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#IATEFL – Second language development in childhood: factors for success

content based language teaching and instructionVictoria Murphy, Professor of Applied Linguistics and author of Second language learning in the early school years: Trends and Contextsshares her thoughts on the importance of L2 development in childhood, ahead of her forthcoming talk at IATEFL 2015 on Tuesday 14th on the same subject.

How children learn second languages has long interested me. Looking back, even from a very young age I was fascinated with the notion of bilingualism. As a child growing up in Ottawa, Canada I was fortunate in that I had very early second language instruction – indeed I was taught French as part of my pre-school and kindergarten education. When I was in grade 3 I recall that a very nice lady came into the class and told us that if we were interested in having all of our school day in French in grade 4, that we should take the letter she was distributing home to our parents and get them to sign it. I vividly remember how excited I was then at the prospect of speaking French for the whole day! Little did I know then that I was to end up participating in an early cohort of French Immersion education, a form of bilingual education that I would later go on to study as an academic. That very early interest in bilingualism stuck with me and eventually motivated me to go on and study Linguistics and Psychology at undergraduate level and then as part of my graduate work examine more closely some of the mechanisms which underpin child L2 learning.

Why is child L2 learning important?

More than ever I believe the field of child L2 learning, and particularly the role that formal education has in developing plurilingual citizens, is critically important to our futures, for a variety of reasons, which include social, economic, political and cognitive perspectives. I think too that we need to have a much better understanding of the factors and influences that shape successful L2 development in childhood, and again, to identify more precisely the role that educational policy, schools and teachers can play in determining successful L2 outcomes. This understanding is all the more important because increasingly governments around the world are lowering the age at which children are being taught a foreign language as part of their formal primary education.  However, the evidence which directly examines questions about the most effective or appropriate age at which to teach foreign languages to younger children is mixed, where some studies clearly show advantages to older learners while other studies argue for benefits to young learners. One worries (at least I do) that the reason why governments are making these decisions is due to a generally held belief that ‘younger is better’ in language learning in general, and L2 learning in particular. Without a doubt there is plenty of evidence in the literature to demonstrate age of acquisition effects, and clear relationships between the age of the learner and their L2 outcomes.

Contributing factors for L2 learning

However, many other variables are implicated in this relationship in addition to age (i.e., it is not just the age of the learner that determines the ultimate success of L2 learning). This is the point of the volume Second language learning in the early school years:  Trends and Contexts. I wanted to show that by examining L2 learning across a range of young learner contexts – where the children in each context can be argued to be at an advantage age-wise – we see that age is not the only, and probably not even the most critical, variable in determining the success of L2 learners.  Implementing policy to formally teach L2/Foreign Language to children, or developing bilingual education programmes to help support different languages, ought to be considered within a solid understanding of the research that identifies what we can realistically expect of L2 learners across different contexts. Furthermore, particularly in those contexts where children’s bilingual development is being supported by the school, we need to pay very close attention to the nature of the provision in these different bilingual or L2 programmes so as to ensure that we offer maximal support for the development of the L2 (while at the same time maintaining and developing the L1). It is my hope that the discussions in the volume Second language learning in the early school years:  Trends and Contexts will be informative in identifying major themes and issues in different contexts of child L2 learning, and that possibly, future generations of educational policy makers will make decisions concerning educational provision with a greater awareness of the complexity of child L2 development.


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#IATEFL – Research and Teaching: Bridging the gap

#IATEFL Research and Teaching: Bridging the gap

Photo courtesy of Mike DelGaudio

Patsy Lightbown, Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Applied Linguistics), and Nina Spada, Professor (Second Language Education), and co-authors of the prize-winning book How Languages are Learned, look at how increasing teachers’ awareness of second language teaching research can support them in the classroom. Patsy will be presenting on this topic at IATEFL 2015 on Saturday 11th April.

As teachers, we base our instructional activities on many kinds of knowledge, including our own experience—not only as teachers but also as learners. Whether intentionally or not, we often teach as we taught last year (or five years ago) or as we were taught when we were students. And when we do try to teach in a different way, it may be because we were dissatisfied with our experiences—on either side of the teacher’s desk.

