Learner Autonomy in the CLIL Classroom

by Frank Maschmeier (Author)
©2019 Thesis 302 Pages


In Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), content and language learning proceed in parallel, the one supporting the other. CLIL has spread widely and has attracted a large number of studies. While most of these studies have focused on the language benefits of CLIL, this book focuses on both language and subject achievement. Against the background of autonomy theory and motivation, the author investigates to what extent learners at different proficiency levels are able to work in self-directed ways in CLIL settings.
The analysis of data obtained from CLIL learners and teachers shows that the majority of participants do not see this integration as problematic, while data concerning student achievement point in a different direction. While results are positive concerning motivation and self-perception of achievement for both beginning and more advanced CLIL learners, this positive picture is not confirmed by performance data in the area of self-directed learning.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Acknowledgements
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Frequently used abbreviations
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. CLIL: between subject and language learning
  • 2.1 Defining CLIL: underlying concepts
  • 2.1.1 Towards a general definition of bilingualism
  • 2.1.2 Different models of bilingual education
  • 2.1.3 Pedagogical implications of CLIL: a first approach
  • 2.2 Global perspectives: different CLIL approaches and their relevance for CLIL in Germany
  • 2.2.1 The politicisation of bilingual education: U.S. experiences as an answer to the issue of emancipatory CLIL?
  • 2.2.2 French immersion in Canada: a role model for enrichment CLIL?
  • 2.2.3 CLIL in Europe: the politicisation of bilingual education revisited
  • Multilingualism in Europe
  • CLIL provision and objectives in Europe
  • 2.3 CLIL in Germany
  • 2.3.1 The framework of CLIL in Germany: location in the curricular system and official regulations
  • 2.3.2 Development and distribution of CLIL in Germany
  • 2.3.3 Current objectives
  • 2.3.4 CLIL versus BSFU: reconceptualising the bilingual classroom?
  • 2.3.5 Reaping the harvest: outcomes of CLIL in Germany so far
  • 2.4 Chapter summary
  • 3. Learner autonomy in language and subject learning
  • 3.1 Defining language learning autonomy
  • 3.1.1 Defining a multi-faceted concept
  • 3.1.2 Measuring learner autonomy
  • 3.2 Learner autonomy beyond the language classroom
  • 3.2.1 The roots of learner autonomy
  • 3.2.2 Learner autonomy in subject-related didactics
  • 3.3 Locating learner autonomy in the curriculum
  • 3.4 Learner autonomy and learning success
  • 3.5 Fostering learner autonomy
  • 3.5.1 Different approaches and the role of the teacher
  • 3.5.2 Potential external obstacles
  • 3.6 Chapter summary
  • 4. Integrating learner autonomy into CLIL: opportunity or problem area?
  • 4.1 CLIL: an autonomy-supportive environment?
  • 4.2 Potential problem areas and potential solutions
  • 4.2.1 Increased investment in CLIL and the role of scaffolding
  • 4.2.2 Curricular situation in NRW: exposure time
  • 4.3 Chapter summary and outlook
  • 5. Integrating learner autonomy into CLIL: the relevance of student motivation
  • 5.1 Motivation in the context of the research project
  • 5.2 Motivation in different fields of research
  • 5.2.1 The background: motivational psychology
  • 5.2.2 Motivation in educational settings
  • 5.2.3 Motivation in language learning
  • 5.3 Between language and subject motivation: the special situation of CLIL
  • 5.4 Motivation and performance
  • 5.5 Chapter summary
  • 6. Design of the empirical study
  • 6.1 Research questions
  • 6.2 Design of the study and research instruments
  • 6.2.1 Main stages: overview
  • 6.2.2 The questionnaire surveys
  • 6.2.3 Additional qualitative data
  • 6.2.4 Performance tests
  • 6.2.5 The methodological approaches to autonomy tested in the student study
  • Station Navigation
  • Mystery
  • Degrees of autonomy in Station Navigation and Mystery
  • 7. Results
  • 7.1 Teacher survey
  • 7.1.1 Processing and sample group
  • 7.1.2 Statistical analysis
  • 7.1.3 Correlations across thematic areas
  • 7.2 Student survey
  • 7.2.1 Student questionnaire
  • Descriptive analysis
  • Correlations across thematic areas
  • Interim summary: student questionnaire
  • 7.2.2 Student interviews
  • 7.3 Performance of experimental and control group
  • 7.3.1 Prior comparison of experimental and control group: pre-test
  • 7.3.2 Performance test year 7
  • 7.3.3 Performance test year 10
  • 7.4 Chapter summary
  • 8. Discussion of study results
  • 8.1 Teacher guidance versus learner autonomy in CLIL: teachers’ and students’ perceptions
  • 8.2 Performance of experimental and control groups: implications for teacher support and autonomy
  • 8.3 Student motivation in CLIL
  • 8.4 Evaluation of the methodological approaches tested
  • 8.5 Summary and integration of findings
  • 9. Implications for CLIL practice and outlook
  • 9.1 Implications for the CLIL classroom
  • 9.2 Outlook: limitations of the study and future research
  • List of figures
  • List of tables
  • References

