Does teaching maths in Italian really boost numeracy?

Victorian schools are embracing an approach already widely used in Europe, where ‘regular’ classes are taught in a second language. 'Content and Language Integrated Learning' is a unique and innovative approach to Australian education, and students are flourishing.

Associate Professor Russell Cross, an expert in languages education at the University of Melbourne, thinks we need to reconsider why learning a second language is important.

“It’s not just about inter-cultural connectedness but also the cognitive benefits, which include improved creative and critical thinking,” he says.

“The best way to improve literacy is to learn another language, because it helps provide an understanding of how language works.”

And research is showing that the most effective way to achieve these cognitive benefits is not through traditional language classes, but by integrating language learning into other areas of the curriculum; teaching subjects like science in a second language.

“A lot of language teachers are sick of teaching numbers, colours and animals. This Content and Language Integrated Learning means they’re actually looking at how seeds are germinated or how rhythm and timbre work in music; it’s concept driven.”

What is Content and Language Integrated Learning?

Otherwise known as 'CLIL,' this relatively new approach can lift students’ performance in core curriculum areas.

A study of science taught in English in Italian classrooms, for example, found significant gains in final grade point averages, especially for weaker students. And a separate study discovered Year 6 Chinese first language students who studied maths through English outperformed those taught in Chinese.

CLIL lifting performance in core areas
Integrating language into core curriculum areas can improve learning

Working in another language means students have to consciously think about a concept in order to explain it, whereas in their native language they can often passively absorb content. By contrast, learning in a CLIL environment is active.

“It’s not actually about learning a language, it’s about learning how to think,” says Dr Cross. “When you’re forced to explain a concept in another language – that’s when thinking becomes really visible.”

This approach has already been widely adopted in Europe. All Italian final year students are taught in English, and in Spain students learn subjects like physics, biology and geography in German.

And while it is early days in Australia, only a number of schools are embracing it – with the most adoption in Victoria.

So why aren't all schools embracing CLIL?

Dr Cross says it’s a matter of building teachers’ awareness.

While the term ‘CLIL’ was first coined some 20 years ago, it only started gaining traction in the mid 2000s, when the European Commission identified it as their preferred approach. Along with colleagues in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, he started working on a model for Australian classrooms in 2012.

They now work closely with governments and schools, particularly in Victoria, but with interest across other Australian states including New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia, to support teachers taking up CLIL in their classrooms.

“Victoria is one of the first systems in the world to formally support teachers in this area,” says Dr Cross, adding that other Anglophone education systems are interested in what’s happening here, particularly the UK.

While it may seem daunting at first, he says it is easier for schools to adopt a CLIL approach to languages teaching than it may initially seem.

Dr Cross is optimistic more schools will embrace the approach as word spreads.

The benefits of teaching curriculum through CLIL

Clearly, offering CLIL in schools offers a number of clear benefits.

“First of all, it releases pressure on an already-crowded curriculum.

“Rather than finding an isolated bubble for languages education, it looks at what areas of core teaching and learning languages can be brought into.”

It also makes languages education relevant and purposeful.

“Rather than aiming for what can be a distant goal of being able to hold a conversation in another language, it’s more about ‘how do I do this science experiment here and now?” he says.

The final reason is about teachers’ professional satisfaction. CLIL is “professionally exciting”, Dr Cross says, offering an opportunity to be creative.

“A lot of language teachers are sick of teaching numbers, colours and animals. This approach means they’re actually looking at how seeds are germinated or how rhythm and timbre work in music; it’s concept driven.”

“Teachers get to re-think their approach to teaching and learning,” says Dr Cross. “Change comes from putting the focus on working with learners to build concepts and ideas, and not just traditional understanding.”

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What does a CLIL classroom look like?

One of the big differences between a CLIL approach and language immersion, which happens in a limited number of Victorian schools, is that it doesn’t require whole-of-school change. It can be a relatively simple change within existing language classes.

There are a few models that have worked particularly well in Victorian schools. At Carrum Primary in Melbourne’s south east, for example, their nine week ‘Hatch n Scratch’ chicken raising unit was taught through German. The unit already existed and was popular among students before becoming a CLIL unit.

At Gladstone Park Secondary College in the city’s north, curriculum areas are combined so that rather than having separate slots for Italian and Maths, it has become one continuous lesson.

“It’s all ‘CLIL time’,” says Dr Cross. “The maths teachers can speak Italian. So instead of two hours of Italian and three hours of maths, you have five hours of maths – which makes the maths team very happy, too.”

Another model used by some schools is known as ‘shadowing’, where a class is split in two, with one half taught their lesson in English and the other taught the same lesson in a second language.

Feedback from schools and students about CLIL is consistently positive, with students more engaged in language learning, often doing better in other subjects and teachers enjoying the professional challenge.

“Learning another language using this approach opens up the breadth of human experience to students in a way that monolingual learning doesn’t. What a fantastic gift to offer them.”

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