CLIL: The good, the bad and the not so ugly

Since getting involved in CLIL a couple of years ago, I have heard quite mixed opinions about its effectiveness and, unfortunately, most of them have been negative. Teachers understandably ask themselves: “How can I teach a subject to any decent standard when half the students don’t understand the language I am communicating in?“ or “How can I teach my subject through English when the students speak it better than I do?”.

In this post we’ll have a look at what CLIL means, what it involves and how it can be implemented. We’ll also give you some tips to help you put it into practice. 

CLIL stands for ‘Content Language Integrated Learning’. In everyday language this means: Subject matter and Language are being taught at the same time. 

As a teacher you may be aware of the language point being used but the students’ attention isn’t drawn to it. Instead, the students’ attention is drawn to the subject matter in hand. Whether it’s maths, history or art, it is the subject that the students see but you, the teacher, see the bigger picture and guide the learners to use relevant vocabulary and structures.

The 4Cs Framework

Before we take a practical look at the implementation of this approach, let’s consider some of the theory behind CLIL. One of the underpinning principles of CLIL is the 4Cs framework.

Adapted from Coyle, D. (2005)

  • Content – Progression in knowledge, skills and understanding related to specific elements of a defined curriculum.
  • Communication – Meaningful and interactive use of subject specific language in oral and written forms.
  • Cognition – Developing thinking skills to enable students to express their thoughts and ideas (abstract and concrete).
  • Culture – Exposure to alternative perspectives and shared understandings, which deepen self-awareness, as well as awareness of others.

The CLIL practitioner should try to incorporate all of the 4Cs into each lesson in some shape or form.



Depending on the level of the students and external expectations (teacher, organisation, curriculum, etc.), the teacher will implement a BICS or CALP approach, or a combination of the two.

  • BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills) are the skills needed for social,conversational situations, such as repeating greetings and matching words and pictures.


  • CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) is the level required for academic school study, such as justifying opinions, making hypotheses and interpreting evidence.


BICS is great in primary education and CALP is what we are aiming for in higher education.

Hard CLIL vs. Soft CLIL

My first real exposure to CLIL (or AICLE as it is known here in Catalonia) involved training Catalan and Spanish primary and secondary school teachers. In the group there were teachers of science, history, art and maths. These teachers, professionals and experts in their field, were expected to teach their subject through a foreign language, in this case English.

This is known as Hard CLIL (hard being the operative word!), but together we identified ways of realistically bringing English into the classroom, within the capabilities of the teachers and the students (see Tips for implementing CLIL below).

That’s one side of the coin: science and history being taught through English by non-native English speaking teachers. The first language (L1) cannot be denied and English is not going to be perfect but this is certainly going to increase the students’ confidence in using English when talking about the subject matter. This is certainly an advantage for the students if they choose this subject for their future studies.

As part of the Clil4U project the Swiss team has produced six videos showing CLIL in classes making use of some of the CLIL scenarios: Watch all six videos

The other side of the coin is known as Soft CLIL, which is when topics from the curriculum are taught as part of a language course. An example of this is when English language teachers are employed to teach an unfamiliar subject but through ‘perfect’ English. This is just teaching English in disguise, but it’s not a bad thing. It can be very motivating and is ideal as an extra-curricular activity. However, particularly in higher education, it generally doesn’t provide in-depth learning of the subject.

So, what am I getting at? I think today’s teachers can be guided and supported to bring additional English into the classroom. For those children, the L1 is always there and should be used to support the learning process. It’s important that the children don’t feel lost; at the end of the day, it is the subject (not English) that is the main learning objective.

Unfortunately, in mixed ability classes, some children will feel left behind. While to some extent this is unavoidable, as educators we can limit this by providing learners with as much scaffolding and support as possible.

Tips for implementing CLIL:

  • Core language: If a teacher doesn’t feel very confident with English, identify relevant vocabulary and language to be taught in a certain lesson and stick to that. For example, in an art class describing paintings, the students could be guided to use the present continuous by completing ‘sentence stems’.
  • Use of L1: Let the children teach. The teacher could do the presentation of the subject matter in the L1 and the students give repeat presentations but in English. The teacher will have to make sure they are equipped with adequate language to do this task and could provide worksheets on which students match expressions in the L1 on one side of the page with the same  expressions, but in English, on the other side of the page.
  • Assessment: Exams can be provided in English and the L1. A student chooses the exam they would rather do and gets marked accordingly. This is initially extra work for the teacher but we hope school directors will recognise this and make allowances in teachers’ timetable or pay.
  • Functional language: Have fixed phrases around the classroom and insist on their use.

– Can you help me / us with …, please?

– How do you say … in English?

What does … mean?

– I don’t really understand.

– Could you clarify?

– I’d like to learn more about …

– I agree / disagree because…

– In my / our opinion…


As a final remark, I hope the CLIL approach is given credit and will be accepted by teachers and students alike. I say this not only because of my own personal interests in CLIL, but because I see it as a way of opening up so many more doors in our children’s futures in this evermore globalised world.

Coyle, D. (2005) Developing CLIL: Towards a Theory of Practice, Barcelona, APAC.

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