Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

Pupils and teacher in class in a school in Bali

“Primary English Language Teaching does more harm than good”

One of the highlights of the Annual IATEFL conference is the ELT Journal debate, where prominent scholars discuss a controversial topic about language teaching and learning. In 2014, the motion that was discussed in the debate was that “Primary English Language Teaching does more harm than good”.

According to Graham Hall, the (then) editor of ELT Journal, some of the considerations that motivated the motion were the following:

As both parents and educational authorities seek to increase younger learners’ English language skills, we can’t assume that an earlier start to learning English is automatically better. The advisability of an early start to learning English can be affected by a number of factors, ranging from the availability of suitably skilled teachers and appropriate resources to concerns about the possible implications for the teaching and learning of other languages, and from the development of suitable classroom practices and methodologies to the relationship between a child’s first language literacy skills and their English language development.

The debate

The motion was proposed by Fiona Copland (Aston University, UK), and Janet Enever (Umea University, Sweden) opposed. The full debate can be viewed below:

[viddler id=97e0cd32 w=545 h=307]

(Update: As of February 2019, it appears that this video is no longer available. I will update this page if I manage to find where it is now hosted.)

Developing a counter-discourse against Primary English

What I want to do in this post is summarise the arguments put forward by Fiona Copland. I am conscious that in doing so, and by not providing equal space for Janet Enever’s considered remarks, I run the risk of appearing biased.

However, I feel that there are valid reasons for being selective: The arguments in favour of teaching English in primary education are already well-known, and they are considered uncontroversial. In the Greek educational context, which is my main concern, professional discourse is dominated by (sometimes uncritical) arguments that advocate extending ELT provision to Year 1. The policy of Teaching English to Very Young Learners (TEYL) has been enthusiastically promoted both by the competent authorities, and by academics in the University of Athens Research Centre for the English Language. Moreover, arguments in favour of TEYL are given voice in a dedicated journal published by the University of Athens, and at least one conference has been held to advance that cause.

A counter-discourse to such claims is, in my opinion, useful in the interest of forming views that are more nuanced and more balanced. Furthermore, it is my hope that such counter-discourse can provide a much-needed safeguard against the forceful imposition of pedagogical recommendations solely on the imprimatur of well-meaning, but perhaps only partially correct, policy planners who are in favour of increasing primary ELT provision.

The case against Primary ELT

Copland began her talk by noting that only a small number of academics and professionals were prepared to propose the motion of the debate, which suggested that “problems with Primary ELT are clearly not filtering down” in the profession. She then proceeded to describe four problematic issues associated with early ELT provision.

Primary school children as language learners

It was suggested that the empirical evidence regarding the effects of teaching English in primary education is “contradictory” at best. Copland differentiated between children who grow up in bilingual settings, and those who learn English in primary schools. While benefits of English exposure are well documented for the first group, progress in the latter group seems“minimal”. Moreover, concerns were raised over the fact that the drive to provide English courses to young pupils comes at the expense of literacy and numeracy, which are arguably more important in a primary education setting.

Social and economic issues

Copland raised the question of who stands to gain most from English language education. In her view, provision for English in the primary classroom is most beneficial to those children who already enjoy a privileged status. She cited empirical evidence suggesting that, whenever English was introduced in primary education, it led to an increase in social disparities. The new policy apparently prompted affluent pupils to attend extracurricular classes, which disenfranchised pupils could not afford.

She also suggested that rhetoric in emerging countries advocates early ELT, but the promised outcomes are rarely achieved. In fact, she claimed, despite massive investment in primary ELT, there are “relatively few state school classrooms anywhere in which students are developing a usable knowledge of English”. Whatever linguistic gains are made in primary school can be achieved in secondary education with a fraction of the effort.

Educational Policy

Another issue that Copland highlighted is that many educational systems face a shortage of teachers who can deliver effective ELT education to primary school children. Specifically, she pointed out that it is common to encounter teachers who are qualified to teach children but not English, teachers who can teach English but not children, and teachers who are incapable of both.

Moreover, introducing ELT in primary education could lead to a mismatch in cultures of education. The communicative ethos of ELT, it was pointed out, does not always align well with established practices of mainstream education. In addition, challenges exist with regard to the teachers’ readiness to implement communicative language teaching, and the number of students often hinders movement and differentiation that is necessary for effective language teaching.

