Avoiding the hype over early foreign language teaching


New CEN paper: Foreign language provision in English primary schools: making evidence-based pedagogical choices

Dr Sue Whiting and Prof. Chloë Marshall from the CEN have published a new paper in the journal Frontiers in Education. The paper aims to arm education professionals with a critical awareness of the (lack of) evidence supporting the bilingual advantage and innovative foreign language taster courses, to help them make evidence-based decisions regarding how to teach foreign languages in primary schools.

Here, lead author Sue Whiting discusses why certain widely held beliefs (e.g. that learning a second language confers an academic advantage, and that the younger-the-better maxim for naturalistic language learning is valid in classroom settings) are tempting some schools to explore unproven ways of teaching languages to 3-11 year olds.

Is foreign-language learning working?

Fluency in more than one language is clearly an advantage in our modern global age of multicultural societies. However, foreign language learning appears to be in crisis in countries where the majority of the population are English monolinguals, i.e., in Anglophone contexts. This has been attributed to the dominance of English as a global language giving rise to the perception that native English speakers do not need to learn other languages (Lanvers et al., 2021).

Despite a recent government initiative in England (Department for Education (DfE), 2013) to introduce foreign language teaching for one hour a week for Years 3-6 (Key Stage 2; KS2), a motivational crisis appears to start from about 11 years of age, once pupils enter secondary school (Lanvers & Martin, 2021): many pupils perceive learning a foreign language to be irrelevant, boring, difficult, and that ‘English is enough’ (Lanvers et al., 2021).

Does bilingualism itself help cognition?

In addition to any obvious personal, social, cultural and economic benefits of being fluent in two or more languages, there are also controversial claims that a ‘bilingual advantage’ leads to improved academic outcomes (Bialystok et al., 2009). This advantage purportedly arises when the skills that are acquired in coordinating two languages transfer to other, non-linguistic, mental processes relevant to learning in school and thereby improve educational outcomes. The research substantiating these claims, though, is mixed with generally only earlier studies, which usually involved only a small number of participants, revealing benefits (Duñabeitia & Carreiras, 2015; Paap et al., 2015, 2019; Van den Noort et al., 2019): lack of replicability is a particular issue (e.g., Bialystok & Martin, 2004; Shokrkon & Nicoladis, 2021).

The ‘bilingual advantage’ is not a robust effect

Many authors now consider that any bilingual advantage occurs only in ‘very specific and undetermined circumstances’ (Paap et al., 2015) and, in relation to academic performance, is likely to be a neuromyth (CEN, 2023). Furthermore, any benefit is likely to entail regularly engaging with the second language rather than experiencing it for just an hour a week in an artificial, classroom environment with little or no out-of-school exposure.

Beware the sales pitch

Nevertheless some language resource websites are targeting schools and caregivers with aggressive marketing of their products, by suggesting that all children learning foreign languages will gain such wide-reaching, general cognitive benefits in all circumstances. Some of the sale pitches appeal to notions of the brain (such as left-brain versus right-brain learning) that have been identified by other authors to be neuromyths (CEN, n.d.). Furthermore, claims far exceed what the current evidence shows, often citing newspapers’ headline catching articles or online articles written by non-specialists.

Against the backdrop of the disappointing results from the current KS2 Foreign Languages policy, such bilingual advantage claims are encouraging some schools not governed by KS2 regulations, i.e., state schools [Early Years to Year 2 (3–7 years of age)] and independent schools (3–11 years of age) to explore unproven ways of teaching foreign languages so their pupils may enjoy enhanced cognitive ability and academic success.

Here’s what doesn’t work

One unproven, and previously discredited, idea resurrected from the 1980s, albeit with older children, is that of schools giving young children a superficial exposure to multiple foreign languages in the belief that they will become natural linguists with native-like speech in numerous foreign languages. This is despite a lack of evidence from either research into a younger-the-better advantage for classroom language learning (Lightbown & Spada, 2020; Mitchell & Myles, 2019; Myles, 2017) or from language awareness research that superficial exposure to multiple languages would support learning (HMI, 1990, para. 66).

