Primary English Language Teaching in Germany

‘Primary’ teaching marks the beginning of compulsory school education in Germany, starting in grade 1 usually until grade 4 with pupils aged 6/7 to 10/11. Nationwide, a foreign language has been a compulsory subject in German primary schools since 2006/07. English is the first foreign language most often taught in primary school, followed by French and some other regional or minority languages (KMK 2013; cf. Eurydice 2012: 11). Schools in most federal states in Germany offer a first foreign language in grade 3 (age 8/9), but a number of states have started to introduce English already in first grade (age 6/7). Two weekly lessons are generally reserved for foreign language instruction at this level, but in practice there are variations depending on the state (curriculum) and individual school policies (KMK 2013: 5f.). The variability also extends to other areas of primary English language teaching, such as the assessment of learners’ language competence and the qualifications teachers need to have in order to teach a foreign language in primary school. This plethora of institutional implementations and school concepts for early foreign language instruction is a consequence of the federal education system in Germany, where each state has its own policy and curriculum. National standards for the teaching of English as a foreign language in primary school do not yet exist.

Despite this variation, current practices of early foreign language teaching in Germany have two overall goals in common: to provide a basis for multilingualism and to support life-long foreign language learning. These goals are important aspects for learners in terms of participating in today’s social and cultural life, achieving societal cohesion and increasing worker mobility in Europe and wordwide. The language goals are more concrete. Basic communicative skills, primarily in the area of listening and speaking (oral skills), as well as a fundamental age-adequate vocabulary, are the main language targets of primary English instruction. The learning objective at the end of primary school, i.e. after 4th grade, is that learners have achieved a language level reflecting A1 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (cf. Enever 2011: 34). Its global scale for basic users reads as follows:

Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help. (CEFR 2001: 24)

The description of the Breakthrough stage reflects a formulaic proficiency in the foreign language (Wilkins, in Trim 1978). Learners "have a small internalized phrase-book, including in particular short phrases that can be used in a variety of situations" (Trim 2009: 5). At this competence level learners can interact in a simple way in the target language. Beyond the communicative and pragmatic goals of primary foreign language teaching, state curricula also issue long-term objectives that are of equal, if not paramount importance. These include intercultural learning, language awareness, language learning skills, and acquiring a favorable disposition as well as positive attitude towards other languages and cultures (KMK 2013; cf. Edelenbos, Johnstone, and Kubanek 2006: 80).

Critics have voiced their concerns about the diversity of institutional implementations and the missing educational policies on a national level (Legutke, Müller-Hartmann, and Schocker-v. Ditfurth 2009: 14). A lack of professionalism does not only result from the short time of exposure to English, which is limited to two lessons a week, but could also be related to the shortage of having or hiring qualified teachers. In Germany, many teachers in primary school teach English without having a formal qualification as a language teacher (Rixon 2013: 27; see also Legutke, Müller-Hartmann, and Schocker-v. Ditfurth 2009: 20). These teachers often fail to challenge their young learners enough in class, perhaps because they have not mastered the pedagogical principles underlying TEYL (cf. Edelenbos et al. 2006), or they are not able to model the target language and interact with their learners in formally correct and situationally appropriate ways. Enever (2011: 147) concludes on the issue of teacher qualification in Europe that "there is now a substantial need for the consolidation of teacher education provision in this field" to achieve long-term sustainability of early foreign language teaching. While this situation is slowly changing and programs have been launched to qualify in-service teachers who teach English at this level, the professional basis of primary EFL teaching in Germany is not yet optimal in terms of educational policies and local teaching practices.

