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Implementing CLIL snapshot series: A Trilingual View of CLIL

Implementing CLIL: Teacher snapshots from around the world

The papers in this series are drawn from coursework completed by Deakin students in a unit on CLIL pedagogy in 2019. The students’ diverse views and educational and teaching backgrounds led to vibrant discussion around the practicalities of implementing CLIL in different contexts. The content of the students’ papers was too good to keep to ourselves, so we’d like to share them with you to keep the CLIL discussion going.

CLIL: The 60-second summary

Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) is derived from the bilingual immersion programs practised in Canada, where students learn about 50 per cent of the curriculum in the target language. In 2004, the EU recognised that CLIL could boost their ‘one plus two’ strategy, which encourages people to be proficient in three languages: their national language plus two other EU languages.

However, immersive teaching focuses on content while learning through the medium of another language, whereas CLIL focuses on learning language and content at the same time. So, for example, a student in Australia might be doing a mathematics class in Italian, with a simultaneous focus on mathematics and Italian.

The key theory behind CLIL is that learning is based on a gradual and active construction of knowledge and skills—and if new knowledge is constructed through the target language it boosts the acquisition of both language and content, as each reinforces the other. CLIL has four key building blocks, known as the 4Cs:

Content: the subject or domain, e.g. maths, ICT, Spanish.

Communication: the language used to ‘create and communicate meaning about the knowledge, concepts and skills being learned’ (Coyle 2006).

Cognition: the ways we think and make sense of the world around us by remembering, evaluating, understanding, etc.

Culture: the ways that we interact and engage (adapted from Cross, 2014).

While CLIL has become an increasingly popular pedagogy in Australia, especially in the curriculum domain of Languages, much of the thinking and teaching behind it is based on Anglophone CLIL literature. So how does CLIL transfer to different educational settings? How do practitioners in contexts other than Europe implement CLIL programs? How do teachers adjust CLIL pedagogy to suit their own classrooms?

To find out, we are showcasing student reflections on the feasibility and value of CLIL in non-Anglophone contexts. In this second instalment, Jeslyn Sia gives a first-person account of the context of—and for—CLIL in Malaysia.

A trilingual view of CLIL

by Jeslyn Sia

Setting the scene

I received my primary, secondary and tertiary education in Malaysia, a country with more than three languages in usage, and I know how to speak, write and read Mandarin, Malay and English. I graduated from a Chinese primary school and spoke Mandarin as my main language. But until I encountered Australian culture, I could not comprehend what a ‘monolingual mindset’ was.

In this paper, my opinions about CLIL are based on my experience teaching in a Malaysian primary school and a placement in an Australian secondary school.

Examples of practice: CLIL in Malaysia

According to Coyle et al. (2010), a successful CLIL lesson is a ‘symbiosis’ process that establishes a close and long-term relationship among the 4Cs: culture, cognition, content and communication.

However, when I was in high school, I learnt history using Malay, and I did not have the opportunity to value the idea of ‘communication’. My history teacher did not specifically introduce the vocabulary or phrases in the content, nor highlight the appropriate words to be used during group discussions or when completing history projects.

This is because Malay is a compulsory subject in Malaysia, and is meant to be learnt during Malay language classes. Furthermore, my history teacher used a mixture of English and Malay when teaching, and did not allow Chinese students to speak Mandarin during her history class. It was a challenge for Chinese students such as myself to speak and communicate using our second or third language.

CLIL: Expanding pedagogy and practice

The key principle of CLIL is that additional-language instruction should be integrated with content instruction. So rather than expecting students to memorise a list of new words and grammar rules, teachers should provide opportunities for students to speak out and to complete hands-on activities.


When preparing lessons using CLIL pedagogy, the 4Cs framework is a useful tool for planning and delivering sequential lessons. Language is very important as it enables us to understand the content, generate ideas to solve problems and create the sense of appreciating cultural values in a particular subject. The language(s) of instruction is even more critical when it comes to CLIL methodology.

People tend to deny the positive relationship between dominant language and target language acquisition (Slaughter & Hajek 2007). From my past learning and teaching experience, I agree that there are advantages in using the dominant language when using CLIL methodology. However, I would advise teachers to use 70 per cent of the target language and 30 per cent of the dominant language when using CLIL methods.

