What's the meaning of early language learning?

I received an e-mail from a parent. One of his/her children is in the 1st grade, the other in the 4th, both of whom learn English at school. 

His/her question was: 

"Is the aim of English language learning in the 1st grade learning songs by heart? My child has to memorise five songs (he/she listed the titles) and, according to his/her performance, he/she will be graded. The problem is, he/she doesn't understand half of the meaning of the songs and struggles with some words. It's not that I want to fight with the teacher. I just want to find a way how to deal with the situation. How to help my child?"

It had made me think and opened some questions:

What does 'knowing language' actually mean?

  • Knowing words?
  • Knowing chunks of words?
  • Knowing songs?
  • Knowing set of dialogues?
  • Knowing fixed sets of 'correct' answers to 'correct' questions?
  • Understanding what people around you are speaking/doing?
  • Responding to the communication addressed at you?
I believe, it is all the above. The thing is, when teaching young children, one needs to make priorities and start at the basics. 

Which is?

What is the purpose of early language learning?

Imagine a child, aged 5-7 at the playground in a company of its peers. (Or at home, for that matter). What are they doing? 

Well, the answer you've most probably come up with is the one that should be seriously considered to be taken into a classroom. 


If you want a child to play in another language, they firstly need to employ social skills in order to successfully communicate with each other. 

In my belief, foreign language learning at the age of 5-7 should be nothing but playing social games, in which learning how to organise themselves (learning social skills) in order to successfully execute the activity, is a priority.

And in the course of such actions some words/chunks of words/songs are learnt.

That way, children find some purpose in language learning and at the same time have fun.

But, we have to grade  children! We have to follow the curriculum and ... different standards of knowledge are listed there ...

Opening the curriculum, page 6 (1st  garde) or page 7 (2nd and 3rd grade) and reading the general aims, is where I find the useful aims of early language learning.

Let's say the lesson covers the game 'What's your name?' (see the post 5-12-2015). The game is going to be played outdoors.

The lesson covers the general aims:

The GM (general aim) - Acclimatisation to language:

Children listen to/understand the instructions given in a targeted language, which are supported by the pictures/items, mime and demonstration. (For example: come to the door, form a line, go to the wardrobe, put on your (clothes), etc.)

The GM - Developing language skills
  • listening: in order to execute the orders correctly, children need to listen (hear!!) and understand what is said;

  • speaking: while dressing up, the children sing the song 'Put on Your Shoes'; when playing the game, they ask a question and answer it. All their speaking has a meaning and purpose to them;

  • reading and writing - are covered at another time.

The GM - Developing motivation
When playing games, specially outdoors, children are highly motivated and enjoy those lessons. This way they relate language learning with fun, purpose and joy. The very things needed for developing motivation.

How do I evaluate/grade?

Observe the children. Not all at once, but few at a time and mark their performance. The number of learnt words is not important. The most important thing is, that the child understands the activity in which he/she wraps some new words/chunks of words. Understanding can be seen verbally or non-verbally. 

Then, when you write a report, just formulate different levels according to what children know, how they show their understanding etc. and write it in a report. Each child corresponds to a certain level. 

But, the parents want to know ...

I believe that teachers' job is to teach children at school and not assist parents, so that they will teach their children. Teachers organise lessons, so that children can learn/practice at school. Parents need to follow children's work/achievements and support them at their work. 

What I usually do: I print out the lyrics of the songs, the instructions of the games, tell children to describe at home what they were doing ... 

... that's all. 

So, do I just ignore those specific aims and standards in the curriculum?

Read them again. They're all in the service of global aims, aren't they?

If the specific aim states 'A child sings, recites poems/songs in a foreign language' ... didn't they all sing happily when they were dressing up before leaving for the game outdoors?

The purpose of the language is in its use, not in enumerating memorised words/songs by heart. Isn't it?

Where's the catch?

There isn't one. All you need is self confidence, high level of professional knowledge (at both fields, the targeted language and didactics) and mature (positive) self-image. 

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