clil classroom

7 Questions to Consider Before Constructing a CLIL Classroom

Are you looking for a new way to teach?

Something that’s exciting for both you and your students?

And which produces impressive results when it comes to language learning?

Transform your traditional language classroom into a CLIL classroom!

The following seven questions and answers are your handy blueprint to designing CLIL-based lessons—from what it is and why it works to what your lesson plans will look like.
 

 

7 Questions to Consider Before Constructing a CLIL Classroom

1. What is CLIL?

CLIL stands for Content and Language Integrated Learning. The term was created in 1994 by David Marsh and Anne Maljers, although the basic methodological approaches had already existed for some time.

Essentially, CLIL is similar to content-based instruction (CBI) and language immersion in that you learn the target language along with specific subject matter. For example, you might study (or teach) history, geography, culture or literature in and through the target language, thus learning both a specific academic subject as well as a new language, with appropriate vocabulary and grammar introduced to go hand-in-hand with the content subject.

In this way, CLIL is able to meet its most important objective: It allows students to use the language as they learn it, rather than learning it for use later in life.

2. What are the benefits of having a CLIL classroom?

CLIL allows for a classroom with two equal goals: the learning of a foreign language and the learning of specific content, giving you and your students a two-for-one academic punch!

Why is this beneficial to language learning?

Students become more motivated when they learn specific content in additional to learning a specific skill. In real life, learning is not done in a vacuum. Students bring in a variety of skills, backgrounds and approaches to learning pretty much any academic subject. However, in a traditional language classroom, much of this outside experience is pushed aside, as students concentrate on learning practical language-specific facts, which, in turn, they piece together to become more and more proficient over time.

In a CLIL classroom, though, students are able to use their outside knowledge of specific content subjects to better understand the subject at hand, while also working out how to function in a new language. Language study is no longer separated from other academic subjects. Because our students want to learn more and more content, they are motivated to learn more and more language, and therefore their motivation for language learning increases!

Many of our students come to our language classrooms to learn a new culture along with the language. This is perfect because the content we teach in a CLIL classroom—history, literature, geography—is itself full of culture! By teaching these subjects in their own language (i.e. Russian history in Russian, French literature in French, German philosophy in German), we teach our students the cultural and societal significance of these subjects while using the language that native speakers use. Our students learn these topics as speakers of the language might learn about these topics in their own countries.

Finally, teaching in a CLIL classroom is challenging for our students. They have to learn two new topics—specific content and a foreign language—all at the same time. But there’s nothing wrong with a good challenge. Our students did this when growing up; no one is fully proficient in their first language before their formal education starts, so both content knowledge and linguistic knowledge grew together naturally, and they never even realized it!

By the time they get to a CLIL classroom, your students are more cognizant of this merger. And educating them through this methodological approach will build their confidence, as they will clearly see that it’s cognitively beneficial. Specifically, students learn to reason and think critically in a foreign language by studying content-specific topics in that very language.

3. What are the four C’s of CLIL?

The essence of CLIL can be summed up by the four C’s: content, communication, cognition and culture. Each of these is a basic component in every CLIL lesson.

Content refers to the basic topical knowledge being taught to and learned by our students in any given lesson. We must carefully define content for our students: What will we teach? What will they learn? What are the teaching and learning objectives?

Communication means that our students will need to produce both written and oral subject-related language by the end of each particular lesson. In order for them to do this, we must carefully consider what language and grammar they will need to work successfully with the content, including any specialized words or phrases.

Cognition signifies that in any particular lesson, our students should develop critical thinking skills and use the content knowledge by being challenged both linguistically and by the subject matter at hand. This often entails coming up with questions beyond traditional content questions. Think about what you want your students to ponder and query, and how they are going to be able to get to that point.

Culture is what unites the four C’s together. It means that our students are learning both about themselves and their culture, broadly defined, while studying another culture, equally broadly defined. In this way, they discover that communicating with “the other” is easier and more effective than if they were to just learn the language alone.

4. What are the essential features of a CLIL curriculum?

What are the methodological cores of CLIL? What types of materials do we need to gather and use, and what do we need to do in the classroom to have a learning environment where the CLIL approach can thrive?

First, we should strive for authenticity in the materials that we use. There will always be those times when we need to create some material on our own, but for most topics, there are plenty of authentic texts available—written, audio and visual—if only we know where to look. Our task is to make those authentic materials appropriate for the level that we are teaching. All input, remember, must be comprehensible input, or else our students will not be able to learn from that material.

Second, we should engage our students in active learning. Students have a role in their own education. Again, there are times when you may just have to stop and explain a grammatical topic, but the bulk of your CLIL lessons should be designed so that your students can work in pairs or small groups in order to work through the material themselves. Ultimately, it’s the students who should be doing most of the communication in a CLIL classroom.

Third, the CLIL classroom should be built around the principles of scaffolding. New knowledge should be supported by pre-existing and previously learned knowledge, for both content and language. This means that language and content should build upon each other and upon what was previously taught and learned. This often means finding ways to repackage old information to meet the needs of learners with different learning styles, so that everyone is able to learn to the best of their abilities.

