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Plurilingual Education in Secondary Schools:
Analysis of Results

Esmeralda Alonso, Jesús Grisaleña, Alejandro Campo
Basque Institute for Research and Evaluation in Education (Spain)


The goal of plurilingual education is to develop language skills and repertoires in various languages. The knowledge of multiple languages grows stronger throughout one’s life and people learn new languages because of different needs and requirements. An adequate educational policy in the Basque Country should promote the teaching of the mother language, the other official language, and, at least, two foreign languages.

This paper summarizes a research study about the degree of efficiency of the Plurilingual Experience set up in some Secondary schools of the Basque Autonomous Community (BAC) using CLIL methodology. It combines case study qualitative analysis together with quantitative aspects that evaluate students’ performance through different language competence tests.

In this article, first, some general aspects about CLIL methodology are dealt with, as well as the CLIL experiences in the BAC. Then, the research design and quantitative results of the linguistic competence tests are explained. There is a part too, about the qualitative study that includes opinions from students, teachers, and families. Both types of studies, quantitative and qualitative, form the basis of the main conclusions and recommendations of the research, summarized in the last place.

The research team works in the Basque Institute for Evaluation and Research of the Basque Department of Education. The report of this study, Trilingual students in secondary school: A new reality, can be downloaded here:


Keywords: Plurilingual Experience; Plurilingual Learning; CLIL Research; Secondary; FLL

CLIL Methodology

Some of the principles for practicing CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) in the classroom are: first, language is used for learning and at the same time for communicating; second, the subject being studied is what is used to determine the type of language required for learning; and finally, in language use relevance is given to fluency over accuracy.

The CLIL methodology focuses on learning that requires an acquisition of concepts, skills and attitudes. So, emphasis is placed on the cognitive requirements of each activity, using a larger number of audiovisual stimuli and cooperative learning (in pairs or in groups), conceptual frameworks (more intensive support from the teacher if needed) and frequent leaps from simple cognitive skills to more complex skills.

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CLIL Experiences In The Basque Autonomous Community (BAC)

In the BAC several experiences are being carried out with regards to teaching and learning in English. On the one hand, there are programs like INEBI, English through Content in Primary Education, and BHINEBI, English through Content in Compulsory Secondary Education (CSE). On the other hand, during the 2003-2005 two-year period, 12 Secondary schools took part in the Plurilingual Experience (henceforth PE) in which they had to teach part of the curriculum in English, for a minimum number of hours a week. Out of them, six were chosen to participate in this study. These schools offer the opportunity to study the curriculum subjects in three different languages: Basque, Spanish and English (L3 for the students). Subsequently, the PE has been extended to other schools, some of which use French instead of English as foreign teaching language.

Research Design


General aim

  • Confirm the educational value and effectiveness of the PE established in a limited number of Secondary schools.

Specific objectives

  • Analyse the validity of the PE, evaluating the level of effectiveness and the possibility of using it in other Secondary schools.
  • Confirm whether students in the experimental groups get an additional increase in linguistic ability in L3.
  • Analyse the impact of the introduction of the PE at the various educational levels selected (1st cycle of CSE, 2nd cycle of CSE, and Post-Compulsory Secondary Education).
  • Confirm that learning is not diminished in the subjects taught in the L3.
  • Analyse whether unforeseen effects result, both desirable and undesirable.


It is based on case study methodology. Each school was analysed as a single unit of research, receiving a full report for the group or groups of students that took part in the sample. Besides, the students from the same grade, belonging to different schools, were put together in a bigger sample to carry out the research as a whole, with the following components:

