CLIL in Australia – student success in language learning, English literacy and content outcomes

Ruth Fielding and Lesley Harbon

In recent years there has been a surge in the popularity of CLIL – Content and Language Integrated Learning – as a way to increase time on task for language learning and to link language learning with other curriculum areas. In New South Wales, Australia, four primary schools began CLIL programmes in 2010 and we were able to follow their implementation through a series of research projects. So, what exactly is CLIL and why do some language teachers like it as an approach?

CLIL definition:

CLIL is Content and Language Integrated Learning – it is a flexible approach to the teaching of language alongside another curriculum area with the double aim of content and language outcomes. Its flexibility comes from there being no mandate or recommendation about how many hours per week must be spent in the target language. There is also flexibility in the way it can be implemented.

How did the schools in NSW approach it?

The schools participating in our research took an incremental approach to implementation of CLIL. The state’s Department of Education assigned a particular language for each school’s CLIL program (Indonesian, Korean, Chinese or Japanese) which at that time were listed as “priority” languages in Australia. Initially the Department referred to the programs as ‘bilingual programs’, and the term ‘CLIL’ was later used by us during the first phase of our research. The first classes began in 2010 starting at Kindergarten. Students continued in the CLIL classes as they progressed through their primary schooling so that by 2016 there was a bilingual stream throughout the school and the first class of students had reached Year 6 (the final year of primary school). In each school 1 hour per day was taught through the additional language. Each school decided which learning area would deliver the 1-hour per day.

What do Stakeholders think about the approach?

Our first research in the schools explored parents’, teachers’ and students’ perceptions about the CLIL approach in their school. Responses were overwhelmingly positive. Students were engaged, students were still achieving intended learning outcomes across the curriculum, and parents could see their children’s enthusiasm for learning in this way. Teachers believed the program helped their students to focus, to think more deeply about all their languages, adding enjoyment due to the added challenge of learning in this way. However, concerns arose in some settings when children were preparing for the high-stakes, national, standardised testing for literacy in English, which in Australia takes place in Years 3 and 5 of primary school. We subsequently continued with our research and looked at the literacy outcomes of children in the CLIL streams compared to their monolingual peers.

How did students perform in national testing for literacy?

Our research found that across all four schools, students in the CLIL streams performed better in all aspects of the national literacy test than their non-CLIL peers. We undertook a statistical analysis to measure how reliable these findings were and found a statistically significant higher performance by this stream of students than their peers.

What does this tell us?

In a context where teaching and learning of additional languages isn’t prioritised or perhaps even valued in the wider society, CLIL programs can offer students the opportunity to develop significant language skills in an additional language with no detriment to their broader learning. Arguments about languages taking away time-on-task from other learning areas, and in particular English literacy, do not hold. Learning through a CLIL approach students can learn an additional language while learning other curriculum content.

What does it take to be a success?

It does, of course, take commitment from the teachers involved, and ideally commitment from school leadership and the wider educational system for this to be a success. There is a lot of planning and negotiation involved between teachers to work out which aspects of the curriculum to teach through the new language, and for the mainstream class teachers to trust that content has been covered and assessed by the CLIL teacher. The CLIL teacher also requires planning time for material preparation. Often existing materials don’t suit the cognitive level and content outcomes and materials may need to be teacher-generated. All of these efforts are time consuming and need to be acknowledged by a supportive school environment. There is also a limited range of professional learning specific to CLIL and teachers therefore need support to develop their skill and confidence in implementing this approach.

The schools in our research have shown that it is possible to enact a CLIL approach in a range of different settings (urban, rural, and with varying ranges of linguistic diversity in the student population). In the most successful settings the greatest impact has been on the extra time required for materials development. However once the programme has been developed, the benefits can be seen in student learning outcomes, literacy in the societal language and engagement more broadly with education.

Visit our new CLIL Theme page on the RiPL website

Further reading

Fielding, R., & Harbon, L. 2020. Dispelling the monolingual myth: exploring literacy outcomes in Australian bilingual programmes. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism

Fielding, R. & Harbon, L. 2017 An exploration of content and language integrated pedagogy, Babel, 52/2-3, 32-45.

Fielding, R. & Harbon, L. 2014. Implementing a Content and Language Integrated Learning Program (CLIL) in NSW: Teacher perceptions of the challenges and opportunities, Babel, 49:2, 4-15.

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