Some research on young and very young language learners

With more and more second/foreign language learners beginning at ever earlier ages,  it is worth consider our definitions of young learners and the implications of research with these populations for language teaching.

Second language acquisition versus bilingualism

Indeed, child SLA is often misunderstood by language educators. It may be confused with bilingualism, or dismissed on the grounds that “children somehow absorb language easily and more quickly than adults” (Copland & Yonetsugi 2016: 224).

Philp, Oliver and Mackey (2008) set a cut-off for bilingual acquisition, where the learner’s two grammars develop simultaneously, at age 2. From 2 years onwards, it is more accurate to talk about L2 acquisition, considering that the new grammar is being acquired after the first. According to Nicholas and Lightbown (2008: 38), child L2 acquisition differs from adult SLA in a number of ways, and can involve

  • extended silent periods
  • code switching/mixing
  • transfer of L1 word order
  • imaginative play.

The next cut-off occurs at age 7. Young learners starting before age 7 generally achieve native-like proficiency, whereas “the proportion of native-like proficiency outcomes progressively decreases” among learners who begin after that age, probably due to the development of literacy (Nicholas & Lightbown, 2008).

This research suggests first that it is important to distinguish a) young learners who are first exposed to a second language from the age of 2 from b) bilingual speakers. Second, it is necessary to take into account the different needs and expected attainment of learners before and after age 7.

Indeed, Muñoz and Singleton (2011:16-17) suggest that younger child learners are likely to achieve higher proficiency, while older learners will make quicker progress:

older learners have a rate advantage, whereas younger learners have an ultimate attainment advantage

Muñoz and Singleton (2011)

Teaching young and very young learners

These authors however issue an important caveat: we should not compare classroom learners with learners ‘in the wild,’ since “in a typical limited-input foreign language setting,” these authors warn that “age does not yield the same type of long-term advantage as it does in a naturalistic language learning setting” (ibid.:19).

Although “more and more children are learning languages at younger ages” (Pinter 2014: 179), and pedagogical practice now generally divides very young learners from older ones (Nikolov & Djigunovic 2011; Bland 2015), not many studies have yet been carried out to test instructional effects.

Very young EFL learners in Dutch schools

One exception is Dutch research on very young learners of English in the Netherlands. A recent study involved 168 four-year old EFL learners who received up to one hour, two hours, or over two hours of exposure per week in Dutch schools. They were compared with a control group of four-year old pupils who were not receiving EFL instruction (De Bot 2014; Unsworth, Persson, Prins & De Bot 2014).

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Overall effectiveness of early intervention

Tests conducted after one year of instruction, and again after the second year showed an advantage in grammar for all EFL pupils, and a significant difference for those who received more than one hour of English per week.

the children in early EFL programmes scored significantly higher than children who were not in such programmes and when analysed in groups, after controlling for the effect of teachers’ language proficiency, those with more than 60 min of weekly classroom exposure scored on average significantly higher than those with 60 min or less

Unsworth et al. 2014: 13

Amount of target language exposure

Interestingly, however, young pupils who had less than one hour of English per week performed no better on vocabulary acquisition than those who had no English teaching at all.

all children participating in early EFL programmes scored significantly higher than the control children for grammar, but for vocabulary, there was no significant difference between the control children and the EFL children with 60 min or less of lessons per week

Unsworth et al. 2014: 15

The authors acknowledge that the specific context of English in the Netherlands is likely to have played a role: English is of course typologically related to Dutch and relatively prevalent as a global language present in films and digital games, and used by second language speakers. Thus the control group of uninstructed EFL learners were no doubt exposed to English in their everyday lives.

The study also sought to quantify the acquisition that occurred in these very young learner classrooms. The pupils in the study who had at least one hour of classroom EFL instruction “were found to acquire as much English in 2 years’ time as young monolingual English-speaking children do in approximately 5 months” (Unsworth et al. 2014: 14). These figures may appear unimpressive at first glance, but remember that the classroom learners received much less language input and fewer opportunities to interact in the target language than monolingual English children acquiring at home. (They are also continuing to acquire Dutch L1.)

