Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) is an educational approach that emerged as a response to an educational problem which was adversely impacting on societies and economies. It does not matter that the European Union was the original epicenter for launching and developing CLIL models of practice.

The real origins of CLIL, both theoretical (what it is based on) and practical (how it can be realized) were global.

How come?

For a long time, the world of education, like medicine, has attracted fraudsters and tricksters. Pseudo-scientific products and services are sometimes launched with much fanfare alongside ill-founded promises that they can make a huge difference.
If you have been teaching for some years, especially languages, you may perhaps remember the influence of ‘behaviorism’ in education. This was partly responsible for significant investment in what were called ‘Language Laboratories’ – rooms full of small cubicles with tape recorders and headphones. Behaviorism assumed that learning is a mechanical process which should not involve thinking, realized in classrooms as rote-learning of de-contextualized words and phrases with accompanying rewards and punishments to encourage student performance.

Did it work? Yes, in the former Soviet Union thousands of hours over many years were required for those few young people who were being linguistically trained to go undercover in the west as spies. Yes, for some quasi-religious cults that wanted to train young people to go out into the world with repetitive catch lines for attracting converts. Yes, like most things in life it did work for the few but there was no way it could work for the majority.

The origins of CLIL are about the majority, and yet also cover the social equity issues of marginalized communities.

For example, CLIL can be used for widely used languages like English, and for learning minority or heritage languages.

The conceptualization of CLIL involved people with genuine interests in the public education sector. People who knew that ‘things could be better’ – with respect to studying mathematics, science, arts, and languages, among other subjects.

Establishing CLIL involved 6 Steps:

  1. Looking for examples of effective language learning practices around the world in diverse situations: low and high finance countries, regions with high overall good education outcomes, schools in border regions, or those in bi- or trilingual countries
  2. Examining these effective language learning practices in relation to four theoretical orientations: cognitive, psychological, structural, and functional
  3. Identifying common strands between theory and practice in these cases which lead to effective language learning
  4. Designing and testing models of practice which could flourish and be scaled up throughout different educational systems and schools
  5. Articulating the essentials of these models of practice and create an ‘umbrella term’ under which their shared characteristics and components could be identified.
  6. Communicating this educational practice to key stakeholders globally.

In summary, CLIL is not a single teaching model. It is an educational approach under which there are different models. It is a house with many rooms. But these models must follow certain fundamentals. One of these is that content drives CLIL. It is all about the content and the use of bilingual methods.

When CLIL was conceived we looked at a whole load of identifiable language teaching practices (many of which were very similar but with different terms and names). This included: total, double, partial, two-way, bilingual, dual language, foreign language and heritage language immersion; Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP); communicative language teaching; cognitive academic language learning; cross-curricular teaching; content-based language teaching; task-based language instruction; project-based language learning; inquiry-based learning; languages for specific purposes; content-based instruction, among others.

But there was something missing. And that something was genuine content alongside a purposeful reason for learning the language.

We were asked why we did not introduce the term Content and Language Integrated Teaching. We responded that CLIL is focused on learning, not teaching.

It is focused on students not teachers. It is focused on powerful theory in action, not off-the-shelf commercially driven products. Teachers are enablers. Just as medical doctors enable healing, and pilots enable flight, so teachers enable learning. But teachers will not be able to do this if they cannot operate effective learning environments in which like the conductor of an orchestra, they are in control, but they are not playing each instrument.

As attention towards CLIL increased, and reports of success began to go mainstream, the term increasingly attracted commercial interests. Deeply rooted in the yesterday of language teaching, in the worst cases these entities raised expectations (of achieving bilingualism), profited from selling this dream to parents and students alike, and operated forms of ‘bilingual education’ destined to fail in realizing the full potential of the young people involved. Simply adding more-of-the-same language teaching into a possibly already full curriculum does not realize the benefits of true bilingual education which can be achieved through CLIL.

To re-phrase Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To CLIL or not to CLIL, that is the question.

CLIL is not the context (in our school we are going to have conversation classes in English and call it CLIL), it is about what happens in the context (the content-driven bilingual pedagogical signature described elsewhere). You only have to look inside the classroom, talk to teachers and students, to know if it is CLIL or traditional language instruction dressed up to be something that it is not. Then you can see the difference between a real and a fake bilingual school.