Vocabulary teaching techniques in CLIL technology

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №9 - 2017

Author: Uisembayeva Assem, Kazakh-American Free University, Kazakhstan

In the recent decades, CLIL technology has been introduced into the education system of many countries and is said to be reaching maturity. CLIL approach develops confident learners and enhances academic proficiency, learners become more sensitive to vocabulary and ideas presented in their first language as well as in the target language and their vocabulary are more extensive and varied. In the target language, learners reach proficiency levels in all four skills - listening, speaking, reading and writing far beyond the objectives of mainstream programs. In secondary schools, research indicates that CLIL results in better English proficiency; it has neither a negative effect on the learners’ native tongue proficiency, nor on the pupils’ subject knowledge. CLIL induces the learner to be more cognitively active during the learning process [1]. Content and language Integrated learning is aimed at fostering language learning which demands a clear focus on vocabulary acquisition and vocabulary growth [2, p. 182]. For the development of a successful CLIL vocabulary-teaching strategy, it is vital to keep in mind the way learners acquire it in their native tongue, at the same time remembering, that the foreign language vocabulary of the learner is more limited.

The lexical competence in a foreign language consists of receptive (passive) and productive (active) vocabulary knowledge. In general, receptive vocabulary comprises the words a person is able to understand, whereas the words of his productive vocabulary are both understood and produced. For CLIL researchers and practitioners it is essential to consider not only the amount of words for the learner to acquire but exact words and word families that should comprise his active and passive vocabulary, remembering that reception precedes production and that production is more demanding than comprehension and passive vocabulary should be wider than active vocabulary.

The number of words to be acquired in CLIL technology is identified by The Common English Lexical Framework (CELF) the primary objective of which being production of a lexical syllabus describing the words that a learner should be able to use productively according to their language proficiency described by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). CEFR establishes the amount of headwords and family words that the learner should use productively at CEFR bands of language proficiency [3]:

Table 1. CELF Scale of Headwords and Family Words

However, some researchers are of different opinion. According to Laufer and Nation [4], teachers of English should focus on the 2,000 most frequent words, i.e. on high-frequency words, and instead of teaching less frequently used words they should acquaint learners with strategies for coping with unfamiliar vocabulary. Nation and Waring state that if, as it is commonly estimated, an educated native speaker of English has a receptive knowledge of between around 17,000 and 20,000 word families, a receptive knowledge of the most frequent 6,000 word families is sufficient to provide a working understanding of the language. A more positive fast-mapping model of McMurray (2007) suggests a distinct lexical threshold of around 1,600-1,700 of the most frequent word families, i.e. learners who have naturally acquired these words normally seem to have acquired an actual vocabulary size of around 6,000 words.

Table 2. Vocabulary for Language Acquisition

In their research, Feldman & Kinsella (2005) summarize that successful and thorough implementation of CLIL almost certainly requires by its end point knowledge of approximately 6,000 most frequent words in English, of the key lexicon of the content area and of the key transactional lexis of the educational environment, including knowledge of the key lexis used by digital media [3].

When considering what vocabulary should be taught in a CLIL course, one should differentiate between content-obligatory or content-compatible language. Content-obligatory language is subject-specific, grammatical structures and functional expressions learners need to learn about a curricular subject, communicate subject knowledge and take part in interactive classroom tasks. Content-compatible language is the non-subject specific language which learners may have learned in their English classes, and which they can then use in CLIL classes to communicate more fully about the curricular subject.

At present, much support for CLIL teachers is provided by Cambridge Un iversity. In its Cambridge TKT CLIL Handbook [5]. There, a general survey of what should be taught in CLIL courses in terms of language has been given. The language is specified by the obligatory language units, e.g. seventy six words for Science (e.g. absorb/absorbent, acceleration, acid, adaptation, algae, alkali, etc.), communicative skills that are to be developed across the curriculum (agreeing or disagreeing; asking questions; clarifying what has been said; comparing and contrasting; describing cause and effect, diagrams; images; a process; evaluating work (own and others’); expressing idea; giving examples, information, reasons; hypothesizing; instructing; interpreting data; justifying answers or opinions, persuading, predicting; presenting solutions, presenting work; stating facts and opinions; suggesting changes and ideas). Indispensable verbs are connected with the cognitive skills to be developed. With “remembering” the verbs recognize, recall and the activities label, list, identify, match, name, recite, spell, state facts, tell are associated.

 “Understanding” presupposes use of explain and interpret in such activities as classify, compare, define, describe, draw, give examples, order, predict, sequence, translate. “Applying” requires the verbs carry out and do and the activities calculate, experiment, find out, interview, prepare, present, research, show. With “analyzing” we associate the verbs examine and reason and the activities analyze, choose, decide, deduce, examine, give reasons, justify, show the difference between, solve.