Frequently used abbreviations

(including English paraphrases of German terminology)

1. Introduction

This book takes a look at bilingual education in the form of Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) from a new perspective. In CLIL, a foreign language is used as the medium of instruction for other subject matter. This means that language is not so much taught as a subject itself, but acquired while using it, and in contexts which necessitate the use of certain language items for content reasons. CLIL has been researched quite extensively and in various settings with regard to the language benefits of acquiring new subject knowledge via the medium of a foreign language, mostly with positive conclusions. The concept is spreading and flourishing in Europe and Germany, but also elsewhere – a European acronym is going global.

However, some of the positive findings about language learning in CLIL have been challenged recently. In the DENOCS1 study, Rumlich (2016) found that many of the alleged positive language learning effects of bilingual education in Germany may be caused by ‘creaming’ processes, i.e. by positive pre-selection of CLIL students. Furthermore, it seems that much is left to be said in the field of content learning in CLIL. Not only is there a certain shortage of inquiries into the subject-specific development of CLIL and non-CLIL learners in comparison to studies into their linguistic achievement, but there are also various areas of subject performance that have rarely been addressed at all.

One of these areas is learner autonomy in CLIL contexts. Learner autonomy, or “the ability to take charge of one’s learning” (Holec 1981: 3), is at one and the same time a fundamental part of language learning as well as independent of it, as it permeates virtually all areas of learning, including the different subjects that are taught in CLIL schemes. The issue of learner autonomy in education is not merely a pedagogical one: fostering learner autonomy implies sociological and political dimensions, and various approaches have been made towards providing institutional frameworks that facilitate a higher degree of self-regulation, freedom and responsibility in learning. This is also reflected in the current shift of paradigms in curricula in Germany and many other places, where the focus on student competences has replaced the traditional fixed syllabus, which used to be concerned with input rather. Learner autonomy is considered one of the crucial long-term objectives of education in curricula acrossof the whole ←13 | 14→range of subjects taught at German grammar schools. This becomes particularly obvious in the fact that evaluation skills, which are highly individualised and involve autonomy by definition, are presently ranked highest among the higher-order thinking skills specified by German curricula.2 One could say: whereas teaching guidelines in Germany used to be concerned with teacher input in the past, they tend to focus on the learner and learner output nowadays, a development that is in line with the aim of steadily developing learner autonomy.

It appears that learner autonomy and CLIL are two thriving concepts in today’s classrooms in Germany. Rarely have these concepts been investigated in context, however. Wolff (2003a, 2003b) is among the few that have investigated the relationship between the two concepts:

The underlying hypothesis is that content and language integrated learning constitutes a framework within which one can build a learning environment better suited to fostering autonomy than most of those that exist at present.

(Wolff 2003a: 218)

This positive tone seems to resonate in most of the discussions of the topic in CLIL didactics so far, and around one and a half decades after its publication, this view does not seem to have been challenged fundamentally. The underlying argument is straightforward: as CLIL has the potential for integrating highly authentic content matter from different areas, learning contexts may potentially be more diverse and of higher relevance for the students’ (future) lives. Such rich contexts naturally provide opportunities for diversification and individualisation in the classroom, both with regard to the selection of topics and the way these topics are dealt with. At first sight, it therefore seems that learner autonomy and CLIL are two concepts that are not only compatible, but may mutually benefit from one another. While learner autonomy calls for the integration of learner interests and preferences in choices concerning content, aims, methodology and evaluation, the bilingual CLIL classroom may be the very place where such demands can be met. Not only does it offer the chance to integrate content from completely different fields, which may result in a better fit with the interests of the target group, but the spectrum of potentially involved subjects also offers a wealth of further methodological approaches.

←14 | 15→

Reality may be more complex, however, and CLIL settings might also show specific characteristics which could turn out to be obstacles on the way towards more learner autonomy. There are general didactic considerations, and sometimes also trends in educational policy, which call the compatibility of these two concepts into question and may render the claim of mutual benefit overly optimistic. As subject matter is explored in a foreign target language in CLIL, the acquisition of this content is likely to be more difficult, at least initially, than in L1. The most basic objection is therefore didactic in nature. CLIL education implies increased investment on both the learner’s and the teacher’s part due the added difficulty of mastering content knowledge in a foreign language. As a result, CLIL also implies that more extensive supportive structures are necessary for learners to achieve as much as their non-CLIL counterparts. This conclusion exposes a potential short-circuit in the assertion that CLIL and autonomy are concepts that are interrelated in ways that release positive synergy effects: if CLIL requires more (teacher) support, might not learners become more teacher-dependent in fact? If this was the case, the development of learner autonomy could be at risk, while the promised language benefits of CLIL, and perhaps also its promises with regard to authenticity and a wider methodology, could be ‘masking’3 this hidden lack of student autonomy.

