At what age should English be taught?

I’m going to be moderating a session titled ‘Education for all’ on the second day of the conference. This parallel session aims to throw light on the experiences and challenges faced by state governments when trying to implement English across the primary level. One question that always crops up when we talk about primary English education is; at what age should English be taught? As well as focussing on the child, this question often raises important issues surrounding a primary teacher’s English language proficiency, their educational background and their experience and qualifications. What are your views on implementing English at the primary level?

Share via email

23 thoughts on “At what age should English be taught?

  1. Uma K Raman

    Dear Philip,

    Very difficult question ..But let me try….
    I am of the opinion that children are smart enough to learn multiple languages from around 7 years….
    That means From Class 2 in the Indian Context…..One year to make the children comfortable in a learning environment and then they are ready…after all we begin multiple subjects from Class 1!!

    Yes the concern is the proficiency level of teachers.This could be addressed by different ways..One by introducing a paper in B. ED …that would actually Teach English and test the candidates for their proficiency with a minimum laid down..
    For primary teachers where B.ED is not compulsory the States could make one paper in English compulsory as a pre-requisite for employment in schools….
    English courses for teachers should be standardised and validated by a leading University so that it adds value to the Bio data . This would be a good motivation for teachers from the rural.

    1. David Graddol

      I rather agree with you, Uma. In ‘English Next India’ I conclude that there is a long way to go before English can be introduced universally in government schools in the primary years. The sad fact is that not much learning of any kind seems to be taking place in many schools; the teachers at this level are not well qualified, have little English themselves, and have little or no training in how to teach the language.

      I’ve seen some fantastic work by B. Ed students at EFL University, and if that quality was more common the situation would be transformed. But as you say, teachers in lower primary rarely take B. Ed. – many never finished secondary school.

      Most learning of English in India seems to take place in the private sector (private schools or language institutes).

      1. Seamus

        Yes sad indeed. From my lexpereince Sri Lanka I think the situation is very similar and for the same reasons. In many provinces there is an acute shortage of qualified English teachers so new graduates from other disciplines often have the task of teaching English with little English themselves and no trainng.

  2. Seamus

    Hi Uma
    Very interesting points you make about teacher education and teachers’ proficiency. I know that Aida Salamanca from Colombia is coming to the conference in Delhi and that she headed up just such a project in Colombia that was attempting to lay foundations for standardising and validating teacher education programmes in the country. I am not sure how far they have moved on this but will try to get Aida to update us while she is in India.

  3. thamlarason

    I am writing from Malaysia. In Malaysia children start their education from 5 years old and they are exposed to the national language that is Malay language. However those well to do families send their children to private kindergardens where they are exposed to English from a young age. I believe the home environment and the social environment combined can help children to learn a second or third language fast. Thus I believe children hould be exposed to another language at a younger age. Other than that about teachers we in Malaysia have the teacher training colleges where teachers are given a three year training in their specialised courses. They go for their practical training during this time before been posted to schools. The question that arises is are the teachers proficient in the command of the language and if the courses taught are tailor made to meet the needs of the students

    1. Thamlarason

      I am not quite well versed regarding CLL but I will find out and post my comment. I am quite interested regarding the L1 debate in India. You see in Malaysia we have three main ethniccity that is the malays who make upthe majority, the Chinese and Indians. We have three medium of instructioins in the three schools and students have to learn Malay and English on top of that. Thus here we are looking at a different proposition and in 2002 we had the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English After 6 years implememtting the policy now there is a reversal and Scince and Mathematics are to be taught in L1 of their target langauage and in secondary schools it is to be taught in the Malay language. The question that arises is does the tinkering with policy and learning Science and Mathematics in Malay will have an effect on students grasp of the content?

  4. Seamus

    Hi Thamlarson

    I agree that teachers’ proficiency is key to successful implementation of bilingual education.
    I hear that the experiment in CLIL in Malaysia has had a rocky course – can you shed any light on that?

