My problem with CLIL

February 13, 2023


CLIL is great. There, I said it. But CLIL can also be confusing, not in the least because many things that are used in a CLIL lesson are also applicable to non-CLIL lessons. And this can make CLIL hard to explain. In this post, I'll give it a try ;).

Estimated time to read this article: 6 minutes

For starters: What is CLIL?

CLIL can be a lot of things. In my opinion, it is all about making sure students are all actively learning in a second language, but there are many more definitions. 

And that’s not all. I think many “CLIL” things are not “CLIL” exclusive. I often receive comments like “but that also works in a normal lesson, right” or “but isn’t this just part of your lesson anyway?”.

I agree.

And it also poses a bit of a problem.

Many things that are part of ‘teaching CLIL’ also apply to regular teaching.

For example:

  • Activating prior knowledge
  • Pay attention to new phrases
  • Making sure students are all engaged with the task
  • Checking for understanding
  • Etc.

It is not a coincidence I hear a lot of teachers share they change their non-bilingual lessons as well once they start implementing CLIL in their bilingual lessons.

Or they recognise a lot they already do during CLIL workshops, without having realised they might already have been using CLIL.

Which poses the question: what makes CLIL, CLIL?

In the book “Uncovering CLIL” (Mephisto, Frigols and March, 2008) CLIL is described as “an umbrella term covering a dozen or more educational approaches; e.g. immersion, bilingual education, multilingual education, language showers and enriched language programmes.” 

In other words: a lot of things are related to CLIL. That is what makes it versatile, flexible… 

… and probably a little tricky to implement.

After all, if you don’t know what CLIL is, how can you implement it?

During the introductory workshop on CLIL I often host, I ask participants to finish the sentence “CLIL is …” a couple of times.

I have never experienced teachers writing down the same thing.

Apart from what the acronym stands for, which most people actually already know.

But even then, they don’t really know what CLIL means for their lessons.

I have said this before. I think that CLIL means making sure students are actively engaged with tasks and activities that involve language. Preferably output.

Yes, this includes a lot of things we already do.

But that is not a bad thing.

It means you do not have to change the way you teach if you want to implement CLIL.

Key Take Away

CLIL consists of a lot of things, which makes it both very applicable and hard to grasp.

For example scaffolding.

I called this the ‘holy grail of CLIL’ during a plenary a couple of years back, as it plays a key role in CLIL.

As a CLIL teacher, you have to make sure you provide enough scaffolding to allow both the language and the learning (Scaffolding language, Gibbons 2014).

But nowadays, scaffolding is a topic mentioned and discussed during teacher training. Not just the ones focusing on CLIL or bilingual education, but for every teacher.

This makes sense: scaffolding is also important for non-CLIL students. It is not CLIL exclusive.

And this is the case for many things that work with CLIL.

It might actually be interesting to turn the question around.

Instead of asking: what makes CLIL CLIL, you can ask: what elements of CLIL are not needed in regular education?

The one thing that comes to mind immediately is the additional attention to the second language. 

Indeed, because of the second language involved, there is a lot more attention to that language, especially with students who just start out with CLIL education.

This ties in with what Do Coyle refers to when she discussed what CLIL is: “Learning to use languages and using languages to learn”.

But other than that, I wouldn’t know.

Implementing scaffolding or thinking skills, introducing new concepts, making sure students are all working on the tasks, motivating language output, activating prior knowledge, etc.

The list goes on and on. And I for one feel like all of these matter. Not just to CLIL students, but to every student.

Key Take Away

Many elements of CLIL can be implemented in non-CLIL settings as well. They are not "CLIL-exclusive".

Does that mean everyone can immediately use CLIL?

No, I don’t think so.

There are a few things that need to be up and running before one can implement CLIL.

For example classroom management.

I have been in classes to observe the CLIL skills of a teacher and it turned out the classroom management was simply not up to speed.

That might make implementing CLIL activities quite a bit trickier.

And discussing a lesson afterwards turns into a balancing act. 

After all, I am not there to give feedback on lesson quality or classroom management. But to help the teacher implement CLIL more effectively.

A teacher actually told me last week she was a little scared to implement the ideas I proposed because she had a hard time motivating students to do anything at all.

I recognise this. (Although I would argue that implementing CLIL activities might actually motivate the students)

Classroom management is an important prerequisite for effective CLIL teaching.


..isn’t that the case for any teaching anyway?

Key Take Away

A prerequisite for any effective learning strategy is classroom management.


I don’t want to make this all sound too negative.

I am a big fan of CLIL and promote it whenever and wherever I can.

It’s just that I think it might be interested to think about the possibilities of implementing these ideas on a wider scale than just bilingual education, which is where it is primarily used in the Netherlands.

Which is something I am actually going to do. Starting in March I am going to host a course on implementing CLIL strategies in Dutch education, in collaboration with Comenius Lyceum in Capelle a/d IJssel. 

You can find more information on this here: CLIL in het Nederlands

So, what do you think?

Have you experienced CLIL ideas or activities that can be implemented in non-CLIL lessons? 

What do you feel is exclusively CLIL?

Curious to hear about your thoughts and ideas on this!

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