Janet Barresi reads to first-graders at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Oklahoma City on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011.

Teaching English to Young Learners: some insights from the literature

In the space of the last couple of years there has been a surge of interest in Teaching English to Young Learners (TEYL). For instance, in IATEFL 2014 there was a debate about ELT in primary schools (Primary ELT does more harm than good), and many major journals in the field have run special issues on topics such as Age in Second Language Learning (Applied Linguistics), and Special Issue on Teaching English to Young Learners (ELT Journal). My own interest in TEYL stems from my professional involvement in piloting various early ELT projects in primary schools in Greece, and – on a more personal level – from observing my daughter’s engagement with Primary ELT. This is as good a place as any to put a disclaimer: So far, I have been unimpressed by the ways in which TEYL is implemented in Greece. But what I want to do in this post is look into the question of whether TEYL projects in other settings have been more successful, and how the sub-par implementation of TEYL in Greece might be improved.

To that end, in this post, I summarise information from the 2014 special issue of Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching (Vol. 4 No. 3), which came out this October and focussed on Age and Language Acquisition. There are seven articles in the issue, of which four focus on instructed second language learning. These are presented below, and in the section that immediately follows I synthesise their findings. This is followed by some comments, from the articles, about language education policy, which seems to be driven by political rather than pedagogical motivations. I conclude by relating all of the above to the language education in Greece.

The articles

The four articles that I reviewed were the following (click on the title to see the article):

The effectiveness of early foreign language learning in the Netherlands (de Bot, K.)

De Bot’s article is an overview of recent TEYL research in the Netherlands. The studies that are referenced in this review include Larson-Hall (2008), Aarts & Ronde (2006), Goorhuis-Brouwer and de Bot (2010), Unsworth, Persson, Prins, and de Bot (2014), and a large-scale government survey (CITO).

L2 learner age from a contextualised perspective (Mihaljevic Djigunovic, J. )

While much research focusses on determining the optimal age for introducing TEYL, Mihaljevic Djigunovic takes a different approach. She notes that “the start age has become something of a given” due to policy decisions that are not always empirically informed (p. 420), and therefore looks into the ways in which early starters learn, which she compares against late starters. To that end, she conducted a qualitative study comparing three early starters and three late starters in Croatia, in terms of their oral output (i.e., task achievement, fluency, accuracy, vocabulary).

Starting age and other influential factors: Insights from learner interviews (Muñoz, C.)

This is a comparative study of 12 undergraduate students, of whom six had received TEYL instruction in private language schools, whereas the remaining six were ‘late starters’. After determining the linguistic proficiency and learning histories of each learner, four groups were defined: (a) early start/ high achievement, (b) early start / low achievement, (c) late start / high achievement, and (d) late start / low achievement. Interviews were then conducted to identify characteristics of each group.

The misunderstood variable: Age effects as a function of type of instruction (Pfenninger, S. E.)

In this study, four groups of learners were compared in order to determine the effects of an early introduction of TEYL and the method of instruction. The groups, each comprising 50 participants, were defined as follows: (a) early starters who attended CLIL courses in elementary and secondary school (1,770 contact hours), (b) early starters who did CLIL in elementary school and traditional EFL in secondary (1,330 contact hours), (c) late starters who did CLIL in secondary school (1,170 contact hours), and (d) late starters who did EFL in secondary school (730 contact hours).

Some tentative insights

Rather than present the findings of each papers separately, I have synthesised them in four broad themes which I discuss below:

Does an early start lead to better language learning?

The evidence seems to suggest that there are some linguistic effects associated with an early start in English Language instruction, but these effects are not very strong. de Bot argues that TEYL is associated with “substantial gains” in English proficiency, although I personally think that this claim is expressed with perhaps more confidence than his bibliographical evidence warrants. Mihaljevic Djigunovic reports that early starters in her group made strong progress, but it is difficult to say to what extent these positive outcomes resulted from instruction alone, since all of learners who participated in her study enjoyed considerable support from their parents, and there was significant exposure to English through media. Furthermore, two of the highest performing participants in Muñoz’s study were early starters, but as they had attended courses in a private language school during their youth, they can reasonably be assumed to belong to a privileged demographic, and it is possible that their high linguistic proficiency may be partly mediated by socio-economic factors. Some gains for early starters are reported in Pfenninger’s study as well.

It seems that an early start has a greater impact on speaking and listening

It seems that an early start has a greater impact on oral communicative skills. One of the studies cited by de Bot found that an early start was associated with better speaking proficiency, but no other advantage. Similarly, Pfenninger reports that the ‘early CLIL’ group in her study outperformed the others in listening comprehension, but there were no statistical differences in the other skills. It is likely that these effects relate to the predominantly communicative methods used in TEYL programmes. I am left wondering if the effects would be different in settings like Greece, where form-focussed language instruction is more common, even among very young learners.

Another common finding was that ‘late starters’ tend to catch up, and in some cases overtake ‘early starters’. According to de Bot’s review, Goorhuis-Brouwer and de Bot (2010) found that gains for early starters tend to plateau after three years of instruction, and a subsequent study (Unsworth, Persson, Prins, & de Bot 2014) showed that late starters make faster progress. Muñoz acknowledges the importance of an early start, but argues that exposure to language later in life (e.g., through study abroad programmes) seems to be a more important determinant of linguistic proficiency. She further remarks that “older school learners are observed to outperform younger school learners after the same number of hours of instruction” (p. 446). In Pfenningers’ study as well, late starters eventually caught up with the best performing group (early CLIL), despite considerably fewer contact hours.

Are there any other advantages to an early start?