Teacher proficiency

Following Muñoz and Singleton’s (2011) recommendation to use “the teacher’s input rather than some general conception of native speaker norms as the model against which to measure learners’ achievement,” this study also investigated teachers’ proficiency.

When divided into teacher proficiency groups, and after controlling for min- utes/week, children with an NNS teacher at CEFR-B level only were found to score significantly lower than the other groups and they developed significantly more slowly over time, at least for vocabulary. The results of the regression analyses suggest, however, that teachers’ language proficiency rather than minutes/week is the best predictor of children’s scores on both vocabulary and grammar

Unsworth et al. 2014: 13

They found a teacher with CER level C or native proficiency to be “a good predictor of the results for vocabulary after 1 year and of the results for grammar after 2 years.” They interpret this finding as support for “the importance of teacher’s own proficiency level,” while also suggesting that “NS teachers are not necessary” for very young learner L2 development (Unsworth et al., 2014: 18).

Some conclusions from research

Here are some findings to be drawn from research into early L2 teaching and learning:

  1. Child L2 language is qualitatively different from older learner language particularly in pragmatics; spontaneous, playful and idiosyncratic L2 use is much more common among young learners (Philp et al., 2008).
  2. Very young learners (aged 2-7) can usefully be distinguished from older learners (7-12), as the characteristics of their language production and use change with the development of literacy (Nicolas and Lightbown, 2008).
  3. The popular trend towards beginning L2 instruction “the earlier the better” enjoys only tentative empirical support: thresholds for both quantity and quality of input appear to apply (Munoz and Singleton, 2011; Unsworth et al., 2014).



Bland, J. ed., 2015. Teaching English to young learners: critical issues in language teaching with 3-12 year olds. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Copland, F. & Yonetsugi, E., 2016. Teaching English to Young Learners: Supporting the Case for the Bilingual Native English Speaker Teacher. Classroom Discourse, 7(3), pp.221-238.

De Bot, K., 2014. The effectiveness of early foreign language learning in the Netherlands. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 4(3), pp. 409-418.

Muñoz, C., & Singleton, D. 2011, A critical review of age-related research on L2 ultimate attainment. Language Teaching, 44(01), 1-35.

Nicholas, H. and Lightbown, P.M., 2008. Defining child second language acquisition, defining roles for L2 instruction. Second language acquisition and the younger learner: Child’s play, pp.27-51.

Nikolov, M., & Djigunović, J. M. 2011, All shades of every color: An overview of early teaching and learning of foreign languages. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 31, 95-119.

Philp, J., Oliver, R., & Mackey, A. (Eds.). 2008, Second language acquisition and the younger learner: child’s play? New York: Benjamins.

Pinter, A. 2014, Child participant roles in applied linguistics research. Applied Linguistics, 35(2), 168-183.

Unsworth, S., Persson, L., Prins, T., & De Bot, K. 2014, An investigation of factors affecting early foreign language learning in the Netherlands. Applied Linguistics.

Photo credits

Jason Rosewell

Carolina Sanchez B

Ben White

Hannah Tasker

Robyn Budlender

bill wegener

frank mckenna

Annie Spratt


Outils numériques pour l’enseignement des langues

Une formation sur le numérique pour les langues de spécialité au Pôle langues à Paris 2 avec l’accent sur quelques outils gratuits simples et des exemples de mise en oeuvre dans des activités pédagogiques qui visent une communication spontanée et le travail collaboratif, et permettent un feedback individualisé par l’enseignant.


Outils numériques pour travailler en langues dans le supérieur

Des tutoriels courts avec un bref descriptif, lien internet, idées pédagogiques, puis petit guide de prise en main ; également des outils comparables et un mot sur les inconvénients éventuels.

