Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

Teacher reading alound to group of first-graders

Primary ELT: Feedback from the community

Over the past month (October 2014), I posted a link to this article on several online communities in Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn, asking what ELT professionals thought about Primary ELT, i.e., the policies of introducing English Language Teaching in state primary education as a universal compulsory subject in many countries. I framed my questions in deliberately provocative ways, and in doing so I hoped that I might gauge reactions from the ELT community, as to what they perceived the main benefits and possible risks of such policies. In this post, I summarise the reactions that my posts generated. I have grouped responses in five categories, and if you bear with me for as long as  I describe them, there’s an announcement in the end.

The teachers’ responses

“Are you out of your mind?”

Several respondents expressed their surprise and indignation at the suggestion that Primary ELT could be associated with negative educational outcomes. Typical responses in this category included:

  • “Does Primary ELT do more harm than good? NO”
  • “More harm than good?? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard” 

Rhetorically forceful and uncritical, these responses all indexed reluctance to engage with the counter-discourse about Primary ELT. Such lack of critical thinking among educators is, in my opinion, one of the most serious problems facing the profession.

“Evidence suggests…”

Invoking beliefs about early language learning was another common theme in the responses. Often, these conflated evidence about naturalistic language learning in bilingual environments, evidence from first language instruction, and aspirational views about the effectiveness of foreign language teaching. Some examples included:

  • “It is universally accepted that early childhood is the ideal time to learn a second language”
  • “We know that children learn languages naturally and easily in communicative environments in which they are valued social participants”.
  • “The younger the child, the quicker they learn a language”
  • “Other studies (Jager-Adams, 1990) found that a child’s reading proficiency at the end of first grade is highly predictive of: Reading ability in later grades,…”

The validity of these claims in ESL contexts is well supported by empirical evidence, but extending such findings to foreign language learning involves a leap of faith. Frequent strong claims to knowledge (e.g., “it is universally accepted”) hint at the prevalence of what might be termed the early start fallacy, even though it has come under sustained criticism at least since the publication of Phillipson (1992: 199-209).

“In my experience…”

Some of the more helpful respondents referred to personal examples of their bilingual education, which they perceived as having been beneficial. Here are some relevant extracts:

  • “I am a product of an ELT bilingual school and in my home city in Canada, we have bilingual schools for 1st language French, German, Ukrainian and Cree students. Everyone speaks their L1 at home, community and church, as well as being able to socialize at school and outside of their L1 communities, in English.”
  • “I was brought up in a bi-lingual environment. I went to a French convent school at the age of about 3 where we were taught French and as it was a Catholic school we had to learn Latin as well. I can’t say that I came to any harm, quite the reverse”

The reservations that I expressed above bringing evidence from bilingual education and ESL to inform the debate on Primary ELT still stand. It is, however, clear from such responses that the Primary ELT debate is sometimes construed as extending to these domains, and I suppose that it would have been helpful if I had made the point more explicilty that Primary ELT, as framed in this debate, is mainly about universal education in settings where English is not widely used outside education.

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“It’s all about the method”

Another theme that was touched upon by the more reflective respondents involved the methods used in Primary ELT. The argument presented in many of these responses was that Primary ELT is -on the whole- beneficial, appropriate pedagogy is a requisite for success. Responses included:

  • “The way you teach English to young children is what counts. TPR, lots of games and songs is how they will learn it best.”
  • “If [Primary ELT programmes] are not working, it’s because the teaching methodology/context is not geared to children.
  • “I see no harm in primary school children being taught a second language. However, I do challenge the way the children are taught […] in the state-run schools”  

These kinds of caveats raise the question of how easy it is to introduce appropriate pedagogical methods in learning contexts such as primary education across the world; whether ELT teachers who are press-ganged into primary schools from secondary education without any training (e.g., Stelma & Onat-Stelma 2010) can be expected to deliver such programmes (see also Kirkgoz 2008); and how primary teachers, whose practices often align to the transmissive ethos of mainstream education (cf. Kostoulas 2014), can be helped to effectively implement communicative lessons (see Holliday 1994 for a discussion of culture conflict, ’tissue rejection’ and sabotage of curriculum innovation).

“The King is naked!”

A final set of responses articulated an unqualified rejection of Primary ELT. These responses, which were few in number, were mainly expressed by teachers who had knowledge of Greek ELT, and the recent policy change which introduced ELT in Years 1 and 2 of primary schools (Karavas 2014; see here for a summary of findings). Here are some comments:

  • “You are talking to my heart. It’s madness!!!! […] Problem is, colleagues find working hours in this way (1st/2nd Grade) and although we make sensible comments, the policy makers (some ***** at Universities) don’t listen to us”
  • “Adding a foreign language to the curriculum when many of the children are trying to learn Greek then seems to make matters even more difficult”

The fact that I was able to document such remarks, and their relative rarity in mainstream professional discourse, seem to suggest a need for independently conducted, in-depth qualitative inquiry to document views about Primary ELT projects, since large-scale surveys, such as the ones to which Karavas (2014) hints, seem unsuitable to capture them.

Opening up a debate

I wouldn’t presume that the views documented in this informal survey of beliefs are, in any way, representative of the prevailing opinions of the profession. I am certainly aware my questioning lacked empirical rigour, and I will readily admit the influence of my own biases on the interpretation of what I was told. Therefore, contrary to the expectations of the genre, I hesitate to write any ‘concluding comments’ to this post.

Rather, what I want to suggest is that the diverse views I documented index a readiness and a need for an extended and earnest discussion of what Primary ELT is about, its aims and benefits, its limitations and possible negative aspects. In the upcoming IATEFL convention in April 2015, I hope to co-convene a panel discussion, where a group of brilliant colleagues with expertise in TEYL, teacher training and language assessment, myself, and anyone else who cares to join us shall exchange views on Primary ELT projects across the world. More details about this to follow in a few weeks’ time!

Update: Read more about about our TEYL panel.


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