Current Research into Young Foreign Language Learners‘ Literacy Skills

by Stefanie Frisch (Volume editor) Jutta Rymarczyk (Volume editor)
©2021 Conference proceedings 296 Pages
Series: Inquiries in Language Learning, Volume 30


The role of teaching reading, spelling, and writing in two languages at primary school has become more important over the last few years. Current research therefore needs to answer more specific questions than ever before and, e.g., explore the challenges of developing literacy skills in a foreign language, appropriate teaching approaches and innovative assessment procedures. This volume features contributions on theoretical and methodological aspects, teachers’ diagnostic skills and issues in educational policy. Researchers from Germany, Great Britain, Portugal, and Switzerland share their findings with the objective of improving foreign language teacher education at university level and primary school classrooms of English, French and Spanish as a foreign language.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Preface
  • Vorwort
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction (Stefanie Frisch and Jutta Rymarczyk)
  • Part I: Assessing reading, spelling, and writing
  • Teachers’ diagnostic skills in feedback on German primary school students’ first attempts to spell in English (Jutta Rymarczyk)
  • Developing and assessing reading comprehension in primary learners of English as a foreign language (Stefanie Frisch, Carsten Breul, Bärbel Diehr, Claudia Kastens, and Annette Becker)
  • Assessing young language learners’ receptive skills: Should we ask the questions in the language of schooling? (Katharina Karges, Malgorzata Barras, and Peter Lenz)
  • Conceptualising and measuring writing in English as a Foreign Language at primary school (Ruth Trüb and Stefan D. Keller)
  • Battling against a traditional assessment culture: The case of early English learning in Portugal (Sandie Mourão, Carolyn Leslie, Maria Alfredo Moreira, and Estela Monteiro)
  • Part II: Fostering reading, spelling, and writing
  • ‘Commas in the air’: Young children’s experiences of learning the orthographies of French and Spanish as a foreign language (Gee Macrory)
  • Story apps – new ways in teaching reading in primary EFL? (Annika Kolb)
  • EFL reading in CLIL and non-CLIL primary schools: A comparison of classroom reading activities, learners’ preferences and actual reading comprehension competences (Julia Reckermann and Karoline Wirbatz)
  • Scaffolding creative writing in the primary EFL classroom: Exploring the role of picture dictionaries and composition guidelines in the creation of Elfchen poems (Karen Glaser)
  • List of authors
  • Series index

Stefanie Frisch and Jutta Rymarczyk


Most of the chapters in this edited volume started as papers presented in two strands of the third international conference on Early Language Learning, hosted in 2018 by the Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute of Foreign Languages and the School of Education at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, Iceland, in association with the AILA Research Network on Early Language Learning. One of these two strands, organised by Stefanie Frisch, dealt with reading and writing in the primary EFL (English as a Foreign Language) class in general, while the other strand, coordinated by Jutta Rymarczyk, explored questions related to assessing learners’ reading and writing skills. The idea of bringing together the participants in a joint publication had the aim not only of discussing issues surrounding multilingualism and young language learners but actually also of pointing out the advances made in the course of this discussion. Clear foci have emerged in the discussion of early language learning, with early biliteracy as probably one of the most important and most evolved.

About 10 years ago it was being questioned whether the phrase “momentous shift”, used by Diehr and Rymarczyk (2012) in order to describe the then current developments in teaching English as a Foreign Language in German primary schools, had been justified. In their use of the phrase “momentous shift”, the two authors were referring to the shift from playful activities, which had been meant to allow young learners a first encounter with foreign languages, towards more cognitive yet age-appropriate approaches to foreign language learning (FLL). These approaches included, among other elements, early reading, spelling, and writing, as well as the fostering of language awareness. While at the time there were quite a few skeptical voices, the situation today seems to be a very different one.

The extension of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) to integrate the level Pre-A1 / A1, i.e. descriptors for the primary age group (ages 7–10), might be seen as a milestone in the general acceptance of a more exacting approach to young learners’ foreign language classes. In 2018, the CEFR was complemented with collations of new ←11 | 12→descriptors for young learners which also comprised the skills “Written Reception”, “Written Interaction”, and “Written Production” (Szabo 2018). In other words, reading and writing in a systematic framework has become fully accepted as an important element of primary foreign language teaching.

The main reason for the general adoption of literacy in foreign language classes at primary level is probably its role in the transition from primary to secondary school level. A survey on how practitioners, researchers, teacher educators, and school administrators involved in early foreign language learning view a range of such issues as the transition from primary to secondary school, early literacy, assessment etc., revealed broad acceptance (more than 75 % of the participants) of a high aspiration level in early writing. This strong showing was accompanied by the desire to be allowed to grade the students’ free writing at the end of primary school. It was argued that while there is undoubtedly the primacy of oracy, an exclusive focus on oral skills would result in too wide a gap between the two school levels (Hempel, Kötter & Rymarczyk 2017: 46).

At the same time, the part of the scientific community that held a secondary school perspective on early foreign language learning claimed that students at the beginning of Grade 5 showed a lack of accuracy and literacy skills. In fact, secondary school practitioners had obviously started to assign a diminished role to oracy at the very moment early reading and writing had been given greater attention (Kolb & Legutke 2016: 10). However, it is important to realize that the young learners’ achievements (e.g. listening skills, vocabulary knowledge) should determine the evaluation of primary school foreign language classes, and that primary level methodology should integrate the skills – with an on-going acceptance of the primacy of oracy for primary level. There needs to be a mutual understanding between primary and secondary school teachers of the characteristic didactical and methodological issues at the respective school forms. As research could prove, collaboration between the two groups of teachers can lead to deeper insights into the respective learning processes as far as oracy but also early literacy is concerned which is beneficial for the beginning learners (cf. the project PEAK1, Kolb & Legutke 2019). Consequently, it does not come as a surprise that young researchers currently in the field claim that “[w]‌ithout contesting the primacy of oral ←12 | 13→skills, the question is no longer if reading and writing should be included in early foreign language learning, but how” (Reckermann 2021).