Pupils’ well-being

Finally, Copeland argued that pupils are too young to have any instrumental motivation for learning English. Moreover, primary ELT can devalue local languages, especially when used to pave the way for courses where English is used as a medium for instruction.

On the strength of these arguments, Copeland concluded that extending ELT provision to primary education benefits the profession, but not the children whose interests the profession exists to serve.

Concluding remarks

It should be noted that Copeland’s argument was framed in general terms, and it referred to ELT as a global enterprise. It is therefore quite possible that some of the points that she raised might not apply with equal force to every specific context. Moreover, some readers may take issue with the way the motion was phrased: Even if there are problems with primary ELT, does it do more harm than good? Is it even possible to quantify and measure the kinds of outcomes that mostly interest us?

Such reservations aside, I think that Copland compellingly argued that extending ELT provision to the primary school is a contentious issue. It therefore perhaps deserves more consideration than educational authorities in Greece have been prepared to give it.

Additional reading

Janet Enever has also published a blog post with some additional comments in support of primary ELT. I have summarised this post here.

You may also want to read an older post of mine, where I discuss why studies of TEYL in Greece do not always produce consistent findings.

Lastly, here are some more print sources that may be of use:

About this post: This post was written in April 2014, following the annual IATEFL conference. At the time, my professional context was Greek education, and the comments above were intended to add to public debate about extending ELT provision. The post is updated at irregular intervals (last update: February 2020), and if you have any useful resources that you’d like to share, I would be happy to add them in the next update.

Image credit: Australonesian Expeditions @ Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND]


7 responses to ““Primary English Language Teaching does more harm than good””

  1. wolikag avatar

    I remember a similar point being made by (I don’t remember the name now…) someone from the Basque Country (in Spain). It had to do with introducing bilingual education, again by taking the principle ‘the earlier the better’ as a universal truth. However, research from the Basque Country has shown that pupils who started attending bilingual (either Basque & English or Spanish & English) schools LATER actually performed better. It is important to question the status quo and stop assuming that the sooner we start, the better…

  2. Achilleas avatar

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Weronika!

  3. whatonomy avatar

    Perhaps we should say “the better earlier, the better!” The issue seems to be with the quality of provision rather than the principle. It is definitely true that English is seen as a differentiating factor in school choices for wealthier parents. But I don’t see that as an argument against the provision of English as a second language to younger learners. Many students really enjoy their English lessons and are able to achieve very highly when they reach their secondary exams in both their native language and English.

    1. Achilleas avatar

      Thanks for adding these thoughts!

      I agree that the quality of provision can make a great difference. A question, then, is if school systems have the resources available to provide English language (a) to an acceptable threshold of quality and (b) for all learners. To name just one variable: are primary school teachers trained to teach English? Are there enough English teachers qualified to teach young pupils? By means of an example, in Greece, where I’ve done some research, the assumption seems to be that you can simply re-assign a teacher from secondary education to classes of six- and seven-year-olds, with (at best) a weekend’s worth of INSET delivered online and in lecture theatres. From what I’ve seen, I am not convinced that it works as well as is claimed by the people in charge of the programme.

      I do agree that many students do enjoy English lessons (in my experience, pupils often describe English as their favourite lesson), and doubtless there are linguistic gains (as well as affective and cultural ones) associated with English language education. But I do think that there is a need to take a much closer look at primary classrooms to understand why and how these outcomes emerge, and how they can be brought about more effectively. My concern is that the ‘the earlier, the better’ discourse often discourages such a critical perspective, which is why it seems useful to give voice to counter-arguments.

      1. whatonomy avatar

        You’re right that overly optimistic (or cut-price) implementation can cause more harm than good. The key issue is how to define and promote best practice so that parents can make choices based on objective standards. A separate issue is for schools to balance native and second languages to foster biliteracy rather than promote academic English at the expense of the first language. Sometimes the first language is restricted to family, friends and the playground.

  4. Daniela avatar

    You must read Dr. Carmen Muñoz… the empirical evidence provided by the BAF project proved that the earlier is not the better in EFL context. Other factors are more relevant.

    1. Achilleas avatar

      Thank you for your comment. Muñoz has written extensively on the topic, and I think that her findings are broadly consistent with the sceptical views expressed above about the uncritical introduction of ELT in early primary education.

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