Finally, CLIL teaching, unlike traditional language teaching, is rarely done alone. Because so much is required in a high-quality CLIL classroom, teachers should work together in a cooperative fashion to gather and create materials, and to decide how best to use them effectively in the classroom. Moreover, not every instructor will be an expert in every content topic, so you can work with your own strengths and help and receive help from your colleagues in areas that you don’t know as well.

5. How do you know if you’re already a CLIL teacher?

You might already be a CLIL teacher and not even know it!

Does some of what’s been written here sound familiar? Odds are that you already do some content-based education in your language classroom, so much of this isn’t entirely new; you’re simply doing it under a different name.

For example, perhaps you have taught a target-language FLAC/CLAC section along with a content-based course in your students’ primary language. Perhaps you have created mini-units to introduce your students to specific historic or cultural knowledge you know they need to learn before going abroad. Or maybe you have taught a bridge course to bring your students from an intermediate-level knowledge of the target language, gained in a traditional language classroom, toward the advanced-level to prepare them for higher-level content-based courses, taught entirely in the target language. And some of you might teach in a bilingual school.

If so, you have already introduced CLIL-like work into your classroom.

The advantage of CLIL, though, is that you are able to introduce content from the earliest of language levels and for an entire course.

6. What is the role of the instructor in a CLIL classroom?

Developing and teaching in a CLIL classroom is challenging for teachers, since not all of us will be readily familiar with both the target language and the content subject matter to a high degree of proficiency. In fact, it’s rare to find an instructor who can function readily in both without a great deal of preparation; instructors tend to either be content experts or language experts. How can you be sure that you are prepared for this approach? And what should you do in the classroom?

Remember, cooperation was one of the key C’s in the CLIL approach. This means that you should always be willing to reach out to other teachers, whether it be to learn from them, to teach them or, more than likely, do both!

In some cases, team-teaching might be the best approach to take in a CLIL classroom. One instructor would be primarily responsible for content, while the other would be primarily responsible for language. While both instructors should be at least somewhat comfortable with both (for example, both instructors should be able to operate in the target language to some level), neither instructor has to be fully proficient in and able to explain both content and language.

How do you create an effective team? There are a couple of options: You could pair a content instructor and a language instructor, much as happens in a FLAC/CLAC pairing, but here they are operating in the same space. Another option is to look outside for a native speaker to come into the classroom and help with the language portion of instruction.

Regardless of the type and number of instructors in a particular classroom, what should you do you once you’re there? Essentially, take a quiet, back-of-the-classroom role. CLIL instruction is student-centered instruction, meaning that the materials should be created in such a way as to allow our students to work through them in pairs or in groups, with minimal input from the instructor.

True, you will always have to step in to check work, to keep students on task, to indicate that it’s time to move on to another exercise or question. You will, of course, answer questions and explain, sometimes content, sometimes language, but you should do your best to keep this to a minimum. The majority of the available speaking time should be taken up by your students, and you should use the first language only when absolutely necessary for clarification.

Don’t worry if it doesn’t work the first time. Most great teachers have stories of grand failures the first time they tried something new. Just as our students are asked to learn from their mistakes, do the same—tweak your materials and come back another day!

7. What are the key elements of a CLIL lesson plan?

In order to have an effective CLIL classroom, you need to have an effective plan for each and every lesson.

First, you can take CLIL’s three A’s approach—analyze, add and apply—to finding appropriate content-based materials and preparing them for classroom use.

Once you define what content you will teach, analyze the content to determine what language will be needed for learning to take place; this is the language of learning.

Next, find a way to add to content language the appropriate language for learning. At this stage, you will need to take into consideration learner strategies, classroom talk and task demands.

Finally, give your students the opportunity to apply what they have learned in order to assure that learning has taken place; this is language through learning.

If you’re an experienced language instructor, you might already be familiar with the essential elements of quality lesson design and how a good class unfolds. Keep in mind that with CLIL, you have to make room for content knowledge as well as language practice.

  • You should start with checking previous knowledge, perhaps through a brief quiz or oral questions.
  • Then give your students an opportunity to practice their content knowledge, perhaps by explaining what they have read at home to each other.
  • Third, give your students a chance to expand their vocabulary, either by directly presenting new words or giving them the opportunity to discover meanings within the context of the content readings.
  • Next give your students an opportunity to consolidate this knowledge, combining the old with the new by using the new vocabulary and any new grammatical constructions you decided to introduce.
  • Fifth, allow your students to summarize their skills, by giving them an opportunity to deduce meaning, not of words but of ideas, in context.
  • Follow this with an opportunity to apply this new knowledge by posing opinion- or discussion-based open-ended questions, rather than simple factual questions.
  • Conclude the lesson with time to check or correct errors; up until this point, you have been concentrating on content over correct language, except when needed for clarity. Now is your opportunity to present, discuss and fix any errors, which, in turn, will help your students to achieve higher levels of proficiency by helping them to gain accuracy.

With these seven questions in mind, an eighth and final question to ask yourself is are you ready for the challenge of creating a CLIL classroom? If so, why not find some quality content material, take a chance and see if it works for you! I would love to hear how it turns out.


Jonathan Ludwig has 25 years of foreign language teaching experience. He has successfully directed language programs, taught and mentored current and future teachers, and is always looking for new and exciting ways to engage and educate his students.

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