Content Language Integrated Learning (CLIL): Seriously, a good idea?

As I prepare for Fall 2021, I am excited to step into a new role as coordinator of the MEd in Content Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) program at the University of Hong Kong. And yet, this week in late August, I summarize an important literature review about CLIL by Anthony Bruton titled: “CLIL: Some of the reasons why… and why not.” In other words, I think it is an ethical necessity to discuss how learning academic subjects through the medium of English, in a country where English is not the dominant language… is sometimes a bad idea. In another post, I have blogged about how I think CLIL should be done and how that relates to translanguaging (drawing on students’ entire language repertoires to teach and learn), but in this post, I summarize an article on whether CLIL should be implemented in the first place.

Bruton, A. (2013). CLIL: Some of the reasons why… and why not. System41(3), 587-597.

Anthony Bruton is a professor in Spain, where a lot of CLIL research in Europe comes from. He begins: “With the growing interest in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), there should be some reflection on the possible limitations of… THE so-called current solution to FL teaching and learning” (p. 588; my bold). He says “so-called current solution” because of the following problem: when you have primary and secondary students studying English in countries where English a foreign language (FL), they can be bored and demotivated, particularly at the secondary level when English learning is no longer fun and games, because they often have little reason to use English in their everyday lives beyond school. The solution promised by CLIL, then, is to give students an authentic reason to use English: by making them study academic subjects in English.

According to Dalton-Puffer (2007, p. 276), another CLIL researcher whom Bruton cites repeatedly in this article, CLIL promises “more of everything”: more content learning, richer language learning, more engagement, more real-world application… it has the allure of being highly-cost effective. Everything seems beneficial, especially when supported by researchers and academics. But the same has been said about Task-Based Language Teaching, “which is also characterized by boundless benefits, little research on actual learning outcomes” (Bruton, 2011; Dalton-Puffer, 2007, 2011). Therefore, Bruton leads us through the rest of his article to explain “the real reason or purpose for using the FL in the content classes, and the effect” (p. 589). This FL always happens to be English, no matter what the country, so CLIL might as well be called “Content and English Integrated Learning (CEIL)” as Dalton-Puffer, Nikula and Smit (2010) sarcastically termed it.

1. Is CLIL really new?

The first point Bruton makes is that CLIL is not new, even if educational discourse makes it seem new. Many of the good things we have witnessed in CLIL classrooms, like hands-on learning, student-centeredness, and authentic genres and communicative purposes “are not novel, since ‘many of the features are not just specific to CLIL, but are part of basic best practice in education’ (Mehisto et al., 2008: 25)” (as cited in Bruton, 2013, p. 589). Even the idea of stressing meaning over form is not new; it was already in Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), a method that came before CLIL and Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT).

2. Is CLIL truly authentic and needs-based?

Second, CLIL researchers make assumptions about CLIL learners’ motivations and preferences that show who they think CLIL learners should be. They assume that CLIL learners will see some real world relevance to this learning, such as learning about the nervous system (see the graphic at the top of this post!) in a foreign language. This is a bit strange, and assumes “that subject matter goals may be more important than students’ more personal goals” (p. 590) like chatting up someone in English on the Internet about everyday subjects like sports, multiplayer games, or music videos. 

The idea of “learn as you use and use as you learn” is questionable, because which kid in a non-English-dominant country—after coming out of a CLIL class, having learned about the nervous system in English—would be likely to talk to his friends in English, or about the nervous system, much less about the nervous system in English? Why do we even assume this kid likes the subject of biology, or English language learning? If he doesn’t like biology, how can this subject motivate his learning of English? And if he likes biology but doesn’t like English learning, surely he would prefer learning biology in his first language?

Bruton writes: “The gain in sense of purpose in CLIL can only be verified by surveying students impartially in terms of what content, if any, they would prefer to study in an FL or even that they might find more beneficial… not their parents or the authorities” (p. 591). In many cases, he argues, young people are forced to study hard in CLIL classrooms to get the grade, not because they are intrinsically motivated. In fact, Bruton argues that CLIL was not designed for students’ benefit but for the government’s. By forcing secondary students to learn English if they want to be educated in academic subjects and attend university, the government gets more people to learn English in academic and professional domains for national development, and they can also use it as a means of social selection.