Exemples de pratique

1. Un projet de storytelling

Donner des retours individuels et collectifs sur une production orale en utilisant

2. Re-écriture d’un conte

Partage de ressources libres et rédaction collaborative sur Google Docs

Pour aller plus loin

Mieux comprendre l’enseignement-apprentissage par tâches

Monter un projet télécollaboratif

Les ressources et les pratiques éducatives libres (REL, PEL)

  • Déclaration de Paris sur les ressources éducatives libres 2012 PDF
  • Kurek, M. & Skowron, A. (2015). Going open with LangOER. PDF


English Wordlists for teaching and learning EFL/ESL

On his Wordlists page, @muranava has a curated selection of English wordlists, both general and subject-specific. Find information about the General Service Word List, the Academic Word List, as well as specific corpora and recent updates to available resources.


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@muranava teaches EFL in higher education (engineering, business) in Paris, so some lists reflect that teaching context. He also runs a corpus linguistics community on Google+ with references, advice and updates on research and tools.


Language teacher education: top tips?

tipsTidying out my office ahead of the new academic year, I came across an A4 sheet I used to give to new teaching assistants in the English department at the University of Nice when I coordinated the oral English programmes (1995-2004).


We had eight or nine lecteurs, or temporary native-speaking EFL instructors. They were generally untrained, with only their own experience as language learners to rely on, sometimes not even that, and usually spent a single year with us, sometimes two. So it was more survival training than continuing professional development.

We needed these teachers to run pronunciation practice in our old language labs (audio-cassettes), and teach listening comprehension and speaking. The programme had phonetics lectures supplemented by audio-lingual lab exercises, listening comprehension using lectures or news articles read aloud on tape, and conversation classes. I tried to update to a more communicative approach, using Headway Intermediate for pronunciation, and encouraging pair and group work in listening and speaking classes. The students were mostly undergraduates, in either English studies or applied languages with business.

I was a new PhD in linguistics (second language acquisition) with an MA in TESOL and applied linguistics, with no training or experience in teacher education. Looking back twenty years on, with a lot of both pre-service and in-service training of language teachers behind me, I find my old list surprising in a number of ways. First perhaps in terms of my own confidence in simply setting out such an explicit and unequivocal set of guidelines. No justification, no hedging, no references. I would probably still be prepared to defend each point, but I’d certainly go about it differently. The second thing that strikes me is perhaps related – the very teacher-centred perspective I have taken. There is very little on identifying learner needs, setting up and monitoring activities, or providing feedback. I suppose at least I am consistent:  I tell the teachers how to teach, and they tell the learners how to learn.

The next section of my handout does tackle feedback. I remember at the time feeling a little frustrated that my teachers didn’t know the phonetic alphabet, so we had to rely on native-speaker intuition. Nowadays I generally avoid IPA in my feedback to students, since it is often more of an additional burden than a help in improving speaking skills.

feedback 1

And for good measure I had some advice for the students on class participation and giving presentations.


Again my contemporary teaching and training self would take issue more with the form than the content of these remarks. I’d be interested to hear from teacher educators trained in different times and working in different contexts on these brief guidelines. I’m going to be moving more towards English medium instruction (EMI) and ESP in higher education in the coming months, so starting thinking about what is essential for teachers in those contexts.


Negotiating multimodal tasks with young EFL learners

Shona Whyte
Euline Cutrim Schmid

AILA World Congress, 27 July 2017, Rio de Janeira, Brazil


Workshop 14

  • B: Language teaching and learning
  • 9: Educational technology and language learning

Time: Thursday, 27/07/2017: 6:00pm – 7:00pm · Location: Queluz V

  • live video communication (VC) in English as a lingua franca in French and German primary schools
  • spoken interaction using interactive whiteboard (IWB), with large-scale class projection of an audio/video feed and screen-sharing of an IWB file containing movable objects
  • communication in small groups: one learner in each class interacted with a partner in the remote class, each supported by other learners in their own classroom
  • challenges of VC with young beginners: technical issues; materials and activity design; classroom implementation
  • frameworks for analysing classroom interaction and modelling technology integration which have implications for the language classroom and teacher education
  • analysing how learners exploit the communicative affordances of the multimodal VC environment multimodal discourse analysis: speech, gaze and gesture


