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CLIL teaching in Poland and Finland – reflections from the study visit

dr Agnieszka Otwinowska

Institute of English Studies,

University of Warsaw


dr Agnieszka Otwinowska-Kasztelanic is an assistant professor at the Institute of English Studies, UW. Her main research interests involve bilingual and multilingual language acquisition.


Abstract/ Summary

In September 2014, a group of Polish academic teachers taking part in the project entitled Bilingual education: MA in teaching English to young learners as a second and foreign language visited an academic partner in the Programme, the University of Jyväskyla in Finland. The following text is based on the presentations given at the Centre for Applied Language Studies in Jyväskyla and at the Faculty of Education in Warsaw after the visit.

The aim of the text to compare CLIL teaching in Poland and Finland. The first paragraphs will briefly explain the notion of CLIL and its advantages for teaching language and content. The text will then present some basic facts about Poland and Finland and show similarities and differences between the two countries. Then the article passes on to discussing the Polish and Finnish systems of education and language education, which are surprisingly similar. In the end, it presents how CLIL is dealt with in the two countries. It seems that despite the similarities of the language teaching systems, CLIL teaching in Poland and in Finland function in two very different ways: the Polish one is elitist and oriented mostly at secondary schools, the Finnish one is egalitarian and begins already in the pre-school or the lower–primary school. I will attempt to explain the paradox by pointing to the features of the Finnish system of education, as well as in the context of observations carried out in Finnish schools. The text ends with reflections and conclusions from the study visit.



Keywords: Poland, Finland, systems of education, language education, CLIL, teacher education, school observation and reflection



A study visit to the Centre for Applied Language Studies at the University of Jyväskyla,  famous for CLIL education (CLIL – Content and Language Integrated Learning) is quite a striking experience even for experienced teacher trainers. Finland is well-known for having the best CLIL-based programmes in Europe and is claimed to be highly successful in introducing this teaching method at all the levels of schooling, but the differences between Finnish schools and those in Poland are overwhelming. While in Poland – an in fact, all across Europe – CLIL is implemented only at the secondary-school level (Wolff 2007), Finland prides itself in the successful implementation of this form of education already at the level of kindergarten and primary classes. This paper will try to explain why Finland is so successful in CLIL implementation in comparison to other countries, including Poland. It will first dwell on the features of CLIL teaching and then move on to comparing language education in Poland and Finland. Finally, it will zoom in on the reasons why the Finnish educational context is so particularly suitable for CLIL teaching.


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Figure 1. Jyväskyla© Agnieszka Otwinowska-Kasztelanic, personal sources Figure 2. The University of Jyväskyla, main gate© Agnieszka Otwinowska-Kasztelanic, personal sources


As opposed to other forms of bilingual education which originate in French immersion programmes launched in Canada in 1960s (Genesee & Lindholm-Leary, 2008), the notion of CLIL was introduced to European education in 1994 and has been consequently politically supported by the European Union and the Council of Europe. CLIL ‘refers to any dual focused educational context in which an additional language, thus not normally the first language of the learners involved, is used as a medium in teaching and learning of non-language content’ (Marsh, 2002: 15). It is stressed that CLIL is an umbrella concept which does not impose narrow methodology, but can be adjusted to various teaching settings and school types (Mehisto et al., 2008).


However, there are some distinctive features of CLIL which differentiate it from other types of bilingual education. As opposed to Canadian immersion, CLIL deals with teaching a foreign language that is not normally used in the community (in the European context it is usually English). Further, CLIL classes are often scheduled as content lessons and are usually taught by non-native speakers of the target language (Dalton-Puffer 2011). The core integrated components of CLIL (the so-called CLIL pillars), namely Content, Communication, Cognition, Culture (known as the ‘4C’s’; Coyle, 2008), are all introduced and practised during lessons. CLIL modules can also be run with varying intensity, from Soft CLIL (language-led), where the topic is a part of the language course curriculum, through Mid CLIL where a subject is taught in a foreign language for a limited number of hours, to Hard CLIL (content-led) where over half the subjects in the curriculum are taught in the target language (Pawlak, 2010;


