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‘Don’t give up on Germany’s early start policies’, says academic


Prof Eva Wilden says there is not enough evidence to suggest the programmes will fail.

Early language learning in Germany has not failed its purpose – but more research is needed to understand why early starters lose their lead at secondary level, an academic has told the Gazette.

A recent study (see Gazette June 2017) showed that German children who had started learning English in Year 1 only retained an advantage over peers who had started later until Year 5. When they were tested again in Year 7, the late starters had overtaken the early starters. The study indicated that starting age, amount of weekly exposure and curriculum continuity between primary and secondary could all have a role to play.

The report came as a number of German states have brought in policies to start EFL as early as Year 1.

Commenting on the findings of this study, Prof Eva Wilden said that calls to scrap early EFL education miss the point, and that teaching quality – and teacher characteristics – should be taken into consideration as well.

‘I don’t disagree with the results of the study,’ said Prof Wilden, who is from Universität Vechta in Lower Saxony, ‘but I do disagree with some of the interpretations that have been put forward, especially by the media. For example, I disagree with the criticism of primary education and primary teachers: the early starters did have an advantage by the end of primary school. These newer findings pose the question why the early starters could not maintain their advantage in secondary school’.

Dr Wilden co-authored a study with Dr Raphaela Porsch and Prof Markus Ritter in 2013 using the same dataset used by the most recent study. Results for the Year 5 English test were the same: early starters showed higher receptive skills compared to the late starters – and this was valid for students of all linguistic backgrounds.

Teaching culture, communication between primary and secondary schools and curriculum continuity play a big role, she said. ‘There is narrative evidence that some secondary teachers are very critical of primary EFL education.’

The problem seems to be also at policy level. ‘The state of Lower Saxony, for example, is revising the secondary curriculum – without revising the primary curriculum first. There is a lack of continuity between the two,’ she explained.

Regarding teacher qualifications, Prof Wilden said that a majority of teachers at primary level were probably not specialist English teachers, and it would take a while before there is a body of fully qualified English teachers. Again, this is a policy problem that could get worse due to attempts to mainstream teacher education across all German states.

‘At my university, for example, primary student teachers won’t be able to enrol in teacher-training programmes with English as their core subject – they will only be allowed to have maths or German,’ she said. ‘This is a “rivalry” between two educational policy initiatives.’

Prof Wilden and Dr Porsch are now working on a cross-sectional study comparing early and late EFL starters across two states. As part of the study, they will also survey teaching quality and teacher characteristics.

‘We are planning to look at correlations between teaching quality and learner proficiency at the end of primary school. We are planning to do a longitudinal study in the future,’ she added.

Last month the Gazette reported on a study (From Early Starters to Late Finishers? A Longitudinal Study of Early Foreign Language Learning in School. Jaeckel et al, 2017) that called into question the ‘early start policy’ and how it had been implemented.

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Prof Dr Eva Wilden, from University of Vechta