Cognitive-interactionist approaches to instructed second language acquisition stress the role of meaningful exchanges in interlanguage development (Ortega, 2007); and in today’s highly connected world, such exchanges can occur via telecollaboration between classrooms in different countries. This study investigates the affordances of one such communicative opportunity: live video communication (VC) in English as a lingua franca in French and German primary schools. Spoken interaction between classes is supported through the technical affordances of the interactive whiteboard (IWB), with large-scale class projection of an audio/video feed and screen-sharing of an IWB file containing movable objects. The primary EFL classes communicated in small groups: one learner in each class interacted with a partner in the remote class, each supported by other learners in their own classroom. Previous research has highlighted the challenges of VC with young beginners in terms of (a) technical issues, (b) materials and activity design, and (c) classroom implementation; it has produced frameworks for analysing classroom interaction and modelling technology integration which have implications for the language classroom and teacher education (Cutrim Schmid & Whyte, 2014; Whyte, 2015). However, a close analysis of actual learner interaction is so far missing from this research programme, hence understanding of how learners orchestrate and exploit the communicative affordances of the multimodal VC environment remains limited. The present study seeks to address this shortcoming by investigating a series of short live exchanges between young learners in two VC tasks using multimodal discourse analysis (Collentine, 2009; Dooly & O’Dowd, 2012; Holt, Tellier & Guichon, 2015). Video recordings from each side of the exchange are combined and transcribed using multimodal annotation software. Analysis permits comparisons across learners, across tasks and over time of learners’ use of speech, gaze and gesture to harness different features of this environment in the negotiation of learning tasks.




iTILT-related publications

Cutrim Schmid, E. (2017). Teacher Education in Computer-Assisted Language Learning: A Sociocultural and Linguistic Perspective. London: Bloomsbury.

Cutrim Schmid, E. (2015). Bridging the gap between school and university in CALL teacher education. In Reis, C., & Santos, W. (Eds.). Formação de Professores de Línguas em Múltiplos Contextos: Construindo Pontes de Saberes e Agenciamentos. Coleção Educação e Linguagem. Campinas: Editora Pontes, 76-101.

Cutrim Schmid, E., & Whyte, S. (2015). Teaching young learners with technology. In Bland, J. (Ed.). Teaching English to Young Learners. Critical Issues in Language Teaching with 3-12 year olds. London: Bloomsbury.

Cutrim Schmid, E., & Whyte, S. (Eds.) (2014a). Teaching languages with technology: communicative approaches to interactive whiteboard use. A resource book for teacher development. London: Bloomsbury. [link]

Cutrim Schmid, E. & Whyte, S. (2014b). Ongoing professional development in IWB mediated language teaching: evening up the odds. In Cutrim Schmid, E., & Whyte, S. (Eds.) Teaching languages with technology: communicative approaches to interactive whiteboard use. A resource book for teacher development. London: Bloomsbury. [link

Cutrim Schmid, E. & Whyte, S. (2012). Interactive Whiteboards in State School Settings: Teacher Responses to Socio-constructivist Hegemonies. Language Learning and Technology, 16(2): 65-86.

Hillier, E., Beauchamp, G., & Whyte, S. (2013). A study of self-efficacy in the use of interactive whiteboards across educational settings: a European perspective from the iTILT project. Educational Futures, 5 (2), 3-22 [PDF]

Whyte, S. (2015). Implementing and Researching Technological Innovation in Language Teaching: The Case of Interactive Whiteboards for EFL in French Schools. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. [link]

Whyte, S. (2015). Capítulo 5 – Aprendendo a ensinar com a vídeo conferência em salas de aula de língua estrangeira do ensino primário (Learning to teach with videoconferencing in primary foreign language classrooms). In Reis, C., & Santos, W. (Eds.). Formação de Professores de línguas em múltiplos contextos: construindo pontes de saberes e agenciamentos. Coleção Educação e Linguagem. Campinas: Editora Pontes.

