1st Grade Foreign Language Lessons May Not Stick

German children who began English lessons in first grade were less proficient in the English language by seventh grade compared to their peers who started classes in the third grade, according to a new study published in the journal Language Learning.

“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,” said study leader Dr. Nils Jäkel from the Chair of English Language Teaching at Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany.

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

Together with Professor Dr. Markus Ritter and other colleagues from Bochum and the Technical University Dortmund, Jäkel analyzed the data of 5,130 students from 31 secondary schools 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. Then 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 begun 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, however. By then, those who didn’t begin their language lessons until the third grade had better performance.

The researchers point out the major changes in learning structure that occur as students transfer from elementary school to grammar school.

“Broadly speaking, the predominantly playful, holistically structured elementary-school lessons make way for rather more cognitive, intellectualized grammar-school methodology,” said Jäkel.

For example, in elementary school, foreign languages are typically taught through child-appropriate, casual immersion in and experience of the language through rhymes, songs, movement, and stories. Secondary schools focus primarily on prescribed grammar and vocabulary lessons.

This may explain why the early advantages in listening proficiency that are identified in the fifth grade are partially gone by the seventh grade, say the authors. This is possibly due to a lapse in motivation, as students feel the differences in learning methodology more keenly after experiencing four years of English lessons in elementary school.

Another possibility is 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,” Jäkel said.

Still, the authors do not question early English lessons as such, but believe they are an important factor contributing to European multilingualism which helps pave the way for further language acquisition in secondary schools.

In fact, early English lessons might help make the children aware of linguistic and cultural diversity, but “it would be wrong to have unreasonably high expectations,” said Jäkel. “A reasonable compromise might be the introduction of English in the third grade, with more lessons per week.”

In future studies, the researchers are going to analyze additional data to investigate if the results can be confirmed for the ninth grade.

Source: Ruhr-Universität Bochum