Content learning and teaching both language and content

Content and language integrated learning (CLIL) has
been defined as a dual-focused educational approach in which pupils’ second
language is used for learning and teaching both language and content (Coyle,
Hood, & Marsh, 2010). CLIL represents the integration of specific content
with specific language teaching (Brinton, Snow & Wesche, 2003). The teacher
is required to balance content mastery and second language learning within
their pedagogical approaches (Met, 1999). While the main focus of the CLIL lesson
is on content, the target language is used as the medium through which pupils
engage with the content. This process promotes the attainment of both content
objectives and language objectives in the same lesson (Coyle, Hood, and Marsh

The Irish language, Gaeilge, as the language of
instruction in an All-Irish school (Gaelscoil), meets the CLIL criteria.  It is the language that “students will mainly
encounter in the classroom, given that it is not regularly used in the wider
society they live in’ (Dalton-Puffer 2011, 183). CLIL is very much in keeping
with the communicative approach to language teaching as it provides an
authentic context for L2 acquisition and use. Exponents of the CLIL approach demonstrate
consistently benefits to be accrued from language learning in an authentic
context (Cammarata, 2010) resulting in increased language confidence and

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However, research evidence is varied as to whether
the content knowledge of pupils who learn using the CLIL approach is similar to
or less than that of pupils who learn content in their first language
(Dalton-Puffer 2011, 2011; Slyvén 2013). CLIL contexts appear to promote
certain positive outcomes (Poarch, 2013). Based on information processing
theories such as Craik and Lockhart’s (1972) idea of different levels of
processing, it is assumed that in bilingual teaching students process
information more deeply because they have to invest more mental effort to come
to an understanding of the issue (Piesche et al., 2016).  As a consequence of this process, pupils are
expected to show better long-term retention of the content (Wolff, 1997). Heine
(2010) used think-aloud data to support this idea. She showed that language-related
problems give rise to comparison of concepts in both languages and a continuing
engagement with the content which leads to deeper semantic processing, which in
turn fosters long-term retention of the subject matter.

Based on a constructivist view of learning, the
teaching of science in a Gaelscoil setting has also been found to support pupil
learning.  Pupils enter science lessons
with ‘everyday’ concepts in their minds that often differ from the scientific
concepts. As the ‘everyday’ concepts are highly persistent, they can hinder the
development of the scientific ones (Haagen-Schützenhofer et al., 2011). If
instruction is delivered in the second language, technical terms may be less
strongly connected with the ‘everyday’ concepts. Thus scientific concepts may
be developed with less interference from the ‘everyday’ concepts which may
result in better learning (Haagen-Schützenhofer et al., 2011; Hegerfeldt,

While these theoretical arguments promote the CLIL
approach in support of content learning, other theories suggest negative
effects. From the perspective of cognitive load theory (Sweller, Ayres, &
Kalyuga, 2011), one might argue that students’ working memory is overloaded by
simultaneously processing new content and new language. This might particularly
be the case when students’ ability level in the second language is still
relatively low and, therefore, demands a high quantity of working memory
capacity. This argument is related to Cummins’ (1979) Threshold Hypothesis,
which states that sufficient competences in both the native and second language
are necessary to avoid negative effects of bilingual teaching.

A study by Dallinger et al. (2016), found that CLIL
students had a comparable increase in content subject knowledge to
monolingually educated students after one school year, despite receiving more
hours of instruction per week. Thus, students in CLIL classrooms might need
more time to learn the same content as pupils in monolingual classrooms.
Furthermore, Piesche et al. (2016) studied the effects of CLIL on science learning
in sixth-grade secondary school students. Findings revealed that the
bilingually-taught students performed worse than the monolingually taught
students both in the science test and in the follow-up after six weeks. The
rationale for such a negative outcome in support of CLIL is unclear.