There are huge challenges in transferring the rich, immersive, native-language learning environment, where young children learn by ‘doing’ along with access to many hours a day of high-quality input from multiple social interactions, to the formal foreign language learning primary school classroom that typically provides just one hour of exposure each week. The arguments against providing a shallow exposure of several languages are as valid today as in 1990 when the HMI Language Courses Report concluded that ‘short, watered down, fragmented and thin experiences in too many languages’ provided ‘an utterly inadequate base for mastering practical communication skills in any one language and developing proficiency therein’. Then, as now, a policy of continuous exposure to just one foreign language is considered to be superior.

How to judge a good method for teaching foreign languages

We end our paper by recommending that schools should be extremely wary of being persuaded to be the first school to try something innovative when it is sold as being ‘ahead of the game’, or to take part in a research project for which they have to pay. We provide some objective criteria to help schools, from early years settings to the end of primary, to judge the efficacy of unproven methods of teaching foreign languages (or, indeed, other subjects) before adopting them. Here are our top five recommendations:

  1. Remember, a product sold as ‘ahead of the game’ often means untried and untested
  2. Approach other schools already using the innovative protocol to establish what quantifiable outcomes can be reasonably expected
  3. Check the credentials and qualifications of the person making the proposal. Has the Education Endowment Foundation evaluated the proposed pedagogic approach?
  4. If the innovative scheme is sold as a ‘research project’ then it would have been approved by the relevant university’s Ethics Committee. External funding will usually be available, too, in which case there should be no costs to the school in the form of expenses or for consultancy fees.
  5. Schools should consult with, and request approval from, their board of governors. The Primary Languages Policy white paper recommends developing ‘effective partnerships between head teachers and governors’  (Holmes & Myles, 2019, p. 13, p. 16). Boards often have the diverse experience to properly interrogate innovate schemes for educational provision.


Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I. M., Green, D. W., & Gollan, T. H. (2009). Bilingual Minds. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 10(3), 89–129. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100610387084

CEN, (2023). Learning two languages gives an advantage at school | Centre for Educational Neuroscience

CEN, (n.d.). Left brain versus right brain thinkers | Centre for Educational Neuroscience

Department for Education (DfE) (2013). Languages programmes of study: key stage 2 National curriculum in England. Available here (Accessed July 15, 2023).

Duñabeitia, J. A., & Carreiras, M. (2015). The bilingual advantage: acta est fabula? Cortex, 73, 371-372. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2015.06.009

HMI (1990). A survey of language awareness and foreign language taster courses. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office 1990. Available here (Accessed July 15, 2023)

Lanvers, U., & Martin, C. (2021). Choosing language options at secondary school in England. In U. Lanvers, A. S. Thompson, & M. East (Eds.), Language Learning in Anglophone Countries (pp. 89–115). Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-56654-8

Lanvers, U., Thompson, A. S., & East, M. (2021). Introduction: is language learning in Anglophone countries in crisis? In U. Lanvers, A. S. Thompson, & M. East (Eds.), Language Learning in Anglophone Countries (pp. 1–13). Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-56654-8

Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (2020). Teaching and learning L2 in the classroom: it’s about time. Language Teaching, 53, 422–432. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261444819000454

Mitchell, R., & Myles, F. (2019). Learning French in the UK setting: policy, classroom engagement and attainable learning outcomes. Apples Journal of Applied Language Studies, 13(1), pp. 69–93. https://doi.org/10.17011/apples/urn.201903011690

Myles, F. (2017). Learning foreign languages in primary schools: is younger better? Languages, Society & Policy, 1(1), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.9806

Noort, M. Van Den, Struys, E., Bosch, P., Jaswetz, L., Perriard, B., Yeo, S., … Lim, S. (2019). Does the bilingual advantage in cognitive control exist and if so, what are its modulating factors? Behavioral Sciences, 9(27), 1–30. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs9030027

