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April 18, 2002 - English Teaching Starts Earlier - 2002-04-18

Broadcast on "Coast to Coast": April 18
Re-broadcast on VOA News Now: April 21

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- we look at the teaching of English to non-native speakers at younger and younger ages.

RS: Members of the international association known as TESOL -- Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages -- deemed this a "critical issue" in a recent survey. So there was a lot of discussion this month at the thirty-sixth annual TESOL convention, which took place in Salt Lake City, Utah.

AA: Neil Anderson is a professor in the Linguistics Department at Brigham Young University in Utah, whose term as president of TESOL just ended. Professor Anderson says education ministries around the world are requiring schools to teach English earlier than they have been.

ANDERSON: "Probably junior high is when most were starting, and they've lowered that now, some were going down to fifth grade, and now they're down to third. The challenge with that issue is that the ministry of education in a country is making the decision, but there are not teachers that have the English language skills that teach in those lower grades that are prepared to begin teaching English. And, there are not pedagogically appropriate materials that have been produced by publishing companies for the teachers to use in those lower grades."

RS: As for the children, Neil Anderson says there are pros and cons to getting an early start.

ANDERSON: "The learner at a younger age has a longer period of time to master the language, and so features such as pronunciation -- a young learner beginning the study of English can master the pronunciation of English and thus develop native-type pronunciation as they continue through the years. So if a learner were to start in second grade, by the time they're entering high school and college, their pronunciation would be like that of a native speaker of English.

"The downside is, when you begin studying English at a younger and younger age, maybe the largest issue that comes into question is where is that learner at in the acquisition and development of their own first language. We want to make sure in our profession that we're not replacing a learner's native language, but that we are giving them an additional language that they can use in the world to do whatever it is they want to do. So we've got to carefully look at where is this learner at in the development of their own mother tongue."

RS: "But you see this as a trend, a worldwide trend?"

ANDERSON: "Yes, Dr. David Noonan of the University of Hong Kong was one of the panelists and he's currently gathering data in Southeast Asia on this very topic. And as I have traveled this year -- Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Egypt -- in all of those five countries the ministries of education are now saying, let's begin teaching English at younger ages.

"Yet they're not thinking of the full ramifications, I don't think, when they make that statement. They're only looking at the positive aspects, but they're not looking at, 'Are our teachers prepared in grade three to begin teaching? What are the language skills of the teachers who will be teaching these children?'

"And that's another disadvantage that many, many of the teachers that are teaching these children, although they are prepared to be solid third-grade teachers, they are now having to add the task of teaching English, and their English skills may not be strong enough to be doing the task."

RS: Neil Anderson, immediate past president of TESOL, speaking to us from his office at Brigham Young University in Utah. He says TESOL plans a symposium later this year in San Diego, California, to look closer at the issue of teaching English as a second language to young children.

AA: TESOL has fifteen thousand members, plus affiliated groups of English teachers worldwide. Its headquarters are located near Washington and on the Web at www dot t-e-s-o-l dot o-r-g.

RS: To reach our Web site, go to You'll find our old scripts and our new schedule. Our e-mail address is

AA: And our postal address is VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20237 USA. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "All the Words in the English Language"/"Animaniacs" (Warner Brothers cartoon characters)