CLIL - Some Problems and Some Solutions

by Flavia Zappa

An English teacher at Italian Secondary School for over twenty years, Flavia also has experience in teaching General English and ESP to adults and in preparing students for Trinity and Cambridge exams. Since 2005 she has been training Italian Primary School teachers, and in the last few years has been involved in planning and co-teaching Physics CLIL courses. In 2010-11, she followed a Delta Module Three course with Business Talk, presenting CLIL as her specialist subject. Here she discusses some of the issues which need to be taken into consideration when planning and teaching a CLIL course.

What is CLIL ?

CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) is “a dual-focused educational approach in which an additional language is used for the learning and teaching of both content and language” (Mehisto, Marsh & Frigols, 2008:9). In practical terms, this means that a curricular subject, such as geography, mathematics or any other generally non-linguistic subject, is taught and learnt through the medium of a foreign language. The European Commission, which is strongly supporting the introduction of CLIL in secondary schools, sees in CLIL the opportunity for greater “exposure to the language without requiring extra time in the curriculum” (Commission of the European Communities, 2003:8) and a way of improving the otherwise generally poor results of language teaching.

Ball, (n.d), describes two possible approaches to CLIL :

1. The “strong” or “content-driven” approach is for some writers the only possibility. (Coyle, Hood & Marsh, 2010:1). In a strong approach, the syllabus is dependent solely on the specific subject-content. There is no language grading, and language is introduced as and when it is necessary for the topics to be studied and the tasks to be performed, in a “just in time” approach.

2. The “weak” or language-driven” approach, on the other hand, will take account of more traditional language grading and modify content and tasks to suit the current language level-

However, in practice, classroom research shows that CLIL can take various forms and be positioned at any point along this continuum. And in addition to the “strong/weak” continuum, differences may be caused depending on whether the CLIL course is of low or high intensity”(according to the number of lessons per week), and short or long-term (referring to the duration of the course) (Mehisto et al., 2008:12).

The need to integrate the teaching of both content and language means that the identity of the teacher and the competences s/he possesses becomes a major issue. CLIL is generally implemented in formal educational contexts, but content teachers, who are supposed to be the CLIL teachers, may not be proficient in the target language, while language teachers may have problems with content. At primary level, language and content demands may be more easily coped with, but at secondary level they are usually high and difficulties relevant. Both language and content teachers can also encounter problems with methodology (Deller & Price, 2007:6,7) since three types of methodology have to be taken into account : the methodology of the specific subject; the methodology of language teaching; and, in particular, the specific methodology associated with CLIL.

To be successful, a CLIL course is probably built around pedagogical and academic tasks engaging students in learning by doing, which comprises acting, observing and reflecting on the data collected, while exposing them to the target language . This should lead to affective and cognitive involvement and, as a consequence, to better learning. Learning by doing will consist of concrete experiences related to IT or laboratories, as well as experimentation with oral and written text types focusing on both comprehensible input (Krashen, 2002), and comprehensible output (Swain, 1996). “Comprehensible input” involves exposure to a language which is comprehensible because of the context, but which is at a slightly higher level than the learners’ competence and should automatically promote acquisition. “Comprehensible output” implies that the learners “need to be pushed from semantic into syntactic processing mode by requiring them to encode comprehensible messages” (Dalton-Puffer, 2007:261).

The 4Cs Framework and the Role of Language

But how does the integration of content and language actually work? While belonging to the tradition of the Communicative Approach, CLIL finds its identity in the 4Cs framework. Coyle et al. (2010:41-43, 54-56) explain that dealing with content (subject matter) means creating knowledge and understanding, and developing skills. This process relates to cognition (learning and thinking processes), which cannot exist without communication (language learning and using). The fourth element is culture, meaning the development of intercultural understanding and global citizenship. The major issue is therefore to identify the language necessary for effective content and language learning, to specify thinking skills, and at the same time to plan the development of self-awareness and responsible citizenship, which may be promoted through projects inside the school, but should greatly benefit from school/materials exchanges with foreign classes.

