School reform calls for English in first grade

A major component of the government’s school reform is to start teaching foreign languages earlier

PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Socialdemokraterne) will no doubt be speaking Danish when she unveils the government’s school reform tomorrow. But, in line with the recommendations made by the workgroup that helped develop the proposal, she is expected to announce that the nation’s school children will be required to start learning English from the first or second grade.

The workgroup’s 2011 report focused on foreign language education and recommended introducing languages earlier, starting in the form of compulsory English from first grade in elementary school. 

“This will lead to a generally higher level of education and a more nuanced language profile, particularly in relation to students mastering English.”

“It is a great idea,” Vera Rosenbeck, spokesperson for Danske Skoleelever, a student advocacy group, told Jyllands-Posten newspaper. “Compared with many other Europeans, Danes are not very good at English.

But Anders Bondo Christensen, the head of Danmarks Lærerforening, the Danish teacher’s union, isn’t so sure. Christensen, who last week criticised the government’s propsal to add 510 extra hours of classroom time during children’s first ten years of school, pointed out that there is not sufficient evidence that teaching English at such a young age improves student’s skills.

“We could spend money without knowing whether we get the desired effect,” he told Jyllands-Posten. “It is not very sensible, especially at a time when money is so tight in our schools.”

Lotte Rod, education spokesperson for Radikale, disagreed.

“The workgroup was clear that one of the ways that we can improve foreign language education in Denmark is to start English in first grade,” Rod told Berlingske newspaper. “When our students leave school after ninth grade, they must be able to cope in the world, so it is crucial that we help our students become proficient at English.”

Pupils today start learning English in the third grade. In Sweden, however, English is already taught in the first grade. The government hopes to copy that country’s example, but Rosenbeck said making it a part of the curriculum two years earlier will require careful implementation.

“They should not be conjugating English verbs in the first grade,” she said. “It is important that they get a basic knowledge of the language so it is easier to grasp when they get older.”

Rosenbeck added that as the world becomes more global, English will become even more important.

First grade students at Brårup School in Skive already started receiving lessons in English in September of this year. Teachers at the school took the initiative on their own. 

There are no lessons in grammar or spelling. Students learn about things like numbers, colours and the weather through play and songs.

“We believe that it helps make it easier to learn grammar later on,” headteacher Jette Præstholm told DR News.

There are currently no teaching materials available, so the teachers created their own curriculum.

The workgroups report also suggested that instruction in French and German start earlier – beginning in the fifth grade instead of the seventh grade, as it does currently.