Paap, K. R., Johnson, H. A., & Sawi, O. (2015). Bilingual advantages in executive functioning either do not exist or are restricted to very specific and undetermined circumstances. Cortex, 69, 265–278. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cortex.2015.04.014

Paap, K. R., Schwieter, J., & Paradis, M. (2019). The bilingual advantage debate: quantity and quality of the evidence. In J. W. Schwieter (Ed.), The handbook of the neuroscience of multilingualism (pp. 701–735). London:Wiley-Blackwell. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119387725.ch34

Shokrkon, A., & Nicoladis, E. (2021). Absence of a bilingual cognitive flexibility advantage: a replication study in preschoolers. PLoS ONE, 16(8), 14–18. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0255157

Van den Noort,M., Struys, E., Bosch, P., Jaswetz, L., Perriard, B., Yeo, S., … Lim, S. (2019). Does the bilingual advantage in cognitive control exist and if so, what are its modulating factors? Behavioral Sciences, 9(27), 1–30. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs9030027



New CEN paper: Stress and learning in pupils: Neuroscience evidence and its relevance for teachers


The CEN has published a new paper in the journal Mind Brain and Education reviewing current neuroscience evidence on how stress affects children’s learning in the classroom. Focusing on primary age pupils, the main findings are:

  • Successful learning requires some stress – but too much stress may inhibit, and a positive challenge for one child may under- or over-stimulate another child and impact his or her learning
  • The complex relationship between stress and learning is highly individual across pupils, depending on multiple long- and short-term factors, as well as the child’s appraisal of the situation and their available coping strategies
  • We look at potential classroom stress management interventions for primary school children (7-11 years), including psychological and physiological approaches.
  • This paper aims to help teachers become aware of, and to begin to accommodate, children’s differing needs with respect to stress and learning

Here, lead author Sue Whiting discusses what our review of the evidence revealed:

“We are starting to understand the complex ways in which primary school children’s stress levels affect how well they pay attention and learn.


We are all familiar with common symptoms of stress, such as a raised heart rate, excessive sweating and a dry mouth, which are part of the body’s ‘fight or flight response’. However, we now know that, in addition to these bodily changes, stress also associates with other, more subtle mental changes.

This complex relationship is highly individual for every pupil, depending on multifarious long-term factors (e.g., genetics, environment) and short-term factors (e.g., recent stress exposure before arriving at school), with some children being more environmentally sensitive than others.

Stress can increase children’s attention and learning capacities in some circumstances but hinder them in others. Because of these individual differences, a positive challenge providing optimal learning outcomes for one child may under or over-stimulate another child, thus potentially inhibiting learning. Furthermore, a child’s stress response to learning challenges may vary from day to day, or even during the same school day, depending on their appraisal of the situation and the coping strategies the child has available. A child’s perceived stress may not even constitute a valid stress from the teacher’s viewpoint.


The research on stress management interventions in children is still in its early days. Thus far, we are only able to outline potential classroom strategies for addressing the issue. The main psychological factors producing the strongest adverse stress response during motivated performance tasks are (1) an out-of-control feeling and (2) a social-evaluative threat (being judged).

Psychological approaches

Various psychological methods of reappraising stress have therefore been suggested by other researchers: e.g., by simply adding the word ‘yet’ to what would otherwise be a negative sentence ‘You haven’t done it, yet’ effectively diffuses the negativity by suggesting that the child will accomplish it a later date. Embracing-the-challenge (i.e. a ‘stress-is-enhancing’ mind-set) can affect an individual’s stress response and may lead to more positive outcomes than worrying-about-the challenge (i.e., a stress-is-debilitating mind-set). Using the simple self-statement ‘I am excited’ may help reappraise anxiety as excitement about a new challenge. Practising mindfulness may also help, as may presenting learning tasks tailored towards children’s hidden talents and strengths.

