CLIL models

CLIL models: Theories, beliefs, assumptions, knowledge and principles

In the following blog-pages I will present various CLIL models and subject their underlying or openly stated theories, beliefs, assumptions and principles to critical appraisal. I will draw up a grid that presents an overview of the main CLIL models with their methodological key features. My selection is based on some major and often quoted publications, however, it should not be considered exhaustive. I have also included my own CLIL teaching model which has not been published yet, but has been presented on various occasions (national and international symposia; INSET and PRESET courses; and been used in my own CLIL teaching).

The trouble with CLIL – or one man’s meat is another man’s poison

Of course, when dealing with CLIL models a definition of CLIL needs to be put forward first. This is, however, were part of the “CLIL trouble” begins. For example, Mehisto, Frigols , & Marsh (2008) state that  CLIL is an umbrella term covering a dozen or more educational approaches. Ohe content-English website ( lists over forty (!) terms that are used to refer to this focal area. Or when taking David Marsh, one of the leading figures in CLIL, who describes it (rather) cautiously as “a wide range of educational practice” (2008: 236). Mehisto et al see CLIL as an umbrella term covering a dozen or more educational approaches (Mehisto, Frigols , & Marsh, 2008). Considered from a European perspective Dalton-Puffer (2011: 9) sees only two common denominators overriding the otherwise huge variety of CLIL variants, which are CLIL’s potential for fostering multilingualism and its grassroots demands, as in being a particular parents’ and employers’ desire. Given this, one may only speculate as to how likely CLIL may be reduced to its functional “improve your (whatever – everyday/academic/subject specific) English” without any or only marginal interest into the critical, literary, metaphorical, and intercultural aspects of the respective language. Furthermore, the deliverance of the subject content may only be seen as a useful – killing two birds with one stone – by-product for the learning of a language. For example, just this morning (19. 1. 2012) two Geography/English teachers told me that in one of their in-service trainings they were cautioned of introducing  CLIL in Geography as this would seriously hamper students’ geographical knowledge (see also CLIL: hot potatoes, on this blog). One gets the feeling that trying to pinpoint CLIL is like trying to build a sandcastle from quicksand – wherever the wind blows ….

An approach, a method, a programme?

Nevertheless from a historical perspective, content and language integrated learning commonly referred to as CLIL has been around in Europe since 1994 when a group of experts working under the remit of European commission funding, agreed on launching this term. “CLIL was defined as a dual focused educational approach in which an additional language is used for the learning and teaching of both content and language” (Marsh, Foreword, 2009, S. vii). Meyer (2010, S. 12) also calls it “an approach that is mutually beneficial for both content and language subjects“. Although (minor) differences in defining CLIL can be noticed most authors agree on seeing CLIL as an approach or method. Dalton-Puffer (2011, S. 9), for example, calls it an “educational approach“. Meehisto and March (2011, S. 36) consider it to be a “cognitively demanding approach“. Ruiz de Zarobe, Sierra, & Gallardo del Puerto maintain that within the European landscape “it is firmly becoming a preferred educational approach” (2011, S. 13). Helbig (XXXX: 179) calls it an “unterrichtsmethodisches Prinzip” (methodological principle), in The Handbook of Foreign Language Education.

CLIL is also seen as an umbrella term for a variety of approaches, methods, and programs whose unifying hallmark is the teaching of subject content through one/or more additional language/s, such as

  • · bilingual language programs
  • · content-based instruction
  • · foreign languages across the curriculum
  • · foreign languages as academic languages
  • · dual language programs
  • · immersion programs
  • · plurilingual programs
  • · modular CLIL, etc.

Even though these programmes show a wide diversity in their methodological and contextual implementations two forces seem to contribute to their popularity. Firstly, there is an official European language policy which sees CLIL as an appropriate instrument for fostering plurilingualism, ( Phillipson & Skutnabb-Kangas, (2011-ebook) even call it “one of the EU’s mantras for achieving more success in foreign-language learning”. Secondly, it is also a grassroots phenomenon demanded by parents and employers, supported and mostly developed by teachers (Dalton-Puffer, 2011; Gierlinger in press). Let’s now have a closer look at the notion of method.

So if it’s a method, what is a method then?

Richards & Rodgers  (2002) put up a model of language teaching which they maintain conceptualises the nature of methods and explores more systematically the relationship between theory and practice within a method. In this model “method” is the umbrella term which is theoretically related to an approach, organisationally determined by a design, and is practically realised in procedure.

