Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

Learners in a Greek primary school showing off their work

Teaching English to Young Learners, revisited

A while ago I wrote a blog post where I expressed my reservations about Teaching English to Young Learners (TEYL) in Greece. In that post, I mentioned some research about the Greek TEYL project (PEAP), which one of the project members, kindly brought to my attention. In that post, I noted that the findings of that study did not align well with my own empirical data.

An update

At the time, I noted that “the PEAP findings have yet to be published in full, so much of the discussion in this section is speculative”. I am happy to say that the findings on the PEAP project are now available in the ELT Journal Special Issue on TEYL

The full citation for the article (unfortunately behind a paywall) is:

Karavas, E. (2014). Implementing innovation in primary EFL: a case study in Greece. ELT Journal, 68(3), 243-253.
doi: 10.1093/elt/ccu019

The article makes a useful contribution to ongoing debates about the PEAP project, and about TEYL in general. For one, it confirms a lot of what was already anecdotally discused about the project. It also raises several intriguing questions about such projects.

In the paragraphs that follow, I outline some thoughts, as prompted by research findings.

What we know about Greek TEYL

TEYL initiatives require extensive preparation

The article acknowledges that a large number of teachers in the PEAP project seemed ill-prepared to deliver TEYL lessons (p. 245). This is a potentially very serious problem, if it means that teachers use methodology for older learners.

The article authors make the impressive claim that “an effective, cost efficient, and contextualized training [programme]” was devised (p. 250). One thing that invites some comment here is the choice of adjectives. I am not sure whether this wording signals conscious alignment with neoliberal paradigms of education (Holborow, 2015). However, the absence of descriptors such as “practically oriented”, “empowering” etc. does reveal something about the nature of the programme. Reading between the lines, it seems to describe an underfunded, top-down, perfunctory set of activities.

Whether this was really “effective” and “cost-efficient” is hard to tell. This would require publishing criteria of quality and measurements. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the programme does not appear to have been formally evaluated.

TEYL initiatives require commitment

TEYL requires a very specialised set of skills and expertise. This means that such courses should ideally be delivered by teachers committed to working with young children.

Somewhat paradoxically,the PEAP project addressed its staffing needs by tapping into a large pool of ELT teachers who were under-used in secondary education. There is no way of knowing how many of these teachers were interested in teaching young children, and how invested they became. However, the article suggestively statew that the project team were preoccupied with increasing the teachers’ ownership of the programme.

How exactly they tried to make this happen, and how sucessful they were remains unclear. There is some opaque mention, in the article, that some teachers shared “personal reflective and very touching accounts” in an online collaboration space (pp. 248-249). However, a formal analysis of the programme’s effectiveness in this regard remains absent.

TEYL initiatives require stakeholder co-operation

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Greek TEYL project has been what appears like a casual indifference about stakeholders. I use the term broadly to refer to the children’s parents, as well as the teachers and administrators who had to deal with the projects’ fallout.

According to the article, the TEYL project was carried out in spite of very strong resistance to the project by most stakeholders (p. 246). This is a claim that reveals a dangerously undemocratic ethos. Education, including language education, is not something that we do to people, whether they like it or not. It is something that we do with them, for them.

Language education is not something that we do to people. It is something that we make happen with them, for them.

However, the article does suggest that the project changed people’s opinions through awareness raising. Based on a survey that involved 17,000 participants (p. 249), the project team claim that they achieved a dramatic change in societal attitudes. I stand by my reservations about the methodology of these surveys, which I noted in my original blog post. In summary, when people are wary of authority, and when there are no serious anonymity safeguards, data that applaud policy are suspect.

The ELT apparatus requires TEYL

One less controversial finding refers to the teachers’ attitudes towards the PEAP project. According to the article, the langauge teachers involved have very positive views about its impact (p. 248). This is hardly surprising, since for many of them, continued employment depends on the success of the project.  

What we still do not know about Greek TEYL

Much of the article is a trove of self-congratulatory remarks, and attempts to reframe mundane activities such as teacher-development as innovation. Such writing provides a great deal of insight about the state, priorities and policies of ELT in Greece.

But what is quite striking, by its omission, is any attempt to discuss the linguistic effects of the TEYL project. As TEYL is a language learning project, such an ommission seems bizarre.

Apparently, there has been no attempt to answer any of the obvious questions such as the following:

  • Can TEYL learners speak English more fluently compared to late starters, as a result of their early start?
  • Can TEYL learners speak English more accurately as a result of their early start?
  • Can TEYL learners use language learning and communication strategies more effectively as a result of their early start?

One might argue that any effects might be too minuscule to measure in the short, three-year timeframe. But even so, if one wants to measure the long-term effectiveness of a project, one needs to start collecting relevant data now.

Conversely, if no effort is made to measure effectiveness, this omission can only generate suspicion. Maybe even the project team know that there is not much worthwhile to show.  

Looking ahead: what comes after the TEYL in Greece project?

Much of education in Greece is ideologically driven, rather than empirically based. This is not something exclusive to ELT, although the effects of ELT ideology are often very powerful.

It is a cause of great concern for me, that the ELT apparatus was able to divert extensive funding to TEYL. This is not just because I remain unconvinced of the absolute effectiveness of such projects. It is also because such projects are funded at the expense of investment in other areas.

Some examples of the latter include Special Needs Education, minority education, integration of newly-arrived families, and more. I would not be surprised if, in a few years’ time, similar discourses about the utility of English and ‘earlier is better’ narratives lead to the extension of ELT even in pre-school. Already, there are attempts by ELT to encroach other disciplinary areas, in ways that serve the teaching apparatus more than they serve the students.

There is little one can hope to achieve against such a powerful agenda. It would certainly be unrealistic to expect a language teacher to disobey government policy (although some would argue that this is what civic courage demands). But even within such a frame, it should be possible to foster a culture of critique.

Whether we are teachers of English, or other subjects, an important part of our job is to help our learners inquire – they need to know how to ask questions such as “why am I doing this?”. And this is how a discourse of critique can become a discourse of educated home.

Some more content about TEYL

Our IATEFL panel: A summary

This post is a summary of the 2015 IATEFL panel discussion about Teaching English to Young Learners (TEYL), in which I was involved, along with Vicky Loras, Juup Stelma, Magdalena De Stefani and María Muniz.

Achilleas Kostoulas

I am an applied linguist specializing in language teacher education. I currently teach at the University of Thessaly in Greece. Previous affiliations included the University of Manchester (UK) and Graz (Austria). I have published multiple books on ELT/TESOL and related fields (full list here).

This post

This post was originally published on 13 June 2014. It was last updated in August 2023. All content, including the cover photo, are my own work.


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