3. What resources and orientations are needed for CLIL to be implemented successfully?

Even if students genuinely wanted to learn CLIL, to implement CLIL successfully, you need teachers who have many skills and knowledges: (1) knowledge of the subject because they also have some professional experience as a geologist, historian, creative writer, etc., (2) academically proficient in English (including explicit teaching), and (3) academically proficient in the students’ first language. [Often, you can find teachers who have one of the three qualities; much more rarely, two of these; to find teachers with all three qualities is almost impossible, given the division in education/skills training between language and content teachers, and between local and foreign teachers.] And if the teacher lacks all the requisite skills and knowledges, they will likely lack a sense of efficacy, which may impact their short- and long-term motivation.

Teacher academic knowledge and language skills are vital in CLIL, because academic genres are not just text types to be learned: they are embedded in social practices and being able to take on all sorts of roles/identities in the foreign language which students might try in their native language first to bridge the gap (Derewianka, as cited in Lin, 2016, p. 79; see diagram below on how these roles and identities come into play when teaching a geology unit about rocks).

Derewianka (1990), p. 201, as cited in Lin (2016), p. 79

However, as Bruton explains, even though these identities/genres/communicative practices could indeed be very interesting, nothing is really that motivating (especially the older students get) if it has no long-term relevance (p. 591).

Another thing to consider is the culture behind the content. Governments want human resources (i.e., workers) who are proficient in English in academic and professional domains, yet who have NOT internalized the foreign culture (in this case, Western and anglophone) and who still believe in national cultural values. This does not take into account what individual learners themselves want. Do they want to learn academic subjects in English, or would they rather be learning another foreign language OR their heritage language/dialect (e.g., Hokkien, Gujarati, Ilokano) for academic OR general purposes? And if they are intrinsically motivated learners of academic English, that is likely because they genuinely like aspects of Western and anglophone cultures. However, in many learners’ cases, “it is very much the instrumentality of English that has made it so popular” (p. 592). While it is impossible to give every individual her/his/their desired type of language class, are the language classes offered in schools reflective of the student population’s wants and needs, or the authorities’?

4. Will language development occur?

Learning new academic knowledge in a language you know—fine. Learning something you already know in your second language, like in a regular foreign language class—manageable. However, it goes without saying that if subject knowledge is new AND the language is difficult/unfamiliar, there can be major blockages to learning. 

If we want people to communicate freely and openly, this would be “much more viable if the communication were based on the familiar, the local and the mundane” (p. 592). Instead, you might end up with double-alienation: the content is irrelevant to daily life, and so is the language! Often, what ends up happening in CLIL subjects is that students use their first language, or L1, to manage and plan tasks in the L2, and even though the output or final product is in the L2, this does not lead to much use of L2 (English) in classroom communication and negotiation—“In the non-teacher-led activities, almost all the group work ended up in the L1” (p. 592), Bruton says with regard to a number of studies he reviews on this page. In fact, there is an inverse relationship between level of student-to-student interaction in L2 and academic level of the topic: the more academic, the less spontaneous student interaction in L2, as students may not have the L2 proficiency to cope, and this could also be true for the teachers (see this section of Bruton’s article for a number of studies across Europe that highlight this problem).

[Side note: Translanguaging, as I explain in this other post, is an option to improve learning outcomes. Personally, I would recommend translanguaging in CLIL or no CLIL at all… before English-only CLIL, which is impossible anyway. I don’t think any class actually carries on like that for long, unless the teacher talked 99% of the time.]

Often, what happens in CLIL classrooms is that the textbook content is first explained/taught in L1, then recycled in English. While this could be done effectively, as shown in this textbook we use in our program (Lin, 2016) and by Probyn (2015), it obviously will take a lot of time, and the same thing could be done in a more effective way, as many of my international friends have proven: students can learn the subject in L1 at this point in their lives, and may revisit it in English if they are motivated to study this subject later on in university. However, in their primary or secondary education, they may not have many resources outside of school (e.g., parents, community members) to help them with the academic content in English; “drop outs are another element of CLIL that are conveniently ignored (Aspel, 2012)” (p. 593). This brings us to the final point: CLIL linked to socioeconomic inequality.

