The importance of visual materials in a CLIL approach

Chantal Hemmi



Content and Language Integrated Learning is an approach that has become popular especially in Europe over the last decade; it is a dual focused education and the subject matter is taught through the target language. In Japan, a limited number of teachers have started to develop materials for CLIL and there is an increasing need for sharing our knowledge in the effective creation of materials that are visually attractive for children and easy to understand.


Some people would argue that most approaches in language teaching have a context where the language is presented in a way for our learners to understand how and in which situation the target language is used.  Therefore, in many ways, language teaching could never be devoid of context. For the British Council teachers, Tom Ledbury and Richard Williams, working full-time at Morimura Gakuen Elementary School, a private elementary school in Yokohama, the employment of CLIL in parts of the curriculum gives them an opportunity to use the target language through teaching another subject in English;  so far they have taught how to make welshcakes in collaboration with the Home Economics teacher, simple maths such as addition and subtraction in connection to teaching numbers, and also they have worked together with the PE teacher to teach 120 Year 5 children how to play baseball in English.  Presently, the Year 3 children are learning how to create installations with different materials in the forest. The aim of this activity is to explore ways of teaching children about the textures and shapes of natural objects and for the children to learn how to use different materials to create a piece of artwork.


Experiential learning through the employment of CLIL seems to motivate students as it provides chances for children to use the language in authentic situations. CLIL offers opportunities for children who are keen to learn for a purpose which is tangible, enjoyable and produces visible results such as being able to play baseball in English. In this particular case, CLIL added to the development of student motivation as it gave children a real reason to listen and use English so that they could learn to play baseball at the same time as they enjoyed learning English. Here I demonstrate the importance of creating visually attractive materials in the employment of a CLIL approach using the “Baseball in English” lessons undertaken at Morimura as a case study.


How the activities were set up

In September 2009, the two teachers, Tom and Richard incorporated light CLIL in teaching the students the rules and the game of baseball over five consecutive weeks where three 45-minute English lessons were used to learn the expressions for instructions on how to play the game, followed by a PE lesson where the subject teacher joined in to play baseball in each class with the English teachers. The reason for defining it as light CLIL is that at Morimura Gakuen we have designed a modular programme from Years 1 to 6 in which we first teach the children how to read through a phonic approach, and then go on to gradually introducing how English can be used through tasks such as conducting an animal quiz, interviewing each other, interviewing teachers and making group presentations, and making a book about a famous person and reading it out loud.  So the curriculum is basically task-based with a lexical and grammatical thread intertwined in progression from easy to more challenging vocabulary and structures.  The CLIL sessions where another subject is taught in collaboration with the subject teachers is a new element to the already existing programme, so we have defined our approach as the use of light CLIL where we only apply CLIL in parts of our curriculum.


Tom and Richard used this approach due to the reflective data gained from a previous series of CLIL sessions where the students learnt how to make welshcakes in the Home Economics classes;  the students found these activities motivating and so they requested that they use English again to ‘learn how to cheer’ and ‘do PE’.


The activities took place in the order below:

  1. Students labeled the diagram of a baseball diamond on the board and teachers elicited names of player positions and equipment with flashcards. New vocabulary was presented to raise awareness that many of the words are English loan words used in Japanese.
  2. Students played a baseball-based vocabulary game in the classroom using clues. Teachers recorded interactional language used by students in L1. This was done to find out what language the students naturally used in a game situation in their L1.
  3. Teachers designed flashcards to re-elicit examples of L1 interactional language and introduce English equivalents. Mimes were used to demonstrate appropriate and inappropriate uses of interactional language so as to teach how to use it in the right context.
  4. Students matched responses and appropriate picture flashcards on board and later used a matching/labeling worksheet for consolidation.
  5. Students played vocabulary games to review new baseball related and interactional language.
  6. Mimes were used to elicit or introduce other verbs – run, hit, catch, throw, drop. Collocations to make commands – throw the ball, watch the pitcher, run to first base – and negative commands – don’t drop the ball – were introduced.
  7. Finally students played baseball with two English teachers and one English speaking Japanese P.E teacher. The P.E. teacher pitched and English teachers played the game with students and asked for help with rules from students. Separate points were allocated for baseball runs and amount of English used by each team in each innings – commands shouted to the teacher and other players, and “exhortational” language like “come on!”, “well done!” etc.

As noted in the JACET Proceedings paper students had mainly positive feedback on the use of CLIL in learning how to play baseball:

A feedback questionnaire was given out at the end of the PE CLIL sessions and the majority of the students gave positive feedback about doing sport in English; ‘I learnt English in a fun way while moving round.’ ‘It wasn’t like normal English; we used our bodies so it was really interesting.’ Generally, the students felt that combining PE and English was positive for them; ‘Doing it in English made baseball and P.E. feel like something fresh and new’. One student noted that when he was abroad, he thought it would be really good if he could talk about baseball – even just a little bit – with foreigners, so when they did it this time he was really happy. Another student said that she was really surprised because everyone was speaking English more than Japanese. Such comments indicate that student motivation was raised through the activities.   (Hemmi, 2011:109)


Using visual materials to aid understanding

Given that the students’ level of English is at beginner level, Tom and Richard have had to grade the language considerably to make it possible for the students to learn how to play baseball. Even though students naturally talk to each other in Japanese while learning something new, the teachers try as much as possible to communicate the rules of the game and how to cheer and interact with each other in English.  In doing so, they have found visual materials such as attractive flashcards with imported copyright-free materials from the Internet to communicate meaning without the use of the students’ mother tongue.

As can be seen in the Power Point presentation slides, the pictures helped to aid understanding in a way that was attractive for children.  Pictures that were from Japanese versions of copyright-free materials were chosen so that the visual representations actually made sense to the students.  Mehisto, Marsh and Frigols (2008) remind us that creating a psychologically and physically safe environment in which to learn is essential, and it is interesting that the teachers have made this possible by making opportunities for students to play with the language so that they could ‘experiment with the language and not fear making mistakes’ (Mehisto, Marsh and Frigols, 2008:105).

The same authors suggest that it is important to consistently use one language, but that it is acceptable for students to use the first language.  The teachers indeed consistently used one language, but when they observed the children interacting in Japanese, they recorded what they had said in order to create visually stimulating materials with English words on them. Words such as ‘Come on!’ and ‘Don’t cheat!’ are examples of this observation.  In other words, the teachers provided a variety of expressions that are not usually readily available in textbooks for young learners.  They focused on what the students really wanted to say and provided opportunities for them to become more autonomous in the target language. The visual representations of the expressions act as a kind of reminder of the meaning in the context of the students’ interactions.


Although the implementation of CLIL in the Morimura curriculum is still at an early stage, the materials in the slides and student feedback show that visuality is important in encouraging children to use the target language whilst they learn a new set of skills or new content.  The positive aspect of the use of CLIL is that the approach seems to motivate students who initially may not be showing a high level of communication skills but are interested in the content taught through the activities. In future, it would be useful to explore the different ways in which the meaning of the new language can be explored by students through gestures, movement and kinesthetic input through the art CLIL activities conducted in Year 3 at Morimura Gakuen Elementary School.


Mehisto, P, Marsh, D. and Frigols, M. (2008). Uncovering CLIL. Oxford: Macmillan.

Sasajima,S.,Ikeda M., Hemmi.C. and Reilly, T. (2011) Current practices and future perspectives of Content and Language Integrated leaning (CLIL) in Japan. The JACET 50th (2011) Commemorative International Convention Proceedings.  Tokyo: JACET


For Slides Click Here

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