    1. Philip Clegg Post author

      Thanks everyone for your valuable comments!
      In India, teachers I have talked to and worked with in government schools often say that children starting school for the first time struggle with the L1 curriculum, so giving them the added pressure of starting L2 from class 1, many teachers feel, is too much.
      I believe that primary level teachers need to be more highly qualified in specialist skills, especially in areas such as child psychology and young learner pedagogy.
      Keep your comments coming!

      1. Susan Hillyard

        Hi Thamlarson and Philip,
        Would you be able to send me any links to articles/reports on the reversal policy of the Malaysian ministry on implementation of CLIL?
        Susan H

      2. thamkuarson

        Hi Philip Clegg,
        In Malaysia students are exposed to L2 from a very young age. When they enter school at 7 years ols the students are exposed to English as a second language. This is for the national type schools where Malay is the medium of instruction. However in vernacular schools Chinese or Tamil is the medium of instruction and Malay becomes the 2nd language and English is taught after six months.There are many students who can cope with the three languages and perform admirably and score A in the government exam which all school children have to sit for at 12 years old. I am not saying all the students are able to but the top 20% DO. tHUS i DO NOT THINK it is too much of a burden on the students but a matter of the quality of teaching and the environment both in and out of school

        1. Philip Clegg Post author

          Thanks for your comments Thamkuarson.
          I think this highlights the very different situations we find in different countries. I agree with you that a lot will depend on the the quality of teaching and the environment, both in and out of school.

    2. Thamlarason

      It had a rocky path because the corporate sector felt the students are not able to communicate well in English For CLL to be successful the testing needs to be changed but that is not the case. Further ther should be an English environment created but that needs lot of planning and money. The crunch is the testing.

  5. Pingback: At what age should English be taught?

  6. Susan Hillyard

    Re CLIL,
    I’m a firm supporter of the CLIL approach if it is implemented by teachers who know what they are doing but I am concerned about the effects of subtractive bilingualism on mother tongue attrition and cultural alienation. I cannot make a firm statement as there needs to be much more research done.( I’m waiting eagerly for David’s latest book)

    Here in Argentina, in the private bilingual schools, we employ additive bilingualism and start English language teaching at 3 yrs of age, in kindergarten. You might say we employ “light CLIL” in that we teach through project work across the curriculum, child literature, singing and art and also support mother tongue literacy and numeracy according to the edicts of the National Curriculum in Spanish.

    We still need to see how the country will cope with stating English teaching in grade one in the state system. The Ministry is working very hard on this and there are some important policy decisions being made at present.

    Our national language is officially Spanish but we have regional languages and about 50% of the population of Italian origin so we have many bilingual speakers before we start English. Of course this cannot be compared numbers wise with India but I thought you might like to have a slightly different angle thrown in.
    Susan H

    1. Philip Clegg Post author

      Hi Susan,

      Many thanks for your kind words and valuable comments. I’m sure Thamlarason can help you with the links you’re looking for. I am based in India and am not aware of what has been happening in the Malaysian education system.

      Best wishes

  7. Susan Hillyard

    Thanks, Philip.
    To add more fire to the discussion I do believe the question is VERY complicated.

    The issue always revolves around the question of EFFECTIVE teaching and learning outcomes.

    You can put cogs in wheels and find bodies to fill holes but
    1) The necessary conditions for teaching English at grade one, for example, need to be in place… is not JUST a matter of age
    2) Class size needs to be reduced if education systems want to use ELT methodologies like active teaching, interactive learning, communicative activities……classes cannot be too huge as they are in many parts of the world in state systems.
    3) Teachers need training in child development, child psychology, primary methodology…..all are different from the training teachers have had for secondary teaching
    4) Resources have to be in place. YLs need hands on, manipulative materials, visual/ auditory aids/picture books/realia/ stories/ICT
    5) And none of this is worthwhile if the teachers’ competency in English language,(especially classroom language and the belief that all language in the room must be in English) is weak.