5. Is socioeconomic inequality the elephant in the CLIL room?

The elephant in the room… the thing everybody sees but pretends they don’t see.

In country after country, we see higher socio-economic-status (SES) parents as the ones who choose to put their children into CLIL programs, which also have the most motivated students. Teachers are also more motivated to teach these groups, because they have narrower ranges of ability at a higher level, and are easier to manage. Lasagabaster and Sierra (2010) point out that to get into many CLIL programs, regardless of country, you already have to be proficient in the national language! That is an entry requirement. CLIL is therefore designed for students from well-off backgrounds whose L1 is the dominant societal language in that country, presumably to prepare them for English-medium higher education. CLIL would be less relevant (and therefore demotivating) for others given their alternate high school graduation pathways, and these other students would unsurprisingly be less invested to learn EFL through CLIL (Darvin & Norton, 2015), even if they are interested in some form of EFL.

Therefore, Bruton quotes Breidbach and Viebrock (2012) in Germany, who write: “structural selectivity of CLIL appears to have a greater impact on student achievement than CLIL itself has on student achievement” (p. 594). In other words, CLIL doesn’t in itself lead to achievement if the ones who achieve were already going to do so. However, the way that CLIL structures society can lead to disempowerment for a lot of students.

Bruton explains further that CLIL comes at a cost and students need to have the resources to carry that cost on their shoulders. As a burden, CLIL gets “heavier” with each passing year of a child’s kindergarten-to-grade-12 career, resulting in compromises elsewhere: children and youth take fewer subjects, obtain lower grades, and pay huge sums of time, effort [and money via hours of tutoring] just to stay afloat in CLIL classes. Of course, there are the promises of CLIL: smaller classes, improved content instruction, perhaps more student-centred and multimodal learning, maybe some good team teaching between the local teacher and native English speaking foreign assistants, etc. (p. 595). However, from a theoretical standpoint, it is these other factors, like smaller classes and extra tutoring, that yield the educational benefits, rather than CLIL itself. 

Moreover, some studies have found that the benefits are rather small, if they even appear at all. Research by Bruton himself (2011a, 2011b) found that CLIL students initially performed better, but non-CLIL students eventually caught up. In this article, he writes, “Given that the students were self-selected, more motivated, and received more hours of the FL [foreign language], and in some cases extra English outside school, this is not encouraging” (p. 595). The same was found by Lasagabaster and Sierra (2009): CLIL students started off more motivated, but within two years non-CLIL students closed the gap, and their motivation levels increased while CLIL students’ motivation decreased.

The reason for this, I think, is what Jim Cummins (2008) identified as a flaw in English-medium instructors’ thinking: they overestimate students’ English fluency in the early grades, when students can more easily cope due to the everyday nature of the subject matter. As I said, CLIL gets “heavier” with each passing year. As much of the content that young children are learning is concrete and contextualized, with some relation to already-known concepts in the first language (e.g., “heart,” “volcano”), the learners can still cope. When grade-level content becomes more discipline-specific and abstract (e.g., “cardiovascular,” “geothermal”), bilingual explanations are necessary for students to keep up with the course. Moreover, such explanations have to be given by someone who is a bilingual content expert—quite often, the teacher, if no peers are present who can do the task. But what happens if, due to a few years of CLIL, students’ academic proficiency in the first language has also attrited (i.e., declined or been underdeveloped)? Now what will scaffold what?


Bruton’s conclusions are depressing. He asks: “If there are actually so many counter-arguments, what might be the real reasons for adopting CLIL?” (p. 595).

Well, authorities like the 2-for-1 idea (language + content) and the appeal of so-called authenticity after boring grammar-based English instruction fails to increase students’ language proficiency and motivation. For education professionals, CLIL looks beneficial on the surface, and may motivate teachers with its novelty (newness), and they may also be disillusioned with traditional grammar teaching methods. Certainly, parents will be attracted if they want to give their children an advantage in life. High-achieving students will be attracted for the same reason. All this, Bruton argues, leads to CLIL resulting in a great deal of social inequality, with little actual educational benefits (except for those who would have succeeded at school anyway). He concludes (p. 595):

Apart from the discussion, or lack of discussion, about the possible limitations of CLIL, there is the outstanding question of what happens to non-CLIL foreign language teaching, and non-CLIL students. Where CLIL has been adopted, it has diverted much of the attention away from the so-called mainstream school FL [foreign language] teaching. [i.e., Are those students getting the FL instruction they deserve? Or have we left them and their situations behind in our preoccupation with CLIL?]