Learning in CLIL is said to have numerous advantages. First, language learning becomes highly contextualised because linguistic input is embedded within relevant discourse contexts. Learners are exposed to language through stimulating subject-matter, they are encouraged to explore interesting content and are engaged in appropriate language-dependent activities. Therefore, CLIL should help learners raise their natural curiosity and promote their intrinsic motivation. As a ‘foreign language enrichment measure packaged into content teaching’ (Dalton-Puffer 2011:184), CLIL offers opportunities for using L2 naturally and to expand knowledge in subjects other than the language itself. CLIL teaching should help teachers be more flexible and adapt the curriculum to their own needs.


Since in CLIL education, language and content are taught at one go, there are also some obvious differences between CLIL classes and standard foreign language classes. These include different methodology, different roles of learners and teachers, as well as differences in the cognitive dimensions of learning. While regular foreign language classes focuse on practising language skills and systems, the teaching in CLIL focuses on the content, and thus, learners must use their language competence and skills to absorb and practice content-related knowledge (Otwinowska, 2013). Whereas language classes promote informal interactions and face-to-face communication, i.e. Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS), CLIL often involves Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP), i.e. more academic language use (Cummins, 1979 and 2000). CALP is the ability to make complex meanings explicit by means of language itself, rather than by gestures or intonation. Therefore, mastering CALP, necessary to understand and discuss content in the classroom, places high cognitive demands on the learner, as CALP is more abstract, context reduced, and contains fewer non-verbal clues. This cognitive challenge is seen as one of the main assets of CLIL-based education, but is also regarded as a demanding way of teaching.


Still, the question remains why the implementation of CLIL is so common in Finland as compared to other European countries, Poland included. This question may partially be discussed in terms of the similarities and differences underlying the language teaching systems and bilingual education in the two countries.




2.1. Basic facts

What clearly links Poland and Finland is both their current status of new members of the European Union (Finland joined the EU in 1995 and Poland in 2004), and their history (both countries were part of the Russian Empire for over 100 years). However, Poland and Finland are completely different in terms of language use and language education.



Figure 3. Poland and Finland in Europe

© Agnieszka Otwinowska-Kasztelanic, personal sources


Poland is a large central-European country with 38.1 million inhabitants. For centuries highly multilingual, Poland became monolingual in the 20th century, during and after World War II, which forced large-scale migrations, deportations and territorial changes. The Nazi policies of the German occupants swept away the Jewish communities, while the speakers of Belarusian, Ukrainian and Lithuanian were largely deported to the territories of the USSR (Komorowska, 2014). The official Polish (L1) is spoken by a vast majority of the society remains the main language of schooling, and its vernacular varieties are used by the lower classes. Nonetheless, there are 9 national minorities in Poland: Byelorussian, Czech, Lithuanian, German, Armenian, Russian, Slovak, Ukrainian and Jewish, as well as 4 ethnic minorities: Karaim, Lemko, Romany and Tatar. In north-western Poland there is a community using the regional Kashubian, which also taught as the minority language (Eurydice, 2012). However, the total number of national and ethnic minority citizens is estimated at between 0,8 to 2% of the population (GUS Report, 2011), which is one of the lowest scores in Europe.


Finland, on the other hand, has only 5,4 million inhabitants, which is no exception to other North-European countries. Historically and officially Finland is a bilingual country since politically, it long remained part of the Swedish kingdom. Nowadays, the majority of inhabitants (91% of the population) speaks the official Finnish, and Swedish is the second official language, spoken by 5.4% of the inhabitants. An official minority language, Sámi, is the mother tongue of about 1,700 people, members of the indigenous Sámi people of northern Lapland (Ruohotie-Lyhty, 2014).