    It is indeed complicated.
    Susan H

  8. Lakshmanan Krishnamurti

    Ms.Uma Raman makes some very good points. As a pediatrician who has worked in many places in India, I believe preschool age children are able to learn multiple languages and to speak them according to the circumstance and the person who they are speaking with.When I was in the Air Force I frequently observed preschool children speak in English with their parents’ contemporaries, in the mother tongue with their parent or grandparent and Hindi or other local language with the servants. The recommendation from all child development experts is to ” bathe the child in language”. Merely because the teacher is not very qualified is no reason to not introduce the language early. Any introduction to a language is better than no introduction to the language. In Tamil Nadu it is impossible to speak to folks with even minimal education without them using several words in English.
    Children are not waiting till they go to school before they learn their mother tongue. I see no reason therefore for exclusive teaching in the mother tongue in the elementary level. Further in a diverse country like India, we should be taking the opportunity to introduce children to as many languages as possible.
    Like Uma, I would say,do not underestimate the capability of children to learn.

  9. CuriousWriter

    Ask the child.
    Who are we to decide for the child?
    If we have to, then we are as bad as the autocrats who decide for us.
    If ‘we’ (the people who want kids to be fluent in English) want the kids to learn the language, we have to create an environment suitable.
    The factors that ply are:
    Rate of interest
    Personality of the child

    I believe knowledge should take priority over a global trend until the age of 13. The child, by default, learn. One cannot escape the outreach of the English language.

  10. S. Thamlarason

    Introducing the language any language as a matter of fact is good but what concerns me as an educator is the purpose the language is introduced and how the language is tested. In Malaysia the teaching of English has to take into account how it is tested. When the testing component only focuses on reading and writing then that is what is focused. It is true a speaking component has been introduced lately however it is school based and students pay little attention to it because it is not centralised.
    Furthermore I believe that at whatever age you introduce a language but if the environment is not there to use the language and the student does not see the purpose to use it then it does not move far. Here, in Malaysia even though English is taught from primary level students only use the language during class time and then revert to ther mother tounge or national language. Hoe then are they to master the language. Teachers normally go through basic training but whether their proficiency is up to the mark is also a question How do we respond to the dilema and I am particulary keen to know Does testing lead teaching or should teaching lead testing?

  11. Lakshmanan Krishnamurti

    I am not sure that asking a child whether they want to learn English is no a feasible proposition. After all, how do you know whether you want to learn something that you have no idea about. Parents and adults make decisions for children everyday, without necessarily being autocrats.
    What is the purpose of learning any language?. It is to have access to the weallth of knowledge that exists in that language. I agree that too much of teaching is either archaic or worse still, dumbed down to ‘ pracical English”. Children will learn anything if it captures their imagination and harnesses their innate curiosity. If teachers fail in their job, it is ulitmately the failure of those who design curricula and train teachers. I think it is more important to desig curricula that are designed imaginatively than to focus on what children are capable of learning.

  12. student S

    can any one of you please write for me an opinion paragraph about (should english be taught in elementary /primary school?),it is very importent for me. I realy like your opinion.Thanks

  13. thamlarason

    Dear student S,
    Based on all the comments provide above I think you could come to your own conclusion regarding the matter. However, I will try to shed further light on the matter.
    Firstly take into consideration the place of English n the international arena in terms of businness dealings, knowledge in the internet, research publications and so forth. Next, what is the palce of English in your country? How much emphasis is given to English? How is English tested in your country? Is there an English speaking environment? What about infrastructure, human resourcs (qualified English teachers), teaching and learning materials and access to multimedia? What about the parents and role of media? Are they supportive? These are a few factors that need to be taken into account first before you can contemplate about on whether English should be taught in primary school
    My personal opinion based on the place of English in the international arena it has to be taught from the primary school so that the students have a chance to compete in this borderless world.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>