Whyte, S. (2014). Theory and practice in second language teaching with interactive technologies. In Cutrim Schmid, E., & Whyte, S. (Eds.) Teaching languages with technology: communicative approaches to interactive whiteboard use. A resource book for teacher development. Bloomsbury. [link]

Whyte, S., & Cutrim Schmid, E. (to appear). Classroom technology for young learners. In Garton, S., & Copland, F. (Eds.) Routledge Handbook of Teaching English to Young Learners. Routledge.

Whyte, S., & Cutrim Schmid, E. (2014).  A task-based approach to video communication with the IWB: a French-German primary EFL class exchange.  In Cutrim Schmid, E., & Whyte, S. (Eds.). Teaching languages with technology: communicative approaches to interactive whiteboard use. A resource book for teacher development. London: Bloomsbury. [link]

Whyte, S., & Alexander, J. (2014). Implementing tasks with interactive technologies in classroom CALL: towards a developmental framework. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 40 (1), 1-26. PDF

Whyte, S., Beauchamp, G., & Alexander, J. (2014). Researching interactive whiteboard use from primary school to university settings across Europe: an analytical framework for foreign language teaching. University of Wales Journal of Education, 17, 30-52. [link]

Whyte, S., Cutrim Schmid, E., & Beauchamp, G. (2014). Second language interaction with interactive technologies: the IWB in state school foreign language classrooms. AILA World Congress, Brisbane.

Whyte, S., Cutrim Schmid, E., van Hazebrouck, S., & Oberhofer, M. (2014). Open educational resources for CALL teacher education: the iTILT interactive whiteboard project.  Computer Assisted Language Learning, 27 (2), 122-148 doi: 10.1080/09588221.2013.818558

Whyte, S. (2013). Orchestrating learning in the language classroom: the IWB as digital dashboard. Babylonia, 2013(3), 55-61. [link]

Whyte, S. (2011). Learning to teach with videoconferencing in primary foreign language classrooms. ReCALL, 23(3), 271-293.


CALL and CMC references

Caws, C., & Hamel, M. J. (2017). Learner Computer Interactions: New insights on CALL theories and applications. Philadelphia, PA: Benjamins.

Chapelle, C. (1998). Multimedia CALL: Lessons to be learned from research on instructed SLA. Language Learning & Technology, 2(1), 21-39. PDF

Chun, D., Kern, R., & Smith, B. (2016). Technology in language use, language teaching, and language learning. The Modern Language Journal, 100(S1), 64-80. PDF 

Collentine, K. (2009). Learner use of holistic language units in multimodal, task-based synchronous computer-mediated communication. Language Learning and Technology, 13(2), 68-87. PDF

Corona, V. (2017). An ethnographic approach to the study of linguistic varieties used by young Latin Americans in Barcelona. Qualitative approaches to research on plurilingual education, 170-188. PDF

Doughty, C., & Long, M. (2003). Optimal psycholinguistic environments for distance foreign language learning. Language Learning & Technology, 7(3), 50-80.

Guichon, N. , & Cohen, C. (2016). Multimodality and CALL. In F. Farr & L. Murray (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of language learning and technology (pp. 509 – 521). Abingdon, UK : Routledge.

Guichon, N. , & Wigham, C. R. (2016). A semiotic perspective on webconferencing supported language teaching. ReCALL , 28 (1), 62 – 82.

Helm, F., & Dooly, M. (2017). Challenges in transcribing multimodal data: a case study. Language learning & technology, 21(1), 166-185.

Holt, B.,  Tellier, M., & Guichon, N. (2015). The use of teaching gestures in an online multimodal environment: the case of incomprehension sequences. Gesture and Speech in Interaction 4th Edition, Sep 2015, Nantes, France.

Moore, E., & Dooly, M. (Eds.). (2017). Qualitative approaches to research on plurilingual education/Enfocaments qualitatius per a la recerca en educació plurilingüe/Enfoques cualitativos para la investigación en educación plurilingüe. PDF

Smith, B. (2017). Methodological innovation in call research and its role in SLA. Language Learning and Technology, 21(1), 1-3.