Room for Improvement? : A comparative study of Swedish learners’ free written production in English in the foreign language classroom and in immersion education

Abstract: The present study examines the effects of immersion education on the English of two groups of advanced Swedish learners at upper secondary school. In immersion education, or CLIL, subject content is taught through a second language as a means of enhancing target language competence. In this study, language proficiency was measured in terms of the ratio of low frequency vocabulary (LFV) and the ratio of motivated tense shift (MTSh) in the learners’ free written production in English. An additional aim was to see whether the results were related to the students’ motivation as reported in a questionnaire. This longitudinal study was based on three sets of narratives, written by 86 students, half of them enrolled at the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IB) where English is the medium of instruction, and the other half at national programmes (NP), where English is studied as a foreign language. At the outset, the IB and NP groups had similar results on a general diagnostic test, which was the basis for the formation of three subgroups: I, II and III, with above average, average and below average scores respectively. Mean LFV and MTSh ratios as well as different kinds of motivation were compared, both overall and in the subgroups. The IB students overall, and those in subgroup III in particular, showed the best results. As to the overall results, the IB students used significantly higher mean ratios of LFV and MTSh than the NP students in the final set of compositions. There were also a number of motivational factors that were stronger in the IB students. As to the subgroups, the most interesting results were found in subgroups I and III. While the IB students in subgroup I had high mean ratios already in the first composition, and retained them over time, their use of MTSh tended to grow subtler. The NP students had lower mean results initially, and while their mean MTSh ratio increased and ended up on a level similar to that of the IB students, their mean LFV ratio remained low. In subgroup III the results of the IB and NP students diverged over time. While the IB students progressed as reflected in their mean LFV and MTSh ratios, the NP students tended to regress. The difference in mean LFV ratios was statistically significant. The IB students were also better motivated than their NP peers. In all, this study suggests that immersion education has positive target language effects, especially on less proficient but motivated students.