This book explores these dangers, as well as possible ways out of this seeming dilemma. It is based on a mixed-methods study. On the one hand, it was investigated whether teachers and students perceive support and autonomy as an area of friction in CLIL settings or not. The data obtained were supplemented with research into further attitudinal factors, especially in the area of motivation, among CLIL students. Moreover, the performance of CLIL groups at different age and proficiency levels that were taught in autonomy-fostering ways were compared with the performance of control groups that were taught in a more traditional, teacher-centred fashion with higher degrees of direct teacher guidance.

The underlying aim was to investigate to what extent the potentially problematic circumstances outlined above may indeed pose a threat to the development of learner autonomy in CLIL schemes, and to explore ways in which the aim of ←15 | 16→fostering learner autonomy can be integrated into CLIL classrooms in spite of such implicit obstacles. It is hoped that this book serves to fill a certain gap in current CLIL didactics, and that it raises awareness for intricate processes in an area of research in which practice has often preceded theory, as several scholars have remarked. Rumlich (2016: 452) arrives at a clear conclusion in view of the DENOCS findings: “[…]after a sustained period of infatuation with the idea of CLIL, and its increased implementation at schools, it is now high time to focus on the quality of CLIL provision.” This study addresses a crucial point concerning the quality of CLIL provision at the classroom level.

The first part of this edition takes the reader on a short journey through the developments in bilingual education in various educational settings that have been influential for the development of CLIL in Europe and Germany, and it will also outline which empirical findings made in these settings could be relevant from a European point of view in the future. In the light of events like the refugee crisis in 2015, such findings may carry a lot of potential for new ideas as well as controversy. CLIL is not the only political topic in this volume, however, and the role of learner autonomy in the language and the CLIL classroom will be outlined afterwards. Due to the political implications of the concept, it will probably, and hopefully, retain a central position in language as well as CLIL didactics.

The subsequent chapters span the bridge between learner autonomy and CLIL. Here, the potential opportunities and obstacles outlined above will be developed and discussed in more detail. Also, a concept new to the debate will be introduced at this point: motivational psychology. The underlying questions are whether CLIL carries a specific motivational potential for learners, how we can measure such a potential and, most importantly, whether this could counterbalance potential difficulties encountered in CLIL.

The following chapters focus on the empirical study itself. They outline the research questions, describe the sample of students and teachers on whose participation this study rests, as well as its methodology. After the description of the statistical treatment of the dataset and the presentation of the findings, the focus will of course be on the greater, underlying question: how conducive or risky are CLIL settings with regard to the development of learner autonomy, and how can potential challenges be met and counterbalanced if problems are found to arise?

The final part of the book offers, in condensed form, an overview of the findings and conclusions that are relevant for CLIL teachers. It also includes suggestions for further research into CLIL in general, and learner autonomy in CLIL settings in particular.

←16 |

1 Development of North Rhine-Westphalian CLIL students; see Rumlich 2016: 249.

2 The German term ‘Anforderungsbereich’ (AFB) (which can be paraphrased as ‘level of expectation’) is divided into three categories in ascending order, ranging from ‘reproductive’ (AFB 1) over ‘transfer/analysis’ (AFB 2) to ‘evaluation/re-organisation’ (AFB 3) skills. For an overview, see Ministerium für Schule und Weiterbildung des Landes NRW (MSW) 2014a: 53 f.

3 In this context, also see Breen and Mann’s expression of a “mask of autonomy” (see Breen and Mann 1997: 141). This expression originally refers to students who, instead of showing real autonomy, are familiar with the ‘rules of the game’ in classroom situations and behave in a quasi-autonomous way that they consider to be expected by the teacher.

2. CLIL: between subject and language learning

Essentially, Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) provides subject teaching in a language other than the mother tongue. The acronym was introduced by the European Union and has from the start been used as an umbrella term to comprise different educational schemes that can be characterised as ‘bilingual education’. Eurydyce, an EU subsection concerned with European language policy, defines CLIL as a

[…] generic term to describe all types of provision in which a second language (a foreign, regional or minority language and/or another official state language) is used to teach certain subjects in the curriculum other than languages lessons themselves.

(EACEA/Eurydice 2006: 8)


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (May)
Content and language integrated learning (CLIL) Learner autonomy Motivational psychology Mixed-methods research Scaffolding
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 300 pp., 1 fig. col., 32 fig. b/w, 37 tables

Biographical notes

Frank Maschmeier (Author)

Dr Frank Maschmeier supervises probationary teachers at the graduate teacher training centre (ZFsL) in Detmold, Germany. Before that, he was a researcher at the University of Bielefeld, Germany. He continues to teach English, biology and biology CLIL at secondary and upper secondary level.


Title: Learner Autonomy in the CLIL Classroom
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