Keith Kelly - Ingredients for successful CLIL

Successful CLIL depends on a variety of factors. This paper discusses four factors relevant to successful implementation of CLIL. Firstly, we will look at questions of managing and supporting the CLIL implementation process. Secondly, we will look at the roles and behaviours of teachers in the delivery of CLIL. Thirdly, we will examine the issue of resourcing CLIL in schools. Lastly, but by no means least importantly, we will consider factors to do with the learners in CLIL education.

1. Management factors

CLIL, like any other current educational reform, can be a victim of the whims of political parties and ministries of education and the time frames within which they work. Moving from teaching a national curriculum area in the mother tongue to a foreign language should not be undertaken lightly.

Cummins (2000) states that it can take anything up to 7 years for minority language speakers receiving their education through a majority language to reach the academic language level of their majority language speaking peers. Cummins, it should be added, is describing minority language speakers living and learning within a language majority community, for example Hispanics in California for whom English is a ‘second language’. This means that the environment within which this community is living and learning is by and large the community of the majority language speakers.

CLIL learners, on the other hand, tend to be monolingual groups (or bilingual groups within a bilingual community) learning through English as a foreign language. The environment in which the CLIL group lives and learns is not an English language speaking community. If they are lucky, the school environment will be an English-medium one, but even this is not common.

Time scales which are based on anything shorter than 7 years, then, take risks in the provision of the language development necessary for minority groups to have a good chance at schooling. Indeed, assuming an implementation process incorporates the years 1 to 12 of an average school life of a child, and we imagine that an implementation process will develop as the child goes through school, the CLIL curriculum is hardly likely to halt after Cummins’ 7 years of developing academic language and will continue till graduation.

In short we are looking at a CLIL curriculum which spans the entire age and content range of 12 years, roughly 2 to 3 terms of office for any sitting governmental ministry of education. Add to this the need to review and develop the curriculum to improve provision, it is quite likely that a fluid working model of CLIL in schools, to take at least one or two extra years, probably more for a review of each curriculum year to work its way through to year 12. So, we’re talking about 15 years and 3 to 4 terms of office just to have a whole-school workable model in place which has been tested and updated.

Having described the picture above to set the scene, I’d like you now to suspend this reality for a while and think of the four variables (management, teachers, resources, learners) as independent items which we can scale in terms of ‘more’ or ‘less’ favourable for CLIL. This is impossible to do in reality of course, hence the suspension of reality which I’m asking you to commit to. The reality is that (deep intake of breath here) if you have a brilliant and driven subject teacher with good English, with time to prepare, probably single and no children, and young enough to have the energy to work late into the night, working with talented learners at school, resourced well and with curriculum and time freedom to experiment, moving on with a class from year to year, paid enough not to get demotivated too soon (take a breath), then CLIL has a chance when the other variables are missing or measure low on our scale. As I said, suspend your idea of reality for me for a moment.

Government aims and support

In recent years, it’s been quite common to find governments with motivation for CLIL. It’s less common to find motivated governments who think seriously in the longer term about CLIL implementation and all that entails, though there are some significant exceptions.

The Austrian government, for example, has recently passed legislation which obliges Higher Technical Schools to offer 72 hours of their year 3 curriculum through the medium of English for all students in year 3. The plan is for this cohort to go on receiving English-medium education thereafter from year to year.

At the same time as introducing this legislation the government has been funding in-service training programmes in CLIL for practising teachers. The programme comprises 12 full days of training over a period of 18 months. At the University of Education in Vienna at the time of writing, 7 groups and over 200 teachers have already undergone the programme of CLIL training over the past 4 years.

Additionally, the schools have identified senior staff to be responsible for the CLIL initiative, a group of these senior teachers has got together to write guidelines for other schools beginning to implement CLIL and they have set up a national portal (accessed 05.02.14) for CLIL to gather information and resources to share among CLIL in HTLs nationally.

There is also a national electronic network growing which now has over 150 CILL teachers in it and supports their communication about their work.

The Austrian CLIL project is hosting its first national CLIL conference in April 2014 at the University of Education in Vienna to bring together those experienced in and those who are newcomers to CLIL to develop the network further. All of the ‘ingredients’ above are strategic factors in the success of the Austrian HTL CLIL project, and we haven’t even started to look at the question of teachers, resources, or learners.

