Surprising: Early English language lessons less effective than expected

Get them while they’re young seems to be a popular adagio for language learning. That’s why many educational systems now opt to introduce a second or third language early in the curriculum. A new study conducted in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, with longitudinal data gathered between 2010 and 2014, puts a bit of rain on this parade. Seven years later, children who start learning English in the first grade achieve poorer results in this subject than children whose first English lesson isn’t until the third grade. But for people promoting CLIL, read carefully, because you might be positively surprised and for all promoting multilingualism: no the study isn’t against learning more languages in school. At all.

From the press release (bold by me):

Highly recommended, yet not scientifically proven

“Starting foreign-language lessons at an early age is often very much commended, even though hardly any research exists that would support this myth,” says Nils Jäkel from the Chair of English Language Teaching in Bochum. Together with his colleagues from Bochum and from the Technical University Dortmund, they analysed data of 5,130 students from 31 secondary schools of the Gymnasium type in North Rhine-Westphalia. The researchers compared two student cohorts, one of which started learning English in the first grade, the other in the third grade. They evaluated the children’s reading and hearing proficiency in English in the fifth and seventh grade respectively.

In the fifth grade, children who had their first English lessons very early in elementary school achieved better results with respect to reading and hearing proficiency. This changed by the seventh grade. By then, the latecomers, i.e. children who didn’t start to learn English until the third grade, were better.

Results from other countries confirmed

“Our study confirmed results from other countries, for example Spain, that show that early English lessons with one or two hours per week in elementary school aren’t very conductive to attaining language competence in the long term,” says Jäkel. In the next months, he and his colleagues are going to analyse additional data to investigate if the results can be confirmed for the ninth grade.

A possible interpretation of the results: “Early English-language lessons in elementary school take place at a time when deep immersion would be necessary to achieve sustainable effects,” describes Nils Jäkel. “Instead, the children attend English lessons that amount to 90 minutes per week at most.”

Critical transition from elementary school school to grammar school

Moreover, the authors point out a rupture that takes place during the transition period from elementary school to grammar school. “Broadly speaking, the predominantly playful, holistically structured elementary-school lessons make way for rather more cognitive, intellectualised grammar-school methodology,” says Jäkel.

In elementary school, English is taught through child-appropriate, casual immersion in and experience of the foreign language through rhymes, songs, movement and stories. Secondary schools focus primarily on prescribed grammar and vocabulary lessons. This would explain why the early advantages in listening proficiency that are identified in the fifth grade are partially forfeit by the seventh grade, as the authors elaborate; this is possibly due to a lapse in motivation, as students feel the rupture more keenly after experiencing four years of English lessons in elementary school.

It is also possible that the potential of English lessons at an early stage had not been fully exploited, as they had been rather hastily adapted for the first grade. “When English lessons were introduced in elementary school, many teachers had to qualify for lateral entry on short notice,” explains Jäkel.

Consequences and recommendations

With their findings, the researchers do not question early English lessons as such. On the contrary, it is an important factor contributing to the European multilingualism we aspire to, as it paves the way for further language acquisition in secondary schools. Early English lessons might help make the children aware of linguistic and cultural diversity. “But it would be wrong to have unreasonably high expectations,” says Jäkel. “A reasonable compromise might be the introduction of English in the third grade, with more lessons per week.” And it is just as important to better coordinate the didactical approaches on elementary and grammar school levels. Here, teachers at these two different types of school could learn from each other.

Abstract of the study:

Foreign language education has now been implemented at the elementary school level across Europe, and early foreign language education has gained traction following language policies set by the European Commission. The long-term effects of an early start, however, have not received ample scientific scrutiny. The present study assessed early receptive skills of two cohorts of English language learners in Year 5 (beginning of secondary education in Germany) and two years later in Year 7. The factors distinguishing between these two cohorts were onset of foreign language education and the amount of language exposure. The effects of the earlier start were found in the results for Year 5, when the early cohort outperformed peers with less and later exposure to English. However, in Year 7, the late starters surpassed their early starting peers.

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