Study: Success in early English teaching depends on secondary school

BOCHUM. Children who start English classes earlier have an advantage in sixth grade, according to a new study. However, the researchers suspect this is mainly due to secondary school classes.

Most German federal states start teaching English in the third grade. While there are no doubts about the provision of English in primary school, opinions differ on when it should start. Research on the benefits of early English lessons is surprisingly sparse. In a recent study, an international team led by Professor Markus Ritter of Ruhr University Bochum (RUB) and Dr. Nils Jäkel of the University of Oulu examines how teaching English in primary school affects achievement in the same subject in secondary school.

Pupils who receive bilingual education at an early age are obviously ahead of their peers not only in terms of foreign languages. Photo: libellule789 / Pixabay (CC0 1.0)

According to the results, children who started learning English in the first grade of elementary school performed significantly better in the ninth grade in the area of ​​listening and reading comprehension than children who only started in the third grade. The study was a follow-up to previous work that only covered up to the seventh year and found no such benefit in learning.

The study included data from around 3,000 schoolchildren from a North Rhine-Westphalia longitudinal study conducted between 2010 and 2014. The same data was also included in the previous study, the results of which were published by researchers in 2017. At that time, they had compared two cohorts, one of which had started teaching English in the first year and the other in the third. In grades five and seven, they compared the English reading and listening comprehension of both cohorts. The new analysis included another dataset collected in 2016 to measure the English performance of the same children in the ninth grade.

The previous study showed that children who started English classes in elementary school performed worse in the seventh grade in reading and listening comprehension than children who only started in the third grade. However, the new analysis showed: In the ninth grade, early English learners performed better than late English learners.

Additional background variables such as gender, language of origin, or cognitive abilities could not explain the difference between poorer achievement in the seventh year and the learning delay in the ninth year.

Switching between school types is crucial

“The assumption that seems most plausible to us is that teaching in the area of ​​transition from primary to secondary school has been increasingly adapted to the needs of children starting early,” concludes Nils Jäkel. ‘This statement is in line with research work that attributes transition between school types a key role in the long-term success of teaching English beyond school boundaries.’ In this context, it is essential to coordinate the methodological and didactic orientation of Teaching English at the interface of the types of schools to be optimized. In addition, students can benefit in the long term from more implicit language learning in primary school.

The researchers’ conclusion is a clear call for school policy: ‘We see a great need for research to develop factors for successful language teaching and generally recommend well-coordinated and evidence-based measures in school policy,’ say the authors.

The study will be published in the June 2022 issue of System magazine.
Nils Jaekel, Michael Schurig, Isabelle van Ackern, Markus Ritter: The impact of early foreign language learning on the development of language skills from middle to high school (open access in System, June 2022)

Next school year: Primary schools should focus on mathematics and German


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