  • Evaluation of the achievement difference in linguistic competence, in English, between the students in the experimental groups (EG) and those of the control groups (CG) in six schools. The sample includes groups from 1st CSE, 3rd CSE and 1st Post-Compulsory Education.
  • The study is longitudinal and comparative. The linguistic ability was measured twice: in October 2004 and in May 2006, after two years of implementation of the PE.
  • The perceptions, attitudes, and incentives of those involved (schools, teachers, consultants, students and families…) were studied through questionnaires and interviews. The teachers were included in a study of ethnographic nature using a personal diary listing some critical incidents. An analysis was later conducted on their content to reveal key factors regarding professional tasks.
  • The evaluation of the results of the content taught in L3 and the position of the rest of the languages have been carried out using the scholarly results and the informed opinion of the didactic departments within the schools.
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The selection of the schools was discretional and decided in accordance with the following criteria: 6 of the 12 schools that took part in the PE with a minimum of 50
students for each level (1st CSE, 3rd CSE, and 1st Post-Compulsory). Besides, 7 control groups were chosen (one per EG) of 10 students each, with similar characteristics to their corresponding EG.

The initial distribution of students by educational levels is as follows:

  1st CSE
(2 groups)
3rd CSE
(2 groups)
1st Post-Compulsory
(3 groups)
EG 67 44 48 159
CG 20 20 30 70
TOTAL 87 64 78 229

Criteria for selecting control groups

Control groups work as a referent to compare the increase in linguistic competence acquired by those students taking part in the Plurilingual Experience. The criteria to select these CG, who are in the same grade as those of the EG but do not take part in the experience, have been: similar academic achievement, as measured by the marks in the previous grade, similar proportion of male and female students as in the EG, and a similar learning motivation, in the opinion of the corresponding teacher.

Instruments for data collection

The tests for linguistic competence were asked for to Cambridge ESOL 1 (English for Speakers of Other Languages). This foundation belongs to the University of Cambridge and provides several qualifications for learners of English. Their exams are recognized as proof of people’s language abilities by employers, universities and government organizations around the world. These exams are linked to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), so that it becomes easier to make comparisons with other qualifications.

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The tests assessed the four skills: listening, reading, speaking and writing, and were applied by official examiners of Cambridge ESOL.

  A2/ Flyers A2+2/KET B1/PET
October 2004
Beginning PE
Start 1st CSE Start 3rd CSE Start 1st Post-Compulsory
May 2006
After 2 years PE
End 2nd CSE End 4th CSE End 2nd Post-Compulsory

Flyers, level A2 (Waystage): third level in the series ‘Young Learners English Test’. It is aimed for students who have completed 250 hours of learning (9-12 year-olds). The syllabus is similar to KET exam (both are A2 level) but Flyers is more limited in terms of contexts covered.
KET (Key English Test) level A2 (Waystage): first level of Cambridge ESOL exams (Elementary level). This qualification recognises the ability to cope with everyday written and spoken communications at a basic level.
PET (Preliminary English Test) level B1 (Threshold): second level of Cambridge ESOL exams (Intermediate level). It recognises the ability to cope with everyday written and spoken communications.
FCE (First Certificate English) level B2 (Vantage): third level of Cambridge ESOL exams (Upper intermediate level). It recognises the ability to deal confidently with a range of written and spoken communications.

The qualitative data were collected through an interview with the responsible of the PE in each school, several questionnaires, and a teachers’ blog:

  • Interview with the PE school coordinator based on the description of the project from the beginning and his/her general evaluation of the PE.
  • Students’ first questionnaire (for students in the experimental and control groups) about their English learning path and the use they made of language learning strategies.
  • Students’ second questionnaire (for students in the experimental groups only) about their opinions towards the learning of languages, their participation in the PE, and other aspects related to the subjects studied in English.
  • Families’ questionnaire about their children’s English learning path and their opinions around the instruction in different languages.
  • Teachers’ questionnaire with professional profile questions and a global evaluation of the PE.
  • Didactic departments’ questionnaire about the degree of achievement of curricular objectives in the EG for Basque and Spanish languages, and the content subjects taught in English.
  • Teachers’ blog hosted in the web page of our institute,, to foster the exchange of experiences and reflections about the PE. After three months of its opening it was closed down due to the low rate of entries and, as a consequence, the lack of its initial objectives attainment.
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This chapter offers results from the tests measuring the linguistic competence, and about the level of knowledge acquired in the subjects taught in English.

