Does CLIL make a difference? My report on AEDEAN congress

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From Wednesday 13th to Friday 15th November, I’ve been attending the 37th edition of the AEDEAN (Spanish Association of English and North American Studies) congress, which was this time held in Oviedo, and hosted by its University. As usual, I’d like to share my thoughts and impressions with you all. More particularly, I’ll be referring to those sessions related to my main area of interest: CLIL, which were presented in the Language Teaching and Acquisition section of the congress. These sessions were coordinated by prof. Francisco Gallardo del Puerto (Universidad de Cantabria), who did a great job not only in providing speakers with valuable feedback and food for thought in each session but also in creating a relaxing atmosphere.

From my point of view, there seems to be a big concern about demonstrating empirically the alleged learning gains when using CLIL instruction. In fact, most studies presented were interested in proving whether advantages of CLIL instructions can be correlated with the methodological approach used or with the increased exposure to the target language. I’ll provide with a brief summary of each of the sessions dealing with this.  For example, the one conducted by Pilar Agustín Llach (Universidad de La Rioja), and coauthored by Rosa M. Jiménez Catalán. They compared the lexical profile of two groups with the same hours of instruction in English (839 hours). A group was composed by 31 adult learners in their 2nd year of OSL (Official School of Languages), and the other group had 68 young learners attending 5th grade of Primary in a ‘CLIL’ context.  The results ‘clearly point to older learners obtaining significantly better measures of lexical richness, thus claiming that  ‘age is a more relevant factor in predicting or facilitating lexical acquisition that amount of exposure’. One curious finding in this research was that younger learners’ lexical profiles contain more words belonging to higher frequency levels.

In line with this, Izaskun Villareal Olaizola (Universidad Publica de Navarra) presented a study focused on the use of some morphological features (affixal –s and ed, suppletive auxiliary and copula be) in two groups. They are both L3 English groups, Basque-Spanish bilinguals, taking CLIL and non-CLIL programmes respectively. Results showed ‘a higher omission rate for the CLIL group’. The study was then repeated with a different CLIL group with a higher amount of exposure to the language. The non-CLIL group omitted less affixal morphemes again.

Another interesting study was the one presented by María Martínez Adrián. She carried out a research on students’ use of L1 in L3 (English) oral production. Her study was carried out with two groups which had started learning English at the age of 8 and have been learning English for 7 years as a L3. One group is involved in a CLIL programme. Results indicate that the CLIL group uses L1 less, and has a greater variety of tenses and more subordinate clauses.

Finally, Judith Fusté Fargas (Colegio La Carpa) described a study on 6th grade students’ vocabulary knowledge. 223 participants from 6 different schools in Barcelona took part in the study.  Results show that the effect of CLIL programmes is minor when the amount of instruction is parallel to the regular problems, hence, time exposure seems to be more determinant that the methodology used.

Although interesting and relevant, these studies have clear limitations. First of all, we need to establish which the minimum requirements for a programme to be considered CLIL-based are. Are we talking about a bilingual context or a CLIL context? Are they synonyms? What type of instruction is being carried out? I agree with Prof. Carmen Muñoz’s comment (she was a plenary speaker in the cogress, and was present in some of the Language Teaching and Acquisition sessions), who said that there are ‘different CLILs’, and for that reason it is very important to describe which type of instruction is being carried out in the schools researched. I completely agree with this, and I also wonder if we can talk about CLIL contexts (and not bi-,multi- lingual contexts).

Another weakness these studies need to cope with is the type of ‘measuring standards they are using. Being able to produce the 3rd person –s inflection or avoid auxiliary verbs may not be the main focus of CLIL instruction, which favours more meaning-based production. One the plenary speakers in the congress, Prof. Martin Dewey (King’s College, London) , who was among the audience in Villareal’s session, indicated that the results presented, far from being counterintuitive, were reinforcing the nature of CLIL programmes, were fluency was being fostered. This also raises an important question on the way we are ‘measuring’ students’ language performance. If CLIL is based on ‘language functions’, Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency, as well as Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills, and fluency, are we using the right tests to check students’ proficiency level?

All in all, I would like to finish this entry saying that I’m really happy to find so many Spanish experts involved in researching SLA in CLIL contexts. I consider that we are doing a great job in seeking answers for the CLIL ‘big question’: does CLIL makes a difference? And Yes, it does!

Information on the congress can be found here: