The concept of CLIL and ways to use it in the ESL classroom

Defining CLIL: What is CLIL and How to use it in your ESL classroom

Defining CLIL: What is CLIL and How to use it in your ESL classroom


  • Teaching qualifications
  • Tips & Strategies
  • Methodology

The abbreviation CLIL is becoming more prevalent in teachers' conversations.  But what does it mean? And how can it influence the conduction of your ESL classes? This is something we are going to discuss in this article. 

What is CLIL?

People noticed that they got the knowledge about the language rather than experienced a clear implication of it; and these are essentially two absolutely different things.

David Marsh

And this is where CLIL comes to life.

The abbreviation CLIL, or Content and Language Integrated Learning, refers to an instructional strategy that involves teaching students a new topic in a language that they do not speak.

Through CLIL, they not only acquire a second language but also information about a subject that is unfamiliar to them. 

The method is considered to be not CLIL if the students already obtain some knowledge of  the material. 

It is crucial for CLIL to integrate the new language and the new learning material to make the strategy a success. The good  news is that you can cover any topic that you want or find appropriate.

To sum up, CLIL refers to circumstances in which topics, or portions of subjects, are taught in a foreign language with dual-focused goals, namely the simultaneous acquisition of a foreign language and the learning of content.

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On the history and popularity of CLIL

Although CLIL is a more recent name, the method is as ancient as learning itself. Even if they weren't aware of it, everyone who studied and practiced a foreign language while learning or practicing something else – such as literature, cooking or science – was doing that with the help of CLIL.

The approach has also been popularized since the 1960s – the rise of various study-abroad programmes where foreigners were supposed to interact with certain unknown topics with the help of the foreign language.

In the middle of the 1990s, as people, institutions of higher learning, and governments began to recognize the value of multilingualism, David Marsh and Do Coyle coined the term CLIL. The movement, which grew globally in response to globalization, was particularly prominent in Europe.

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What are the main principles of CLIL?

Context-based language learning

Both the subject content and the communication setting in which the target language is learnt are provided by CLIL.

Every word, phrase or collocation becomes immediately applicable and significant. The terms are always relevant and vibrant, as students get to know them as soon as they need them. 

Of course, such a situation is a dream both for teachers and students because it is definitely incomparable with vague word lists that leave students uncertain about any possible scenarios where they will need it. 

Why is it so?

David Mash states that students who think about learning the language tend to be more stressed about their achievements as they come to class with the complex system of their own beliefs, fears, hopes, expectations or even prejudices that they have formed throughout their life and their prior experience with the language.

However, if the teacher manages to switch students’ attention from learning about the language to learning through the language about something else, this is where we have a chance to get a freer, less tense and more productive working environment.

Natural language learning

The way students learn the language with the help of CLIL has a lot of similarities with how children learn their first language. 

We often forget that our first language hasn’t been learnt through extensive grammar instruction, for example. On the contrary, we have acquired it naturally somehow. And this is something CLIL tries to implement too. The ability to understand language comes before the proper application of rules here, and therefore there are hardly any grammar lessons in CLIL. 

CLIL is also aware that making mistakes, making educated guesses, and negotiating meaning are all necessary parts of learning any language. 

That is why a lot of attention is paid to preserving the natural flow of learning through the context rather than interrupting it every time the mistake occurs.

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Establishing ties between the language learning and the desire to know

CLIL is especially beneficial if you struggle with motivating your students.

CLIL effectively directs students’ interest to certain topics and ties it with the process of language learning. 

This is how language learning doesn’t seem such a challenge anymore, as students’ focus doesn’t stay solely on the process of language acquisition but also naturally shifts to the new interesting information which is taught simultaneously. 

Cooperation or knowing more than a language

However, such a duality of the learning process undoubtedly makes the task of teaching much more complicated: the teacher has to be proficient both in the language and the topic that is presented. 

That is why it’s not rare to share the class with a fellow teacher who can assist with some specific knowledge. Still, it is not a must if you have mastered a number of course topics as well  as English.

How does CLIL function?

