Is CLIL for second language learners only?

January 21, 2019


Why do we focus on second language only?

The publications and books on CLIL always focus on second language acquisition. But one might argue that the CLIL methodology can also be applied to a first language lesson.

When this was discussed in the CLIL Community Facebook group, an interesting discussion ensued. In this post I want to share my opinion and explain my reasons.

Some information in this article has been published before in an article in CLIL Magazine Spring 2016, written by Rick de Graaff.

Estimated time to read this article: 8 minutes

What is CLIL again?

Before anything can be said related to CLIL in a different setting, a couple of things need to be clear. 

The most obvious first thing we need to agree on is: What is CLIL?

I already shared my opinion on this, but please allow me recap it shortly:

CLIL is motivating students to actively engage with a second language

Yes, I know, in my 'definition' of CLIL I also mention the second language.

End of discussion?

Not, not just yet!

I care more for the actual application of CLIL in a lesson. In my opinion a CLIL activity contains of two elements:

1) A language element (preferably output)

2) A engaging element

If these two elements are present, I would argue the activity is CLIL.

For the record: you do obviously need subject specific goals as well. There can be no CLIL without content.

Now that my approach to CLIL is clear, let's move on to the next important thing to be aware of.

Key Take Away

CLIL is about two things: integrating language and engaging activities

The CLIL student, a typical student? (level, motivation)

Is a CLIL student the same as 'any' student? Can we compare CLIL students with 'regular' students and determine similarities and differences?

Rick de Graaff mentions in his article: "Several researchers such as Bruton (2015) in Spain and Rümlich (2014) in Germany claim that CLIL students are usually preselected for cognitive abilities and/or motivation."

In my personal experience, this happens in The Netherlands as well. Simply because schools argue CLIL education is a little harder compared to regular education, the least we can ask is a little bit of motivation to put in the extra work.

This means comparing the two can be tricky, because the latter group may have lower cognitive abilities or be less motivated.

Key Take Away

CLIL students and 'regular' students are probably different, so comparing them 1:1 would not be fair.

Teachers' opinion on the use of CLIL

As a CLIL coach, I talk with teachers a lot about how to use CLIL in a lesson.  

Often we come to the conclusion teachers already use a lot of CLIL, without realizing it.

Even more so: they use these activities in a regular, L1 lesson already.

When I changed schools a couple of years ago and started teaching in L1 again (Dutch in my case) I noticed I could still use a lot of activities and ideas I used in my CLIL lessons before.

Rick de Graaff mentions the same in his article: "many CLIL teachers - who may also teach their subject to mainstream classes in L1 – come to realize that language plays an important role in content teaching and learning in any language context."

Key Take Away

Lots of teachers experience CLIL pedagogy to be effective in their L1 lesson as well.

Influence of L2 on the subject

A question that quite often appears when teachers start working with CLIL is: do I still have time to focus on the subject?

I find this to be an interesting question, because it suggests teachers need to focus on language as if it is unrelated to the subject.

CLIL stands for Content and Language Integrated Learning.

The two things have to be combined.

Yes, I sometime use language activities in my lesson, because I think they are fun.

But also because I think students need them to develop their subject language.

Think about all of the subject related words and phrases students have to study for your subject in L1.

You need to support that language as well, don't you?

Whenever I explain the properties of a "perpendicular bisector", the explanation in Dutch or English would be the same. ​

Students in both L1 and L2 lessons have no idea what it is and need scaffolding and instruction in order to understand.

Rick de Graaff als mentions this in his article: "many subject teachers in CLIL contexts experience that they are co-responsible for the language development of their pupils (de Graaff et al., 2007). They are aware of the fact that it is through language that pupils learn subject knowledge. This is what Coyle (2007) has called ‘language for learning’. On the other hand, it is also through content learning that pupils develop language: ‘language through learning’."

My conclusion from this part of the article is: Language is not so much a goal in and of itself. It is an integral part of your teaching.

Or, as Phil Ball has said before:

"We did not invent language as a subject until we started schools.

Before that, we just used it."

Key Take Away

Language is a vehicle, a tool. Not the goal.

It should be treated as such.

Applying CLIL activities to your L1 lessons

Okay, so if CLIL means focus on engaging activities (which I think is just good teaching) and keep an eye on the language element, does that mean CLIL teaching can be used in any L1 setting as well?

Rick de Graaf concludes: "Bilingual education as such is no guarantee for
increased motivation. Perhaps it is effective CLIL pedagogy that supports motivation development, as it stimulates pupils to be active, interactive, reflective and language-conscious. If CLIL pedagogy is indeed effective, it should be of use for any teacher and any class, in bilingual as well as in monolingual education."

In other words: yes, CLIL pedagogy can be applied to L1 education.


This does not mean you can just copy-and-paste. 

Just like with your CLIL lessons, you should think about how to approach the language elements of your lesson. 

This can be by asking students to identify difficult words, focus on actual words during recaps or even asking for the explanation of words in tests.

I am always a little shocked whenever I check tests and ask for explanations of certain key phrases. There are always students who do not know the words. This in turn means they have no idea on what they are doing. 

