Does younger mean better?
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Some results from "The younger, the better" project
The project “The younger, the better” was financed by the Danish Council for Independent Research in Culture and Communication, and investigated the impact of starting age of learning, i.e., the so-called ‘age factor’, and a range of contextual factors (the quantity and quality of exposure to English inside and outside the classroom) and socio-affective factors (e.g., children’s motivation and attitudes towards English language learning) in the acquisition of English by Danish primary school children.
We compared two groups of children (276 in total) who, following an educational reform in 2014, started their first English classes the same year but at different ages. One group (the early starters) was introduced to English in the 1st grade and the other group (the late starters) in the 3rd grade. All children were given English receptive vocabulary and grammar tests at the beginning of their English instruction in the fall of 2014, and again, after one year and two years of English classes, that is, in the fall of 2015 and the fall of 2016. In the last two rounds of data collection children were also given a speech perception task where they had to discriminate among minimal pairs in English (for example, free vs. three). Finally, in the last round of data collection (that is, in the fall of 2016), children did two oral production tasks - a short interview and a picture-based description.
The results on the age effects on the three receptive tasks (vocabulary, grammar and discrimination task) showed the following:
First, the late starters were significantly better than the early starters at the beginning of English instruction. This means that the starting point for English learning was not the same for the two age groups: when they start with English in school, children in the 3rd year had an advantage over children in the 1st grade. This result is probably due to the 3rd graders having two extra years of contact with English outside the classroom.
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Secondly, the initial advantage of the late starters over the early starters continued after one and two years of English instruction. In other words, after one and two years of English instruction, children starting with English in the 3rd grade obtained higher scores than children starting with English in the 1st grade. Moreover, with respect to grammar, the initial advantage of the late starters increased over time. This means that the older learners had a rate advantage, that is, they learned more quickly than the younger learners.
Finally, boys obtained higher test scores and learned at a more accelerating rate than girls. This result is probably related to another finding in our project, namely, that boys spend more time than girls on gaming. Presumably, boys’ frequent use of gaming outside the classroom leads to improved receptive skills in English.
In sum, our results corroborate those of previous studies in not showing an advantage of introducing English earlier. However, we have only followed children’s English learning after one and two years of English instruction. In the future, we would like to follow the same children over a longer period of time to see whether early starters eventually catch up with or even surpass late starters.
Finally, and as mentioned above, our project examines the role of contextual and socio-affective factors in English learning. In the next months we will write about these other factors in this blog.