Now, as we know what CLIL is and what its principles are, we may look closer at how CLIL works:

  • Language proficiency becomes a tool for learning the new topic which may have no or little connection to the language rules. 
  • The extensive curriculum includes language rather than focuses strictly on it.
  • Natural language acquisition and interesting context which is supposed to be comprehended with the help of English increases students’ motivation and helps to improve learning.
  • The exposure to the language increases, so students can learn a language by seeing it in the context of everyday life. 

There are even more principles to know about. For example

  • After 5-7 years in a strong bilingual program, students achieve academic English proficiency, so long-term studying is a must.
  • Making mistakes on the way to fluency is inevitable when learning a new language. That is why in CLIL English language learners gain proficiency through meaningful conversations, which are meant to develop the natural understanding of the basic grammar through constant exposure to the well-developed examples and the need to reproduce them.
  • The strong emphasis on reading and listening tasks is an integral part of CLIL.

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What are the aims of CLIL?

In general, all CLIL programs strive to expand students’ subject-area expertise while also enhancing their knowledge of and abilities in the target language, but various courses may have their own additional and unique aims. 

Moreover, such classes usually bring together people with different backgrounds and experiences, so it’s a chance for students to develop their own learning skills and learn to respect other cultures and backgrounds. 

However, during some special courses, they may also study with the people from their own field, so it will definitely be a great opportunity to practice speaking on topics related to your students’ work or studies.

What are the pros of CLIL?

For sure, there are a number of advantages that make CLIL  an attractive option for the lesson. Here are some of them:

  1. Language  proficiency is gradually increasing
  2. According to David Marsh, CLIL can even strengthen the L1
  3. A lot of authentic materials are constantly used 
  4. The motivation of the students grows because of their interest in the topic
  5. It gives a space for global and local cooperation and increases the  competence of both teacher and students in various fields at the same time
  6. Students tend to be more flexible and better at problem solving and critical thinking as well as analyzing authentic materials and making some conclusions based on what they have read or heard.
  7. Students get more practice in expressing their opinions on various topics using a foreign language. 

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What are the cons of CLIL?

When learning a new language, learners may first become confused since they must concentrate on both the subject matter and their foreign language abilities.

Through homework, group projects, and classroom discussions, students will ultimately settle into a rhythm where nothing will seem out of the ordinary or overly challenging. 

The teacher should increase their understanding of the intended subject in order to provide appropriate teaching materials and deliver lessons effectively. Naturally, the CLIL instructor will need to devote a lot of time to this, especially if there aren't  any ready-made educational materials.

That is why there are two main disadvantages of CLIL:

  1. It may seem too hard and unexpected for the students, so the teacher has to pay more attention to the proper instructions, make clear explanations and simply wait till students get used to the CLIL classroom;
  2. It is challenging to organize such a lesson because teachers often lack proper materials, tend to cooperate for the lesson and generally spend more time organizing this type of learning.

Who is CLIL the most appropriate for?

For students

CLIL can be advantageous for almost every sort of learner. 

It has been applied to people of various ages and skill levels. This does not imply that every student will succeed in a CLIL class, just as not every student succeeds in every class. 

However, don’t be afraid of experimenting, as the reasons why CLIL class might not be someone’s cup of tea are  a matter of taste, not the effectiveness of the strategy. 

For teachers

Preparing and conducting CLIL courses can be time- and energy-consuming. 

A good CLIL teacher is someone who is dedicated to the methodology and who works hard, is enthusiastic about their students, and is committed to the approach. 

A CLIL teacher should also have excellent communication skills and flexibility, since working with the subject-area teacher is crucial. A CLIL teacher is also supposed to have excellent research skills in case they are going to conduct the lessons on their own. 

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Within various subjects

Although practically any topic may be taught using a CLIL method, those that encourage student collaboration and contain a cultural component are the best options.

The social sciences, the arts, and certain sciences like biology and chemistry are a few examples. According to CLIL professionals, due to their technical character, Math and Physics, for instance, turned out to be much less suitable for a CLIL approach.


So, as we can see, CLIL is a super interesting and engaging way to conduct the lesson. However, it is rather challenging at the same time. If you feel lost and don’t know where to start, join our community of professionals and get more valuable recommendations.

CLIL may only have its focus on language acquisition.

It’s much harder to conduct a CLIL lesson.

Article authors & editors
  • Arina Kravchenko

    Arina Kravchenko


    Teacher of General English & IELTS



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