A whole-school policy

A major challenge to management of a CLIL initiative is creating a ‘whole-school’ ownership of the CLIL project. Language teachers can feel that CLIL threatens their role in the school. Subject teachers can feel anxious about their language abilities. Parents can worry about content achievement in a foreign language.

It’s important right from the start that school managers work to bringing everyone together, creating ‘one voice’ for CLIL. In practice this can be as simple as making sure everyone is aware of what the aims and objectives are.

  • What does CLIL hope to achieve?
  • If a school is teaching through English as a foreign language, what effect is this having on content grades?

There is research which suggests (Genessee 2006, Dobson, Perez Murillo, Johnstone 2010, Jaeppinen 2005) that CLIL / immersion students do not achieve less well in terms of content than their monolingual counterparts. It is important that everyone knows this and that they are able to air their concerns and have them heard and responded to in an informed manner. Schools should be encouraged to carry out their own investigations into student achievement during CLIL courses and publish their findings.


Are managers and department heads working to provide time in the curriculum for their CLIL teacher colleagues? Teachers in CLIL need time to prepare. Let me say this once again. CLIL teachers need extra time to prepare. Managers need to make the curriculum fit with this need for time (see ‘Teacher Collaboration’).

Clearly, then, the management factor is important. All of the top-down factors are instrumental in supporting bottom-up initiatives from teachers and the classroom. But, it is no good on its own. For CLIL to work, there also needs to be success in the three factors to come: teachers, resources, learners.

2. Teacher factors

What is the ideal CLIL teacher? Let’s deal with the native speaker question first.

It’s a myth that native speakers make better CLIL teachers than non-native speakers. A British (American, Australian, Canadian, or other) accent is a quaint educational aim, but shouldn’t be a factor in teacher selection. In many ways native speakers have challenges to teaching CLIL which non-native speakers do not. In most CLIL classrooms the teacher speaks the same mother tongue language as the children. This can be a huge advantage and it can be an equally large disadvantage if the teacher doesn’t know the language the children speak at home.

Strategic use of the mother tongue should be encouraged in the CLIL classroom if it supports learners in developing the foreign language. Whatever the background of the teacher, they need to be able to moderate their language so that it is at the right input level for the learners they work with. A native speaker speaking at full speed, using colloquialisms, slang, and cultural referencing can cause a lot of difficulties for CLIL learners.

Minimum level of teacher language

Some countries do have benchmarks for the level of language of teachers working through the medium of a foreign language.

Perhaps at the top of the pile is Holland, where schools looking for accreditation as a ‘bilingual school’, need to be visited, inspected, and tested before they are given official bilingual status. Teachers are expected to reach Cambridge Proficiency level in the English language. This is high, but, well, that’s the Dutch, isn’t it.

What about the rest of us? I would advocate a level of foreign language which is functionally adequate for working in the subject in the classroom. Subject teachers aren’t expected to be language teachers, they are expected to teach their subject through English and use strategies for supporting learners working in English. This is somewhere between B1 (also recently identified as the minimum language requirement by the Home Office for settlement in the UK!) and B2, in my opinion. If you’re a CLIL teacher, you should be able to do everything you ask the students to do in your subject in English as a foreign language. If you feel that you aren’t able to do this, join a class, improve your English.

Some British Council offices in the past have been involved in teaching teachers English in order to equip them with the language they need to teach through the English language. Qatar is one example of a system which has had targeted language training, as well as CLIL methodology training for teachers being asked to work through English. I visited the Didzdvario Gymnasium ( in Latvia Siauliai in 2006 where the language teachers taught the subject teachers English in order to get them to this functioning level of English for CLIL. The school had just begun to implement the IB programme through the English language. In other contexts, language teachers, or native speaker assistants work hand-in-hand with local subject teachers and provide a language focus to the otherwise mother-tongue lesson.

Teacher preparation and classroom methodology

As important as the question of level of language, if you ask me, is the question of what methodology is being used in the classroom. In short CLIL classroom methodology needs to be communicative, making use of a lot of visuals to embed the content in a form that learners can easily understand, it needs to have learners collaborating as much as possible, it needs to be challenging cognitively, it also needs to be sequenced in a way that moves learners from a cognitively less demanding and context-embedded position, through personal talk over the ideas, on to more cognitively challenging, less context-embedded public talk, and then on to writing.

