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  Teaching English to Young Learners in Poland


In recent years Poland has been undergoing massive social and educational changes which have begun to transform the country. Educational reform has been tackled simultaneously on many fronts including administration, financial organisation and staging of schooling . Over the last year, fundamental changes as to how the curriculum is organised and delivered and assessment carried out have come into being. September 1999 also saw the compulsory introduction of foreign languages lowered to grade 4 (10 year olds). This last change brought into focus a problem which has been growing, but not acknowledged, for a number of years, that is, the lack of adequately trained EYL teachers.


In 1990 a target of providing 19,000 qualified secondary school teachers of English by 2001 was set. Now thanks to the modern language teacher training colleges (supported by the British Council together with USIS) plus the requalification courses organised by the national INSETT programme, this target has been achieved. Polish teacher trainers have shown that they can rise to a seemingly impossible challenge!

Since 1990, however, much has changed in Poland. With accession to the European Union looming nearer and in line with the trend across Europe, the teaching of foreign languages to younger learners has become a new aim. Unfortunately, no one at the time of the colleges’ inception dreamed that TEYL would ever become a reality and thus graduates from teacher training colleges and university departments, skilled as they may be in delivering language courses to adolescents and adults, have not yet been equipped with the skills needed to provide language courses to children. An additional new teacher responsibility brought about under the reform is that each school is now required to write and submit for official approval its own syllabuses within a given framework. Although the language syllabus can be adapted to suit the needs of the school from one already approved of, this makes a considerable demand on inexperienced teachers. Although foreign language teaching is now requisite for children in grade 4, it is anticipated that this will be further lowered to grade 1 in the near future.

This is the official picture, but of course there is another picture. TEYL has been going on in various regions of Poland for some time now. Parental pressure has resulted in some primary schools organising language courses for children from as early as grade 1, taught by graduates of English, teacher training college (TTC) graduates, college trainees or often unqualified teachers of English – few of whom trained to work with young learners. Many private language schools, quick to see a new market, also advertise courses for children.

From a situation not so long ago where very few books focused on teaching young learners were available, the market now is laden with colourful YL course books, videos and CDROMs. Teachers are courted with sample materials, free course books and attractive ‘box of tricks’ workshops, all of which results in deciding ‘what to use’ and ‘how to teach’ becoming daily more difficult for classroom teachers. Clearly it is high time for teachers to have access to the training they need and deserve.

Official backing for training courses

Unlike in many other countries, the Polish ministry is intent on seeing that teachers are adequately trained and has put these intentions into writing. Significantly a trilateral Letter of Intention was signed in April 1999 between MEN (National Ministry of Education), the British Council and the Goethe Institut stating an intention to provide professional, organisational and financial support for a project for the introduction of foreign language teaching to young learners (grades 1 - 4). Although this project specified an end date of Summer 2001 in the first instance, it was agreed that this may well be extended with the mutual consent of the three parties concerned. The project’s central aim is to support ‘the development of a sustainable and accredited training programme for Polish foreign language teachers of children in grades 1 - 4 of primary school.

How Poland is meeting the challenge

Providing ‘adequate training ‘ for teachers needs intervention on a number of levels in the educational system with the needs of trainer trainers, teacher trainers, classroom teachers and future teachers all taken into consideration.

To meet the needs of the training end of the pyramid, the British Council SPRITE Project organised a trainer training TEYL course which 22 TTC methodologists and practising primary teachers involved with INSETT completed. In February 2000, all of these ‘graduates’ received a diploma and a new officially recognised qualification of either trainer trainer (eight) or teacher trainer (14) (edukator) in the teaching of English to Young Learners.

Planning training is only one side of the equation, however, seeing that it filters back into the system is quite another. A tracer study set up to monitor this indicates that almost all of these graduates have already started feeding their experience and knowledge back into the educational system through INSETT and PRESETT. An example of impact in PRESETT is the fact that before the course only 2 TTCs had any YL methodology courses running, whereas now almost all of the colleges who have edukators are offering YL courses for their trainees of between 15 and 60 hours in length (this information has been collected through questionnaires sent out to TTC directors at yearly intervals).