That scares me a little and only proves the importance of language involvement.

Key Take Away

Language is important in L1 lessons as well.


My opinion is: CLIL can certainly work in an L1 lesson. The two main focus points of CLIL (engaging activities and the involvement of language) can and should be applied in regular L1 lessons.

Rick de Graaff concludes his article with a comparison: 

"If subject learning is about travelling through and discovering new territories, then language would be the transport type we can use for this purpose.

Let’s take a bicycle, for instance.​

Riding a bike is a skill that has to be developed, but once you can do it, you won’t forget it anymore.

Children learn to ride the bike with the support of their father or mother.

Practice makes perfect. 

Cyclists can train in the gym as well. But for a successful trip or a joyful discovery one needs to be prepared for and used to the specific environmental conditions. ​

Such a preparation is best realized through cycling in the countryside: learning by doing.

But also by doing by learning: it is both the countryside as a context for bike riding, as well as bike riding as a tool for travel and discovery.

And most importantly, perhaps: it is about the joy of cycling, whenever you are
able and willing to appreciate the countryside and the weather (whatever its conditions).

You see more when you enjoy the ride.

You enjoy more when you are well prepared."

Now you understand the image used at the beginning of the article 😉


Graaff, R de (2016) Integrating content and language or the art of riding a bicycleCLIL Magazine Spring 2016, 12-13

Bruton, A. (2015). CLIL: Detail matters in the whole picture. More than a reply to
J. Hüttner and U. Smit (2014). System, 53, 119-128.

Rümlich, D. (2014). Prospective CLIL and non-CLIL students’ interest in English
(classes): A quasi-experimental study on German sixth-graders.
In R. Breeze, C. Llamas Saíz, C. Martínez Pasamar, C. Tabernero Sala (Eds.), The integration of theory and practice in CLIL (pp. 75-95). Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Graaff, R. de, Koopman, G.J., Anikina, Y, & Westhoff, G. (2007) An observation tool for effective L2 pedagogy in content and language integrated learning (CLIL). International
Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 10 (5), 603-624.

Coyle, D. (2007). Content and language integrated research: Towards a connected research agenda for CLIL pedagogies. International Journal of Bilingual Education
and Bilingualism, 10 (5), 543-562.

Image designed by Freepik

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  • The definition of CLIL (according to definitions in the well known dictionaries) is: ”Content and language integrated learning: the use of a language that is not the students’ first language to teach another subject such as science or history”. In this respect, we cannot consider teaching a subject in L1 (the native language of the students) a CLIL lesson.
    According to the Handbook for Teachers TKT CLIL ( published by Cambridge, ”CLIL describes an evolving approach to teaching and learning
    where subjects are taught and studied through the medium of a non-native language. The experience of learning subjects through the medium of a non-native language can be more challenging and intensive than
    conventional language lessons. Learners are exposed to a broader range of language while simultaneously gaining knowledge and skills in different areas of the curriculum. In CLIL, learning a curricular subject (Geography for example) in a second or third language
    involves drawing on effective pedagogical practice from a range of different educational contexts.”
    According to the above, we cannot consider teaching a subject through the native language of the learners a CLIL approach.

    • You mention ‘well known dictionaries’ without stating which ones. Also, as I stated in my article, these definitions might be outdated as CLIL has progressed and evolved. If your statement would be correct and all the CLIL books use the same definition I stand correct, but even the ‘older’ CLIL books like “CLIL” and “Uncovering CLIL” approach CLIL in a different way. Phil Ball actually says in “A potted history of CLIL’ (which can be found on this blog as well) that we are now in a new stage in the history of CLIL, exploring new possibilities and ways of using CLIL in another context.

      With the definition of the Cambridge book you mentioned, stating clearly the non-native language part of CLIL, you are absolutely correct. But again, I feel CLIL is evolving and in my experience, despite what the more academic books say, when it comes to teaching CLIL, its benefits most certainly help L1 learners as well.

      Maybe it’s because I’m just a teacher, not a researcher, but I like to approach things from the teachers’ perspective and as such, I find CLIL to be useful in both L1 and L2 lesson situations.

    • Hi Eugenia – I don’t think that this is quite the point that Patrick was trying to make. It’s not a question of definitions (CLIL or not CLIL) but rather the insights that CLIL has given us that we can then take back to our L1 context lessons. This is a very valuable point, but Patrick is only continuing a long tradition of talking about LAC (language across the curriculum) which was first mooted in 1975 after The Bullock Report. Mohan has written about this too, and there’s a very good article by Inma Muñoa ‘CLIL as a catalyst for change’ which is available on the web. She talks about the Basque project where the new CLIL-based focus on a 3rd language (English) in the curriculum caused an indirect boost to the L1 teaching in Basque. They suddenly realised that they had to make their own subject teaching (in Basque) more ‘language enhanced’. In fact, the results in Basque improved because of the introduction of a 3rd language – with CLIL methodology.

      Ok? Patrick isn’t re-defining CLIL. Like de Graaff he’s simply saying that it gives us new insights into native-speaker learning. And he’s right!


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