Freire (1972) states that using dialogue is crucial in encouraging communication among learners, which is the very meaning of education. If teachers use the dominant language when use CLIL methods, students will be engaged and understand, and then be able to collaborate on content with their peers. For example, when I was teaching English to my Year 6 students in Malaysia, I encouraged them to communicate in English during group activities. However, I gave them permission to use the dominant language when they faced difficulties in expressing ‘big words’. Consequently, learners had different opportunities to do self-assessment and peer assessment by providing feedback, which allowed them to make meaning from the lesson.

I am inspired by the saying of Mandela (cited in Laka, 2014): ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.’ Mandela’s saying highlights the importance of communicating both the dominant language and the target language. This seems to be of particular relevance when using CLIL pedagogy, as it focuses on both content and language learning—and also creates the need to learn and use the language in the first place (Lin, 2015).


Mehisto (2012) highlights that learners are able to monitor their learning progression if they are given clear and specific content and language objectives in an effective dual-language classroom. However, every coin has two sides, as using a CLIL approach means that teachers spend more time on preparation and collaboration. For instance, Kühn (2013) highlighted some of the difficulties in utilising CLIL methodology: the complexity of outcomes, teachers’ constant modelling and assisting, preparation of teaching materials, adapting inappropriate materials to new materials, and lack of content knowledge.

To minimise pressure on teachers when they are using CLIL methodology, I think that the responsibilities of the school stakeholders are paramount. School leaders need to provide sufficient long-term funding to create a supportive learning environment (Jäppinen, 2005), such as getting relevant and appropriate teaching and learning resources, and inviting content and language experts to the school to provide teachers with ongoing professional development (Mehisto, 2008). In addition, school administrators should provide strong support and be aware when arranging timetables that CLIL teachers need extra time to collaborate with colleagues.

Furthermore, teachers should be aware of two primary goals of coordination among CLIL staff: that the content and language objectives are relevant, and that other teachers can contribute ideas or suggestions on teaching strategies and activities for any particular CLIL lesson (Genesee & Hamayan, 2016). Learning language through CLIL methodology should open up learners to a wider view of the world and its different cultures, and encourage them to be responsible to the world in ethical ways (Jäppinen, 2005).

Summing up

In all, I believe that in a successful CLIL classroom, students should feel that they are ‘members’ rather than ‘visitors’. I like to think that I will be flexible and proactive in my CLIL classroom because of the benefits CLIL brings to teachers, as it boosts the ‘learning brain’ (CERI, 2007: 10), enhances cultural awareness and encourages ‘cognitive flexibility’.

Personally, I think that although there are many challenges when implementing CLIL, I would love to give it a go—because if I never try, I will never know.


CERI. (2007). Understanding the brain: The birth of a learning science. Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, OECD.

Coyle, D. (2006). Content and language integrated learning: Motivating learners and teachers. Scottish Language Review, 13, 1–18.

Coyle, D., Hood, P., & Marsh, D. (2010). CLIL: Content and language integrated learning. Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 978-0-521-13021-9

Cross, R. (2014). Defining content and language integrated learning for language education in Australia. Babel, 49(2), 4–15.

Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Herder & Herder.

Genesee, F., & Hamayan, E. V. (2016). CLIL in context: Practical guidance for educators. Cambridge University Press.

Jäppinen, 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. Language & Education: An International Journal, 9(2), 148–169.

Kühn, J. (2013). Content and language integrated learning (CLIL). SZENE, 33(1), 2–6

Lin, A. M.Y. (2015). Conceptualising the potential role of L1 in CLIL. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 28(1), 74–89.

Mehisto, P. (2008). CLIL counterweights: Recognising and decreasing disjuncture in CLIL. International CLIL Research Journal, 1, 93–119.

Mehisto, P. (2012). Excellence in bilingual education: A guide for school principals. Cambridge University Press.

Slaughter, Y., & J. Hajek. (2007). Community languages and LOTE provision in Victorian primary schools. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics, 30(1), 07.01–07.22.

About the author

Jeslyn’s self-motivation quote is ‘One hour of pain, produces one whole life of pride’—and in March 2019 it inspired her to move from Malaysia to Melbourne. After four years teaching primary school in Malaysia, she wanted to challenge herself to teach and learn with secondary students in Australian contexts. With her acquisition of three languages (Chinese Mandarin, English and Bahasa Malaysia), Jeslyn was inspired to ‘bear more fruit’ in Australia.