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The Knowledge. Can teaching through languages improve overall outcomes?

A new longitudinal study shows teaching subjects in foreign languages could benefit all learners

A new longitudinal study shows teaching subjects in foreign languages could benefit all learners

27 Nov 2023, 5:00

Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) is a form of bilingual teaching where a subject is taught by communicating in another language. It is a widely accepted technique across the world and is commonly used to teach English. Research shows it leads to gains in language proficiency and evidence of accelerated learning within the host subject. Indeed, countries with CLIL in over 11 per cent of their schools have leapt up the PISA tables in recent times.

Here in the UK, there are examples of schools that have taught subjects from science to PSHE through languages from French to Mandarin, but no significant longitudinal studies on its impact.  Policy makers remain sceptical about its credentials. This week, I published a longitudinal study based on my own career-long experience of CLIL in three schools in England.

I began by teaching geography in French some 20 years ago and immediately witnessed the enjoyment of students and staff alike. Increasing numbers of students opted for the CLIL courses and we clearly saw improved attainment and progress in languages for all students whatever their background or ability. SATs results for the end of key stage 3 also indicated that there might be academic gains in other subjects too.

As the assistant head in charge of data and teaching and learning, I seized the opportunity to engage academics and reviewers to study our work objectively. This proved the short-term gains but also longer-term ones. Five years later, the CLIL cohort achieved higher rates of attainment at GCSE, many opting for A level French.

Later appointed as a deputy head for curriculum, it became a cornerstone of a creative curriculum judged ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted and cited by them for good practice. Here, academics confirmed that by key stage 4, in addition to languages, CLIL cohorts were making higher gains in other subjects with a lot of problem-solving too.

Later again, as headteacher I introduced CLIL at a school in a very deprived area. I continued to teach it too, and to monitor, track and review its impact. I was stunned by its effectiveness at helping our students access the more challenging GCSE curriculum introduced by Michael Gove.

CLIL effectively eliminated the disadvantage gap

In all three schools, CLIL was introduced for between one and two hours a week in years 7 and 8 in addition to their normal MFL time. This relatively small investment of curriculum time provided a great return for MFL uptake and whole-school attainment and progress, and any increase in CLIL time led to greater gains.

Now, in my retirement, I have been able to combine the internal data for all three schools with the overall data from school performance tables to objectively reach conclusions about CLIL’s value as a school improvement strategy.

As a data analyst, I discovered the statistically significant impacts all three schools had in common. As a teacher, I analysed the classroom techniques to evaluate what could have caused these impacts. The results were startling.

The components within the CLIL courses (delivered in a variety of subjects and languages) include many of the most effective techniques highlighted in the EEF’s teacher toolkit: reading comprehension strategies, oral language interventions, metacognition and self-regulation, collaborative working, feedback, challenging homework and use of digital technology. With all of these conducted in a different language, it is no wonder that learning is accelerated.

Better still, all three schools show that gains were relatively greater for the most vulnerable students. Refugees with no English, hearing-impaired students, disadvantaged pupils and those with special educational needs all benefitted. CLIL effectively eliminated the disadvantage gap, driving inclusivity, higher Ebacc entries and results. Prior ability on entry did not determine CLIL students’ success.

Headline figures for each school showed similar patterns. Once embedded in key stage 3, improvements in attainment and progress were evident across all subjects and were magnified at key stage 4, improving schools’ national positions by an average of 21 per cent.

The reverse pattern is also clear. When CLIL stopped, key stage 4 results tapered back down as its effects phased out.

If our national ambitions are truly to close the disadvantage gap and to increase the uptake of languages, then CLIL definitely warrants further investigation.

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  1. Judith Woodfield

    Thank you Schools Week for publishing this . My thanks also to all of the people who supported this research particularly Professor Do Coyle of the University of Edinburgh who wrote the preface and ensured its academic rigour. Thanks also to the University of Aston who host Learning through Languages UK and the work of Dr Emmanuelle Labeau who runs such fantastic CLIL Monday events where you can learn about CLIL for FREE. Thanks also to Headteacher Ana Neofitou who inspired me right at the beginning of my encounter with CLIL. If you google my name you will find links to FREE resources if you are interested in finding out how CLIL works.

    • Hi Judith
      Many thanks for this really important document which spells out the impact on attainment across the curriculum which can be achieved through using the CLIL approach. I believe that it will provide us with valuable data in arguing the case for the development of CLIL in schools in England. Also well done to Schools Week for publishing this article. I have retweeted the link

  2. I have believed in this approach to teaching for many years and have had occasional opportunities to implement CLIL in both primary and secondary schools. My experience was that pupils responded really positively to the fun and the challenge of learning a subject through the medium of another language. My aim now, as a primary language business, is to upskill non-specialist language teachers to be able to deliver languages confidently and part of that is empowering them with cross-curricular language opportunities in KS2.

  3. Christophe

    I’m currently training as en EFL teacher in Spain and considering becoming an MFL teacher when I (eventually) return to the UK. I found this article so interesting and quite inspiring actually. Well done on your very thorough research and thank you for sharing the results in such an accessible way.