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Janet Enever reflects on the #ELTJ Debate at #IATEFL 2014

Janet Enever at the ELTJ Debate at IATEFL 2014At this year’s ELTJ Debate, Janet Enever (Umea University, Sweden) argued against the motion that ‘This house believes that Primary ELT does more harm than good‘. Janet shares her thoughts on some of the points that came out of the debate. You can watch the full recording of the debate on the IATEFL Online website, or catch up on the highlights in our Storify story of the event.

Firstly, I’d like to say how pleased I was to hear so many interesting and relevant points raised at the ELTJ Debate. Together, they provided fruit for a really valuable round table event – perhaps this would be a more productive format for developing shared understandings and creating networks than the adversarial stance of a debate.

Here, I’d like to pick up on a few points raised that I felt were particularly important – just to start the ball rolling for additional perspectives to be aired.

There’s proof in the pudding

Firstly then, the exciting new evidence from Eva Wilden in Germany! A study of over 6,500 children at the end of the German primary school phase (aged 10/11 yrs). She reported clear evidence of greater progress in receptive skills by approximately 50% of the sample who began English earlier. This large scale study is very significant evidence. In addition, the study linked higher achievement with stronger reading skills in German (national language – which may or may not be the children’s first language). Can we extrapolate from this that higher level literacy in the language of schooling/L1 works hand-in-hand with higher achievements in English?

I’d like to add a note here on the broader question of literacy and politely take issue with Fiona [Copland]. There is now strong evidence on the potential of early language learning to contribute positively to literacy in L1. The references are now too numerous to list here, but perhaps I can include one quote and suggest that for anyone interested, it would be worth following up on this particular source. So: Fernandez (2008:8) summarises evidence, that:

far from detracting from the development of literacy, learning a second language actually enhances and enriches children’s language experience and offers unique insights and opportunities for the development of cognitive skills, which are unavailable to the monolingual learner.”

It seems possible that Eva from Germany has evidence of just this happening – I’m glad to say that she has now agreed to present at our conference in Umea this June – so join us if you can to hear more! Of course, OUP are one of our proud sponsors!

Political buy-in

Secondly, I’d like to mention the contribution of a colleague from Bangladesh. I haven’t had the chance to spend time there so cannot pretend to be knowledgeable on the challenges, though I’ve heard this account many times and seen many of these challenges elsewhere in the world. The current problem for Bangladesh seems to be that there are very few positive aspects to this policy decision! Here I will take up just one.

From the ELLiE study we learnt that primary English teachers need a fluency level of at least B2 if they are to be able to respond to the unplanned, informal everyday requirements of English in the primary classroom. In many contexts this continues to be a distant goal, but this does not diminish its importance. At a language planning stage we need to ‘help’ politicians to fully understand this and strategically plan to achieve this target. Years ago when I worked in Poland (soon after the political changes), I witnessed thousands of teachers of Russian losing their jobs. Some, astonishingly, managed to speedily turn their hands to rapidly learning English and became excellent English teachers instead. The shift in language choice that has occurred there over the past 24 years is certainly remarkable, with a national policy now established for introducing the first foreign language (mainly, but not only, English) from the start of schooling. However, in a country of 40 million, this has taken a generation to implement – and they are still working on it. Evidently, Bangladesh has much greater challenges – probably not only in the teaching of primary English, with large classes and a struggle for adequate resources.

How much is too much?

The final point that I’d like to discuss relates to the question of ‘how many languages are possible at primary level?’ This is indeed a difficult question to answer – probably impossible! A delegate from Switzerland outlined their current debate. Last year I attended a national discussion forum on this in Bern where I learnt that English was creeping up the agenda in a number of cantons, and concerns were rising particularly about the decline of their fourth language – Romansch. From informal coffee break conversations I gained the impression that the German speakers in particular no longer saw French as so important/valuable as English.