“Evaluating” requires evaluate, assess and such activities as conclude, consider, give an opinion, judge, prove, rate, recommend. “Creating” needs the verbs make and produce and the activities compose, create, build, change, design, invent, imagine [5].

Moreover, introducing CLIL technology, every education system needs to adjust CLIL to specific educational situation. In our country such an attempt has been made by The National Academy of Education named after I. Altynsarin [6], though, we should note that the selection of words for school subjects was made not on the basis of the Language Corpus (as it is normally done), but in accordance with the themes studied.

Thus, selection of content-obligatory or content-compatible vocabulary is vital as a useful corpus can provide expanded revision, and engage the learner on deeper levels and in a variety of ways as they practice vocabulary. It can also provide meaningful vocabulary activities for the classroom and for the independent studies. Besides selecting proper vocabulary, teaching materials are to be thoroughly prepared as well. In teaching any CLIL course, teachers need to find or create materials and then evaluate them so that the content and language be suitable for the learners’ level. In CLIL, most subject materials need adapting because of the complexity of language used in the instructions, in texts or in the activities themselves.

As, despite intense research and practice in CLIL technology, in the CLIL resources recommendations on teaching vocabulary in a CLIL classroom are very scarce, the focus of the article is on practical application of CLIL principles and objectives in vocabulary teaching techniques.

CLIL vocabulary teaching techniques should be based on the objective nature of this technology and learners’ needs. To find out what can help CLIL learners learn, two different surveys were carried out (Bentley and Phillips, 2007). The findings they produced are quite interesting. The first survey reviewed attitudes of Spanish adolescent CLIL learners upon the things that enhance the learning process. They mentioned that most helpful for them were vocabulary games, translation of the most difficult scientific terms, using easy words for the explanations and vocabulary. They expressed their need for more vocabulary and more diagrams on the worksheets, better explanation, handouts with complicated words in English with the Spanish words (L1) next to the English and extensive use of realia and illustrations. Thus, it is obvious that the quantity and complexity of new science vocabulary was causing problems, so highlighting key content vocabulary with explanations can be a solution. The second set of questionnaires asked learners to tick a list of factors that help them learn school subjects in English. In this survey, the learners were from different Spanish schools, aged between 13 and 16. Among the factors that contributed to their CLIL learning, they mentioned pictures (38%), diagrams (19%), word lists (18%), translation (49%), use of computers (19%), teacher explanations (56%), and friends (36%) [7]. The results of the surveys show, firstly, how important it is that teachers explain their subject content effectively and, secondly, if friends support each other in the classroom, it is important to include experiential learning, especially in science subjects.

Taking into consideration the above-mentioned facts, we agree with the scholars who state that the key to success in a CLIL environment is the acquisition of a productive vocabulary that includes knowledge of the most frequent vocabulary items in the target language, the key vocabulary in individual subject areas and the key vocabulary needed to function in the educational environment. A coherent and economic approach to vocabulary acquisition requires a coordinated and systematic approach that functions across the curriculum. The bands of the Common European Framework for languages and word frequency lists such as the BNL and CELF provide a firm basis for the staged acquisition of vocabulary to build into the curriculum. All lessons present opportunities for vocabulary learning, recycling and production opportunities. Repeated exposure and practice of key words is of much importance [8].

Thus, teaching vocabulary in a CLIL course requires consideration of its essential corpus, knowledge and skills, aids and techniques most favored by the learners as well as positive experience of mature CLIL teachers. It should be noted that in a science CLIL course it is very useful for the learners to build up a glossary of scientific terms as they learn about new science topics. Examples of key words can be highlighted in bold on their worksheets. The teacher can help the class to build up definitions of the terms, and allow time for learners to add each term to their glossary. If learners do it electronically, it is easy to insert new terms in alphabetical order at any stage. To consolidate and revise the vocabulary it is recommended that sets of 10–12 cards using two different colors of card can be made: the words can be written on cards of one color and the definitions on cards of the other color. Periodically, such sets of cards are handed out to small groups for the learners to match each word with its definition.

One of the most highly recommended resources for teaching vocabulary in a CLIL class is flashcards. They can be hand-made with pictures or photos from magazines or made with the help of the Teaching English flashcard maker at www. teachingenglish. org.uk/ flashcard- maker. A very popular CLIL resource, recommended by the British Council is Phillip Martin Clip Art. It is a free resource available for both teachers and students who can use it for making flashcards and posters for independent and classroom vocabulary work. It presents images on many of CLIL subjects and themes connected with education: Language Arts, Science, The Bible, People, Animals, Animals, Ancient Civilizations, Holidays, Social Sciences, School [9].

In each part we can find a directory, and up to 30 groups of images in each theme. For instance, if we go to the Science Equipment Gallery, we find there insulators, beakers, balance, flasks, magnets, furnaces, etc. (35 groups):

Besides, for Biology, Chemistry and Physics classes a very helpful resource is Merriam-Webster Visual Dictionary Online [10]. It contains a gist of information on the main themes of each subject with short texts and figures, both with and without comments (see an example at http:// visual.merriam-webster. com/ earth/ geography/ cartography/ earth-coordinate-system.php).