Research into Content-Based Instruction, e.g. Immersion Education in Canada, supports the assertion “that in formal educational settings, second languages are best learned when the focus is on mastery of content rather than on mastery of language per se” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001:209). However, the CLIL language should be seen as “language of, for and through learning”, which corresponds to the language necessary to access information and develop skills, to operate in a foreign language environment, and to interact in the classroom to articulate understanding respectively (Coyle et al, 2010:36-38). In other words, students need to develop not only “Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills” (BICS) i.e. “skills needed for social, conversational situations” but also “Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency” (CALP), i.e. the abstract and formal language needed for academic study (Cummins, cited in Bentley, 2010:8). This means understanding and learning to use grammatical structures, functional language, and a great quantity of vocabulary, which is “content-obligatory”, or specialist, and “content-compatible”, or general but topic-related (Bentley, 2010:11). This is why it is strongly recommended that the design of a CLIL course starts from an analysis of the language of the curricular subject. The course designer can then create tasks and activities suitable for focusing on the target language as well as on the subject content.

But what happens if the language demands of the task are simply too high for the learners? Is the use of the L2 always compulsory? While Mehisto et al. (2008:105-106) support the teacher’s consistent use of and encouragement to use the target language, Coyle et al. (2010:15-16) argue that in some CLIL forms “translanguaging”, i.e. “the systematic shift from one language to another for specific reasons”, may occur.

This use of code-switching has a number of positive effects : it contributes to lowering students’ fear of failure; it allows the development of academic language proficiency in both languages; and it ensures spontaneity when discussing course results.

A Constructivist Approach for Cognitive Challenge

Learning content and language at the same time undoubtedly represents a cognitive challenge. For the subject content, learners need to develop specific operating skills such as solving problems, together with low-order and high-order thinking skills such as describing, classifying and matching (LOTS) and analysing, interpreting and applying (HOTS) (Bentley, 2010:21). And all this has to be done in a language which is not their own.

Inevitably, this may cause anxiety and demotivation stemming from fear of failure. To combat this, the literature suggests an emphasis on short-term learning goals to build student confidence, and highlights the students’ need for support within their individual “zone of proximal development” (Vygotskij, 1978) - that is, “the distance between what they can achieve alone and under guidance” (Gibbons, 2009:15).

This is also why theorists advocate, alongside learning by doing, a constructivist and participatory approach, based on the idea that learning should start from the present state of knowledge and develop out of social interaction (Dalton-Puffer, 2007:7-8). This means that in schools, such as many in the Italian state system, which often encourage individual performance goals, it might be necessary to train teachers and students to develop the ability and a willingness to either plan or participate in activities developing collaborative study skills. Pair- and group-work become essential in most steps of the CLIL class, from vocabulary learning to content analysis and processing.

This change means that the role of the teacher in a CLIL course is not so much that of “knower”, but rather that of learning facilitator and of manager of interaction (Dalton-Puffer, 2007:24). Interaction in CLIL, whether oral or written, should not be limited to typical discourse pattern of many classrooms, in which the teacher initiates by eg asking a question, the student responds, and the teacher then follows up, often by evaluating (McCarthy,1991:16). but should involve students in genuine discourse aiming at discovering and mastering meaningful content.

Authenticity and Grading of Materials and Tasks

When planning a CLIL course, we will probably find that there is a lack of suitable ready-made materials. It is therefore our task to produce them. Authentic texts, whether videos or written presentations accompanied by visuals, are highly motivating and offer the opportunity to develop a multicultural dimension. If they are too difficult, they can sometimes be simplified or, rather, “scaffolding”, i.e. interactional support (Bruner, Wood & Ross, 1976), can be provided and task grading applied. For this purpose, the CLIL Matrix adapted from Cummins (1984) by Coyle et al (2010:43-44) is a useful tool which enables the teacher to balance linguistic and cognitive demands, generally aiming to avoid either low or high cognitive demands on both content and language at the same time, and thus to prevent demotivation being caused by tasks which are either too easy or too difficult

The matrix consists of four quadrants organized as follows:

