Reading comprehension, PISA and CLIL

PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) measures 15-year-old  students' performance in Mathematics, Reading and Science. Now that  PISA 2018 is approaching,  a lot is being said about the need to improve the   results of the last exams in 2015. 

Today I would like to focus this post on the positive impact of  CLIL programmes on the development of reading comprehension in the mother tongue. The reading skills most benefited from CLIL classrooms  are global comprehension, lexical comprehension, understanding of space-time relationships, integration of extra-textual information and identification of extra-textual relations. 

There is  recent and abundant research carried out in several European countries  on what I have stated above these lines but in this post  I would like to go a bit deeper  into  the main  reasons why CLIL affects the acquisition of reading comprehension in the mother tongue. 

First of all, no one  can deny that there is a clear transfer of strategies between L1 and L2 and vice versa but I need to go beyond that so as to explain  that if CLIL is done well, it helps students to become better readers in their mother tongue too. 

The crucial factor that makes CLIL so powerful comes from the need CLIL teachers have  to make students learn how to use reading strategies consciously and systematically. For instance, students need to know about useful  strategies to learn specific vocabulary because  only by strengthening vocabulary acquisition will students access language and  content. I wrote a previous post on the importance of working  on AWL in all content areas.  

However, direct vocabulary instruction is not enough. Experienced CLIL teachers  tell readers why and when they should use reading  strategies, what strategies to use and how to apply them. The teacher models, or demonstrates, how to apply the strategy, usually by "thinking aloud" while reading the text that the students are using.

Regarding text types, there is no doubt that reading in CLIL provides students with different text types from the ones they use in EFL classes. CLIL teachers have to choose their texts very carefully because they have to take into account the students'  language level, amount of new content, lexical load and text difficulty. Needless to say that CLIL teachers have to be strategic readers so as to teach their students about these strategies. In this sense, teaching training institutions play an essential role to support CLIL teachers with knowledge on  reading strategies and suitable reading texts for content areas.

As a teacher trainer, I try to provide  teachers with  the most useful reading strategies and scaffolding techniques  which will facilitate reading in any content area. It goes beyond the scope of a blog post to mention all of them but the following ones are, in my view, essential:

For the teacher

- spend the necessary time on the pre-lesson stage (warm-up the reading process by activating key vocabulary, previous knowledge on the topic, etc)

- work on a piece of the text, step by step, in parts 

- shorten sentences or paraphrase difficult concepts

- add images to facilitate comprehension

- use cooperative  reading techniques (jigsaw reading, unscramble texts...)

- add in sub-headings  that help students to understand the structure of the text

- encourage students to prepare their own questions about the text for other students (student-centred methodology is key to enhance motivation towards reading

For the student:

- predict

- locate key words

- annotate the text

- use on-line visual dictionaries while reading

- infer

- summarize the text by using mind-maps (different types for different text  types and subjects)

- use context clues

- make connections 

- evaluate understanding (What did I learn?)

Let me insist on the fact that  content area teachers are not language teachers so coordination between both is essential thoughout this complex process. The best results take place when language teachers help content teachers by working on the difficult words and connectors that students will find in the specific   texts (pre-lesson stage).

Last but not least, Rome was not built in a day so PISA results will not improve overnight but we are on the right track by strengthening language competence through language integration in the curriculum,  CLIL programmes and  a sound  professional development policy for both pre-and in-service teachers. 

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