Research on second language teaching and learning is another source of knowledge that can help teachers shape their pedagogical practices. However, we have heard time and time again that teachers have limited knowledge of research findings, even some quite robust findings that have been replicated over many years. Teachers, quite understandably, cite a lack of time for locating and reading research that might be of value to them. Further, they often express a belief that published research is not relevant to their particular teaching situation. Some teachers express frustration at what they perceive as the overly technical or esoteric language of research reports. For these reasons and others, teachers may miss out on information that would help them in their work.

We are convinced of the importance of making research findings accessible and engaging for teachers. Here are some examples of the kinds of research findings that can inform teaching.

  • In content-based language teaching students may not learn the vocabulary and grammar that are present in the language they hear and read—even when they appear to learn the subject matter itself.
  • In well-designed group work, oral interaction allows students to learn from each other as well as from the teacher.
  • First language development, especially literacy, is an important foundation for second language learning.
  • Tests can be used to enhance learning, not just to assign marks.
  • Students need direct instruction on academic language even if they can already engage in informal conversation on familiar topics.
  • Learning to read involves both top down (e.g., understanding the context) and bottom up (e.g., being able to sound out a new word) processes.

An awareness of these and other research findings can be useful as teachers plan lessons and set goals with their students. In collaboration with a group of exceptional researchers with close links to classroom practice, we have developed a new series of books for teachers: Oxford Key Concepts for the Language Classroom, published by Oxford University Press. The series now has five completed volumes, with another in press and two more in development. Each book in the series reviews research on language learning and teaching in a particular domain, emphasizing studies with school-aged learners. Each volume includes Classroom Snapshots that illustrate real classroom events, Spotlight Studies that focus on research that has special importance for primary and secondary school teachers, and Activities that invite readers to extend their understanding by analysing examples of classroom interaction or samples of textbook language.


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Factors affecting the success of young L2/FL learners

Factors affecting the success of young L2/FL learnersAge is often considered the critical variable in determining the success of L2 learning. In this post Victoria Murphy, Professor of Applied Linguistics and author of Second language learning in the early school years: Trends and Contexts, introduces her forthcoming webinar on the subject and looks at other factors that influence L2 learning in classroom-based contexts.

For the past few decades there has been a growing interest in child second language (L2) learning, particularly evidenced by the fact that increasingly around the world children are required to learn a second language in the primary school classroom.  For example, Qiang (2002) reports that as of 2001 English language became a formal taught subject in the Chinese primary curriculum beginning at age 8 (grade 3) in order to increase the English language skills of China’s population.  Similarly in the UK, Modern Foreign Language (MFL) learning has been re-introduced into the English primary curriculum after a long absence.   As of 2014, native English-speaking children at Key Stage 2 (starting at 7 years old) are entitled to learn a MFL.   These two examples illustrate that governments are showing a greater commitment to learning a (second) language during the primary school years.  What has led to this decision?

Is age a critical factor?

One issue that appears in many of the reports available from the UK government highlights the ease with which children in primary school are able to pick up foreign language learning.  For example the DCSF report ‘Languages for all, Languages for Life’ states that If a child’s talent and natural interest in languages is to flourish, early language learning opportunities need to be provided, and their aptitude needs to be tapped into at the earliest opportunity when they are most receptive.” (DCSF, 2002).   Another example of this prevalent view is found in the text of the Romanes lecture given by the then Prime Minister of England, Tony Blair, in 1999 at the University of Oxford.  In his lecture Mr. Blair talked about the importance of learning languages in childhood (in discussing the National Curriculum) and at one point said “Everyone knows that with languages the earlier you start, the easier they are”.

Statements such as these underscore a widespread view that learning a second language in childhood is far easier than for older learners, presumably in part due to the research suggesting there is a critical period for language learning (e.g., Moyer, 2004).