  • Quadrant 1- LOW linguistic demands and LOW cognitive demands

  • Quadrant 2 – LOW linguistic demands but HIGH cognitive demands

  • Quadrant 3 – HIGH linguistic demands and HIGH cognitive demands

  • Quadrant 4 – HIGH linguistic demands but LOW cognitive demands

While the level of quadrant 1 is only suitable for building initial confidence and may be used as a warm-up, it is essential to focus on quadrant 2, which ensures that “the language of the learner does not impede learning” (ibid). The level of quadrant 3 seems to be appropriate only when learners show they can cope with a targeted progression in language learning as well as with high cognitive challenge. Finally, quadrant 4 refers to a transitory step which aims at promoting the learning of language which is essential to progress in content learning (ibid).

When preparing materials, we can create some which exclusively deal with vocabulary learning, e.g. pre-teaching vocabulary (Quadrant 4), but we will generally focus on those where content and language learning is really integrated (Quadrants 2 and 3). Here attention to vocabulary (pronunciation, spelling, collocations) and grammar structures (use, meaning, and accuracy) may be ensured by:

  • teacher-led brainstorming for language activation

  • pair- or group-work for content-processing during which the teacher scaffolds and corrects language

  • teacher-led classroom talk during laboratory activities or at the end of academic tasks

  • creating gap-fill, matching, ordering, and open question tasks for authentic materials or for the teacher’s explanations, alongside content-focused activities

The Challenge of Learning Assessment and Course Evaluation

The principle of the integration of the four Cs causes testing problems too. Field research (Hönig, 2010) studies the difficulty of distinguishing beween content and language proficiency, and questions the appropriateness of traditional testing tools. School policies inevitably require formal testing, which in CLIL should be content-based with a score considering both content and language performance. Marking by the different teachers separately and then together, if the course is co-taught, would ensure an acceptable degree of scorer reliability (Hughes, 2003:43), but may still cause problems as for face validity, i.e. “surface credibility or public acceptability” (Ingram, cited in Alderson, Clapham & Wall, 1995:172), as the results will not reveal whether a failure is due to language or to content difficulties or both.

On the other hand, although testing must be done and reliable ways found to measure the results, recommendations are given regarding monitoring for formative assessment (Mehisto et al., 2008), which, according to general good practices, will consist, among others, of self- and peer-correction, self- and peer-assessment, and the creation of a portfolio. This should give the students greater confidence and provide more reliable data, because it can measure individual progress and check a wider range of competence.

Course evaluation is a related issue. Here the ideal path to follow would seem to be Action-research, i.e. “the systematic collection and analysis of data relating to the improvement of some aspect of professional development” (Wallace, 1998:1). However, if this is too big a challenge initially, it would sufficient to start by devising and implementing tools to monitor the quality of CLIL teaching and learning, such as student questionnaires at the end of each module to evaluate the felt effectiveness of the activities and teaching action. On the other hand, teachers’ self-assessment could involve writing a diary to record their perceptions about the lessons, their own problems and progress, and their impressions about the impact of activities on the students. The analysis of the collected data should give on-going crucial feedback, which should serve the purpose of improving the present course and probably of planning more effective future ones.


Will CLIL become the standard language learning method of the future, at least in the educational system? Starting from the coming academic year, (2012-2013), the Italian State school system will introduce CLIL courses in the third grade of “Liceo Linguistico” (the Secondary School specialising in foreign languages), and this will be continued in the fourth grade the following year, before being extended to the fifth grades of all types of Secondary School from 2014-2015 onwards. My teaching experience shows that CLIL has the potential to enhance motivation for language learning by rendering its purpose more authentic. It also seems likely to produce better learning results, especially when students feel they lack aptitude either for the language or for the content subject, as they can rely on their strengths in the other field to compensate for their difficulties. I also believe that the focus on content will affect curricular language teaching positively, since it seems to increase the teachers’ and students’ ability to create meaningful learning contexts for more genuine interaction.

In the long term, therefore CLIL may well become successful common practice in formal education, provided that teachers are given opportunities for learning, experimenting, and collaborating.


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