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Planning effective learning contexts for early language learning by Janet Enever


This article draws on data from the large scale, longitudinal study Early Language Learning in Europe (ELLiE) to discuss children’s perceptions of effective learning environments and consider the extent to which these may be both age-specific and culturally defined. The findings indicate that teachers and school managers may need to give greater consideration to designing appropriate learning contexts to facilitate effective learning for these early learners.   The ELLiE study (2007-2010) has collected wide-ranging data on children’s early language learning to build a detailed picture of this important initial learning experience and to tease out both the strengths and weaknesses of current provision, with the aim of informing future policy design and implementation processes across Europe. This paper presents data from lesson observations, children’s questionnaires (n=1459) and individual interviews conducted with a random sample of children (n=219) from the 50 classrooms contributing data. Data on the topic of classroom layout was collected annually across the three years of the study.

Classroom organisation

In many parts of the world primary classrooms are not specifically organised for children as young as seven years of age to learn a foreign language. Facilities vary – from the provision of pairs of desks, fixed to the floor, arranged in parallel rows, to desks arranged in groups to seat 4-6 children together, chairs arranged in a semi-circle or sometimes a carpeted area for a smaller group to sit around. Table 1 below gives an indication of the variety of arrangements found in classrooms involved in the ELLiE study, drawn from seven European country contexts.

Table 1: Variety of seating arrangements across ELLiE classroom contexts

 Horseshoe       Desks in rows        group      desks facing  Seated on carpet  Chairs in circle


Class size may often be considered a determining factor in defining classroom layout, with the ELLiE class numbers varying from seven children in village schools to thirty children some of the more urban classrooms. However, this factor does not always seem to have been uppermost for children in deciding on the most effective organisation for learning.

As one part of an annual interview with a random sample of focal learners, children were asked to look at four different classroom layouts and to consider the question, “In which classroom would you learn English (French or Spanish in the sample from England) best?” A follow-up question asked them to account for their preference.  The classroom layouts are shown in Table 2 below.

Table 2: Classroom Layouts

Classroom 1: Traditional                   Classroom 2: groups

Classroom 3: circle                              Classroom 4: mixed



Responses showed a steady shift in perceptions over the three years of the study. At the end of the first year of the study (second year of ELL) responses reflected a preference for traditional classrooms as well as a significant number of children who preferred the group or circle arrangement as the more satisfactory. Only a few were attracted to the mixed classroom arrangement.  Overall, responses at the end of the third year (fourth year of ELL) revealed little change, with some increase of preference for groups and a clear decrease in the preference for the mixed classroom organisation by the age of 10-11 years. See Table 3.

Table 3: Classroom learning preferences

In which classroom do you think you would learn English (French/Spanish) best?                      n=219
  2008 2010
Traditional 58.44% 56.62%
Group arrangement 17.82% 22.84%
Circle layout 21.46% 19.63%
Mixed arrangement 2.28% 0.91%


Notably, quite a number of children changed their opinions over the two year period. Whilst 46.58% selected the same preference in 2010 (n=102), 53.42% (n=117) changed their preference during the period. This finding suggests that there may be a tendency for children to develop preferences based on their learning experiences over time, particularly in terms of a shifting preference towards working in groups. It appears that these children have begun to formulate a view of how they like to learn and how they learn languages best. For some, language learning is a serious business, requiring a formal classroom layout, whilst for others the priority appears to be opportunities for interaction – whether in L1 or the FL.  This interpretation is reflected in the work of Sommer (1969:175) claiming that, “There is no ideal classroom layout for all activities”. However, he suggests that “The straight row arrangement with all chairs facing ahead was designed for sit-and-listen teaching”. For many of these children interaction is an important priority, whilst for the substantial proportion that prefer a formal layout there may well be an influence from a tradition of a testing culture and the broader cultural milieu of a formal approach to classroom learning.

The explanations given by children for their particular preferences provide a rich source of evidence for their developing constructions of the learning experience.  Some examples of children’s comments on the traditional classroom included:

I prefer it when we’re all facing the teacher and I don’t have my back to the teacher.

….the teacher writes on the board and nobody speaks.

….The teacher explains everything on the blackboard. If you don’t understand you can see it at the blackboard.

Comments from children who preferred sitting in a circle indicated a quite different understanding of FL learning. These included the following:

…..they are together and they can learn better if they help each other.

…….if you don’t understand something, somebody tells you.

Children who preferred working in groups similarly displayed an awareness of how this arrangement might contribute to their learning, with comments such as:

……I learn the most from doing things together, the teacher does not always explain things well.

…you can speak the F.L. more when you sit together in groups.

This evidence from the ELLiE study confirms that young children are highly aware of how the immediate environment shapes their learning experience and have the potential to valuably contribute to establishing an optimal environment for effective ELL. It seems likely that teachers’ adoption of a consultative approach to classroom design may achieve the desirable outcome proposed by Pollard (2008: 281) “good organisation can increase freedom for the teacher to teach and the learner to learn”.


Pollard, A (2008) (ed) Reflective Teaching 3rd edition. London, UK: Continuum

Sommer, R (1969) Personal Space. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. USA: Prentice Hall

The ELLiE research project is supported by a European Commission grant under the Lifelong Learning Programme, Project n°. 135632-LLP-2007-UK-KA1SCR. An additional British Council grant supports the Croatian research team. Data discussed in this article were jointly collected and analysed by ELLiE team members.

Author’s Bio:
Janet Enever holds a doctorate in primary languages policy, having worked as a UK primary teacher, an EFL teacher and lecturer in Poland and Hungary. For the past ten years she has been a senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University where she is currently Project Director for a three year European Commission-funded research study, Early Language Learning in Europe (ELLiE) www.ellieresearch.eu. She co-ordinates the MA Primary ELT: Policy & Practice, contributes to the MA TESOL programme and supervises PhD students. Her main research and consultancy interests are primary language policy and practice and the impact of globalisation on language provision.

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