First Cycle of Compulsory Secondary Education (CSE)

In the first cycle of CSE the students took two types of tests: one at the beginning of the research (Flyers-A2, 2004), and the next after two years of PE (KET-A2, 2006).

Both, Flyers and KET are at the A2 CFER level, even though KET is more demanding with regard to the variety of communicative contexts and also with the necessary maturity required to take the test.

Graph 1
Graph 2

The difference in global performance between the CG and the EG when they took the first test, Flyers, was 8% higher for the experimental. After two academic years, in the KET test, the difference between both was significantly higher, 22%.

Although the Flyers test does not have a minimum average to pass required by Cambridge ESOL, KET does have one, and it is 70%. The experimental group exceeds this percentage, with an 82% average, while the control group only obtained 60%.

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When using the rate of students passing the test (80%) for Cambridge ESOL candidates from Spain for the KET test as the comparison parameter, it can be observed that the experimental group has a higher percentage of students passing, which is 87%, while only 31% of the control group were able to pass the test.

Graph 3

Second Cycle of Compulsory Secondary Education (CSE)

In this academic cycle the students took two types of tests: one at the beginning of the research (KET-A2 2004) and the next after two years of PE (PET-B1 2006).

Graph 4
Graph 5
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The difference in global performance between the control group and the experimental when they took the first test, KET, was 18% higher for the experimental. After completing two academic years, the difference between them increased to 24% in the PET test.

The KET and PET tests are two consecutive CEFR levels, A2 and B1, so, the improvement expected is to exceed the minimum level to pass the test (70%). In this regard both the KET and PET experimental group obtained and exceeded this percentage (with 77% and 79% respectively), while the control group could not pass KET and after two years, were unable to pass PET, with global results of 59% (KET) and 55% (PET).

When using the passing rate of PET tests (80%) for Cambridge ESOL candidates as the comparative parameter between the two, it could be seen that the experimental group was very close to this percentage of passing with 79%, while in the control group only 15% passed the test.

Graph 6

Post-Compulsory Secondary Education

During this stage, the students took two types of tests: one at the beginning of the research (PET-B1 2004) and the next after two years of PE (FCE-B2 2006).

Graph 7
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Graph 8

The experimental group's results were significantly higher than the control group’s, in both tests and for all skills measured

The difference in global performance between the experimental group and the control group in PET was 16%. After taking two academic years, the difference between them in the FCE test was 18%.

The PET and FCE tests are two consecutive levels of CEFR, B1 and B2, although the level of difficulty in the FCE is quite high and, therefore, the global percentage required by Cambridge ESOL for passing is lower, 60%. During this academic stage the expected improvement is exceeding the minimum percentage required to pass the test, 70% for PET and 60% for FCE. In this regard, both the PET and FCE experimental group obtained and passed this percentage (with 71% and 61% respectively), while the control group could not pass PET and after two academic years, were unable to pass FCE, with global results of 55% (PET) and 43% (FCE).

When using the passing rate for the FCE test for Cambridge ESOL students as the comparative parameter, which is 71%, it can be observed that the experimental group with 63% passing is closer to the Cambridge average. In the control group 13% passed the test.

Graph 9
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Level of knowledge acquired in the subjects taught in English

To check the level of knowledge in the subjects, the teachers of the departments answered a questionnaire.

As a general conclusion, it can be said that in all cases the level obtained by the students taking the subjects in English is similar to that of those who learn in their usual language of instruction. If this criterion is applied to the subject of English, the level of knowledge obtained is clearly superior in the PE students.

Furthermore, the opinions of the teachers indicate that the global academic performance of the students in the groups that participated in the experience is superior to the other groups; however, this could be due both to the prior selection and to the high motivation and interest on the part of the families and students.