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Figure 4. Wall decorations in Kortepohja primary school, Jyväskyla© Agnieszka Otwinowska-Kasztelanic, personal sources Figure 5. Wall decorations in Kortepohja primary school, Jyväskyla© Agnieszka Otwinowska-Kasztelanic, personal sources


2.2. Language teaching aims

In both Poland and Finland, foreign language teaching begins in primary school at the ISCED 1 level (ISCD – International Standard Classification of Education, UNESCO, 2012). In the first few years of schooling, at least two languages are introduced: the first foreign language (L2) from grade 1 in Poland and from grade 3 in Finland, whereas the second foreign language (L3) from grade 1 lower-secondary in Poland (7th year of education) and from grade 7 in Finland. Other languages may also be offered from grade 4 or 5. Although the education systems of the two countries are seemingly very similar because both are regulated by the recommendations of the Council of Europe and the European Union, the aims of foreign language teaching in Poland and Finland differ considerably.


In Poland the aims of foreign language teaching are regulated by the Minister of National Education and gathered in the National Curriculum (Podstawa Programowa). Teachers are supposed to use coursebooks approved by the Ministry and the lessons are predominantly coursebook-led. The three most commonly taught languages are English, German and Russian, with French, Spanish and Italian to follow, and all six constitute examination subjects (Eurydice, 2012). The aims of the Polish foreign language teaching (see Table 1) are stated in terms of CEFR levels to be achieved and exams to be passed after each ISCD educational level (Common European Framework of Reference, 2001).



Table 1. Aims of foreign language teaching in Poland (after Eurydice, 2012:108)


In Finland, the aims of foreign language teaching are given by National Core Curriculum for Basic Education. However, the document offers only loose guidelines to local communities. In practice, schools have wide powers to design and implement their own curricula, while Finnish teachers have a considerable amount of freedom in designing their teaching. There are two competing models of language teaching in Finland, and the choice between the two often depends on school tradition and culture, and the teachers’ own language learning experiences. While some classes may be book-led, and oriented towards teaching grammar, vocabulary and taking tests, most classes are pupil-centered and promote authentic communication, as proposed in the National Curriculum (Ruohotie-Lyhty & Kaikkonen, 2009; Ruohotie-Lyhty; 2011 and 2013).


As for the aims of foreign language teaching in Finland, there are no exams after the ISCD levels apart from the matriculation exam, which is often considered restricting by the teachers. It is generally assumed that the main aim of the basic school education is to assure that L1 Finnish and L1 Swedish young people are functionally bilingual in Finnish and English, or Swedish and English. They may not speak English at the advanced level, but they can make themselves understood. Other languages taught in Finnish schools are Swedish, German, French, Russian and Spanish (Ruohotie-Lyhty, 2014).


Concluding, the two language-teaching systems are organised in accordance with two different principles. Just as syllabuses can be process-oriented and product-oriented (Nunan et al., 1994), we can seek some parallels to process- and product-orientedness in the Polish and Finnish curricula (see Table 2 for a summary).


table 2

Table 2. The aims of foreign language teaching in Poland and in Finland.


The Polish language teaching system is clearly product-oriented: after each of the education stages we are interested in the students’ language level and their particular achievements. Thus, teachers often “teach for exams” and they are also evaluated in terms of  their students’ exam results. On the other hand, the Finnish system is much more flexible, and there are no exams, apart from the matriculation. There are no strict guidelines concerning the students’ required level of language proficiency and the teachers are trusted to choose their own teaching approaches. This system seems much more process-oriented than the Polish one and therefore much more suited for bilingual education and CLIL, which, as we said earlier, invites a lot of flexibility in the curriculum and a lot of freedom on the teachers’ part. In the following section we will discuss how this product- and process-orientedness is manifested in practice in Polish and Finnish bilingual education.


