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. 

Want to read more?

click on:


One individual meeting with a parent ...

Every teacher has individual meetings with parents, undoubtedly. 

I was spared with them for a very long time, because English language learning has only recently become systematically included in our (Slovene) curriculum. English lessons as an extra curriculum activity is, in the majority of parents' opinions, not a very serious business and therefore no parent is truly interested in details about their children's progress. Thereby, no parents' meetings.

English language learning as a regular subject at school, however, is a completely different matter. It means grading, which implies an official 'labelling' the level of  children's knowledge. Many parents (as well as their children) do not know how to deal with grades at their first encounter, specially if the grade is not to their liking. And the latter consequently leads to individual meetings with parents. 

One Monday morning at 10.05

The parent's child is in the 3rd grade. It was her/his first encounter with grading.
Mrs X: the teacher, her second individual meeting with a parent in her 26 years of practice.
Mrs Y: the child's class teacher.

Parent: Is this Mrs X's office?
Mrs X: It is. Come in. I was expecting you. Please, have a seat.
Parent: Thank you.
Mrs X: Mrs Y has already mentioned some of your concerns. Would you like to share them with me?
Parent: Yes! That's why I'm here. My child is deeply stressed. I am afraid she/he is going to hate English. She/he told me she/he was questioned as a punishment and was graded 3. That is unacceptable. Also, I checked her/his notebook. It is a disaster. Everything is spelt wrong and she/he wrote with a black felt-tip pen. How can you allow that? I had to check every spelling myself and had to correct it. How come you didn't take her notebook and correct the mistakes? How will my child learn if everything is spelt wrong?
Mrs X: Shall we discuss one thing after another?
Parent: Yes, please! Explain!
Mrs X: About being punished. I understand your child's perception of the situation. However, I have to stress out that it was our class agreement, that when I question other children, the rest of them are quiet and they listen in order to learn all about the 'what' and 'how' about the questioning.  The first three children were told a week in advance and I demonstrated the questioning for them. I also explained to the children that if they talk during the questioning, I regard that as an information that they already know everything, so they can be called out next.
Parent: My child knows nothing about it!

Mrs X: I believe her/him. There is a very serious listening problem in the class. I have a feeling that children simply do not know how to listen or to consciously perceive some new information. We're still in a process of learning it.

Parent: My child knows how to listen. It is other children who constantly talk! That's why she/he doesn't hear what you say. She/he said how everybody wrote in a notebook with a pencil, and that she/he was the only one who heard you gave the instruction to write with a felt-tip pen. Which, to be honest, I find rather odd! Writing with a black felt-tip pen?!
Mrs X: Well, in truth, the instruction was that only the title was to be written with the felt-tip pen. The rest should be in pencil. To be easier to correct, should they make a mistake. 
Parent: (surprised) Then, obviously, you should have given the instruction in Slovene if nobody understood.

Mrs X: A lot of children made a mistake at first. Which is normal. I demonstrated everything what I said: While giving the instructions, I was walking around the classroom showing what I was saying, showed what a felt-tip pen and a pencil is. At the end most of the children did it correctly. The aim of the lesson was learning how to listen by following the instructions as well as covering the topic. That was explained to the children in Slovene prior to giving instructions in English.
Parent: But there is nothing about the questioning written in the notebook. How can I know what my child needs to learn?
Mrs X: I explained it to the children in English and in Slovene, several times.
Parent: But, if the child didn't hear and couldn't tell me, then, how can I know what to teach my child?
Mrs X: Well, that is my job, I believe. The child needs to learn how to listen, to be able to hear the information that was given to him/her and then he/she will be able to learn him/herself. 
Parent: Why don't you just write it down and give it to parents. Can't you do what other teachers do?
Mrs X: I believe that children go to school to learn. And among other things they also need to learn how to listen.
Parent: And my child is now punished with grade 3! Because she/he didn't hear?
Mrs X: I'm very sorry if you see it that way. To me, grading is merely the information whether a child is on the right path. Nobody will ever ask about grades up to the class 7/8, when they become important for children's further schooling. By then, if we are allowed to do our job, children will have learnt how to perceive grading and will use it as information how to learn. It's not punishment, it's merely a piece of information.

