incorporate the core vocabulary or review the definitions provided for each textbook chapter before beginning. If you feel like you’re slowing down too much, encourage students to use dictionaries in class.

Follow-up: Never take it for granted that students are understanding everything. Get in the habit of asking follow-up questions to measure comprehension and pump the brakes if necessary. You can do this more often for lower-level speakers. Checking in like this helps you find out if you’re favoring content too much.

Flexibility: Adapt your teaching as you go. If it seems like students are struggling to understand, start keeping a vocabulary key on the board for them to reference throughout the day. An advanced class may not need this and you’ll be able to focus on content without emphasizing language, vocabulary and comprehension as much.


Now you’re ready to take control of your CLIL activities.

Keep these four points in mind and just go for it!

Natalia Hurt is a travel and language enthusiast who enjoys studying the connection between people and places from all corners of the globe. Explore her travel-inspired essays and photos here:

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