Practising primary teachers have also benefited from the ‘graduates’ in as much as various INSETT liders (regional organisers) across Poland have been running EYL courses throughout the year and employing these edukators to run them.

In July this year, responding to a request from the eight trainer trainer edukators in TEYL, the Sprite Project organised, and CODN (National In-service Teacher Training Centre) part-financed, a week long residential course for 30 practising EFL primary teachers from across Poland, and particularly from rural areas, in which newly written materials by the eight were trialled and adapted before being made available to the INSETT project generally.

A second trainer training/teacher training TEYL course is already underway with 27 participants having completed the first module of the tri-modular course.

Such activities are aimed primarily at tackling the problem of providing training for teaching English to children in grade 4 and above.

Preparing for the Future

As stated earlier, however, MEN intends to lower the TFL to children to grades 1 - 3. This presents a greater challenge. As in many other countries, children in their first three years of schooling are not taught through subject specialists, but have a class teacher who delivers the whole curriculum. With foreign language teaching being introduced as a compulsory subject the problem arises as to who will provide that teaching.

Whilst in the future early years teacher training colleges and foreign language TTC colleges may adapt their syllabuses by substantially increasing the number of hours devoted to the studying of a foreign language in the former case, or developing a separate course devoted to working with children in the latter, retraining practising teachers is perhaps a more immediate solution. Two main options have been put forward:

  1. Early years classroom teachers retrained to be foreign language providers too.
  2. TEFL teachers provided with additional training in working with children and also in TEYL.

There is a strong argument for following option 1 in that such teachers are already experts in meeting the educational, emotional, physical and social needs of young children and have the desire to work with them. In addition these teachers are ideally placed to present language in a cross curricula setting and thus to introduce it along side the normal classroom syllabus. Furthermore early years teachers in rural areas are often working in small schools which do not attract peripatetic language teachers.

Sceptics say that this approach cannot work as irreversible damage can be done to young children in terms of pronunciation, accent and so forth and will prevent them from learning a foreign language naturally if they are presented with poor language models.

Option 2, therefore, is seen as the only option for ‘language’ purists as such teachers have reached a high level of language proficiency. But as stated above, it is doubtful whether teachers trained primarily for working with secondary school learners will be keen to retrain to work with children or will be willing to travel to small villages to teach a few hours per week. As rural areas already suffer from a shortage of qualified teachers, excluding the retraining of classroom teachers would worsen the situation further.

Although arguments have been voiced for following option 1 to the exclusion of 2 or vice versa, the reality is probably that both will in fact be followed depending on local needs and resources.

At present a syllabus aimed at practising teachers of grades 1 - 3 is near completion. This syllabus has been written by two Polish edukators in YL, one nominated by and representing the British Council, the other the Goethe Institut. The syllabus has been monitored at regular meetings of representatives of MEN, the British Council, CODN and the Goethe Institut and will be put before the Ministry for acceptance shortly. It is envisaged that this syllabus, following official recognition, will be followed on courses organised by INSETT through CODN by fully qualified practising classroom teachers (grades 1 - 3) who wish to deliver English (or German) language. Acceptance on to such a course would be through a language test at about intermediate level .The course promises to be very comprehensive with modern approaches and techniques of foreign language teaching, cross curricula teaching, cultural studies, teaching through art and so forth being included.

Additionally videoed lessons of young children being taught a foreign language would be included, as would lesson observation and personal teaching practice. The course, although including language of the classroom, would primarily focus on methodological issues. Participants, therefore, would also be required to study for and pass FCE (or its equivalent in German) before being deemed qualified language providers.

Other courses to help teachers of children in grades 1 - 3 become language providers are also being investigated through various insititutions.

Clearly there is a long way to go before there is a fully trained supply of YL language teachers in place in the whole country. But judging by the examples of the past, the excellent INSETT system operating here and the sheer enthusiasm, professionalism and determination of Polish teachers and trainers, the outlook is looking good!


Daf Pawelec, SPRITE (Support for Polish Reform in Teacher Education) YL Project Co-ordinator, British Council, Poland daf.pawelec@britishcouncil.pl

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