Early English lessons have lasting effects (earlier study contradicted)

The lasting effect of early English lessons for young children was put in doubt by an earlier study by the same international team that conducted this new study. This new study shows that children who started learning English in the first grade of primary school performed significantly better in listening and reading comprehension in grade nine than children who started in grade three:

  • Earlier starters performed better in English reading and listening in Years 5 and 9 compared to late starters.
  • Late starters performed better in Year 7.
  • Non-linear Interaction of age of onset in school across Years 5–9.
  • Effects of learner characteristics’ on English proficiency stable across Years 5–9.
  • Shift in the social background characteristics in secondary education.

From the press release:

The team headed by Professor Markus Ritter from Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) and Dr. Nils Jäkel from the University of Oulu, Finland, in cooperation with Dr. Michael Schurig from the Technical University of Dortmund, describes their findings in the journal System. The study will be published in the June 2022 edition, but is already freely accessible online. The researchers are collaborating within the university consortium UNIC: European University of Post-Industrial Cities.

Data from North Rhine-Westphalia

The study included data from around 3,000 students who participated in a longitudinal study conducted in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, between 2010 and 2014. The same data had also been used in the previous study, the results of which the researchers had published in 2017. At that time, they had compared two cohorts, one of which had started English lessons in grade one, the other in grade three. In grades five and seven, they had compared both cohorts in terms of English reading and listening comprehension. The new analysis incorporated another set of data collected in 2016 to measure the English performance of the same children in grade nine.

The previous study had found: Children who had started English lessons earlier in primary school performed worse in reading and listening comprehension in grade seven than children who had not started English lessons until grade three. However, the new analysis showed: In grade nine, the early starters in English performed better than the late starters in English.

Additional background variables such as gender, language of origin or cognitive abilities could not account for the difference between the poorer performance in the seventh grade and the late learning gains in the ninth grade.

Transition between school types decisive

“We believe the most plausible explanation is that lessons following the transition period in secondary school have been increasingly adapted to the needs of children who start to take English lessons at an early stage,” concludes Nils Jäkel, formerly at RUB, now at the University of Oulu. “This explanation is in line with research that considers the transition between school types to play a key role in the long-term success of English language education across school boundaries.” With this in mind, it is crucial to optimise the didactic coordination and alignment of English classes at the intersection of school types. In addition, it may be that pupils benefit in the long run from more implicit language lessons in primary school.

“We see a high need for research to elaborate factors for successful language education, and we recommend well-coordinated, evidence-based measures in educational policy overall,” say the researchers.

Abstract of the study:

Early foreign language instruction has become the norm across Europe. Expected benefits for students include linguistic advantages and ease of learning the second language (L2). However, research rarely supports these assertions. The present study investigated the receptive skills of two cohorts of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) learners in Years 5, 7, and 9 in Germany. The cohorts differed in their age of EFL onset in elementary school and, consequently, in the amount of exposure before secondary school. Linear mixed model analyses were employed to account for the hierarchical structure of the data. Learners with an earlier start performed better in Years 5 and 9 than late starters, suggesting possible long-term benefits of an earlier start. In Year 7, late starters scored higher on the proficiency assessment. Across the Year 5–9 span, the effects of learner characteristics’ on English proficiency remained stable for gender, L1, grades, cognitive abilities, and cultural capital.

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