Integrating content and language

Sanjhee Gianchandani

The process of English language learning has evolved over the years and adapted itself to the changing educational and cultural contexts and the transformative dynamics of contemporary classrooms. In contemporary times, learners are exposed to a variety of approaches to learning the language such as the use of ICT, realia, game-based learning, project-based learning, and the inclusion of 21st century skills in language learning.

What does CLIL encompass?
A relatively new and underutilized pedagogical approach to language learning is CLIL or Content and Language Integrated Learning. David Marsh is noted for coining the term in 1994. The fulcrum of CLIL lies in studying a subject (for example, science, history, or literature) and learning a language simultaneously and thereby amalgamating the two. This definition is broad because a subject and language integration can occur in many different ways.

In the context of the Indian English-medium education system, CLIL refers to a generic term referring to the teaching of a curricular subject through a foreign language. The basis of CLIL is that the teaching-learning is carried out in a language that is not the mother tongue of the students. The end objective remains to learn the second language while the content is extracted through other subjects which the students already study as part of their curriculum. It is a dual-focused approach in which both the content and the language are learnt simultaneously. CLIL classrooms are not typical language classrooms because language is just the medium through which content is “transported”, therefore this approach produces a lot more immediate results and it appeals to self-motivated adult learners who possess a basic knowledge and understanding of the target language and are inclined towards learning it via vocational streams.

What are the core features of the CLIL methodology?
The successful implementation of a CLIL programme relies on the collaboration between language teachers and content teachers. Each is an expert in his or her field, so they need to share their respective ideologies and materials.

The content teacher
A content teacher is someone who teaches a subject – for example, biology, history, or art. This does not mean just teaching the subject in the English medium. These content teachers are not experts in language acquisition or pedagogy as they are experts only in their respective subjects. Therefore, to teach their subjects, content teachers usually require some amount of training in the language used to transact the knowledge. They may also use both their students’ native language as well as English to disseminate information in their lessons. This technique is known as translanguaging. Content teachers also depend on the support of the language teacher in order to diffuse the elements of the language into their subject matter. Thus, both types of teachers have to work in close conjunction with one another in order to make CLIL successful.

The language teacher
A language teacher is principally responsible for teaching English (or another language), but in the CLIL programme, he or she also supports the content teacher by introducing relevant vocabulary and functional language related to a given subject and by emphasizing critical thinking.

Let us take the example of a history lesson. The content teacher explains the Civil Disobedience Movement through pictures, demonstrations, using the textbook in English, and if necessary, the students’ first language. In parallel, the English language teacher might teach students the grammatical structures used for explaining the past tense (simple past, past progressive, and past perfect), the language to describe cause and effect (because of, due to, results in), and word forms (empire, emperor). In summation, the student has learnt both the concept of the Civil Disobedience Movement and is able to articulate or explain it using appropriate grammar and terminology.

The CLIL framework
The framework of CLIL is based on the 4Cs, i.e., Content (or the subject matter), Cognition (the process of learning and thinking), Communication (the process of interacting and using the language), and Culture (developing an understanding of the language). So, CLIL teaching is not only a matter of learning how to teach both content and language, but also how to integrate them. In this aspect, it is very different from immersion or content-based instruction techniques of language acquisition as it emphasizes the need to harmonize language and content-based learning rather than prioritizing one over the other.

According to Marsh et al. (2001), students cannot improve their content knowledge and skills without learning the language, because the subjects are discussed, constructed, evaluated, and embedded in the language. And the basic aspect of learning any language or developing fluency in it is to acquire as much vocabulary as you can. Vocabulary can be divided into three parts: basic vocabulary, academic vocabulary, and discipline-specific vocabulary. CLIL involves learning to use language appropriately while using language to learn the subject adequately.

In every CLIL lesson plan given by the University of Cambridge, ESOL examinations it is repeatedly insisted that “Every subject has its content obligatory language which means a subject-specific vocabulary, grammatical structures, and functional expressions”. For instance, a chapter on ‘Plants’ in grade 3 science would have vocabulary such as ‘photosynthesis’, ‘stomata’, ‘sunlight’, etc., which are domain specific for science for that level and these words would not generally be found in any other subject. Similarly, “Two plus two equals four” is a grammatical structure which is typical to maths of grade 2, and the English stories being read by the students would not typically be written using such structures.

Therefore, each chunk of content associated with CLIL has a specific vocabulary and the teacher has to relate his/her teaching with the newly learnt vocabulary, which is also the preliminary step in the CLIL approach. CLIL materials can be adapted as per the needs and language level of the students. This is a more powerful approach to learning a new language as it focuses on the authentic use of language rather than learning it through decontextualized content fragments, memorizing grammar rules, or the cramming of curricular subjects.

The final word
The objectives of CLIL are varied, but among the most relevant are to improve the educational system, to establish the necessary conditions that will allow students to achieve the appropriate level of academic performance in curricular subjects, to develop intercultural understanding and to hone their social and thinking skills. Moreover, CLIL prepares students for the globalized world by increasing their motivation to learn foreign languages and cementing their intercultural competence.

As an approach, CLIL has been very successful in countries such as China, Malaysia, and Thailand in promoting content learning and language acquisition. In India too, CLIL is gaining currency slowly and steadily but needs some more research, the willingness to adopt, and flexible implementation. Some initiatives have been taken in this direction. For instance, CLIL@India a three-year project co-funded by the European Union under the Erasmus+ Programme began in 2016 and was completed in 2019. It was a consortium of seven universities from India and Europe dedicated to developing a new model of bilingual education by introducing Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) as an innovative pedagogical practice in the Indian education system to preserve the nation’s multilingualism.


The author works as an ELT curriculum architect in the Ed-tech space. She has worked on several ELT books, assessments, and digital materials. She has a Masters’ degree in English from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi and a CELTA from the University of Cambridge. She is passionate about education and putting out meaningful and relevant content into the world through her writing. Her articles on pedagogy and learning strategies have been published in several educational magazines and blogs. She can be reached at

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