Does the application of Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) truly encourage and develop better listening skills? What proof is there that CLIL can indeed help students learn to listen more closely for content and substance? Where are the empirical research efforts that can prove that CLIL strategies improve student listening skills? This paper will shed light on the purpose and success of the CLIL model and provide a guide for further research.
Students in the majority of pedagogical situations need to enhance their learning experiences and their listening skills. Whether through integrated learning tactics or other formats, listening skills not only help the student become a better learner, a stronger student but the application of fine-tuned listening skills can carry through a lifetime of learning and growing. Moreover, students today -- particularly in the West -- have so many distractions in their lives that learning often takes a back seat to texting, talking on a smart phone, spending time on Facebook and other social media outlets. These digital technologies are not going away any time soon and the interest students have in being linked to friends and media a good share of the day can spoil or retard their interest in learning.
Just a few years ago there were no progressive learning opportunities that could match the potential of the CLIL strategy. High School students could take an elective class in a foreign language for one semester that that was all that was required in many cases. Fast forward to 2012, and in Europe, the goal is to have students learn two languages in addition to their native tongue. In Andalusia (the largest region in Spain), as additional evidence that languages are playing an increasingly important role in the lives of adolescents, the regional educational ministry has put forward a plan to promote "plurilingualism" (knowledge of several languages). As a way to teach students those languages, the Spanish ministry is recommending the CLIL be the driver of these language challenges.
Author Dalton-Puffer responds to the Andalusia proposal: "CLIL is regarded on the political level as a core instrument for achieving policy aims directed at creating a multilingual population in Europe" (Casal, 2008).
Is there verifiable evidence that the use of the CLIL model enhances listening skills?
Review of Literature
The National Center for Languages (NCL) explains that it sometimes takes a period of time before students become acclimated to the challenges presented by CLIL, but once they become familiarized with the strategies involved, they will experience a "…demonstrably increased motivation and focus" on the subject they are studying. Clearly part of the process of learning CLIL entails students listening very carefully, given that they are being taught in their second language, and obviously it takes more concentration to discern meaning from one's second language than one's first, native language.
Theresa Naves writes in the book Content and Language Integrated Learning: Evidence from Research in Europe that the salient point of CLIL -- gleaned from international research -- is to enhance the teaching of academic subject matter. Naves (2009, 25) references Littlewood (2007) who insists that besides content-language instruction, CLIL achieves another important goal: it helps develop "learners' communicative competence" (read that, listening and speaking skills). Littlewood (2004) asserts that CLIL and TBLT (task-based learning and teaching) as a way to develop "within the communicative approach"; and the pivotal feature within that approach is "communication serves not only as one major component of CLIL, but communication is a subject around which the CLIL courses can be organized. Again, Littlewood and Naves are alluding to communication (listening and speaking) skills within the genre of CLIL.
Naves also references Nunan (2004) who believes the "overarching concept" of CLIL lies in the development of "communicative language teaching" which embraces a "broad, philosophical approach to the language curriculum"; that implies going a good deal deeper into teaching and learning than subject matter alone (again, think listening skills). On page 26 Naves' research indicates that students learn more when the focus of the language is moving away from learning the language and instead to a dynamic where students acquire language "…through lively exchanges with other students" -- e.g., through listening and talking. Moreover, Naves (26) explains that learners to well when engaged in "spontaneous speech…in an interactive context" (listening, responding based on what they heard, and listening to the response to their response).
Meanwhile Christine Dalton-Puffer takes issue with administrators in Austria that only see content as the main goal of CLIL. "…Why should we be doing CLIL at all if there are no language goals present?" she asks (Dalton-Puffer, 2007, 295). She argues "very strongly" that language curricula should be developed -- "goals in speaking writing, reading and listening concretized" -- along with content curricula. When presented correctly, Dalton-Puffer asserts that these programs "…are likely to be good training grounds for listening to and reading in the foreign language" (295).
Lydia Sajda argues that CLIL is "an umbrella" approach to learning because it involves contend and language / communication skills, and officially the Commission of the European Communities states that CLIL entails having students "…acquiring the skills to communicate with one another effectively and to understand one another better" (Sajda, 2008, 31). On page 37 Sajda writes that in the lower grades of the secondary level in the Austrian curriculum the aim of foreign language teaching should (and do) include communication competencies. These competencies include "…reading, hearing, speaking and writing skills in the foreign language" (Sajda, 37). Using their second language effectively will allow them to further develop "their hearing, speaking, reading and writing skills" in any number of public and professional situations (Sajda, 37).
Within the context of a CLIL environment students will be practicing the four skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) in an integrative way, and that gives strength to their ability to digest and understand the content presented as well (Sajda). A strong example of how listening skills help to bridge the gap from one language to another is presented by Sajda who references Cameron (2007):
"Children listening to a story told in the foreign language from a book with pictures will understand and construct the gist, or outline meaning, of the story in their minds. Although the story may be told in the foreign language, the mental processing does not need to use the foreign language, and may be carried out in the first language or in some language-independent way" (Sajda, 58).
Meanwhile Sonia Casal presents the case that while students learning through CLIL are gaining reading and listening skills, they are missing out on "productive" skills (writing and speaking) (Casal, 2008). On the issue of speaking, Casal insists that students involved with the CLIL format do not have enough chance to speak albeit they get plenty of opportunities to listen. In this case, the listening is based on the math that Casal presents. In a 50-minute class with 25 students, each individual would only have 2 minutes of time to speak or ask questions given that the instructor has to speak as well.
In this particular field of learning, the researcher needs to evaluate as many existing studies and surveys as possible. Whether they entail empirical research, or simple surveys asking teachers which aspect of CLIL works the best in their classroom, or successes in Austrian, Indian, or Greek classrooms -- all available background and research projects need to be reviewed and assessed as to their worthiness vis-a-vis further research.
Tarja Nikula writes in the journal World Englishes that CLIL is a relatively new phenomenon in Finland; indeed, up until 1991 schools were only allowed to teach the official language of Finland. Today, ninety percent of the time when CLIL is the format, the language of instruction is English. But Nikula sees CLIL as just an "umbrella term" that alludes to a "wide range of different ways to use a foreign language as a medium of instruction."
What makes it especially interesting in Finland is that in most cases -- which Nikula says "…sets it apart from immersion models" of learning -- the teachers along with the students are usually non-native speakers of the language of instruction" and they of course share the native language with the students. This makes an interesting and potentially meaningful point.
And while the research paper by Nikula sheds very little -- if any -- light on listening skills -- it could open the door for research.
How so? Teachers, professors, and instructors of all stripes that have participated in the CLIL program can be accessed via Skype at little or not cost to the researcher. Whether in Austria (as this paper has learned that CLIL is used in myriad pedagogical scenes), or Finland, or Spain, part of the research plan for this project should entail reaching out to teachers and professors who have used CLIL and have a base of understanding about CLIL.
Of course the specific questions would not be general, but rather…