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Why teaching children is a serious business

Whether you’re teaching English or teaching in English, you need to focus on under-16s. Melanie Butler outlines the issues on the agenda

Learning English just hit top of the agenda in ministries of education around the world, with the announcement that from 2024 an English test will be an optional addition to the biggest benchmark in the educational world — the OECDs Programme for International Student Assessment, more commonly called the Pisa tests.

That should put young learners at the top of the agenda for providers of English language courses and English medium instruction. Let’s face it, they should always have been at the top of the agenda, because they have been the biggest segment of learners for at least 20 years. There are currently 460 million schoolchildren learning English in India and China alone.

In reality, we shouldn’t refer to under-16s as young learners, they are the norm. Instead, maybe we should refer to every student over the age of 22 as older learners.

“There is no other area of education where a 30 year-old, one size fits all 
methodology... is simply doled out willy-nilly...”

In this special feature, we are analysing the likely impact of Pisa on government demand for EFL support from international providers. And we also try to answer the question: Are the EFL and English medium education sectors up to the job?

The short answer to the first question is that our analysis of the impact on Pisa scores, on pages 18-19, suggests that demand will rise from East Asia and the Latin language countries, but the traditional solutions of starting younger, running methodology courses and hiring more native speakers are very unlikely to help.

To answer the second question, we look at the provision on offer in the UK, where we find English-medium education, which in Britain means the boarding schools, like Stonyhurst (page 29) and St Edmund’s (page 30), excel. Seventy-five per cent of accredited boarding schools score above average and higher on British Council inspection, compared to just a third of language schools which take young learners year-round (page 20), and just 30 per cent of summer schools (page 26).

The top providers tend to be organisations who have specialised in the age group for many years. Take the summer school Isca, run by the same family of linguists and language teachers for nearly 55 years (page 27); or welfare pioneers Sidmouth International (page 22), which has been enrolling under- 15s year-round for most of its 44 years.

Welfare and safeguarding are critical with this age group and, like everything else, have had to change in the time of Covid-19, when so much learning has gone online, as Charlotte Aynsley explains on page 24.

But while UK EFL now takes child welfare and protection very seriously, the approach to actually teaching under-16s in far too many of the non-specialist schools hasn’t changed much since the 1980s — it is exactly the same as teaching adults, but with more games and pictures.

I’m not sure if things are any better in the other two big under-16 destinations, Ireland and Malta, as they do not publish their inspection results, and in Ireland accreditation has never covered students under 15. But generally, they follow the same EFL model, which was designed over thirty years ago for teaching adults.

Teachers are mostly trained in the same way: on four week courses focusing on teaching adults; where teaching practice with under-16s does not count; where child development is not on the syllabus; and, if you’re lucky, you may get some basic tips on phonology but no mention of phonics or guidance on teaching children with special needs.

And schools are inspected in the same way, on the same criteria, regardless of the age group they are teaching or the reason they are learning. Have you put the learning objectives on the board for your seven-year-olds? Did

you constantly correct the pronunciation of your post graduate students? And what were the language objectives in your English medium science class?

There is no other area of education where a 30 year-old, one size fits all methodology, with a thin evidence base and no consideration at all for age appropriacy, is simply doled out willy-nilly by barely trained teachers, most of whom have never successfully learned a foreign language, to anyone between the ages of three and ninety-three.

The world is changing. Learning English is high stakes, both for governments looking for higher Pisa rankings, and for children needing the language to access higher education and good careers. It is all about the children and the progress they make.

An industry which thinks child-centred learning means being nice to Nicolo and Li Na, and puts student experience before learner progress, may soon find itself out of business and not just because of Covid-19.

Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.

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