What to do?

I offer two possibilities in response to Bruton’s article. Both come from my MEd students in CLIL, and some inspiring graduating projects I am marking this summer from practicing K-12 teachers in China.

The first idea (from one student’s classroom intervention research) is to apply CLIL to L1 teaching and learning. There are so many good teaching practices in CLIL that one might as well apply to content instruction in students’ first language, and this is something many teachers around the world are well equipped to do!

The second idea (from another student’s mixed-methods research) is to carefully consider the subjects where CLIL in English might be useful—not academic subjects, but in arts, music, PE, or information technology… where students of all backgrounds have contact with English input and interaction through popular culture, sports, or computer/Internet related hobbies, and where the outcomes are not subject to standardized tests. Teachers can therefore match CLIL pedagogy and genres to students’ needs, while teaching to the standardized tests in academic subjects in students’ L1 or in grammar translation for the English subject test (as required by the situation). In contrast, CLIL as “English-for-fun” in electives can provide students with relief from their academic subjects and test preparation, and promote their identities as people who use English for their own purposes (see Lin & Man, 2011, for an example).

In short, if schools and teachers have the agency, they can address Content and English Integrated Learning (CEIL) by (1) re-appropriating CLIL for other languages, then (2) re-appropriating EFL for more authentic purposes. And that is why I still find meaning in my job as a university teacher of English education and CLIL.


Apsel, C. (2012). Coping with CLIL: Dropouts from CLIL streams in Germany. International CLIL Research Journal, 1(4), 47-56.

Breidbach, S., & Viebrock, B. (2012). CLIL in Germany: Results from recent research in a contested field of education. International CLIL Research Journal1(4), 5-16.

Bruton, A. (2011a). Are the differences between CLIL and non-CLIL groups in Andalusia due to CLIL? A reply to Lorenzo, Casal and Moore (2010). Applied Linguistics32(2), 236-241.

Bruton, A. (2011b). Is CLIL so beneficial, or just selective? Re-evaluating some of the research. System39(4), 523-532.

Cummins, J. (2008). BICS and CALP: Empirical and theoretical status of the distinction. In B. Street and N. H. Hornberger (Eds.), Encyclopedia of language and education (2nd ed.), Volume 2: Literacy (pp. 71-83). Berlin, Germany: Springer Science + Business Media.

Dalton-Puffer, C. (2007). Discourse in Content and Language Integrated (CLIL) classrooms. Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Dalton-Puffer, C. (2011). Content-and-language integrated learning: From practice to principles? Annual Review of Applied Linguistics31, 182-204.

Dalton-Puffer, C., Nikula, T., & Smit, U. (2010). Language use and language learning in CLIL: current findings and contentious issues. In C. Dalton-Puffer, T. Nikula, & U. Smit (Eds.), Language use and language learning in CLIL classrooms. Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Darvin, R., & Norton, B. (2015). Identity and a model of investment in applied linguistics. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics35, 36-56.

Derewianka, B. (1990). Rocks in the head: Children and the language of geology. In R. Carter (Ed.), Knowledge about language and the curriculum: The LINC reader (pp. 197–215). London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton.

Lasagabaster, D., & Sierra, J. M. (2010). Immersion and CLIL in English: More differences than similarities. ELT Journal64(4), 367-375.

Lin, A. M. Y. (2016). Language across the curriculum & CLIL in English as an Additional Language (EAL) contexts: Theory and practice. Singapore: Springer Science + Business Media.

Lin, A., & Man, E. (2011). Doing-hip-hop in the transformation of youth identities: Social class, habitus, and cultural capital. In C. Higgins (Ed.), Identity formation in globalizing contexts (pp. 201-220). Berlin, Germany: De Gruyter Mouton.

Mehisto, P., Marsh, D., & Frigols, M.-J. (2008). Uncovering CLIL: Content and Language Integrated Learning in bilingual and multilingual education. Oxford, UK: Macmillan.

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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