This topic links also to the question raised by a British Council representative from Senegal in Francophone West Africa. Similarly, there, current discussions consider whether children will suffer from overload if they have to cope with learning two languages in addition to their home language/mother tongue/language of schooling (various terms may apply in different contexts). In response to the question of: ‘How many languages are too many?’ we can cite countries such as India where it is often the norm for young children to shift between 3-4 languages in their daily lives – but these are generally languages that are widely used in the community. We can also cite smaller-scale examples where three languages are taught in schools from an early age – e.g. Luxembourg, Belgium, some regions of Spain such as Catalonia and the Basque region. However, again, at least two of these languages are widely used in the community, whilst the third (English) is seen as a high status international language.

From this and other evidence then, we know children can cope, but we have to ask whether the contextual conditions are sufficient to provide enough support for them to make progress. With good teachers, good resources and a supportive wider community (both in and out of school) I’m sure it can be done. However, achieving this on a wider scale takes substantial national/political commitment. Of course, it also takes a significant amount of class time so it’s important to consider the priorities and take care not to create a primary curriculum that suffers from overload. In Africa, I know it’s a real dilemma, with some former colonies having opted for non-local language as the medium of instruction from the start of schooling and then later recognising this might result in only limited progress in basic education. The theme of Medium of Instruction deserves a separate discussion I feel – and was not the focus of the Debate. Here, we are discussing the introduction of a foreign language, together with the teaching of a former colonial language (English or French mainly).

My expectation is that the outcome is unlikely to be balanced bilingualism. Nonetheless, the experience of learning two languages early, in addition to the first language, will certainly provide a valuable foundation for later further development – assuming the conditions are sufficient to ensure good provision. Of course, Harry Kuchah’s contribution from Cameroon serves as a salutory reminder on how difficult it can be to achieve satisfactory conditions for learning.

There are so many more points I would like to discuss, but I hope the above provides some food for thought and provokes further discussion. As you can see, there are so many perspectives to consider.

If Janet’s points on the ELTJ Debate have interested you, or you’d like to challenge them, feel free to leave a comment below. And don’t forget to watch the recording of the Debate or read our Storify highlights.


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#IATEFL – This house believes that Primary ELT does more harm than good

Thumb up and thumb downAhead of the ELT Journal debate at IATEFL 2014 in Harrogate, Graham Hall, editor of ELT Journal, presents an introduction to the motion of the debate.

The ongoing expansion of English language teaching for Primary age learners and teenagers has been a notable feature of ELT in recent years. In many countries, English is now compulsory in primary as well as secondary education, whilst English for Pre-school learners is also increasingly common. Some estimates suggest that up to 80 per cent of English language teaching globally is directed, in diverse contexts, at students in Primary or Secondary schools. As the exact cut-off point between Primary and Secondary education varies around the world, let’s assume for this blog that we’re referring to teaching children of pre- and/or post-11 years old).

As both parents and educational authorities seek to increase younger learners’ English language skills, we can’t assume that an earlier start to learning English is automatically better. The advisability of an early start to learning English can be affected by a number of factors, ranging from the availability of suitably skilled teachers and appropriate resources to concerns about the possible implications for the teaching and learning of other languages, and from the development of suitable classroom practices and methodologies to the relationship between a child’s first language literacy skills and their English language development.

So, it’s perhaps time to step back and take a little time to reflect on the extent to which the expansion of Primary ELT is, in fact, straightforwardly ‘beneficial’. If we, the ELT profession, teach millions of Primary age children English around the world, does this automatically lead to advantages, both for individuals and societies more generally, or is it possible that Primary ELT brings with it significant problems and difficulties? Does, in fact, Primary ELT do more harm than good?

There are perhaps 3 key reasons for the growth of Primary ELT. Firstly, there is the widespread assumption that ‘the earlier a language is learned, the better’; in other words, younger children are (or are more likely to be) more successful language learners. Secondly, the expansion of Primary ELT is a response to the increasing demand for English, which results from globalization; governments and policy-makers around the world would like an English-speaking workforce, which they see as leading to economic success. And finally, parents would like their children to benefit from learning English.