Apart from the linguistic effects of TEYL instruction, an early start in English language instruction appears to be associated with affective effects. In one of the studies cited by de Bot, it was suggested that positive effects are very visible in learner attitudes at first, although the effects appear to wane after the novelty of the programme wears off. This finding is consistent with findings from the Greek TEYL project, which similarly reported positive affective outcomes among the Greek young learners – but it also calls into question the lasting effects of this intervention.

Are there any disadvantages to early second language learning?

A frequent criticism of TEYL projects is that introducing English to very young learners might prove detrimental to children who belong to linguistic minorities. This criticism is addressed by de Bot, who cites two studies in the Netherlands that suggest no adverse effects for non-Dutch children (Goorhuis-Brouwer & de Bot 2010, Unsworth, Persson, Prins, & de Bot 2014). However, the small number of non-Dutch children in both studies precludes definitive conclusions.

How should a TEYL programme be designed?

The findings in the four articles offered some insights into the duration, staffing and methods of TEYL programmes.

De Bot’s findings suggest that instruction time significantly correlates with outcomes. For example, courses that provided one hour of TEYL instruction per week were found to lead to “only rudimentary understanding and no productive skills development”. The effects of TEYL appeared to be best at three hours of instruction per week, but they plateaued after two years. Again, I can’t help drawing a connection with the Greek Very Young Learners programme: the programme formally provides for two contact hours per week, but in reality between 1/4 and 1/3 of these are not implemented. What might the lasting effects of such a programme be?

It is important to establish whether TEYL programmes should be taught by ELT specialists, or linguistically qualified generalists

It also appears that teacher language proficiency is important. According to de Bot’s article, Unsworth, Persson, Prins, and de Bot (2014) found that Native English Speaking Teachers, and teachers with near-native proficiency were more effective than teachers with a B2 level of competence, as defined in the CEFR. However, in another study cited by de Bot, the effects of this differentiation were found to be significant only after hundreds of hours of instruction (Larson-Hall 2008). Clearly more research is needed here, as it is important to establish whether TEYL programmes should be taught by English Language specialists (who may not always be qualified to teach very young learners), or linguistically qualified generalist teachers.

Pfenninger’s study seems to suggest that methods that foster implicit learning, such as CLIL, are more effective for young learners than traditional teaching is. This seems consistent with the observation, by Muñoz, that younger learners seem to benefit more from implicit language learning. It is also in line with a considerable corpus of evidence, which suggests that children who learnt a second language by immersion tended to develop strong communicative skills.

And some cause for concern

While the empirical evidence for TEYL seems to be inconclusive, it is somewhat disconcerting to see that language education policies in many countries seems to be enthusiastically, and uncritically, in favour of starting English language instruction at a very early age, e.g., at the beginning of primary schooling. There are rather sceptical comments about this trend in all the papers.

Pfenninger, for example, describes early Foreign Language programmes as having had a “rather unimpressive impact” (p. 530). Despite being positively predisposed towards TEYL, de Bot remarks that “the motives of schools to start with early English are not always purely educational. […] But up until recently, the empirical support for an early start was lacking” (p. 412). Similarly, Mihaljevic Djigunovic notes that “education policy makers decide on the introduction of L2 at a particular age irrespective of what research findings suggest and, often, only because of strong parental pressure to start early” (p. 420).

A very critical view is voiced by Muñoz, according to whom:

Research on the impact of age in naturalistic language learning settings has consistently shown an older learners’ short-term advantage (or initial faster learning rate) but a younger learners’ long-term advantage (or higher ultimate attainment) (Krashen, Long, & Scarcella, 1979). In contrast with such findings, research in the last decade in a foreign language context has shown that early starters do not outperform late starters when the amount of instruction or exposure is controlled for, even after many years of study. Rather, in such situations, older school learners are observed to outperform younger school learners after the same number of hours of instruction (see the collection of studies in (García Mayo & García Lecumberri, 2003 and Muñoz, 2006a)

So what does it all mean?

There is a tendency, among the general public, to assume that an early start in English language instruction will necessarily be beneficial to learners. This assumption is sometimes exploited by the English Language Teaching apparatus, by which I mean various entities, that stand to gain from increasing ELT provision. This has certainly been the case with Greece, where an early ELT start has been aggressively promoted by the state school system, and consulting agencies have been generously compensated to oversee this curriculum innovation.

I readily admit that it would be injudicious to reject TEYL projects just because one objects to the opaque mercenary motives with which it may be, at times, associated. But in light of the evidence above, I think that any claims about the benefits of an early ELT start have to be evaluated with care. At very least, there is a need for robust empirical evidence from the Greek context to establish what linguistic benefits TEYL brings, whether said benefits are commensurate to the investment in funds and in learner effort, and whether such funds and effort could be put to better uses.


The featured image shows Janet Barresi reading to first-graders at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Oklahoma City on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. It was uploaded to Flickr by OSDE, and is shared under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence.

Full references for the articles, for those among you who find such things useful, are below:

  • de Bot, K. (2014). The effectiveness of early foreign language learning in the Netherlands. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 4(3), 409-418. doi: 10.14746/ssllt.2014.4.3.2
  • Mihaljevic Djigunovic, J. (2014). L2 learner age from a contextualised perspective. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 4(3), 419-441. doi: 10.14746/ssllt.2014.4.3.3
  • Muñoz, C. (2014). Starting age and other influential factors: Insights from learner interviews. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 4(3), 465-484. doi: 10.14746/ssllt.2014.4.3.5
  • Pfenninger, S. E. (2014). The misunderstood variable: Age effects as a function of type of instruction. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 4(3), 529-556. doi: 10.14746/ssllt.2014.4.3.8

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