It goes without saying that any CLIL teacher training needs to follow these principles. I have many conversations with teachers who attend my training sessions along the lines of:

T: I thought I’d be getting help with Chemistry (insert any subject you like here) content in English.

K: No, I’m sorry, you won’t get any specialist help with your subject. What you will get is an awareness of the language of your subject, and ideas for things you can do to help students access and use that language.

T: Oh.

Specialist subject teachers, by and large are already specialists in their subjects, they don’t need a refresher course, or if they do, they should find one, not necessarily attend a CLIL course for subject refreshment. What subject teachers working in CLIL do need, and need a lot of, is an awareness of how language works in their subject, that is what the language of their subject is, and how it behaves. They also need a repertoire of activities and techniques for helping students develop the language they need to perform in their subject in English. Any training should be crammed full of this stuff.

Teacher collaboration

In some ways teacher collaboration depends on management decisions, school management making time available for teachers to collaborate. If a department head is given the role of coordinating CLIL in the subject, this goes some way to promoting collaboration among subject teachers more generally.

Equally important, but more of a question of language, is the question of subject teacher and language teacher collaboration. In some settings where there are no subject teachers with the level of language needed to teach through English, some schools have both a language teacher and a subject teacher working together.

As mentioned above, some schools are fortunate to have visiting teacher assistants from English-speaking countries. These teacher assistants can be a real treasure for non-native subject teachers working through English for offering another model of the language, for in-class small group work and others.

On a broader scale teachers should be encouraged to collaborate beyond the school. There are plenty of teacher organizations and networks for CLIL teachers to join. If there is a subject teacher organization in the country where a teacher is working it goes without saying that it is valuable to get involved in this organization, to join a community of like-minded teachers, to share, to build a common voice. There may not be one of these organizations, but there are international associations of teachers of CLIL. The Forum for Across the Curriculum Teaching (FACTWorld) is one such network. At the time of writing, FACTWorld has over 3500 teachers around the world in its network, teachers who are all interested in CLIL. Colleagues need to get involved in these networks, if for nothing else, to avoid reinventing the wheel every time they prepare a new lesson in English!

3 Resource factors

While the European Union is advocating education for mobility, employability and growth, which by default suggests education based on competences, we live in a world where young people are still delivered facts to consume, where much of learning is passive, where teachers talk and learners listen. (Please bear with me, I’m deliberately trying to be provocative!)

What is the state of education in your country? How often to do learners discuss in groups in order to solve a problem, for example?

Educational literature today is full of appeals for learners to be given the opportunity to collaborate, to critically think over questions in groups, and I have to say here that this kind of student-focused perspective on learning, is essential for CLIL. If we want learners to be able to speak in English, we have to create opportunity for them to practise speaking in English.

The curriculum

Is your learners’ curriculum densely packed with factual abstract knowledge? Or, does it have learning skills and thinking skills explicitly listed, exemplified and accompanied with activity types for teachers to use as models for work in their own classrooms?

A CLIL curriculum needs to have this and go a step further. It needs to include samples of language that skills and thinking demand of learners, so that teachers can both make sure that these functions of language are practised but also so that teachers can listen out for them and moderate teaching to make sure any difficulties and gaps are remedied in later learning. See Macmillan’s Your CLIL for a collection of functions for Science and Geography, the language that goes with these functions, and accompanying lessons.

Teaching resources

What CLIL resources do you have available to you?

In the vast majority of contexts I’ve worked and visited, schools import native speaker textbooks, usually British or from the US. While the quality can usually be guaranteed with these books, they are always going to be a challenge for CLIL learners on a number of levels.

The language demands of native speaker textbooks will be very high, not just the subject-specific language, but also the general academic language, the ‘hidden’ language of learning. This invariably means that for CLIL classes with imported books to be effective, the teacher will need to do a lot of adaptation, which itself is very time and energy consuming.

Even with adaptation, there may still be culture specificity in the books which causes extra challenges to local learners of content in English. Some contexts prefer to translate local textbooks and while this can avoid the culture challenges and linguistic problems of native speaker books, translation carries challenges of its own.