The above-mentioned resources can be used in an activity called “A Word Bag”. The activity is aimed at making learners better memorize new vocabulary. For this activity, a class word bag is made and the teacher lets learners add new words to the bag each class (they can be written on bits of paper or cards). Very young learners can make picture cards. There may be quick vocabulary games with the words; e.g., taking a word from the bag, giving a short definition or miming and asking learners to guess the word [11].

Educators of the British Council advise some activities to be done with flashcards. To teach new vocabulary, it is suggested that the teacher should hold up a flashcard, say the word and ask learners to repeat. With younger learners teachers can make it funny by drilling the words using different voices (varying the volume – whispering and shouting the words). Flashcards can be also used for vocabulary practice. For example, the teacher shows the learners ten cards then turns them over and asks learners to remember the pictures. Then he covers a flashcard with a piece of paper and slowly reveals it and the learners are to guess which one it is.

With young learners flashcards can be stuck around the classroom, and when the teacher says one of them, the learners are to point or race to it [12].

Macmillan’s New Inspirations has a different approach to teaching vocabulary in a CLIL classroom. It provides a system of worksheets developed for four levels. Teaching vocabulary is inseparable here from developing reading, writing and speaking skills. A CLIL worksheet normally includes one/some pre-text activity (-ies), a chunked text to read with a question to discuss, a vocabulary crossword puzzle, revision of the words from the text, a writing activity with some links to the Internet resources where learners can find additional information on the theme. An advantage of the worksheets is that the words introduced in a unit are to be used in different contexts and activities again and again throughout the unit. Web search activities make the learner extend vocabulary and include the words he/she has just learnt into a logical system, thus making memorizing and understanding concepts easier.

To each unit there are additional worksheets for revision and extension of the vocabulary learnt in the unit. It should be noted, that it is the only CLIL resource that has particular vocabulary exercises the information on which can be summarized. 

Revision worksheets for students include crosswords (finding concept of the given definition), webquests for words to label a picture/ fill in a chart, jumbled letters, finding words in word squares/ grids, finding odd words.

Vocabulary extension exercises main include completing sentences and doing quizzes, using factual information, choosing the correct word out of two/three options, completing a table using words from the list, etc. [13].

For students with higher language proficiency the tasks are more challenging: complete the text/ dialogue using these words, complete the sentences with the correct adverb of manner/ adjectives/verbs. (The first letter is given to help you), make nouns ending in … from these adjectives/verbs, and complete the sentences. In worksheets, we see that the focus is on the independent preliminary work of learners [13]. Worksheet - webquests demonstrate that learner’s independence in search for information, getting the meaning of new words, extending vocabulary and understanding new concepts is a CLIL priority.

In general, vocabulary teaching techniques promote learner’s autonomy and develop high order and low order thinking skills, meanwhile enhancing acquisition of essential vocabulary and mastering all communicative skills.


1. https:// clil. files. wordpress. Com / 2008 / 10/clil_handbook-subject-specific- vocabulary. pdf

2. Dalton-Puffer, C. (2011). “Content-and-Language Integrated Learning: From Practice to Principles”. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 31, pp. 182-204.

3. John Eldridge, Steve Neufeld, Nilgun Hancioğlu (2016) “Towards a Lexical Framework for CLIL”. International CLIL Research Journal. http:// www. icrj. eu/ 13/ article8.html

4. Laufer, B., & Nation, I. (2012). “Vocabulary”. In S. M. Gass, & A. Mackey, The Routlegde Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Oxon: Routledge.

5. Cambridge TKT CLIL Handbook http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/images/ 22191-tkt-clil-handbook.pdf

6. Integrated learning to English language and science and mathematical course subjects (informatics, physics, chemistry, biology, science) Guidance book. - Astana: The National Academy of Education named after I. Altynsarin, 2016. - 300 p.

7. http:// www.geo-clil.ugent.be/wp-content/ uploads/2016/03/Teaching-Science- through- English- A-CLIL- Approach. pdf

8. http: // www.icrj.eu/13/article8.html

9. Phillip Martin Clip Art http:// directories. Phillipmartin info/ home_ science. htm

10. Merriam-Webster Visual Dictionary Online http:// visual.merriam-webster. com

11. https:// www. teachingenglish. org. uk/ article/ teaching-vocabulary

12. https:// www.teachingenglish. org. uk/ sites/ teacheng/ files/ B127 c% 20A1 % 20 TE % 20S taff% 20 Room% 20 Posters % 206.pdf

13. Macmillan New Inspirations http:// www. macmillaninspiration.com /new/ files/ 2012/ 05/ Vocabulary-EXTRA_ NI_ 1_Units_5-6_Extension.pdf

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №9 - 2017

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