The classroom context

Importantly however, the research that has led to this generalisation that ‘younger is better’ is based on research that was NOT carried out within the primary classroom context.  It is therefore an empirical question whether this same assertion about ‘younger is better’ is relevant to young learners in an L2 classroom context.   Indeed, the few studies that have been systematically focussed on this question indicate that when it comes to learning a second language within the primary school curriculum, older is actually better (Muñoz, 2006). Furthermore, whether the L2 is being taught in a language minority vs. language majority context can have a significant influence over the outcomes and success of an L2 program, whether a child is learning an MFL as part of an immersion curriculum or as part of a foreign language curriculum with only 1 hour a week of instruction in the L2 can have a significant impact on the extent and success with which the child learns the L2, and so on.

The focus of this webinar is to highlight the fact that the age of the L2 learner is arguably not as informative as other factors that relate to the context in which the learner is developing their L2 knowledge.  Some of these other factors will be identified and discussed.

Join Victoria for her webinar on 10th December at 15:30 – 17:00. Register here.


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Using First Language (L1) in the ELT Classroom

Using L1 in the ELT ClassroomPhilip Haines is the Senior Consultant for Oxford University Press, Mexico. As well as being a teacher and teacher trainer, he is also the co-author of several series, many of which are published by OUP.  In this post he discusses the use of L1 in the classroom and shares some guidelines for its use.

The majority of English language teaching takes place in classrooms where both the students and the teacher share the same L1 (first language). In these contexts, the L1 is often banned from the classroom, and for many good reasons. Many teachers and heads of department forbid the use of L1 because an all-English speaking environment is prized since it actively encourages communication in English. Another reason is that the L1 can easily take over if not restricted. While there are many reasons for banishing the L1 from the classroom, there are also good reasons for using it. What I believe is needed are clear guidelines for effective use of the L1. Below I set some guidelines in three levels; from basic to more in-depth.

Level One: Functional

Level one can be used by all ELT teachers to help the class function more effectively without essentially compromising the popular principle that English should be used at all times. The use of the L1 is quite restricted and the teacher is always in complete control so there is no chance of the L1 taking over the class.

  • How do you say ____?: Students are allowed to ask how to say something from their L1 in English.
  • Can I say something in my language?: If students have something important to say but do not have the level of English to do so, they can request permission from the teacher to speak in their L1.
  • Time out: Just as in Basketball, the teacher can indicate that they will create a short space within the regular class to use the L1, and then return to the English class. This is especially useful when something needs to be discussed which could not be done in English.

Level Two: Strategic

In this second level, the teacher has at their disposal all the uses outlined in level one, but now encourages students to draw on their knowledge of their L1 and English to develop language learning strategies. This is essentially done by asking students to make comparisons between the two languages. The teacher is able to do this without the need to use the L1 themselves if they do not want to. Again, if the teacher fears losing control they can use the time out idea to create a ‘window’ from the exclusively all English atmosphere in the classroom.

  • English you already know: When there is a new word that has some relation to a word from their L1, the teacher asks students, “Does it look like a word you know in your language?”
  • Finding patterns and similarities: When there are grammatical patters or phrases that are have similarities between English and the L1, the teacher can ask, “What is the equivalent in your language?” or “Is it similar or different in your language?”

Level Three: Discourse

Level three uses the L1 to develop language awareness, higher order thinking skills, and to explore and comprehend features of discourse in English. The teacher also incorporates the ideas from levels one and two.

  • Discussing register: When looking at a phrase in context that has a particular register or degree of formality, the teacher asks students for an equivalent in their L1. This opens up discussions about appropriacy and register.
  • Just for fun: All bilinguals are aware of words and phrases that are easily mistranslated and produce funny consequences. By highlighting some of these and encouraging students to play with the language, we not only bring some light relief into the classroom, but encourage creativity and heightened language awareness.
  • Translating: Students work together and translate extracts or short texts from one language to the other. The teacher encourages students to discuss and justify their choice of words and phrases. This develops insight into features of context, appropriacy and register, develops higher order thinking skills, and promotes greater awareness of both languages.

These ideas are designed to encourage teachers to make principled use of the L1 in their classroom without feeling guilty about doing do so, while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls that are often associated with its use. It is hoped that all teachers will feel comfortable using some of these ideas and will consider the possible benefits of others.


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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. 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.