Students, Families, And Teachers’ Opinions

Students’ learning itineraries and strategies

The students who participate in the EGs have a slightly different profile than the CGs do, with regards to their English learning itineraries. The first group begins to study English a little sooner and also dedicates more study hours to that language outside of school hours (72.7% of the students in the EG confirm they study English outside of school hours versus 63.8% within the CG), which suggests an increased amount of time spent on the homework and a greater competence coinciding with the results of the various tests.

Graph 10

For the purpose of analysing the difference in the use of learning strategies between students of the experimental groups and the control groups, in the questionnaire there were collected a series of questions based on the instrument developed by R. Oxford (Strategy Inventory for Language Learning, SILL), version 7.0 (ESL/EFL) on learning strategies.

The results reveal that the use of the learning strategies measured by the SILL questionnaire ranges from a high use of compensation strategies (3.82 points, out of 5) to a medium use of cognitive strategies (3.35), while the remainder of the strategies range within different intermediate levels of use. A wider use of direct strategies were found (memorizing, cognitive and compensation) than of indirect (metacognitive, emotional and social). In spite of this, the direct cognitive strategies responsible for processing information, training mental maps and producing the language, appear in last place.

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Graph 11

When analysing the behaviour of the experimental and control groups, it can be seen that the students participating in the experience use the entire set of strategies more intensively than the control groups do, which confirms that from this point of view EG students are better trainees of languages than their schoolmates. This fact is in keeping with the correlation established in all the studies between the use of strategies and the effectiveness of learning. However, it should be taken into account that students from the experimental groups were selected because of their better command of English among other requirements. In any case, the researchers believe that the experience of using English as the language of instruction creates a favourable environment where the learning strategies can be developed and then used.

Students and families’ opinions

Students believe that learning various languages involves personal enrichment, even though this requires additional effort with more time dedicated to study. In the same way, they believe that having taken courses in Basque and Spanish provides an advantage for learning a third language and that it does not cause problems in obtaining better grades.

Students recognize the motivation and personal efforts required to study in several languages, and affirm that the favourable results obtained are done so through work and dedication.

In as far as the expectations are concerned with the usefulness of English, the majority of students believe that it will be useful in their future, especially when travelling, in order to get to know other cultures and countries, and to find work or to further their studies.

In conclusion, it can be confirmed that the students participating in plurilingual learning fit the profile of students motivated about their work, conscious of the benefits to be obtained by learning several languages, and willing to make an additional effort to undertake this type of studies. Moreover, they believe English will be useful both in their personal future as well as in their professional future.

The families, together with their children, believe that being able to speak English is an added value for their education both at the moment and in the future.

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The teachers’ personal variables and teaching strategies

There is a large disparity in the subjects taught in English. Only Alternative to Religion (3 schools) and History (2 schools) are recurring, the remainder teach Economy, Music, Art History, Computer Science, Laboratory Techniques, Chemistry, Literature, Press Workshop, World Religions, Tutorship, Science,… Such a varied outlook represent a wealth of materials and subjects offered, but a weakness in the interchange of materials created and intervention strategies with specific content.

The teachers consider that they are highly qualified to teach in a foreign language, are comfortable, and believe they have sufficient personal and institutional resources to carry out this teaching activity. They recognize that the task they are developing is complex as it requires combining specific subject knowledge with a good linguistic competence in English. Besides, the lack of didactic materials requires an extra effort in preparing the classes. However, the majority confirm that they like teaching their subject in English.

When teaching, they pay attention both to the subject matter and to the development of the language they are working in, taking special care of to the proper use of the language. They combine different linguistic registers depending on the communication situations and try to work with a type of register that is understandable for the student. This promotes the practice and understanding of English in the student, providing a context within which the students have the opportunity to produce new forms of the language. Also, in this context, their attempts at communication are valued and corrected in the right manner. They encourage, also, cooperative work to facilitate the active use of the language.

Graph 12

All in all, the teaching strategies used by the teachers participating in the experience allow the students to learn to activate and consolidate efficient learning strategies.