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Figure 6. Classroom in Kortepohja primary school, Jyväskyla© Agnieszka Otwinowska-Kasztelanic, personal sources Figure 7. English slogans in Kortepohja primary school, Jyväskyla© Agnieszka Otwinowska-Kasztelanic, personal sources

3.1. Bilingual education in Poland

In Poland, the implementation of CLIL is usually termed as bilingual education (Roda 2007). This bilingual education involves teaching ethnic minority languages (Kashubian, German, Lithuanian, Slovak, Ukrainian, Byelorussian) and modern foreign languages. There are language immersion programmes for minority languages, and separate textbooks for the teaching of these languages. Minority-language teaching is organized in schools upon the request of parents, and a minority language may become a language of instruction, a second language of instruction (in bilingual education), or a non-compulsory subject. There are, however, some discrepancies in the attitudes and motivations to attend minority-language schooling at the different educational levels. While there are 601 primary schools for ethnic minorities, the number of lower-secondary school falls to 218, and there are  just 27 upper-secondary schools for all minorities. This phenomenon can be called “an educational pyramid” (as presented in Figure 8) and can be attributed to an initial manifestation of ethnic identity in primary schooling, and a later a choice of the majority language of schooling as having strong impact on career prospects (Komorowska, 2014).


As for CLIL education with modern foreign languages, there are few such classes at the primary level, but the number of bilingual classes is growing in secondary schools (Figure 9).  On the other hand, this type of education is considered elitist in Poland: there are strict recruitment procedures specified by each school, and applicants need to pass strict diagnostic tests of language competence and/or language aptitude. The schools are also located mainly in big cities. Moreover, CLIL pedagogy may not be applied in the entire school, but rather be restricted to selected classes (Czura et al, 2009; Czura & Papaja, 2013).


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Figure 8. Poland: number of schools with bilingual education in minority languages(Komorowska, 2014) Figure 9. Poland: number of schools with bilingual education in modern languages(SIO, 2013)


One of the main drawbacks in Polish bilingual education is that CLIL classes are often taught by content subject teachers who are not qualified in language teaching. Many teachers do not know how to keep the balance of language and content,  how to present and practice language and adapt materials, as there is shortage of CLIL materials, especially for lower-level learners (Otwinowska, 2013; Otwinowska-Kasztelanic & Woynarowska-Sołdan, 2010). Therefore, there is a strong need for educating CLIL teachers. Teachers often find themselves under the exam pressure because they know that their students are going to take rigorous examinations checking both: the content and the language knowledge.


3.2. Bilingual education in Finland

In Finland, officially a bilingual state, schooling is organised either in Finnish or in Swedish, which principle can be called parallel monolingualism (Heller, 1999). In general education, children with language and culture background different from Finnish and Swedish come mainly from Sámi, Romany and Sign-language L1s and they are offered language immersion programs in national languages (Bergroth & Palviainen, 2014). There is also a growing number of L2 Finnish learners thanks to immigration with children of English, Russian, German, French, Spanish, Estonian backgrounds. Language immersion multilingual programs begin in kindergartens, and are usually run according to the following principles. There are bilingual teachers, who interact with children on the one-person-one-language bases, and who include plenty of contextual and linguistic support (scaffolding structures) in their teacher talk. Children are encouraged to talk about the routines, verbalise actions, to sing songs, say rhymes and interact with puppets. Thematic and holistic learning is promoted, and there are language play and learning stations in kindergartens. Also parents are engaged in fostering multilingual practices. However, children are never evaluated on how much they have learned and how well they can express themselves. It is truly the process of familiarising children with languages and developing  positive attitudes to language use, which are of vital importance (Bergroth & Palviainen, 2014).



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Figure 10. Class in bilingual kindergarten, Kortepohja, Jyväskyla. The English and the Finnish teacher is present.© Agnieszka Otwinowska-Kasztelanic, personal sources Figure 11. Theme for the class: clothes in autumn.© Agnieszka Otwinowska-Kasztelanic, personal sources


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Figure 12. The use of two languages in bilingual kindergarten, Kortepohja, Jyväskyla.© Agnieszka Otwinowska-Kasztelanic, personal sources Figure 13. Children created their own boxes, instructions were given in English.© Agnieszka Otwinowska-Kasztelanic, personal sources


