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Free TESOL Quarterly Article:
"Challenges in Teaching English to Young Learners: Global Perspectives and Local Realities"
December 2014: Volume 48, Issue 4

This article first appeared in TESOL Quarterly, Volume 48, Number 4, pgs. 738–762. Subscribers can access issues here. Only TESOL members may subscribe. To become a member of TESOL, please click here, and to purchase articles, please visit Wiley-Blackwell. © TESOL International Association.

Drawing on data from a recent research international research project, this article focuses on the challenges faced by teachers of English to young learners against the backdrop of the global rise of English. A mixed-methods approach was used to obtain the data, including a survey, which was completed by 4,459 teachers worldwide, and case studies, including observations and interviews with teachers, in five different primary schools in five different countries. A number of challenges emerged as affecting large numbers of teachers in different educational contexts, namely, teaching speaking, motivation, differentiating learning, teaching large classes, discipline, teaching writing, and teaching grammar. Importantly, some of these challenges have not been highlighted in the literature on young learner teaching to date. Other challenges are more localised, such as developing teachers' English competence. The article argues that teacher education should focus less on introducing teachers to general approaches to English language teaching and more on supporting teachers to meet the challenges that they have identified. 

The widespread introduction of languages in primary schools has been described by Johnstone (2009) as “possibly the world's biggest policy development in education” (p. 33), with English being the language most commonly introduced. There are several reasons for this trend. First, it is often assumed that it is better to begin learning languages early (Y. Hu, 2007; Nunan, 2003). Second, economic globalisation has resulted in the widespread use of English and many governments believe it is essential to have an English-speaking workforce in order to compete (Enever & Moon, 2009; Gimenez, 2009; Y. Hu, 2007). Third, parents want their children to develop English skills to benefit from new world orders and put pressure on governments to introduce English to younger children (Enever & Moon, 2009; Gimenez, 2009).

In parallel with this expansion, there has been increasing criticism of the growth of English as a global lingua franca, in particular the political and social implications. Publications by Block, Gray, and Holborow (2012), Coleman (2011), Edge (2006), and Kumaravadivelu (2011) have all challenged understandings of the place of English, how it has reached its current level of popularity, whose interests the rise of English serves, and the status of different world Englishes. Such discussions call into question the underlying premises on which the introduction of learning English at an early age are predicated (see also Pillar & Cho, 2013). Edge (2006) and Kumaravadivelu (2011) in particular are also highly critical of wholesale adoption of Western approaches to language teaching which support the spread of English while ensuring Western countries continue to benefit from it. Against this background, teachers of young learners around the world must daily fulfil the tasks of instructing their students, often being required to use a pedagogic approach which is alien to many, and having to persuade their students of the value of learning English.

The research reported here is part of a larger study, which investigated global practices in teaching young learners. The ensuing report (Garton, Copland, & Burns, 2011) focused on how policy affects young learner classrooms, the pedagogic approaches used by teachers globally, and how teachers understand their roles and responsibilities in the young learner classroom, amongst other things. This article draws on further data from the study to identify the challenges faced by teachers of primary English both globally, across the total number of countries involved in the study, and more locally in five of these countries located in different continents. Our aim is to portray overall trends but also to explore local variations and possible reasons for these variations. Specifically, this research responds to two research questions:

  • What are teachers' perceptions of the challenges they face in teaching English to young learners?
  • What challenges are experienced globally and locally?

Download the full article and references for free (PDF)


This article first appeared in TESOL Quarterly, 48, 738–762. For permission to use text from this article, please go to Wiley-Blackwell and click on "Request Permissions" under "Article Tools."
doi: 10.1002/tesq.148

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Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages

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