Language and subject: A balancing act

January 25, 2016


If I would have to name the single biggest question most (new) CLIL teachers have with CLIL it would be: How do you balance language and subject in a CLIL lesson? They might even think the subject content of their lesson would become less important.

That is simply NOT true.

Let me explain.

CLIL abbreviation

The CLIL acronym stand for Content and Language Integrated Learning. We all know that (right?).

What is the first word? Indeed. Content. It still is the most important part of CLIL, heck, of every lesson.

Yes, every CLIL teacher is a language teacher. But that does not mean you have to work on grammar every lesson. I know I don’t.

I am a subject teacher first and foremost. Mathematics is what I teach. English is next. I teach a language and subject,

Language as something ‘extra’

A lot of teachers think that in a CLIL lesson you have to teach your subject and the target language. As an added bonus of sorts. Extra.

Apart from the fact that I don’t have time to spend half of my lesson on English assignments, I am not trained nor well suited for this type of education. I don’t have any plans of taking over the English department and don’t want the extra work of having to create all kinds of new assignments.

So what can you do?

So, positive approach people: no more “I can’t” or “It’s hard”. What can you do?

  • Integrate language in your instruction: Mention key words, ask for new words, explain a new phrase etc.
  • Providing feedback on language: As an example, I always start drawing trees when students mispronounce the three. Works every time.
  • Create student generated word lists: Don’t want to create a word list? Let the students do it themselves! Just let them scan for words in the new chapter and when you are finished with the chapter, ask if they still have words they don’t know.

Five quick ways to integrate language

For those of you who are still wary, let me help you with three activities that integrate language and subject. And please allow me to share two more language focused activities, for those moments you do have some time left over at some point.

  1. Brainstorm

Used to activate prior knowledge at the start of a new topic, this exercise is quite often used in regular teaching as well. Write down one phrase and let your students think of anything that might be linked to this. They are using their second language and are exploring the new content. Win-win!

2. What did we do?

Ask your students to summarize the lesson in one sentence. It is a quick check for understanding and a great moment to talk about language a little more. You can make this assignment easier by scaffolding it, f.e. providing a sentence starter.

3. Create the question

Let your students create questions for each other. This can be a linear equation or a question regarding a text. Anything works. To make the task even more exciting, mention you want them to create test questions. To make sure they don’t create impossible ones, also ask students to write down the explanation and/or answer on a separate paper. Afterwards, students discuss and help each other.

These two focus a bit more on language, but are still great activities to do. Every now and then.

  1. Alphabet

I discussed this one more thoroughly in a previous post, but the short version is: let your students complete an alphabet with as many different words as possible. A great way to end a lesson or a lesson series, with the added bonus that students realize what they have learned!

2. Bingo

At the end of a lesson, lesson series or chapter, ask your students to name the top five most important words of that topic. You mention the ones you think are most important et voila, you used language and figured out any misconceptions regarding new phrases! Do make sure to let them explain the words themselves.

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