Evaluation of the experience by the didactic seminars

After analysing the advantages and disadvantages of the PE, it must be pointed out that they underline advantages regarding the flexibility and diversity both of the material as well as the curriculum, the positive attitude and willingness of the students in the face of this new teaching challenge, the increased time exposed to and spent using English as the communication and teaching language, and the possibility of running a more dynamic and cooperative methodology.

With regards to difficulties, these can be grouped in three areas: those which have to do with the lack of materials, those that refer to the difficulties the students face during the process of acquiring the specific subject’s vocabulary, and those referring to the additional effort and time spent by both the teachers and students given the requirements of the experience.

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The findings of this study, based on quantitative results, perceptions and qualified opinions and documentary information, confirm the educational value and effectiveness of the Plurilingual Experience set up in some Secondary schools of the Basque Department of Education.

Even though, one must be aware of some variables that could have influenced the results; the schools chosen by the Department to take part in the PE did a prior selection of students, depending on their linguistic competence in English and Basque. Only those with high marks were included in the school PE. Apart from this, they had started early learning English and most of them attend out-of-school activities to improve their English.

The general conclusions of the research can be summarized in the following viewpoints:

  • The PE increases the rate of learning the vehicular language used and the improvement in linguistic and communicative competence appears to be substantial. This statement is based on the fact that at the end of two years, the groups participating in the experience obtained better results than the control group in all the tests.
  • The informed opinion of the didactic seminars assures that the assimilation of the content in the different subject areas taught in English is similar, if not superior, to those groups taught at the same level that did not participate in the experience. Therefore, the PE does not create any obstacles in learning the subjects taught in English as the language of instruction.
  • The opinion of the teachers indicate that there are no unforeseen effects in implementing the experience, and therefore its application does not cause any problems in the development of the student’s ability to learn in other languages.
  • Extending the experience is conditional on a series of requisites that deal with three types of variables:
  1. The structural framework and rules of the innovation. They must take into account the amount, distribution and typology of the plurilingual schools, the instruction languages, the subjects taught and the desired objectives in linguistic competence.
  2. The intervention context, i.e., the schools. Starting from the fact that the intention is to go from a mainly bilingual to a trilingual education system, it is essential that there be an integrated treatment of the languages and a flexible offer of itineraries that accommodate the needs of the students and the objectives of the curriculum.
  3. The entire set of people implementing the PE: teachers, consultants and researchers. With regards to the teachers, it is necessary to obtain a sufficient number of people with a high professional competence both from the linguistic and the methodological point of view. They must also have a network of consultants and researchers to support and validate the entire process.
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Annex 1
INEBI: Program of the Basque Department of Education to study English through Content in Primary Education.
BHINEBI: Program of the Basque Department of Education to study English through Content in Compulsory Secondary Education.
PE: Plurilingual Experience
BAC: Basque Autonomous Community
CSE: Compulsory Secondary Education. It comprises 2 cycles, each of them of 2 years, the 1st cycle grades 7th and 8th, and the 2nd, grades 9th and 10th.
POST-COMPULSORY SECONDARY EDUCATION: It comprises 2 years, grades 11th and 12th
EG: Experimental Group
CG: Control Group

Annex 2
Summary of the Basque Education System

0-2 1st cycle (non-compulsory) INFANT EDUCATION (6 levels)
3-6 2nd cycle (non-compulsory)
6-8 1st cycle (grades 1st-2nd) PRIMARY EDUCATION (6 levels)
8-10 2nd cycle (grades 3rd-4th)
10-12 3rd cycle (grades 5th-6th)
12-14 1st cycle (grades 7th-8th) COMPULSORY SECONDARY EDUCATION (4 levels)
14-16 2nd cycle (grades 7th-8th)




1 Cambridge ESOL web page:
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2 Level A2 of KET widens the communicative contexts of Flyers test A2 and is aimed at more mature students. This is indicated with the ‘+’ symbol.
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