In this year’s ELT Journal debate, held at the IATEFL Conference οn 3rd April, the motion was put forward that “Primary ELT does more harm than good”. According to Graham Hall, editor of ELT J, the motion was motivated by considerations such as 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.
(Update: The embedded video seems to be acting up. If you can’t access it directly from the post, here’s a link to the webpage where it appears.)
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 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 imprimantur 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 the small number of academics and professionals who were prepared to propose the motion of the debate was an indication 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.
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 are brought up in bilingual settings, and those who are taught English in primary schools. While the benefits of exposure to English for the first group are well documented, progress in the latter group has been found to be “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, as affluent pupils were prompted to attend extracurricular classes, which disenfranchised pupils were unable to afford.
It was 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.
Another issue that was highlighted is that many educational systems face a lack of teachers who can deliver effective ELT education to primary school children. Specifically, Copeland argued 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.
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 as a means 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.
It should be noted that Copeland’s argument was framed in general terms, and referred to ELT as a global enterprise. Consequently, it is possible that some of the points she raised may 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 in which we are primarily interested?
Such reservations aside, I think that a compelling case was made that extending ELT provision to the primary school is a contentious issue, which perhaps deserves more consideration than educational authorities have been prepared to give it.
Update: Since this post was written, Janet Enever has published a blog post with some additional comments in support of primary ELT, of which the main points can be found here.
If you enjoyed this post, 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.
And here are some more print sources that may be of use:
- Cameron, L. (2001). Teaching languages to young learners. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
- Copland, F., Garton, S., & Burns, A. (2013). Challenges in teaching English to young learners: Global perspectives and local realities. TESOL Quarterly, 48(4), 738-762. doi: 10.1002/tesq.148 [paywall :(]0
- Garton, S., Copland, F., & Burns, A. (2011). Investigating Global Practices in Teaching English to Young Learners. London: British Council.
- Kostoulas, A., & Gkourogianni, I. (2013). Όμιλοι Αγγλικής Γλώσσας για Μαθητές Πρώιμης Παιδικής Ηλικίας: Μια Μελέτη Περίπτωσης. [English language after-school clubs for very young learners: a case study]. Paper presented at the first [Greek] National Conference on Model-Experimental Schools. Thessaloniki: April 2013. [In Greek]