CLIL Science: Overcoming the Barriers

Do you remember your high school days?

If you’re like most of us, each class was taught in a separate room. You went to math class, then down the hall to another room for English. When the bell rang, you hopped over to another wing to learn about chemistry or physics.

Each class was firmly separated in terms of blocks of time, as well as by geographical location.

Even in university, the separation remained. STEM subjects (like math and science) were completely separate and distinct from language and other humanities.

You were never thinking about science when you were in a language class. The two disciplines had nothing to do with each other.

Then you got older…and realized that in real life, it’s different.

Disciplines like science and language are deeply intertwined. Each of them flows naturally into every aspect of our existence.

Turn Your Class into a Real Language Lab with CLIL Science

So, why do we teach science and humanities as if they were separate entities?

What if I told you that you didn’t have to?

Let me introduce you to the beauty of CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning).

It’s a method which opens up the artificial doors between different disciplines and allows us to teach science and language in a way that brings the two subjects together.

This all sounds wonderful, of course. But in a practical sense, it’s not that simple.

If you long ago declared your allegiance to language teaching, unfamiliar subjects like science can seem intimidating.

And with good reason. The last time you studied science was probably back in high school.

But there’s no need to feel intimidated about the brave adventure of fusing science and language together in a CLIL lesson.

We have some tips, tricks and resources to help you overcome your inner fear of science so you can teach it in a way that enhances your language instruction.

How Language and Science Are Related

Before we go any further, it’s helpful to understand the many connections between these seemingly unrelated content areas.

Yes, you read that correctly—they’re connected.

What’s more, the barrier between language and science only exists in our imaginations.

In reality, each discipline enhances and deepens the other.

Here’s how.

Verbal description is part of the scientific method

Teaching your language students how to accurately describe things is a huge part of meaningful instruction.

You spend a lot of time teaching them different ways to describe things like color, size and texture. But often this instruction feels disconnected from the world outside your classroom.

After all, how many times in daily life are your students really going to make statements such as the car is blue or my friends are tall?

This kind of observation doesn’t bear much resemblance to real conversations you hear on the street.

But when you’re teaching the scientific method, accurate description is everything.

It informs your hypothesis, observation and interpretation of results.

The ability to communicate whether something is solid, liquid or gas, whether it has changed size or changed color, it’s length in inches or centimeters are all essential to the scientific method.

Without language, there is no scientific method.

And if that didn’t blow your mind, consider this: The two can easily be taught together.

Science and language require a collaborative approach

Both science and language are hands-on disciplines which encourage students to work together to reach specific goals and objectives.

A lab experiment only works if you have a team, each of whom is assigned different roles. And language only functions if you have two or more people who can communicate with each other.

Whether you’re building scientific knowledge or building a conversation, the process requires intense collaboration and teamwork.

The language of science helps enrich language as a whole

Science itself contains its own specialized vocabulary which draws on elements that are common to multiple languages.

For example, the root word “therm-” is used to describe heat in English, French, Spanish, Greek and a wide range of other languages. Interestingly enough, science has a number of words like this. As such, scientific vocabulary could even be considered a kind of “universal” language, helping remove the confusion of language differences and providing common ground for communication.

Science and language bridge cultural and linguistic barriers

No matter what part of the world you’re in, DNA cells function the same way, ecosystems are in precarious balance and gravity has the same effects. These phenomena do not change.

And the need to communicate exists no matter where you are.

The study of science and language are both ways to surmount the barriers that divide us.

It’s easy to see ways in which science can enhance your language instruction. But how do you put that into practice, especially if science is really not your forte?

You Don’t Have to Be a Scientist to Teach Science

Don’t let your insecurities about science get in your way! You can get around them with a few easy steps.

Team with a science teacher if possible

Find a co-teacher with whom you share a similar schedule and similar teaching philosophies with. You’ll both learn a lot from each other, enriching your professional learning as well as that of your students.

Besides, you encourage your students to collaborate when you provide them with a solid example of how to do it.

Focus on the visual aspects of both disciplines

Tables, charts, photographs and videos are powerful ways of teaching scientific concepts and specialized vocabulary.

By combining visuals with a simple verbal explanation in the target language, you can teach the science lesson and target vocabulary in one fell swoop.