Yet, although age clearly influences language learning in some way, the exact nature of this relationship is rather less clear than is popularly imagined – the actual evidence in favour of younger learners’ superiority in L2 learning is rather inconsistent, especially in non-immersion situations, where encounters with English might be limited to a few hours a week in the classroom. And we might also worry about a top-down ‘rush for English’ in which policy is not thoroughly thought through and issues such as teacher training and education, and classroom methodologies and materials for teaching Primary ELT, become problematic. Is a gap developing between policy and practice, and between our goal of how Primary ELT ‘should be’, and the realities of often under-resourced classroom life?

These issues will be discussed and debated in more detail in the ELT Journal debate, held at the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate (UK) on Thursday 3rd April (11.30-12.45 BST). There, Fiona Copland (Aston University, UK) will propose the motion: ‘This house believes that Primary ELT does more harm than good’; Janet Enever (Umea University, Sweden) will oppose the motion.

For more information about the conference and to access the debate online visit Harrogate online. You can also follow us on Twitter as we live-tweet highlights from the debate and other IATEFL speaker sessions.

Graham Hall is editor of ELT Journal and works at Northumbria University in the UK, where he teaches on Northumbria’s MA in Applied Linguistics for TESOL and MA TESOL programmes.


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Bringing English home – strengthening the school-home connection

Mother and daughter holding leavesKate Read, co-author of the new Kindergarten series, Show and Tell, offers some practical tips for strengthening the school-home link.

We all know that most learning goes on outside the classroom. So it follows that learning English shouldn’t be limited to the classroom. Indeed, learning any language can be enhanced by bringing it into the home – after all, the home is where language begins for the young child.

There are a number of easy ways to do this but, first of all, you’ve got to have the parents on board. They can help with learning English, even if they aren’t confident about their own level of English.

There are many ways of doing this:

  • Send home regular letters (or even informal emails or texts) about the topic you are covering. Include ideas for home activities. Oxford Parents give parents simple, effective advice on supporting their children’s classroom language learning at home.
  • Invite parents for informal chats at regular intervals.
  • Give parents simple guidance documents that outline when and where it is helpful to use English at home. Encourage them to foster a positive and fun attitude when using English. Give them advice on when it is not helpful – such as when the children are tired or distracted. Here’s a video tip and free conversation card to help you do this.

1. The child as teacher

It is very empowering for a child to take on the role of the teacher. The child can ‘teach’ simple words or phrases to the family. You can systematically give them words or expressions to take home. You can also give the children tasks to do at home – teaching or telling specific things to specific people. A favourite activity is for the child to teach the whole family to sing a song in English. You can help with this by making the song or backing tracks available. Children will enjoy this process and it will do wonders for consolidation. As you already know, there’s nothing like having to teach something to make you learn it!

2. The child as performer

Allow the child to take some work home to share with the family. (Courses like Show and Tell offer special ‘take-home’ projects.) At its simplest, this can be songs to sing or chants to repeat at appropriate times. It can also be retelling a story to the people at home – or even performing it with simple puppets. In the digital age, and if you have permission to do this, sharing a video of things that they have performed at school is a great way of building confidence and consolidating knowledge. When children use the language to give a performance, they take ownership of the language.

Show and Tell - children performing

3. Making an English space

It’s really useful for children to have reminders of language learned. This helps them to keep it active. Home is a great place for putting up posters, pictures and even single word images or text. Depending on the child’s level of literacy, these can be labelled either by the child or by you. You can also suggest having an English space in the home where the child can keep English books, English games and even English toys. Creating a physical environment where English is a feature provides children with a ‘real’ place for English in their home lives – this facilitates further integration of the language.