The fact that early FLL is accorded little importance at a political level holds true not only for Germany; in his survey report “Language teaching in primary and secondary schools in England” for 2020, Collen remarks as one of his “headline findings for 2020”: “[P]‌rimary languages are embedded in policy, but not in practice” (Collen 2020: 3).

Indeed, there are some uncomfortable parallels between England and Germany as far as early foreign language classes are concerned: “[…] almost 40 % of schools state that, in practice, pupils do not always receive language teaching according to the time allocated each week throughout the year” (Collen 2020: 6). In numerous German schools it is foreign language classes which are rededicated as soon as some organizational class matters have to be discussed. It also seems to be a standard procedure, in both England and Germany, to withdraw students from the foreign language classroom in order to support them in the language of schooling, especially in the respective reading and spelling skills, or in Mathematics (ibid., p. 12); (Rymarczyk, oral communication). These approaches, however, should be viewed in a very critical light, as the relegation / demotion of foreign language classes aggravates general social inequity. Foreign language learning is, after all, considered a basic skill in today’s society, allowing as it does for participation, equal opportunities and empowerment for interaction in a globalized world (cf. Rymarczyk 2021). As early as 2002, the European Council emphasized the importance of improving “the mastery of basic skills, in particular by teaching at least two foreign languages from a very early age” (European Council 2019). And today it is stressed that “literacy competence and multilingual competence are defined among the eight key competences in the Council Recommendation on key competences for lifelong learning” (ibid.).

With these language policy issues in mind, the situation primary schools face in terms of untrained foreign language teachers seems inexplicable. Yet, again, in both Germany and England the picture is deplorable. In Germany today at least half of the English teachers at primary level are not trained for foreign language teaching (the BIG-Study reported 50 % in Börner et al. 2016). Their competence profile as outlined by Rymarczyk (2018: 160) shows shortcomings in several areas:

One question that demands address is whether the existing pedagogical knowledge and skills are sufficient to meet the requirements of a professional foreign language classroom. Even if the teachers’ dispositions allow them to add competency components like affect and motivation, compensation for deficits in competence cannot be expected, as psychologists hold the competence dimensions to be of a multiplicative rather than an additive character (ibid.).

Another issue which needs to be considered in this connection is that most teachers deployed in the primary foreign language classroom without appropriate training are not in their situation out of choice. While complying with the schools’ needs, they show distanced attitudes towards the roles imposed upon them. The situation in England elucidates this point: “Where the highest language qualification of school staff is a GCSE, the figure for those who have not availed of subject specific CPD [Continuing Professional Development, S.F./J.R.] increases to 86 %” (Collen 2020: 7).

This attitude of reluctance towards one’s teaching and the deficits untrained teachers cannot easily redress is manifested in the results of the educational monitoring IQB-Bildungstrend 2015. It was shown that the achievements of students taught by untrained teachers were lower than those of students whose teachers possessed a teaching degree in English as a foreign language (Hoffmann & Richter 2016: 504). These results coincide with former insights about learner perception and teacher cognition. They are known as the factors that govern classrooms processes and practices (Kumaravadivelu 2006: 165).

This volume brings together current research on reading, spelling, and writing from England, Germany, Portugal and Switzerland. In all the texts of this volume it can be seen that reading, spelling, and writing in a foreign language place specific challenges on learners. In their first language(s) children have already learnt that strings of sounds (words) can be translated ←14 | 15→into written graphemes and conversely that strings of graphemes can be decoded into words. Foreign language learners rely on their knowledge in their first language(s) when they start reading, spelling, and writing in the foreign language. On the one hand, this can be a support because French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and English all have alphabetic writing systems. On the other hand, it is known that each orthography follows specific rules which differ from one alphabetic orthography to another. Concurrently with grapho-phonological knowledge, learners also need to develop vocabulary, grammatical, and discourse knowledge in order to read and write short sentences and simple texts.

The challenges outlined above constitute the matter for consideration throughout the whole of this publication. The chapters of the volume are divided into two parts: I – “Assessing Reading, Spelling, and Writing” and II – “Fostering Reading, Spelling, and Writing”.

Part I: Assessing reading, spelling, and writing

Assessment is one of the key activities of foreign language teachers. Jennifer Hammond, e.g., argues that “on-going diagnostic assessment of language and literacy strengths and weaknesses [is important, S.F./J.R.] so that individual learning programmes can be developed to target identified needs and facilitate accelerated rates of learning which are appropriate for age, academic needs and interests of children” (2011: 38).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (February)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 296 pp., 21 fig. b/w, 13 tables.

Biographical notes

Stefanie Frisch (Volume editor) Jutta Rymarczyk (Volume editor)

Stefanie Frisch is Professor of English as a foreign language at the University of Wuppertal. Her research interests focus on teaching young learners, including bilingual education. Jutta Rymarczyk is Professor of English as a foreign language at Heidelberg University of Education. Her current interests include research into early biliteracy.


Title: Current Research into Young Foreign Language Learners‘ Literacy Skills
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