My CLIL BAK system

My CLIL beliefs, assumptions and knowledge system (Woods, D., 1996)

The following should be very much seen as work in progress waiting for helpful feedback:

CLIL as a way for learning content and a foreign language has become increasingly popular among educational policymakers, teachers, and students alike. Despite the enthusiastic and sometimes missionary responses, some important questions, such as, “What exactly is CLIL and  how and why does it work?” still seem to need some serious investigations. I would like to argue and provide evidence that carrying out CLIL means to enter an extremely complex and context sensitive educational territory whose methodology and research results should be considered and explained within a faithful description of its local context. However, I would also argue that the key players in any CLIL situation, namely the learning of content or knowledge, the learning of (a) language, the subject, and the teaching subject interact in complex ways that go beyond the specific and local context of the classroom. In my 15 years of CLIL experience I have seen various CLIL swings mostly either between the relative role and importance of the language or the content in CLIL. Even though the acronym suggests an integration of content and language, the nature of this (putting it into practice) has always been a grey and fuzzy area. The pendulum has swung back and forth from the content being a servant to the language and vice versa. This can be clearly seen in the way CLIL is/has been advertised or “sold” to parents and students alike as a means of improving their command of a foreign language more quickly, more efficiently, more purposefully. However, this also goes the other way round by mostly parents demanding CLIL for the same reasons. However, when this is the case, the parties involved usually have an implicit understanding of the utilitarian nature of the foreign language to be learnt. Hardly any methodological thinking is given to the literary, aesthetic, critical, cultural, comparative aspects of the language. This, if at all, is still seen as the sole domain of the foreign language class.

Secondly, in countries with a dual teacher training system, such as Austria, where teachers in secondary education have to choose two subjects for their university studies, CLIL is predominantly carried out by teachers with the foreign language as one of their subjects (Gierlinger, 2007). Again, on the one hand not very surprising, on the other hand maybe already indicative that a  knowledge of language learning/how language is learnt, whether (at the moment) manifested in more personal belief systems or in more general/idealised/theoretical principles ought to be the foundation of any subject learning!

Thirdly, in countries with a university based preservice training for CLIL-rather the exception than the rule-the curricula would predominantly be carried out or – at least – supervised by the respective foreign language departments. Usually this would result in institutions/university departments either demanding an intensive language competence programme with setting the exit language requirements as near-native/bilingual/C2 or doing the same with the course admission requirements.

Furthermore, the methodology or beliefs about foreign language learning within CLIL show a wide variety (with notable exceptions such as the bilingual program in Andalucia, Spain which has established clear guidelines for the writing of CLIL modules – based on practitioners experiences rather than on theoretical considerations (Dalton-Puffer 2011, Gierlinger, in press). Exceptions with respect to the theoretical foundations of CLIL are Do Coyle’s 4 C’s, the CLIL matrix, Meyer’s CLIL pyramid (2010), Perez-Vidal’s dimensions of CLIL (2009), the language triptych (Coyle et al, 2010), Cummins (1984) BICS and CALP, Mehisto’s et al (2008) core features of CLIL methodology.

However, in my opinion these models or theoretical deliberations seem-to a varying and interacting degree-suffer from three weaknesses.

  1. The model is too general, wide or fuzzy to be of any real help for pedagogical principles (Long, 2007), and of being operationalised in a practical and local context. For example, see Gierlinger’s criticism of the CLIL matrix.
  2. The model is too specific and rests its justification on some experiential belief system which is based on a very subjective and local theory of practice (Coyle, 2010).
  3. The underlying principles or core features of the respective models are either never clearly defined or not related to the bigger picture of learning subject knowledge and learning a language. While I’m fully aware that this is a thin line and the whole distinction is by far too crude as you cannot separate content or knowledge from language, an eye to what Michael Long calls “consistency with accepted theories in other fields” is a necessary condition for any CLIL model based on/working with/dealing with guiding principles. For example, Mehisto’s et al (2008) otherwise excellent book on content and language integrated learning uses the core feature of “authenticity” in CLIL methodology without ever defining its conceptual base and the thorny issues related to it in the SLA literature (Widdowson, 2004; Irujo, 1998; Kramsch, 1993; Richards, Jack C and Theodore S. Rodgers 2001; Breen, 1985 – see below).

If CLIL follows this way, I fear, it will become like a cookery book with numerous recipes, where similar to endless years of “communicative language teaching”, everyone in their eclectic mood or method (an oxymoron) picks and chooses whatever appeals to them in their understanding of a localised CLIL version. The greatest common denominator will then be “content meets foreign language and it somehow miraculously works”.

Following M. Long (2007) I will therefore discuss and sketch out methodological principles for CLIL which according to him are “Universally desirable instructional design features, motivated by theory and research findings in SLA, educational psychology, general educational curriculum design, and elsewhere”, which prove  either to be necessary for CLIL or facilitative of it. Based on these principles I will suggest a multisyllabic CLIL model that can act as a guidance system allowing anyone involved in CLIL to make principled/theory driven decisions for their own CLIL context and curriculum. Needless to say that this is very much open to everyone’s feedback at the moment.


  • Breen (1985: 61)authenticity in the language classroom. Applied linguistics, 6/1, 60-70. identifies four types (in Johnson/Johnson)
  • Irujo, Suzanne Teaching Bilingual children. 1998, Newbury House, p. 67
  • Kramsch, (1993). Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Richards, Jack C and Theodore S. Rodgers 2001, Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, CUP.
  • Widdowson H. G.  2004. A perspective on recent trends, In: APR Howatt, A History of English Language Teaching , OUP.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s