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CLIL: Benefits, Challenges and Opportunities

In the last few years, there has been increasing interest in the instructional approach known as Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL). The acronym refers to situations where subjects, or parts of subjects, are taught through a foreign language with dual-focused aims, namely the learning of content and the simultaneous learning of a foreign language.

Proponents of CLIL list several key benefits for students: increased motivation; meaningful use of English to reach immediate, real-life goals; development of multicultural awareness; and preparation for future studies and work in a global context.

Teachers from subject-area backgrounds and teachers from language backgrounds face different challenges in the CLIL classroom. In the typical subject-area classroom, teachers are responsible  for covering a large quantity of facts and   information required by the school curriculum. Often, the most efficient delivery system involves a lot of lecture and explanation from the front of the class.  In the language classroom, on the other hand, teachers make student interaction a priority through pair and group work  to provide maximum production opportunities for students. They take the time to scaffold their students’ learning in a variety of ways and  provide a variety of opportunities for repetition and extended practice.

Another challenge for potential CLIL teachers centers on their own  knowledge in two areas—school subjects and the English language. Subject-area teachers are confident in their command of facts, but they may feel their own English language skills aren’t sufficiently developed to teach in the language, and they may have little understanding of second language acquisition. Language teachers understand how students acquire a second language, but they may lack confidence  in their command of content areas such as history or science and how to teach them.

Clearly both sets of teachers will benefit from rethinking their usual practices to some degree in order to adjust to the specific requirements of the CLIL classroom.

Effective CLIL teachers attend to functional communication, form and meaning, and corrective feedback:
(1) Teachers facilitate exposure to lesson content (input) at a level of challenge just beyond the learners’ current abilities. They carefully select and adapt their texts in advance and provide needed scaffolding.
(2) They facilitate meaning-focused processing through assignment of tasks that involve learners in constructing meaning, check for accuracy of meaning, and provide support and feedback if meaning has been insufficiently
(3) They facilitate form-focused processing by raising learners’ awareness of certain language features and by employing implicit techniques such as clarification requests or recasts, or explicit techniques such as direct teacher correction or peer correction.
(4) Teachers facilitate student response (output) by encouraging peer interaction in the target language, by asking for reactions, and by assigning written practice.
(5) They facilitate the use of receptive and productive compensation strategies to solve problems with language, content, or communication.

Sample CLIL Science Lesson: Magnification
(a 50-minute lesson for 28 second-grade native Spanish speakers)
Science Content Objectives:

  • to understand magnification and distortion
  • to describe properties of mirrors and water
  • to understand the role of light in magnification and distortion

Science Process Skills:

  • to compare and contrast properties of mirrors and water
  • to develop a hypothesis
  • to observe an experiment to see if water can act like a fun house mirror
  • to describe a sequence of events
  • to determine cause and effect
  • to take notes and record data

Language Objectives:

  • to ask and answer questions
  • to use content-related and scientific vocabulary
  • to use the language of speculation and cause & effect

Learning Strategies:

  • to access prior knowledge
  • to ask for clarification
  • to predict
  • to collaborate cooperatively
  • to draw conclusions


 act like, distort, newspaper, smaller,bend, distortion, outwards, spoon,big, drop, plastic, step (s),bigger, enter, procedure, stick, cause, experiment, reflect, surface,change, fishbowl, report, tall,clear, fun, house, short, text,curve (d), light, size, water,direction, magnification, slow, down,distance, mirror, small
Can water act like a fun house mirror? If so, why?
What will happen?
I think _________ will happen because _________.


(1) The teacher begins by reminding students of a rhyming poem they read yesterday about a trip to the Fun House and the different mirrors there. She holds up illustrations and repeats the poem as students listen. Then she has them repeat the poem with her as she points to the corresponding pictures. She asks questions about the mirrors: How many mirrors are in the Fun House? Are they all the same? How are they different? What effect do the mirrors have? The class discusses the poem, illustrations, and answers questions.

(2) The teacher passes around a large, shiny metal spoon. Students look at their reflections in the back of the spoon. The teacher encourages the children to say how the spoon is like the Fun House mirrors in the poem: the children’s reflections are distorted, just like the reflections in the mirrors.

 (3) Next, the teacher poses the research question: Can water act like a fun house mirror? If so, why? She has the children gather around as she conducts an experiment. A page from a newspaper is covered in transparent plastic. She carefully drops ONE large drop of water in the center of the clear plastic. (The curved drop acts as a lens.)

(4) Holding the drop of water on the plastic about an inch or so above the newspaper, she invites the children to look down through it. What do they think they will see? What do they see?

(5) The teacher allows students to experiment with single drops of water of different sizes held at different distances from the newspaper. What do they observe? How does the text change each time? Students report their observations in small groups.

(6) Next the teacher holds up a clear fishbowl full of water. She invites the children to predict what will happen when a student holds the fishbowl in front of his face. The students call out their predictions and then they watch as the student holds the fishbowl in front of his face. The teacher asks if the boy’s face is bigger or smaller, and explains that the water has magnified and distorted his face. All the students take turns holding the fishbowl up to their faces and describing the results.

 (7) Last, the teacher puts the fishbowl about half full of water on the desk and puts a stick at an angle into the water. Students look down into the bowl. The teacher asks if the stick looks different, and if so, how and why. Students in pairs work out their ideas and then share them with other pairs.

 (8) The teacher writes any of their ideas that have relevance on the board, and then explains, using gestures and board drawings to scaffold her explanation: As light enters the water, it slows down. If the surface of the water is curved, it bends the light in a new direction. The curve of the water sends the light outwards, and as it gets bigger, it causes magnification. Students listen to the explanation again, repeating the key ideas out loud. Then they retell what happened in pairs, and finally, write a summary report using sentence frames the teacher writes on the board.

(9) For reinforcement and family involvement, the teacher assigns replication of the experiment with a spoon and a glass of water at home, followed by a written report.

 Through content-rich instruction such as the science lesson above, students learn and use language in an immediate  and meaningful way. The target language is the vehicle through which they meet social and academic needs, employ learning strategies and critical thinking skills, and expand and display their knowledge of curricular content.


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