Wednesday, January 23, 2013

How Do Primary School Children Learn Languages?

Language Teaching (journal)
Language Teaching (journal) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Hannah McCarthy

There are a number of useful techniques or resources that can be used to teach languages in primary schools. Below are some of the ways that seem to be most successful when teaching younger children.

Active Learning

Primary school teaching is distinctly different to secondary school teaching because the more limited attention span of younger children must be taken in to account. Engaging, active teaching is essential to ensure enthusiasm and concentration.

Fortunately, this is easy to do when it comes to teaching languages as games, songs, poems and stories are all interactive and are a great introduction to new vocabulary. Making the language fun also encourages children to feel comfortable speaking it, either with or in front of their peers; for example, when doing role-play exercises.


Embedding is another useful technique for language teaching in primary schools. This means introducing the language across other aspects of the curriculum; for example, by playing a maths game in a foreign language. Children begin to associate the language with communication rather than seeing it as a discrete subject.

Furthermore, practising a language in different contexts or for different purposes cements and improves a pupil's understanding. Having to apply the language in specific situations is much better than just rote learning without fully comprehending the meaning.


ICT can enhance many aspects of teaching, including language learning. There are many online facilities such as programs that teach through games or visuals. Using these to reinforce the vocabulary that children already know is very popular in primary schools today, especially as doing something different with the language makes it more appealing.

Furthermore, progression can be uneven among children, and each pupil is likely to have strong and weak points. Using ICT means that each child can work on their individual needs by using a program that focuses on their weaker areas which may be connected with listening or their vocabulary.

Equally, if some children need more oral practice, teachers can do a group work rotation where one set of children works on computers and others practice conversation before the groups swap tasks.

Progression and Assessment

Keeping an eye on progression is crucial in all subject areas at primary school level and this is particularly important with languages. Children with a natural linguistic flair need to be challenged while those that are struggling might need some extra attention.

It is therefore a good idea to have a clear structure in place that monitors the pupils' progression through distinct stages. This way both the child and teacher can easily see what level has been reached and what needs to be done to improve.

Assessments can also help and these could range from less significant assessments such as vocabulary tests to oral presentations or recitals. By varying the assessment procedures, the children realise that a language is adaptable and encompasses many different skill sets.

It is also a great way to determine the strengths and weaknesses of your students by viewing different sets of skills; for example, oral and aural abilities. It is particularly useful to encourage self-assessment and peer-assessment so that pupils are aware of their own advancement and spurred on to continue improving.

The techniques used to teach languages in a primary school vary, and those listed above are far from the only options. It would seem though, that variety is the key to success combined with a clear structure.

Hannah McCarthy works for Education City, a UK supplier of teaching resources for schools and families, which offers comprehensive curriculum-based modules in maths, science, English and modern foreign languages. Education city language modules enable pupils to learn Spanish, French and German modules at home.

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