Translated textbooks may still be linguistically at too high a level for learners as, unless the language is moderated down to reach the learners’ level, it will have language which is sophisticated in the native language, but simply expressed in English as a foreign language. Translated textbooks can also exhibit other problems, they can be produced without any pictures or illustrations, presenting, quite literally, a textbook which is a ‘book of text’. Translated textbooks can also lack one other major element – activity! CLIL textbooks need to be written around a skills-based curriculum. These skills will involve practice in all areas of language, listening, speaking, reading and writing. They will also need to be highly dynamic in activity demanding that learners be involved in individual, pair, small group, and large group activity, as well as presentation work amongst many, many other things. Some fortunate contexts have resources which are ‘custom-made’ for CLIL.

The Ikastolas network of schools in the Basque country, for example, have invested heavily in publishing not only English-medium content textbooks which are written specifically to meet the language and activity needs of Basque learners, but they also produced and published English language textbooks for courses to be taught alongside the content classes, which provide learners with a deeper understanding of the language they meet in the content lessons, practice the general academic language from these classes, and practice cross-curricular skills needed for surviving and thriving in an educational environment in a language other than the home language/s. Few countries are lucky enough to have such resources, nevertheless, it does provide us with a benchmark, a standard by which to work and to aim towards.

The lesson is simply this: CLIL is easier and more effective if you have ‘custom-made’ resources and can be much harder and less effective without them.

4 Learner factors

Last but not least, we come to the learners in our discussion of the ingredients of successful CLIL. If the conditions are as good as they can be, all learners are able to achieve their best. I certainly do not believe that there are some learners suited better than others to CLIL. CLIL is valid for all ‘types’ of learners and should not be the domain of the selected elite. Sadly, the reality of the situation in most contexts is that CLIL is the domain of the educational elite.

There are signs that this is beginning to change by force of demand and population size. Holland has recently announced moves to bring its bilingual system down into the primary sector. Certainly, the Kazakh ambition of achieving trilingualism will eventually, we assume, include all learners in the country beyond the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools. The foreign language medium grammar schools of Bulgaria with their model of preparatory class followed by the curriculum in the foreign language of choice, is being copied by other less prestigious schools in Bulgaria. The Italian government’s recently decided to implementing legislation which will spread the English language as a medium. Countries need to set up conditions so that CLIL can be available to all learners, not just the elite.

What then is the ideal number of hours per week? How long is a piece of string?

After the 18 hours of English per week in the prep class, Bulgarian teenagers then go on to study 1 or 2 hours per week of other subjects (Geography, History, Sciences) through English in the second year as well as continuing English language classes, 6 classes per week.

The Austrian HTL project demands a minimum of 72 hours over one school year, which could be two lessons per week. Austrian schools though have the freedom to batch classes together and give learners a more intensive experience with 6 or more classes per week for 12 weeks. And, of course, there is nothing to stop HTLs from teaching more than 72 hours in the year.

What we do know is that more is better. However many hours students get, learners need to have continuity, of both language and content and that this is planned carefully so that concepts are contextually embedded and language is sequenced and recycled. The curriculum needs also to be coordinated so that what a History teacher is doing complements what the Maths teacher is doing, and what the English language teacher is doing. If these ingredients are in place, the learner factor can achieve its best in CLIL.

By Keith Kelly

This article describes a plenary paper delivered at the Conference ‘Approaches to Teaching Content through English: Content and Language Integrated Learning’, in Astana, Feb 7th, 2014.
Slides for the plenary are available here:

Watch a recording of Keith's recent webinar here:

Post script

As part of the plenary to colleagues in Kazakhstan, I handed out a questionnaire to participants entitled - How CLIL ready are you and your school?

The questionnaire handout is attached here, as well as my interpretation of the results and modest conclusions and suggestions for follow-up for teacher training in Kazakhstan.


Cummins J 2000 Language, Power, and Pedagogy: Bilingual Children in the Crossfire, Multilingual Matters

Dobson A, M D Perez Murillo, R Johnstone 2010 British Council and Ministry of Education, Spain ( - accessed 14.02.11)

Genessee F (2006) Educating English Language Learners A Synthesis of Research Evidence CUP

Jaeppinen K A 2005 Thinking and Content Learning of Mathematics and Science as Cognitional Development in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL): Teaching Through a Foreign Language in Finland.

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