One important aspect of TEYL that cannot be ignored, though, is the success that an early start in foreign language teaching can have. Empirical evidence on foreign language proficiency levels of primary students in Germany shows that many of them have excellent listening and reading skills for their age and a high motivation to use the foreign language (Engel, Groot-Wilken, and Thürmann 2009). The EVENING-Study also found that a systematic discrimination of pupils with a migratory background can be avoided by introducing English early on (Paulick and Groot-Wilken 2009: 193). Children with a non-German L1 experience success in early ELT classes and generally feel accepted by their fellow students. These positive findings are more than just a regional trend. A recent study conducted by a group of professionals and experts in ELT (the so-called ‘BIG-Circle’) in a large number of primary schools across Germany also draws a positive conclusion. The large majority of pupils in primary schools are highly motivated to learn English, they enjoy the subject, and show progress in several language skills that are above average when compared to results that previous, more local studies have found (BIG 2015; cf. Enever 2011: 125-142). The sustainability of primary English language instruction in terms of long-term learning effects is, despite a skeptical reputation, also unwarranted (Börner 2009). Clearly, language achievements are stronger in some areas (i.e. oral skills) than in others (i.e. written skills), and the research output is still inconclusive about an early start (cf. Pinter 2011). However, overall attainment results in oral and aural skills are "reassuring" (Enever 2011: 141). Average learners, according to Enever (2011: 141), reach the A1 level of the CEFR in their oral and aural skills, which testifies to them having basic communicative skills.



[BIG] BIG-Kreis (Eds.) (2015): Der Lernstand im Englischunterricht am Ende von Klasse 4 – Ergebnisse der BIG-Studie [The performance level in English as a foreign language at the end of year 4 – Results of the BIG-study]. München: Domino Verlag.

Börner, O. (2009): Fremdsprachenlernen in der Grundschule – die Hamburger KESS-Studie. In: Engel, G.; Groot-Wilken, B. & Thürmann, E. (Eds.), Englisch in der Primarstufe – Chancen und Herausforderungen. Evaluation und Erfahrungen aus der Praxis. Berlin: Cornelse, 67-75.

[CEFR] Council of Europe (2001): Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, teaching, assessment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Edelenbos, P.; Johnstone, R. & Kubanek, A. (2006): The main pedagogical principles underlying the teaching of languages to very young learners. Languages for the children of Europe: Published Research, Good Practice & Main Principles. In: Final Report of the EAC 89/04, Lot 1 study (October 2006). European Commission, Brussels: Education and Culture, Culture and Communication, Multilingualism Policy. Accessed July 7, 2016.

Enever, J. (Ed.) (2011): ELLiE: Early Language Learning in Europe. United Kingdom: British Council.

Engel, G.; Groot-Wilken, B. & Thürmann, E. (2009): Englisch in der Primarstufe – Chancen und Herausforderungen. Evaluation und Erfahrungen aus der Praxis. Berlin: Cornelsen.

Eurydice (2012): Key Data on Teaching Languages at School in Europe. 2012 Edition. Brussels: Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency.

[KMK] Kultusministerkonferenz (Ed.) (2013): Fremdsprachen in der Grundschule – Sachstand und Konzeptionen 2013. Accessed December 15, 2014.

Legutke, M. K.; Müller-Hartmann, A. & Schocker-v. Ditfurth, M. (2009): Teaching English in the Primary School. Stuttgart: Klett.

Paulick, C. & Groot-Wilken, B. (2009): Rezeptive Fähigkeiten und Fertigkeiten am Ende der 4. Klasse unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der sprachlichen Schülerbiographien. In: Engel, G.; Groot-Wilken, B. & Thürmann, E. (Eds.), Englisch in der Primarstufe – Chancen und Herausforderungen. Evaluation und Erfahrungen aus der Praxis, Berlin: Cornelsen, 179-196.

Pinter, A. (2011): Children Learning Second Languages. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rixon, S. (2013): British Council Survey of Policy and Practice in Primary English Language Teaching Worldwide. London: British Council.

Trim, J. L.M. (1978): Some possible Lines of Development of an Overall Structure for a European Unit Credit Scheme for Foreign Language Learning by Adults. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.

Trim, J. L.M. (2009): Breakthrough. An objective at Level A1 of the Common European Framework of Reference of Languages, Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR), based on the model employed for the Council of Europe publications Waystage 1990 (A2), Threshold 1990 (B1) and Vantage (B2), revised in the light of CEFR. Accessed July 11, 2016.