  • Approach refers to theories about the nature of language and language learning.
  • Design refers to the objectives of a method; its syllabus; types of teaching and learning activities; the roles of learners; the roles of teachers; and the role of instructional materials.
  • Procedure refers to how a method realises its approach and design in actual classroom behaviours, techniques, practices.

Although this model, when applied to CLIL, may help clarify some of the present confusions and eventually help in building a more coherent picture of CLIL, even Richards and Rodgers (2001: 35) concede that a methodological development proceeding tidily from approach, through design, to procedure may be an idealised one, stating that “methods can develop out of any of the three categories. One can, for example, stumble on or invent a set of teaching procedures that appear to be successful and then later develop a design and a theoretical approach that explain or justify their procedures”.

This can be clearly recognised in the strongly teacher driven methodology of CLIL which is marked by individual beliefs, experiences or even chance encounters. For example, Gierlinger (2007) reports on CLIL teachers’ stories where tripping over the “right” text was declared the starting point for a CLIL project or module. This scepticism towards the concept of method in language teaching as a coherent set of more generalised ideas and theories seems also to be grounded in an understanding of teaching

  • as a highly personalised enterprise whose knowledge can never be final and where no two teachers ever teach the same way, (Salmon, 1995:8)
  • which is based on a very subjective and local theory of practice, (Coyle, 2010; Kelchtermans 1993)
  • resulting in personal belief systems and theories, (Woods, 1996)
    • which will be the main driving forces in teachers’ classroom planning and structuring, (Woods, 1996)
    • where each situation may effectively be a new situation, (Loughran 1996: 21),
    • where much of the knowledge that teachers use has been abstracted from lengthy experience, (Calderhead 1993: 15).

Taking this into account and bearing in mind that experiential belief systems are not immune towards a more general theorisation process, after all a substantial amount of grounded phenomena in language teaching have been approved by research it is time to reflect on the role of models within methodology.

What role for role models?

Individualised, localised, and “anything goes”, eclectic methods were teachers may take a pinch of this and a dash of that possibly motivated mostly by a subjective and historically situated BAK system (see Woods, Coyle above) that is resistant to (or unaware of) broader, more general theories and research run the risk of self-perpetuation and immunisation. “I/the teachers at this school have always taught grammar/vocabulary/etc like this and therefore ……”, a mantra I have had the pleasure to hear many times. Long, (2007:ebook) whilst acknowledging problems with theoretically motivated proposals, harshly criticises this by stating “eclectic methods are certain to be wrong, given that different methods reflect different underlying theories about language learning, however implicit or unclearly articulated, and since no more than one theory, at best, can logically be correct.” Viebrock, 2010: 108 discussing the strength of implicit theories (Alltagstheorien; BAK) draws a rather resistant and impermeable picture by maintaining that “Aufgrund ihrer Schul-, Ausbildungs- und berufsbiografischen Verankerung sind Alltagstheorien außerordentlich stabil. Sie sind so beständig, dass sie selbst bei drohender Falsifizierung beibehalten werden und anders lautende wissenschaftliche Theorien überlagern” (As subjective theories are so closely anchored in one’s own school- educational and professional contexts that they become remarkably stable. They are so persistant, that even falsification or contradictory scientific theories will not lead to any changes – my interpretation/translation).  From a more practical point of view I would like to add my experience with the numerous varieties and versions of CLT (Communicative Language Teaching) I have seen in many different classrooms.

Whatever one’s position in this respect, a closer look at models trying to represent and justify their respective CLIL “method” may be helpful in focusing the reader’s attitude towards their own CLIL context.

Obviously any model is guided by some theoretical thinking, and therefore it is important to carefully highlight and reflect on the model’s defining features, or underlying principles, theories, and beliefs. So when talking about CLIL models – or any for that matter- these issues arise.

  • What are a model’s defining features?
  • How does the model of something relate to the way of doing this something, or in other words, what is the relationship between a model and its methodological translation, meaning “putting principles into practice”? Or taking Richards’s and Rodger’s model into account, what is the relationship between approach and procedure?

Bearing this in mind, a brief general reflection on models and their theoretical background may be useful. The most important defining characteristic of a scientific theory is that it makes falsifiable or testable predictions (however, for critical appraisal see Lakatos, Feyerabend, & Motterlini, 2000). The relevance and specificity of these predictions determine how potentially useful the theory is. A would-be-theory, that makes no predictions that can be observed is not a useful theory. Predictions not sufficiently specific to be tested are similarly not useful.  In both cases, the term “theory” is hardly applicable. A theory is valid as long as there is no evidence to dispute

The physicists Hawking and Mlodinow  (2010: 51)  postulated the following features for a good theoretical model.

