Early English Education has Long-term Consequences

Early English Education has Long-term Consequences

An earlier study cast doubt on the efficiency of learning English in first grade. Now, researchers have discovered that it enhances language performance over time. There is an increasing tendency in Europe for pupils to begin learning foreign languages in primary school. Although policymakers anticipate that early-start programs will improve second language skills, empirical data have been inconsistent; recent studies have highlighted numerous doubts.

An international research team investigated how primary school English teachings effect language ability in this subject in secondary school. Those who began studying English in the first grade of primary school outperformed children who began in grade three in terms of listening and reading comprehension in grade nine. The research was a continuation of an earlier publication that only looked at the period up to the seventh grade and found no such learning advantage.

The research was published in the journal System by a team led by Professor Markus Ritter of Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) and Dr. Nils Jäkel of the University of Oulu, Finland, in collaboration with Dr. Michael Schurig of the Technical University of Dortmund. The report will be published in the June 2022 issue, but it is now available online. The scholars are working together as part of the UNIC: European University of Post-Industrial Cities university partnership.

We feel the most plausible explanation is that classes following the transition period in secondary school have become increasingly fitted to the needs of children who begin to take English lessons at an early stage.

Nils Jäkel

Data from North Rhine-Westphalia

The study contained information from over 3,000 students who took part in a longitudinal study in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, between 2010 and 2014. The same data was also used in the prior study, the findings of which were released in 2017. They had compared two cohorts at the time, one of which had begun English instruction in grade one and the other in grade three. They had compared both cohorts in terms of English reading and listening comprehension in grades five and seven. The new study includes additional data acquired in 2016 to assess the English proficiency of the same ninth-grade students.

According to the previous study, children who began English lessons earlier in primary school performed lower in reading and listening comprehension in grade seven than children who did not begin English lessons until grade three. The new data, however, revealed that in grade nine, early starts in English outperformed late starters in English.

Early English lessons have lasting effects

Additional background characteristics, such as gender, language of origin, or cognitive ability, did not explain the difference between lower performance in seventh grade and late learning gains in ninth grade.

Early-start programs are usually considered to promote rapid and successful language learning, as well as to have a favorable impact on qualities such as motivation, intercultural understanding, and readiness to communicate. These expectations are heavily impacted by two principles that have shaped language teaching and learning theory and practice for decades.

Transition between school types decisive

“We feel the most plausible explanation is that classes following the transition period in secondary school have become increasingly fitted to the needs of children who begin to take English lessons at an early stage,” says Nils Jäkel, formerly of RUB and now of the University of Oulu. “This theory is consistent with studies that finds the transition between school types to be critical to the long-term performance of English language instruction across school boundaries.” With this in mind, it is critical to optimize the didactic coordination and alignment of English classes at the junction of school types. Furthermore, it is possible that more implicit language instruction in primary school will benefit students in the long run.

“We see a significant need for research to detail criteria for successful language instruction, and we advocate well-coordinated, evidence-based initiatives in overall educational policy,” the researchers write.

Early skills are gaining importance in the public education sector as educators and politicians look for strategies to bridge the country’s expanding and persistent success gap. Future academic outcomes are frequently shaped throughout the early years, as young children gain critical abilities that serve as the foundation for the development of subsequent academic skills and, ultimately, success.