Encourage student participation and collaboration as much as possible

It’s quite possible that some of your weaker language students might have a particular strength when it comes to the study of science. They may already have a solid foundation of scientific knowledge and skills. This is a rare opportunity for these students to shine, so let them do it! You may even find that they’re able to teach you a few things.

Always stay at least one step ahead of what your students are learning

It’s not realistic to expect that you’ll acquire expert knowledge of biology, chemistry and physics overnight. But do try to stay just a little bit ahead of where your students are. They can’t trust you to lead if you don’t know where the group is headed.

These are some good general guidelines for teaching CLIL science. But what are the real nuts and bolts of making a science lesson work in your classroom?

A Few Tips to Get You Started

Here are some practical suggestions for teaching CLIL science on a day-to-day basis in your classroom.

Activate prior knowledge

Start each class with a review of what’s already been learned. Also, look for connections to what your students experience or see every day.

Are you starting a unit about how the body converts food to energy? Begin by having students talk about how they feel after eating certain types of food.

Are you teaching them about marine life? Ask students to share their experiences of exploring beaches during their vacations.

Use this knowledge as a springboard for the lesson or unit, making both the topic and the language more relevant and accessible for your students.

Speak slowly and enunciate vocabulary clearly

Remember, you’re teaching science to language learners. The words you use to convey your lesson are as essential as the lesson itself, so don’t rush over them.

Take your time to go over unfamiliar words, and make sure your students hear them clearly and accurately.

Use visuals as much as possible

Whether it’s a drawing showing the different parts of a plant or a graphic organizer outlining the differences between solids, liquids and gas, make use of visual aids whenever you can. Almost any topic is easier to understand with simple visual cues. Pictures and graphs can be labeled with target language vocabulary to facilitate learning in both disciplines at once.

Provide scaffolding as needed

Let’s be honest: CLIL is going to be challenging for both you and your students.

And the best way to handle a challenge is by offering support when needed, while still knowing when it’s the right time to turn your students loose to study on their own.

Check in with your students frequently to make sure they’re not getting lost amidst all these challenges. Provide supplementary materials and plenty of individual feedback and guidance.

While all of these tips are effective for teaching any type of content, they’re essential when covering CLIL science. This rings especially true when paired with engaging activities that put your students in the middle of the learning experience.

This way, students can improve their practical language knowledge through interactive exercises and authentic content. As such, your students will receive a balanced education that allows them to speak about everything from science to pop culture confidently and more accurately.

Activities to Enhance Your CLIL Science Lessons

But what kinds of learning exercises work best? Here are two ideas that you can use to bring your CLIL science lessons to life.

Interview a scientist


Microsoft’s unique “Skype a Scientist” platform makes it easy for you to invite an expert in any field from any part of the world into your classroom to speak. Interviews take the form of a 30-60 minute Q and A session. Your “visitor” can give you a unique view of their research, as well as offer further insight into their language and culture.

Use graphic organizers and worksheets

As you may already know, many students are visual learners. They learn better with photographs, charts, tables and drawings than with verbal or written explanations.

In language teaching, you already utilize this knowledge by presenting vocabulary through body language, video and images. In science, visual learning can be presented with the help of graphic organizers.

Graphic organizers allow your students to organize new information in a visual way. For example, they can box things together in categories based on whether they are plants/animals, or solids/gases/liquid. Or they can create a Venn diagram, allowing them to instantly see similarities and differences among objects or ideas.

Filling in a graphic organizer gives students ownership in visualizing and organizing their new knowledge. By doing this, key vocabulary can be easily combined with scientific concepts.

Resources You Can Use

Of course, if you don’t have much experience in teaching CLIL science, you might feel overwhelmed at the thought of finding good resources. Don’t worry; we’ve got you covered.

Here are a few helpful online resources for teaching science to language learners.

Platforms for CLIL collaboration

You can find support and inspiration from fellow CLIL educators on these online platforms:

Lesson planning resources

  • Network 2 CLIL Lessons provides reading passages and activities in PDF format. These can at least give you ideas when creating your own lessons for your target language.


Looking for helpful worksheets that can be modified to accommodate your target language? Check out:

  • iSLCollective provides a variety of activities for learning about the environment.

With all these great ideas and resources, there’s nothing to hold you back!

So go forth and conquer the classroom using CLIL science.

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