Apps encourage preschoolers to learn languages

All preschools in Australia now have the opportunity to access the federally funded apps that help young children learn new languages. Journalist Sara El Sayed looks at the effectiveness of the program and how it has been received in Australian preschools.

The ELLA apps

Early Learning Languages Australia (ELLA) is a digital, play based language learning program for children in preschool.

ELLA aims to help children become more comfortable with different languages early in life so that they can stay engaged with learning languages in later years.

Children in the ELLA program learn language through applications called ‘The Polyglots’.

The apps are used on tablet devices and have been designed for young children. They are currently available in seven languages: Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), French, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese or Spanish.

Two further languages will be available in 2018: Hindi and Modern Greek.

Participating centres need to use their own devices to engage with the program.

Support of $500 per preschool was available to assist the first 1000 eligible preschools from disadvantaged areas in Australia to purchase devices so they could participate in the program.

Declining numbers in language study

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham said the apps were vital to address the declining number of high school students studying foreign languages.

As few as 6% of Year 12 students are graduating from high school having studied a language other than English – down from 40% in the 1960s.

During the 2015 trial period, ELLA reached 1868 students with a cost of $9.8 million, representing a cost per student of approximately $5246.

Kate Ellis, Labor’s federal education spokeswoman, said the almost $10 million pilot was reaching less than 1% of the 400,000 children the government initially promised would benefit from the program.

“At this rate it will take 250 years for the government to reach the promised target for children participating in the program, and that’s a ridiculous fail,” Ms Ellis said.

Minister Birmingham said the Federal Government was rolling out the scheme “thoroughly and properly”, with a commitment to an additional $5.9 million for the national roll out.

Mr Birmingham said almost 10,000 children had been part of the program so far.

Almost two in three students were now studying either Chinese or Japanese.

Benefits of learning languages

Research shows that learning languages develops children’s overall literacy, strengthening literacy related capabilities that are transferable across learning areas.

It also provides children with a head start towards language study at school.

Academics agree that common benefits to learning a second language are improved cognitive function, cultural awareness and improved health.

Additionally, early exposure to a second language has been found to have multiple benefits including increased probability of successfully acquiring the second language, increased learning and development outcomes in other areas and heightened language support for bilingual students.

The Australian Curriculum and Assessment Reporting Authority (ACARA) the Shape of the Australian Curriculum: Languages report recognises the advantages of learning a foreign language, specifically citing the benefits to cognitive development, the improvements to intercultural understandings and the broadening of social, personal and employment horizons.

A report of the trial conducted by Deloitte found that,for children, the benefits of introducing ELLA have been the introduction to words, sentences and songs in a language other than English; the opportunity to recognise sounds and concepts of the language; gaining language experience and practice appropriate for their age and gaining ICT skills through using the tablet devices.

The digital aspect of the ELLA trial design was also found to be consistent with features of optimal program design according to academics.

Digital technologies have been found to increase learning outcomes in preschools, particularly given children’s increasing digital literacy and the ability for children to work at their own pace.

Digital technology has also been identified as a method through which to increase second language learning in early years, in the absence of a second language speaking teacher.

Educators need to be equipped

While the reception of the apps has been mostly positive from the students’ perspective, some concerns have been raised as to whether educators have been properly equipped to implement the apps into their classrooms.

The Deloitte report states that educator unfamiliarity with the languages being taught and the correct pronunciation has limited confidence in the apps’ implementation, and cites a quote from a teacher who participated in the trial

“As a teacher I like to really know and understand what I am teaching,” was one comment.

“I felt that I didn’t have enough understanding of the language and to gain a strong understanding of this one area of my program would take a lot of time.”

Educators need to consider whether or not they feel the program properly equips them to effectively engage with the apps. The ELLA program as it stands now requires improved further training and guidance for educators.

It is also important that educators feel comfortable with new learning material and that appropriate resources have been allocated to them to take on extra responsibilities.

Lack of time for the educator to properly familiarise themselves with the ELLA apps and resources was also an issue which resulted in a lower level of engagement with the trial.

It is important that educators participating in this program ask the questions:

Do I feel properly equipped to support students’ learning with the apps?

Have I been given the appropriate resources to conduct these learning activities?

Have I had enough time to understand my role in the implementation of this program?

ELLA is currently running workshops in each capital city for the educators registered for the program in 2017.

Applications for the ELLA 2018 program will open in late 2017.