Linguistic development and expectations in children of primary-school age
For the most part, countries who have introduced language teaching in primary school have taken a largely competency-based approach and as such there is an expectation that learners will make significant linguistic progression and will reach a recognised level of competence by the end of primary education.
This is principally based on the assumption that ‘younger = better’ in terms of language learning (see: 'The role of age') and there is an expectation that an early start will enhance language learning uptake and outcomes in later educational phases. However, until relatively recently there has been little research data about what learners are likely to achieve in mostly limited-input early language learning situations.
Studies across Europe
Data from studies across Europe and the UK indicate that learners can make progress in L2 learning across primary education. There is evidence to show development in pronunciation, vocabulary production and the ability to take part in simple conversational interactions, using simple sentences.
Literacy, in particular writing, has been shown to develop more slowly, as is also the case for grammatical development. For example, while children are able to produce nouns from the earliest stages of language learning, the knowledge and use of verbs and verb forms remains limited. There is evidence to suggest that learners develop the ability to make good use of language ‘chunks’, with some learners able to use these as a basis for creative language use.
Huge variability in outcomes
Data also shows a huge variability in outcomes for early language learning, with some learners making little or no progress throughout their primary education. Several key factors account for this variability, for example:
Quantity and quality of input
Amount and quality of language input has been shown to be a key factor in determining the level of progression learners make (see: 'Pedagogy and teacher expertise').
Explore some of our exciting projects on linguistic progression in early language learning
Learner factors such as L1 literacy, general academic ability, gender and motivation play a key role even at the very earliest stages of language learning.
Lower levels of first language literacy ability can impact achievement in, and motivation for, FL learning, particularly where language input equates to 1 hour or less per week. L1 literacy levels have been shown to become increasingly influential for L2 outcomes as learners progress through the education system.
Progress and preparedness for secondary school. A study of young learners of French. Funded by the Nuffield Foundation and completed in June 2014.
The study investigated which teaching approaches within the primary modern languages classroom lead to better outcomes for learners, both in terms of their knowledge of the underlying grammatical system and vocabulary of the language, and their ‘readiness’ for further study at secondary school level. Read the final report.
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Articles – linguistic development and expectations
Linguistic progression and individual differences
Courtney, L., Graham, S., Tonkyn, A. and Marinis, T. (2015) Individual differences in early language learning: a study of English learners of French. Applied Linguistics. ISSN 1477-450X.
Teaching and teacher factors, transition, motivation
Graham, S., Courtney, L., Marinis, T. and Tonkyn, A. (2017) Early language learning: the impact of teaching and teacher factors. Language Learning. ISSN 0023-8333 (In Press).
Courtney, L. (2017) Transition in modern foreign languages: a longitudinal study of motivation for language learning and second language proficiency. Oxford Review of Education. ISSN 0305-4985 (In Press)
Graham, S., Courtney, L., Tonkyn, A. and Marinis, T. (2016) Motivational trajectories for early language learning across the primary-secondary school transition. British Educational Research Journal, 42 (4). pp. 682-702. ISSN 1469-3518.