A model is a good model if it:

  1. Is elegant
  2. Contains few arbitrary or adjustable elements
  3. Agrees with and explains all existing observations
  4. Makes detailed predictions about future observations that can disprove or falsify the model if they are not borne out.

Models as abstractions of a complex phenomenon can therefore be used as a heuristic tool to reflect in a focused way on past and future events – in our case on past and future CLIL teaching. However, they are in themselves historical constructs and therefore open to change and critical appraisal  . Whatever the future’s unpredictability and the past’s resistance to “truthful” explanations (read a wonderful fictional account on this in, (Barnes, 2011) models can act as a GPS (global positioning system) receivers to navigate the ever increasing ocean of educational alternatives (Lakatos, Feyerabend, & Motterlini, 2000).

However, because of their powerful steering function and claim to explanatory power, models need to be subjected to a critical evaluation of their guiding principles. After all, there was a time when magnetic compasses were the only navigational instruments.

Taking also Long’s (2011) evaluation criteria for language teaching methods into consideration I propose the following evaluation scheme to assess a CLIL model’s validity and perhaps usefulness for the teaching of CLIL. However, at this stage this will not be a definitive list but rather more work in progress waiting for helpful feedback J.

Evaluation criterion Comments
Simplicity and beauty The simplicity and aesthetic elegance of a model are generally considered to be of practical advantage and as an intellectual ideal (Occam’s razor).

  • Can the model in a simple, practical, and appropriate way explain the major phenomena that constitute commonly established practices of CLIL teaching?[1]
Internal validity and logical argumentation Contains few arbitrary or adjustable elements

  • Are the model’s principles (Coyle, Tanner), pillars (Gierlinger), categories (Doff), quality principles (Meyer), core features (Mehisto) in harmony with each other?


Assimilative power Agrees with and can explain a variety of existing CLIL contexts and phenomena

  • How does the model cope with the wide variety of CLIL contexts and interpretations?
Predictive power Makes predictions about observations that can disprove or falsify the model if they are not borne out.

  • For example, does the model make any quality assumptions regarding its success or failure?
Theoretical motivation
  • Does the model provide a theoretical explanation of its main tenets?
  • Are these theories related to or explained by BAK systems or implicit theories?
Empirical support
  • Are the model’s main arguments based on empirical studies?
General consistency
  • Does the model make any references regarding its consistency with accepted theories in other fields?
CLIL models (Author/s: Name of model)
Coyle: 4Cs
Coyle: Triptych
Doff: Bili – Netz (bilingual web)
Gierlinger: CALM
Marsh, etc: The CLIL matrix
Mehisto et al: not specified No name is given for a specific model but 30 core features are presented as being the backbone of a CLIL methodology or “good practice in CLIL”, 27. The principles of “cognition, community, content, communication” are considered to be the driving forces for “the CLIL model”, 31.
Meyer: The CLIL pyramid
Tanner et al: 8Cs

In the following sub-pages I will present the major aspects of each model and then subject its principles, underlying theories and methodological suggestions a critical analysis:

This is Copyright material which will be published but if you want to make a reference to it now, do as follows:
Gierlinger, E (2012). T. “CLIL Models” <> . [accessed on d/m/year].


Barnes, J. (2011). The Sense of an Ending. London: Random House.

Calderhead, J., & Gates, P. (1993). Conceptualizing Reflection in Teacher Development. Washington: The Falmer Press.

Cummins, J. (2011). Bilingual and Immersion Programs. In M. H. Long, & C. J. Doughty, The Handbook of Language Teaching (pp. e-book). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Dafouz , E., & Guerrini, M. C. (2009). CLIL across educational levels. Richmond Publishing.

Dalton – Puffer, C. (2008). Outcomes and processes in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL): current research from Europe. In W. Delanoy, & L. Volkmann, Future Perspectives for English Language Teaching (pp. 139-157). Heidelberg: Carl Winteer.

Dalton-Puffer, C. (2011). Foreword. In Y. Ruiz de Zarobe, J. Sierra, & F. Gallardo del Puerto, Content and Foreign Language Integrated Learning: Contributions to Multilingualismlism In European Contexts (pp. 9-10). Bern: Peter Lang.

