What is CLIL and how to use it in language teaching?

Illustration image of language learning content for CLIL teaching approach

Are you a language teacher who, apart from your job, is extremely passionate about something else, like cooking, hiking, biology, or spreading positivity around you? If yes, this is the article for you! In this blog post, we will discuss what the very effective Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL methodology) approach is and how it can be integrated into your language teaching to engage your learners. Through CLIL you will boost your students’ excitement and teach them important life skills in addition to immersing them to their target language. This is one more effective language teaching methodology that will bring the learning results you want out of everyone and is usable in ESL, ELT and foreign language teaching.


What is CLIL or Content and Language Integrated Learning?

CLIL stands for Content and Language Integrated Learning and as the term suggests, this approach is used to teach students about a new subject in a language foreign to them. Through CLIL, students not only learn a second language but also learn about a topic totally new to them, for example drawing or climate change. If students are familiar with the subject then the approach is not CLIL. Therefore the success of this approach relies on the integration of the new language and the new learning content. The subject can be anything really, from painting and physics to life skills. If you are out of ideas, reach out to your school’s subject teachers to get recommendations or even ready-made lesson plans!

Think of yourself in a class, learning painting through Italian or English if it is not your native language. Keep in mind you are familiar neither with painting techniques nor with the target language. During the first classes, you will hear the teacher mentioning the word dipinto quite often. In the beginning, you are dependent on the instructor’s body language and gestures in order to understand the tasks you need to perform. Observing their body language and the items the teacher is showing, you will soon realise that dipinto stands for painting. In other words, what you will work on during these classes is paintings!

This is a simple example of the CLIL approach and how a CLIL teacher operates. In order to learn what dipinto, paesaggio (landscape) and ritratto (portrait) mean you will only need to attend the painting lessons, observe and listen to the teacher.


What are the benefits of using CLIL in language learning?

The CLIL approach has gained popularity in language teaching as it offers various benefits to both language learners and educators. Here are some of the key benefits of using the CLIL lessons in language teaching:

  1. Improved language proficiency: CLIL allows students to learn a second language in a meaningful context by using it to acquire knowledge in other subject areas. This approach can lead to better language proficiency compared to traditional language instruction methods.

  2. Authentic language use: CLIL exposes students to authentic, real-world language usage. They encounter and use language in practical contexts, which can make language learning more engaging and improve their communication skills.

  3. Increased student motivation: Learning subjects in a foreign language can be motivating for students as they see a clear purpose for new language acquisition. It can foster a genuine interest in the language and the content being taught.

  4. Enhanced cognitive skills: CLIL encourages the development of cognitive skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and analytical reasoning as students engage with complex content in a second language.

  5. Cultural awareness: CLIL lessons often include cultural aspects related to the language being taught, helping students gain a broader understanding of the culture, customs, and perspectives of native speakers of the language.

  6. Transferable skills: Students acquire skills and knowledge in both the target language and the subject matter, which can be applied in real-life including various academic and professional contexts.

  7. Preparation for multilingualism: CLIL can prepare students for a multilingual world by equipping them with the ability to use multiple languages for communication and learning.

  8. Improved academic performance: Research suggests that CLIL students often perform well academically in both language and content subjects, demonstrating the effectiveness of this approach.

  9. Global competence: CLIL can help students develop a global perspective and become more culturally sensitive and aware, which is increasingly important in our interconnected world.

  10. Teacher collaboration: CLIL encourages collaboration between language and subject teachers, fostering a cooperative approach to education and professional development as well.

  11. Teacher professional development: Language educators who implement the CLIL approach often need to expand their skills and knowledge, leading to continuous professional development and growth opportunities.

  12. Flexible teaching strategy: CLIL can be adapted to various educational levels, from primary schools to universities, and can be used with different languages and content areas.

In summary, the CLIL approach offers a holistic and immersive way for students to learn a second language while acquiring knowledge in other subject areas.


What are the challenges in Content and Language Integrated Learning?

The fact that the target language is new might confuse the learners at the beginning, as they have to focus on both the target matter and using their foreign language skills. By assignments, group work and discussion in the classroom, students will eventually become part of a routine and nothing will seem abnormal or too difficult anymore. In order for the teacher to prepare suitable learning materials and efficiently teach, they should develop their knowledge of the target subject. This is of course a substantial time investment from the CLIL teacher especially if there are no ready-made learning content available. At the same time, the classes are best to be designed in a way that students have a good comprehension of the subject taught and of the foreign language used to teach the topic. Teachers should also be aware of the skills and difficulties of each student, and scaffold the learning activities according to the students’ learning process. Concept checking questions are a teacher’s right hand when using the CLIL approach!


The elements of a CLIL lesson in foreign language teaching

Learning a language using the CLIL approach is done implicitly. Students learn the language naturally, through conversation, observation and socializing, where learning grammar is not the primary goal. Students are also focused on a subject, for example, maths or woodworking, that interests them and the fact that acquiring more linguistic knowledge will help them learn the target matter better is very motivating.

Language teachers should not be off using CLIL just because it is used for subject teaching. The point is not to be expert in a target matter, for example biology, as you, the language teacher, can add the CLIL approach in a lesson hour. 

The elements of a successful CLIL lesson based on 4Cs curriculum (Coyle 1999 & Coyle 2008) are:

  • Content – progression in knowledge, skills and understanding related to specific elements of a defined curriculum.
  • Communication – using language to learn whilst learning to use language.
  • Cognition – developing thinking skills which link concept formation (abstract and concrete), understanding and language.
  • Culture – exposure to alternative perspectives and shared understandings, which deepen awareness of otherness and self

Graph of CLIL approach in foreign language teaching


A practical example of CLIL approach in a language classroom

Based on the week’s/month’s topic, as an introductory or wrap-up lesson you can try out the CLIL approach in your classroom. For example, you might have taught key vocabulary about nature and the countryside, and building from this, planning a flower or gardening activity could be very exciting for your students as they will see this lesson as a game or, better say, a break time. The only difference is that for this CLIL lesson you will place yourself as an experienced gardening instructor.

You can bring in class plants and flowers (both common and some more rarely seen items) and organise a gardening, watering and flower decoration lesson. Display the items for your students to see. Do not forget to also provide the tools necessary. The reason we suggest that is the students will meet the items on lesson day (and not prior to that as they would if they were asked to bring the tools themselves), so there will be the element of the surprise for the upcoming lesson.

If your school’s facilities allow it, you can take the students outdoors and give them a gardening class. Speak to them while you put the plants in the soil. Hold the items and repeat the word. For example, hold the plant pot and repeat “maceta”. In that way, the children will learn what plant pot means in Spanish, in our case, without you translating the words. Students will remember the vocabulary better when they can make the real visual connection to the item. As soon as you have finished your gardening lesson, always revise the key vocabulary by showing the items once more with the help of your students (for example using Flashcards to do so would be a great way to help students recall these vocabulary items).

Remember to also check out our another article on the 10 best language teaching strategies for more inspiration and ideas for your next language class!


If you’re a language teacher who’s looking for inspiration to try out new language teaching methods, then check out Sanako’s Youtube Channel for instructional videos to some of the most advanced, evidence-based approaches to language teaching and the key concepts behind them.

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References used in this blog post:

B. F. KLIMOVA CLIL and the teaching of foreign languages. [Online] Elsevier Database. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com

Pearson. What is Content and Language Integrated Learning

FluentU. CLIL: What it is and why language teachers will find it delightful


This blog post was last updated 20 September, 2023.