Methodological approaches used in the course

Theory of CLIL

Robert Helán

This article summarizes the main pedagogical principles behind content and language integrated learning. It focuses on learning outcomes in CLIL lessons and reasons why CLIL is an effective teaching approach. In addition to presenting some of the theoretical concepts used in CLIL such as the “4Cs framework” and “language of/for/through learning”, it demonstrates how these concepts were applied to our CLIL course at Masaryk University.

What is CLIL

The acronym CLIL stands for Content and Language Integrated Learning. The term was first used in 1994 as an umbrella label for a variety of language teaching approaches such as immersion, bilingual education and enriched programmes. To put it simply, CLIL is a pedagogic approach in which content and language are combined together. To give an example, school or university subjects such as biology or geography are taught via English.

Learning outcomes in CLIL

Some CLIL lessons may put more emphasis on the content learning outcomes – they may be planned around the curriculum of the school or university subject. Such lessons would be referred to as subject-led. Other lessons may focus more on language learning outcomes – they may be planned around an EFL/ESL (English as a foreign/second language) course. These would be referred to as language-led. clil

The CLIL course taught at MU within the IMPACT project was balanced equally regarding language and content learning outcomes. As for content, the principal aim of the course was to develop students’ understanding of the issue of cyanobacteria in the Brno Reservoir, employing an interdisciplinary approach drawing on geology, geography, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology. As far as the language was concerned, the aim was to develop students’ presentational, writing, and discussion skills in addition to discipline-specific lexico-grammatical knowledge (e.g., terminology in chemistry and the use of the passive voice in scientific abstracts).


Firstly, CLIL courses are effective in that they manage to attain two objectives: students learn a subject through the medium of a foreign/second language and at the same time they practice old and acquire new language. Secondly, CLIL encourages problem-based learning combined with authentic and contextualized materials, thus installing in students a hunger to learn. Thirdly, CLIL foregrounds collaboration between students when solving authentic problems and between subject and language instructors when preparing teaching and study materials. Finally, CLIL methodology develops higher-order skills by involving students in activities in which they have to apply these skills (such as creative thinking, critical evaluation, or hypothesizing).

The 4Cs Framework

The 4Cs framework, introduced in 1999 by Do Coyle, can be used to think about learning outcomes in lesson planning. The 4Cs stand for Content, Communication, Cognition, and Culture. Although they are closely related, it is helpful to consider them separately in lesson planning and when CLIL instructors determine learning outcomes in a higher-education context.

  • students learn about concepts, theories, and methods in particular fields/subjects
  • students use subject knowledge to collaborate on completing specific tasks
  • instructors employ a cross-/inter-/multi-disciplinary approach
  • students interact during task-based, cooperative learning
  • students use language of/for/through learning (see below)
  • students practice both subject-/discipline-specific and general academic language (see below)

  • students develop their thinking skills by exploring new theories and concepts
  • students develop both higher-order (e.g. creative thinking) and lower-order (e.g. classifying) thinking skills
  • instructors analyze the content for opportunities to help students develop their thinking skills
  • students develop their awareness of both their own society and other societies
  • instructors help students develop their awareness of disciplinary cultures (e.g. writing conventions)
  • not all CLIL lessons can have this focus.

Demonstration of the 4Cs analysis in a CLIL activity
CLIL activity (from our CLIL course) The 4Cs framework
Students read a conference abstract on cyanobacteria and how they impact water pollution. They work in groups to analyze it in terms of grammar and vocabulary. Then they are asked to write their own conference abstract. Content: cyanobacteria, water pollution (topic from biology and hydrology)
Communication: reading, interacting, discussing, writing
Cognition: analyzing, interpreting, applying theory to practice
Culture: learning about how abstracts are written in a specific culture (US or UK) and discipline (biology)

Language triptych: language of/for/through learning

Communication – one of the 4Cs – includes awareness of the language triptych when planning CLIL lessons: language of/for/through learning. triptych

Language OF learning
  • what language students will need to access new knowledge and understanding when dealing with the content
  • example from our CLIL course: content language such as discipline-specific vocabulary/terminology, phrases and grammar related to the topic (e.g. cyanobacteria, Brno Reservoir, water cycle, etc.).
Language FOR learning
  • the language needed by students to operate in a learning environment, language needed during lessons to carry out the planned activities effectively
  • example from our CLIL course: language to work successfully in groups (e.g. phrases for agreeing or disagreeing), language for presentations (e.g. introducing a topic, concluding), language for writing abstracts (e.g. conventional metalanguage)
Language THROUGH learning
  • extending students’ language functions and notions, further development, students access new language for themselves
  • example from our CLIL course: corpus linguistics skills (e.g. using Sketchengine for autonomous language learning), advanced presentation skills (e.g. focusing on effective introductions and conclusions), conference skills (e.g. strategies for coping during the Q and A session at a conference)

Subject-/discipline-specific and general academic language

When planning a CLIL lesson, instructors should be aware of the fact that students need to know the language of the particular subject/discipline they are going to study. This is called subject- or discipline-specific language. However, they also need to be able to recognise and produce general academic language so that they are able to explain ideas, analyse data, describe processes, write abstracts, etc.

Demonstration of subject-/discipline-specific language (marked red) and general academic language (marked blue) in an abstract used in our CLIL course:

  • (1) Dominance by cyanobacteria hampers human use of lakes and reservoirs worldwide. (2) Previous studies indicate that excessive nutrient loading and warmer conditions promote dominance by cyanobacteria, but evidence from global scale field data has so far been scarce. (3) In this paper we show that although warmer climates do not result in higher overall phytoplankton biomass, the percentage of the total phytoplankton biovolume attributable to cyanobacteria increases steeply with temperature. (4) Our analysis is based on a study of 143 lakes along a latitudinal transect ranging from subarctic Europe to southern South America. (5) Our results reveal that the percent cyanobacteria is greater in lakes with high rates of light absorption. (6) This points to a positive feedback because restriction of light availability is often a consequence of high phytoplankton biovolume, which in turn may be driven by nutrient loading. (7) Our results indicate a synergistic effect of nutrients and climate. (8) The implications are that in a future warmer climate, nutrient concentrations may have to be reduced substantially from present values in many lakes if cyanobacterial dominance is to be controlled.


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