4. Making games in English

You can create some simple games to play at home. Provide outlines of games that can be used over and over and provide updates of words/lexical sets that can be used with the games. The games can be very basic with repeated questions and answers, such as hiding things and saying “Where’s the…?” (You would need to supply the names of the objects to look for.) It could be a game to play with picture or word cards, such as concentration/pairs, or “Which card did I take away?” As the child advances, activities could include could be slightly more complex board games for counting and vocabulary.

5. Books with audio

Bedtime reading is always a very special time for the parent and child. For parents who are not confident reading in English, you can recommend books with audio so that they can look and listen with the child. Some people like using stories that the children already know in their own language, making the most of the child’s familiarity with the content. Finally, if you are using simple stories in class that have audio, such as the stories on the MultiROM in Show and Tell, send them home with the children so that they can ‘read’ it with their families.

Encouraging children and their families to do any of the above activities is very simple. The most important thing is to instil the idea of a partnership between school and home. This partnership requires clear and simple communication and lots of enthusiasm. Remember, in the immortal words of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz: There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home …

Do you have any ideas of great ways to use English at home? Share them with us in the comments section below.

Would you like more practical tips on strengthening the school-home link, and teaching 21st Century skills in your Kindergarten children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.


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Crafty ways of learning English

Close-up of robot head made of paperGabby Pritchard, co-author of the new kindergarten series, Show and Tell, offers some practical tips for making the most of creative craft activities in the very young learner English classroom.

Craft activities are a fun and effective way of bringing a new language alive for young learners. They provide a great opportunity for children to use natural language in a real situation for a real purpose. They also help children develop a whole range of skills, including listening and speaking skills, visual literacy skills, social skills and motor skills, as well as encouraging them to think creatively and work cooperatively. Furthermore, children feel a real sense of achievement in completing and talking about the finished product.

Careful planning is key to ensuring your children are able to make the most effective use of new language while working on their craft activity.

Here are six easy ways to make sure your children are developing their language skills as well as enjoying their craft projects:

1. Put language at the center

When choosing a craft project, ensure it springs naturally from the topic your class is studying. Consider carefully how new and review language patterns, as well as vocabulary, can be used. For example, if the language is prepositions of place and the children are making a model of a house with furniture, focus initially on vocabulary. Use known question forms such as What’s this? Is it a…? to prompt answers. Then, as the children place the furniture in rooms, ask Where is the…? prompting the children to answer with full sentences: It’s next to the bed. Extend this by playing a language game with the class when the project is complete. In this case it could be a guessing game in which they take turns to describe where something is without naming it. Finally, the children can describe their finished work.

Young students modelling a project

2. Begin at the end

Always begin by showing and talking about finished examples of the crafts. They illustrate the purpose of the activity clearly, and provide models for the children to work from. If the initial task involves making items that contribute to a bigger project, such as making animals for a farm, discuss how the children will contribute individually and also work together to finish the project. At this point, teach any new words they might need.

3. Lead by example

Before the children begin their projects, demonstrate the process in simple stages. Include the children by asking them to name the materials you are using and discuss what the next stages should be. Invite children to come and act as helpers, modelling instructions and polite behavior with them.

4. Teach the language of instruction

Be consistent with the instructions you use and build upon this throughout the year. Teach and encourage the children to use some new instructions each time they work on a new project. The language of instruction is very useful in a wide range of situations and the children will soon use these new words and phrases quite naturally in class.

5. Work together

Organize some activities that require the children to work in pairs or small groups. For example, ask children to work in pairs to grow a plant. They can choose and plant seeds together and then track the development of the plant by taking photos or drawing pictures. The children can also present their finished project to the rest of the class together.

Two young students making growing pots

Arrange the classroom so that children work in small groups at tables so they share equipment. Encourage them to use polite language as they work. Prompt them to transfer this language to other situations during the day, such as when preparing for snack time or tidying up.

Two young students working together politely

6. Celebrate!

Arrange for the children to present their work at assemblies and to parents through class displays. Invite parents into school to admire their children’s work or have the children take craft projects home so they can talk to their families in English about their work.

