Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

Three girls, aged around 7, engaged in craft actitivies

CLIL and Immersion: Some differences

This post discusses Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) and the ways it differs from similar methods of bilingual education, such as immersion.

I think that such discussion is needed for two reasons: Firstly, the increasing popularity of CLIL and similar approaches has meant that the term is not always used with consistency, and it often overlaps with similar approaches like bilingual education, immersion, English Medium Instruction etc. Secondly, much of the discourse about the definition of CLIL is published in academic journals and books, which are not always readily accessible to teachers.

What I therefore want to do in this post is share a summary of an article that I found useful, which discusses differences between CLIL and bilingual education / immersion programmes. I hope you find it useful.

The article that forms the basis of this post is entitled Critical Analysis of CLIL: Taking Stock and Looking Forward. It was authored by Jasone Cenoz, Fred Genesee and Durk Gorter and it appeared in Applied Linguistics, Vol. 24, Issue 3, pp. 243-262.

The authors begin by pointing out that CLIL has described some proponents as a uniquely European pedagogical approach, as opposed to, e.g., Canadian immersion programmes. However, its historically distinct origins do not necessarily equate with pedagogical uniqueness, and this ambiguity is amplified by the lack of clear definitions.

Definition of CLIL

Most of the well known definitions of CLIL (e.g., Coyle et al. 2010, Marsh 2002) describe it as a pedagogical approach with a dual focus on language and content. There are two terms that need to be clarified in this definition. The first one, ‘language’, technically refers to any language other than the students’ mother language, or different from the main language of instruction in an educational system. In practice, however, this means English almost every time. The second term, ‘dual focus’, is less clear. Some CLIL theorists take a strict approach, arguing for strict parity (50-50) of language and content. Cenoz and colleagues, however, argue that this is not always the case, and point out that some scholars have even been happy to include 90-10 combinations. Such over-inclusive definitions, they point out, lack precision and are therefore unhelpful.

The diverse ways in which researchers conceptualise ‘integration’ in CLIL create even more ambiguity. Sometimes, the term refers to methodological integration. Different disciplines have developed distinctive instructional techniques, so integration could be about combining these. In other cases, the term denotes curricular integration: This involves designing thematic lessons which combine linguistic and content learning aims. Integration in CLIL might also be theoretical, in the sense of bringing together L2 acquisition theory and constructivism. Because of this lack of clarity, the authors point out, quoting Alejo and Piquer (2010: 220), how hard it is ‘to pin down the exact limits of the reality that this term refers to’.

CLIL & Bilingual Education / Immersion

In order to better tease out the characteristics that make CLIL unique, the authors then proceed to compare and contrast it with bilingual education / immersion programmes, by drawing on the work of (mostly) CLIL experts. I have summarised the differences they identify in the table below:

Bilingual education
functional proficiency?
native-like proficiency?
Student profile   
Target language     
Instructional materials
adapted from NS?
begins after literacy in L1? 
begins early on?

However, as the question marks in every cell suggest, these distinctions are far from clear-cut. For example, the assertion that CLIL programmes are inclusive, rather than elitist, is not always borne out empirically. Similarly, the presumed difference in the target age is blurred by the existence of early start CLIL programmes as well as bilingual programmes in secondary education. On the basis of this comparison, the authors argue that “categorical distinctions between CLIL and immersion (…) are unsupported”.

Evaluation of CLIL

The authors suggest that the increased prominence of CLIL has been beneficial in several ways. For example, it appears to be helping young men and women to be more effective in an integrated world; it has also lead to increased prominence of languages in the school curricula; and, finally, the additional research that CLIL projects generate is advancing our theoretical understanding of language acquisition. On the other hand, it is useful to be aware that the spread of CLIL is often driven by bandwagon effects rather than firm empirical evidence. In addition, the lack of conceptual clarity hinders our efforts to learn from the implementation of CLIL. In this regard, they argue, the sharp distinctions that are advocated by some CLIL theorists have the unfortunate effect of isolating CLIL education and research from potentially useful information from related strands of teaching.

Before you go: I hope that you found this information helpful. If you’re interested in reading more about CLIL, you might find the following blogposts interesting too.

I’d be very happy to read any feedback you have about CLIL and the way it is implemented in your teaching context. You can add your thoughts in the comment section below or by contacting me directly.

Featured Image: ‘Art and Writing’, by Wellspring Community School @ Flickr | CC BY


One response to “CLIL and Immersion: Some differences”

  1. Markus Söderman avatar


    Here in Finland one talks about immersion programs when it comes to one language group (Finnish or Swedish) learns the language of the other group.

    But when it comes to English it is bilingual education or CLIL.

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