Parent: Well, I don't agree. My child is afraid of you and I fear she/he might start hating English language, because of the grade 3. I myself am a translator and I want my child to learn English and German. How can I make her/him learn an additional language if she/he gets such bad grades at English?

Mrs X: Well, if you present grading to your child the way you've presented it to me, then I believe your child may run into some frustration.
Parent: (opens the mouth, speechless)
Mrs X: I have explained the grading to the children exactly the way I explained it to you. Some have listened, some have understood and some probably haven't. It takes time for children to understand it, that's normal. There were some children graded with 1. There were tears, of course. But I explained to them that 1 is the information telling them they didn't know 'what' and 'how' to learn. I explained them the questioning again and the knowledge they need to learn. I told them to come to me once they'd learnt. Some have already come and have been graded 5.

Parent: What about the spelling? My child has so many words spelt wrong! Why didn't you check their notebooks and correct the mistakes? My child is lucky to have me. I know English language, I corrected the mistakes. What about the children who aren't that lucky? They will learn wrong!

Mrs X: Well, I know how to spell and so do you (And to be honest, I sometimes make a mistake, too). Your child, however, still has to learn. If I correct child's spelling mistakes, the child will not learn. And it is not my job to do children's work. They go to school to do some work in order to learn. They simply have to do their part if they want to improve.

Parent: HOW? They have no books, no exercise books! WHERE CAN THEY GET THE INFORMATION?

Mrs X: I'm sorry but I don't believe the exercise books are the solution to learning. The teacher is, that's why I'm here. That's my job. I am here to provide the opportunity for children to learn. It was our 2nd lesson with the topic 'at my school'. At this point children had their FIRST opportunity to do the spelling. They had the CoolTool cards, like this one here (Mrs X shows the cards). All the children needed to do was to copy the English word next to the Slovene equivalent.
Parent: But they made so many mistakes.
Mrs X: Of course, they're still learning. Making mistakes is part of the learning process, isn't it? I allow them to make mistakes and encourage them to correct them. Learning is a process and your child is still in the process of learning. 
Parent: Where can they see the word spelt correctly if they have no notebooks?
Mrs X: We have working sheets, like this one (Mrs X shows the sheets). They are hung on the wall in the classroom. Not only during English lessons, but all the time.
Parent: What if the child doesn't want to correct the mistakes? Then surely, you'll do it?
Mrs X: I'm sorry I will not do the child's job. I am here only to provide the opportunity for children to learn and to encourage them to do their job. If the child does not want to do his/her job, then he/she needs to bear the consequences. One way of its manifestation in getting a lower grade. Analysing the grade will tell the child where he/she went wrong and will have the opportunity to correct the mistake another time.

Parent: So what now, do I simply accept that she/he has 3 in the markbook? I cannot accept that! My partner and I are both well educated and I want my child to follow our steps.
Mrs X:  Mr/Mrs Parent, it is the simplest thing for me to write grade 5 in the markbook. But, please, do ask yourself what is it that you really want for your child: to have grade 5 in a mark book or to have knowledge?
Parent: To have knowledge, of course!
Mrs X: Then, I suggest we both find a way how to help your child to gain that knowledge. In my opinion the best way ...

And I suggested the approach. I even invited the parent to come and attend one lesson.

And, believe it or not, the parent accepted.

It was 10.45 and I had to excuse myself for I was scheduled to give the next lesson.

This was only one such parent. There are still some of the same kind I'll soon have to deal with.

But, one step at a time. Besides, we all learn and learning is a life-time process. So, I encourage myself ... next time, some other parent will learn ...