Young student showing off his project to classmates

Take a look at the craft activities at the end of each unit of Show and Tell. You will find plenty of ideas to try, from ‘feely’ pictures and sunny day balloons to a class picnic display, or even a whole model neighborhood.

But most of all, have lots of fun and get messy!


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Mixed up by mixed abilities?

Chinese school studenr with class behind herKate Read, co-author of the new Kindergarten series, Show and Tell, offers some practical tips for making the most of your mixed-ability Kindergarten classroom.

Kindergarten classrooms can be busy and confusing places at the best of times, but when you (like most of us) have to cope with a wide range of abilities, it throws an extra challenge into the mix. We love the fact that each child is an individual, with his or her own quirky little personalities, but it sure makes teaching effectively a challenge! Don’t despair! Here are a few simple steps to unmix you!

1. Be prepared

As with so many things in life, the secret is in the preparation. Think about what you want to achieve and what it is reasonable to achieve on both a class and individual level. Set a range of achievable goals: begin from the same starting point then vary the level of difficulty. Remember that mixed abilities do range upwards – you want to keep the most able children challenged and interested too.

When creating or adapting activities, chose ones which can be approached in a number of ways, especially in regards to oral or written abilities. Think of ways to exploit a variety of skill sets. For example, if you were going to introduce a new song, you might look at doing the following with it:

  • acting out the words with no production, but focusing on creating interesting movements to illustrate understanding
  • a singing/production element
  • a drawing element
  • a simple reading/writing element (e.g. a gap fill or a create a new verse) for those most able to cope with written text.

Make sure that your instructions are very clear, structured and achievable when you present the tasks. Be very clear about what you hope they will achieve by the end of the class or activity – include the range of outcomes in this. When you give instructions, demonstrate the whole process from beginning to end.

Also, don’t underestimate the value of review. Creative reviews give the lower-ability children a chance to take stock and gain confidence while providing a springboard for other children to attempt higher-level activities.

2. Use the children’s strengths

It’s very important for each child to know that he or she is a valued member of your classroom community. Each contribution is important. For example, someone with good motor skills but poor linguistic skills could make a different but equally important contribution to a project or activity and you need to make this clear. Most tasks will be enhanced by mixing abilities within a group and encouraging peer co-operation. Many children enjoy taking the teacher role and this can be usefully exploited!

Using the children’s different strengths also benefits their social development. Be sensitive to how far you can push the children, but at the same time do mix things up by changing groups, dynamics and procedures when you think they can handle this.

Teaching a mixed–ability class is a great opportunity to

  • develop cooperative learning and peer teaching
  • appeal to different strengths and learning styles
  • support the less able and challenge the more able
  • train children to work both independently and in groups.

3. Be flexible

As you will know, teaching mixed abilities draws on all your multi-tasking skills – but it is worth it when it works well. At times there might be a bit more confusion than with a single approach, but keep calm, aware, and in control, and you will often hear that sweet hum of concentrated activity. Just in case things don’t go perfectly to plan, try to keep a good ‘Plan B’ activity in the sidelines, even if it is just a quick break in the form of an action song or a chant before settling them back into the task. If you see their interest flagging, don’t be afraid to change your approach.

4. Appreciate the achievements of all learners

All children need praise, particularly when navigating the unknown waters of a new language. Find things to praise in all the children’s efforts. If you can’t find something, then deliberately help them do something that is praiseworthy. Remember to think of the individual’s learning path and compare what they’ve done to their own past achievements as opposed to the achievements of others. Demonstrate and reward success – post their efforts on the wall, or in folders, and hand out congratulations stickers, etc. In a very simple way, go back to the objectives you discussed at the beginning of the class. Show the children how they achieved them and how well they did.

Challenge question for fast finishers: how many times did I manage to insert ‘mix’ into this blog?

Would you like more practical tips on working with mixed-ability classes and developing 21st Century skills in your Kindergarten children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.

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