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Figure 14. Picture gallery in bilingual kindergarten, Kortepohja, Jyväskyla.© Agnieszka Otwinowska-Kasztelanic, personal sources Figure 15. Picture with description given in two languages.© Agnieszka Otwinowska-Kasztelanic, personal sources


CLIL and bilingual education in Finland have been offered in both private and municipal preschools and schools since the 1990s, but such schools concentrate in bigger towns and cities and mainly concentrate on CLIL in English. Similarly to the Polish context, the main obstacles to CLIL teaching as perceived by teachers are the lack of materials and support for CLIL teachers (Nikula & Marsh 1996, Lehti, Järvinen & Suomela-Salmi 2006). However, the differences between the quality of education in private and public education are not considered important and parents rarely decide to choose schools which are far from home, while many teachers are happy to create their own materials and CLIL lessons.



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Figure 16. A child’s notebook, Kortepohja primary school, Jyväskyla.© Agnieszka Otwinowska-Kasztelanic, personal sources Figure 17. Teaching materials in bilingual kindergarten, Kortepohja, Jyväskyla.© Agnieszka Otwinowska-Kasztelanic, personal sources



How is it possible that CLIL is so successful, widespread and regarded as natural in Finland? There are probably four main pillars supporting this success: teacher education, process-oriented curricula, school system built on mutual respect, and finally, reasonable expectations concerning children’s competence and abilities at the earlier stages of education. Let us present these briefly.


Teaching is regarded to be one of the most prestigious professions, but teachers in Finland are expected to be highly qualified professionals. For instance, at the University of Jyväskyla there is a demanding entrance examination and an aptitude test to make sure that only the most talented candidates become teacher trainees. The educational objectives of the teacher training programme include the teacher’s ethical competence, intellectual competence, pedagogical competence, communication and interaction competence as well as cultural, communal and societal competence. As a result, the Finnish teacher is an autonomous, ethically responsible expert of education, that can analyse and develop current educational culture and his/her own actions (Toomar, 2014). Such teachers can organise their work and build procedural CLIL syllabuses because they are self-governing, reflective professionals. As revealed by interviews with teachers in Jyväskyla, they do not compete, or evaluate one another, but form a professional community where they share their responsibility for students and their development.


Secondly, the form of CLIL teaching differs between the two countries. At the level of implementation, it is proposed for the CLIL continuum in Finland that primary school is about ‘playing with English’ and ‘being in English’, which involves regular exposure, confidence building and showing children that English is ‘a tool and not a burden’ (Moate, 2014: 393). In this model, ‘learning through English’ will begin in the lower-secondary school, while ‘studying through English’ will be reserved for the upper-secondary.


It is hard to tell whether we would be able to build such a system in Poland. Although the quality of teacher training in Poland is high, becoming a school teacher is not regarded as prestigious due the low income. Moreover, teachers in Polish schools rarely cooperate and feel constantly evaluated by the school authorities and parents. Since Polish curricula are product-oriented and syllabuses are exam-driven, Mid and Hard CLIL (‘learning through English’ and ‘studying through English’) may be implemented even at the primary school level. Teachers are expected to “show results” of their teaching in both language and content, but what counts as “results” is different than in Finland, where classes are non-evaluative and focus on the process (not the product) of learning.


Finally, classrooms in Finland seem very different from classrooms in Poland. From children’s first days of primary school a lot of effort is put into harmonious cooperation and classroom atmosphere. Hence, teaching is based on a dialogue between the teacher and the learners, it is peaceful, relaxed and stress-free. Importantly, teachers and students are partners, and teachers focus on students’ needs by individualising their approach, expectations and tasks. This builds confidence and very good teacher-student rapport. However, such an approach can only be possible in a school system built on trust. Finnish schools are democratic learning institutions where teachers, parents and learners rely on one another’s competence, awareness and good will. Everyone’s voice is respected and everyone has an empowering sense of controlling their own teaching and learning. Let us hope that in this respect, Finland will set a good example for us in Poland.



Many thanks to Marie Bregroth and Karolina Mieszkowska for their comments on this paper.



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Published: 2015-06-17