Doff, S. (2010). Theorie und Praxis des bilingualen Sachfachunterrichts: Forschungsfelder, Themen, Perspektiven. In S. Doff, Bilingualer Sachfachunterricht in der Sekundarstufe (pp. 11 – 25). Tübingen: Narr.

Edwards, J. (2009). Language and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Presss.

Gierlinger, E. (2007). Modular CLIL in lower secondary education: some insights from a research project in Austria. In C. Dalton-Puffer, & U. Smit, Empirical perspectives on classroom discourse (pp. 79-118). Peter Lang.

Graaff, R., Koopman, G., Anikina, Y., & Westhoff, G. (2007). An Observation Tool for Effective L2 Pedagogy in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL). The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 10(5), pp. 603-623.

Hawking, S., & Mlodinow, L. (2010). The Grand Design. London: Bantam Press.

Kelchtermans, G. (1993). Teachers and their Career Story: A Biographical Perspective on Professional Development. In C. Day, J. Calderhead, & P. Denicolo, Research on Teacher Thinking: Understanding Professional Development. Washington: The Falmer Press.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2006). Understanding language teaching: from method To Postmethod. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2006). Understanding language teaching: From method to postmethod. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lakatos, I., Feyerabend, P., & Motterlini, M. (2000). For and Against Method: Including Lakatos’s Lectures on Scientific Method and the Lakatos-Feyerabend Correspondence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Long, M. H. (2011). Methodological Principles for Languge Teaching. In M. H. Long, & C. J. Doughty, The Handbook of Language Teaching (p. ebook). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Long, M. H., & Doughty, C. J. (2011). The Handbook of Language Teaching. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Loughran, J. (1996). Developing Reflective Practice. Washington: The Falmer Press.

Madrid, D., & Hughes, S. (2011). Studies in Bilingual Education. Bern: Peteer Lang.

Marsh, D. (2008). Language awareness and CLIL. In J. Cenoz, & N. H. Hornberger, Encyclopaedia of language and education (pp. 233-246). Springer.

Marsh, D. (2009). Foreword. In Y. Ruiz de Zarobe, & R. Jimenez Catalan, Content and Language Integrated Learning: Evidence from Research in Europe (pp. vii-viii). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Mehisto, P., & Marsh, D. (2011). Approaching the economic, cognitive and health benefits of bilingualism: Fuel for CLIL. In Y. Ruiz de Zarobe, J. Sierra, & F. Gallardo del Puerto, Content and Foreign Language Integrated Learning (p. 21 48). Bern: Peter Lang.

Mehisto, P., Frigols , M.-J., & Marsh, D. (2008). Uncovering CLIL. MacMillan.

Meyer, O. (2010). Towards quality CLIL: successful planning and teaching strategies. Puls, 11-29.

Norton, B. (2010). Language and Identity. In N. H. Hornberger, & S. L. McKay, Sociolinguistics and Language Education: New Perspectives on Language and Education (pp. 349 – 369). Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Phillipson, R., & Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2011). The Politics and Policies of Language and Language Teaching. In M. H. Long, & C. J. Doughty, The Handbook of Language Teaching (pp. e-book). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Richards, J. C., & Rodgers, T. S. (2002). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge: CUP.

Ruiz de Zarobe, Y., & Jimenez Catalan, R. (2009). Content and Language Integrated Learning: Evidence from research in Europe. Bristol: Multilingual matters.

Ruiz de Zarobe, Y., Sierra, J., & Gallardo del Puerto, F. (2011). Content and Foreign Language Integrated Learning. Berne: Peter Lang.

Salmon, P. (1995). Psychology in the Classroom. Cassell.

Van Lier, L. (2004). The Ecology and Semiotics of Language Learning. Massachusetts: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Viebrock, B. (2010). Alltagstheorien, methodisches Wissen und unterrichtliches Handeln von Lehrkräften im bilingualen Sachfachunterricht. In S. Doff, Bilingualer Sachfachunterricht in der Sekundarstufe: Eine Einführung (pp. 107 – 123). Tübingen: Narr.

Woods, D. (1996). Teacher cognition in language teaching: beliefs, decision-making and classroom practice. Cambridge: CUP.

[1] For the time being this raises two difficult issues. Firstly, what are commonly established CLIL practices? Secondly, what makes them “commonly established”? This may lead to a circular argument as the practices might have become established with reference to an existing model. Or in other words, because Doyle’s 4C model emphasises the importance of culture for CLIL one may find a great variety of cultural activities and tasks as established practice in this way of CLIL teaching.

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