Physiological approaches

Physiological methods such as breathing techniques e.g. nasal, slow-paced, deep, diaphragmatic breathing may be effective by altering stress-related physiology, e.g. by shifting it towards increased activity within the parasympathetic (rest, digest and repair) nervous system and decreasing the fight or flight response. A simple breathing exercise could be easily included in the classroom as an alternative ‘attention grabber’. Physical exercise may benefit children’s cognitive function by altering their stress-related physiology as well as providing other benefits (e.g. fresh air, light, social interaction, and taking a break). As a stressful event can adversely affect later learning outcomes (e.g. for a couple of hours afterwards) we speculate that breakfast clubs may serve a dual purpose in improving learning outcomes during the first two lessons for vulnerable children experiencing stress before school, by providing a longer time for delayed learning-suppressive chemicals to dissipate.


More research needs to be done to establish the most effective classroom interventions to not only prevent stress-induced impairments but also enable all children to achieve their full potential; however, raising teachers’ awareness of the inter-individual differences in their pupils’ stress responses will be an important step in accommodating the differing needs of children in their classrooms.”

Reference: Whiting, S. B., Wass, S. V., Green, S., & Thomas, M. S. C. (2021). Stress and Learning in Pupils: Neuroscience Evidence and its Relevance for Teachers. Mind, Brain and Education. First published: 28 February 2021. https://doi.org/10.1111/mbe.12282

Striving for universal literacy


“If you have ever taught a child to read, you know it is a process as full of rewards as setbacks. From letter recognition, to decoding single words, to gains in fluency and comprehension – we have had the gratification of watching our children’s journey from learning to read, to reading to learn.

Yet, on this International Literacy Day we are reminded that this milestone of acquiring literacy skills is not universal. Currently, over half of the world’s 10-year-olds cannot read and comprehend a simple story. And many who started their journey up the literacy ladder in school do not retain these skills into adulthood. 750 million adults in the world end up with difficulty reading and/or writing…”

See here for more on this blog from the World Bank, which discusses a report by the CEN prepared for the World Bank on the science of adult learning. The report is part of a recent initiative from the Bank to improve the effectiveness of adult literacy programmes. The blog is authored by Magdalena Benedini (Economist, World Bank) and Victoria Levin (Senior Economist, World Bank).

The Montessori educational method – is it effective?


CEN member Chloë Marshall has published a paper entitled “Montessori education: A review of the evidence base” in the journal Science of Learning. Montessori education is an alternative method of education which has been in existence for 100 years. In her paper, Chloë reviews the small number of research studies that have evaluated the Montessori method and draws attention to some of their methodological limitations. She also discusses studies which have not directly evaluated Montessori education, but which have evaluated features of other educational methods that are shared with Montessori, such as using phonics to teach reading and spelling. She concludes that there is growing evidence that the Montessori method is effective for supporting children’s cognitive and social development, at least when carried out faithfully to Montessori’s principles

A former Montessori teacher herself, Chloë says “National and regional education systems are beset by regular swings of the pendulum, for example towards and away from phonics, and towards and away from children working individually. This means that elements of the Montessori method will sometimes be in vogue and sometimes not. It is therefore particularly important that Montessori teachers understand the evidence base that supports, or does not support, their pedagogy.”

Free paper for download: Brain plasticity and learning in adulthood


In the last few years, the academic journal International Review of Education (IRE) – the oldest journal of comparative education in the world – shifted its focus towards closer alignment with the work of its parent institution, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. Since then, IRE has given priority to research that explores ways in which the idea of lifelong learning is reflected in education policy and practice throughout the world. This has meant a focus on topic areas such as adult education, non-formal education, adult literacy, open and distance learning, vocational education and workplace learning, new access routes to formal education, lifelong learning policies, and various applications of the lifelong learning paradigm. To introduce new readers to IRE, the journal has made available for free download from October 20 to December 20 ten recently published articles. Among them is a paper from the CEN on brain plasticity and learning in adulthood, which can be downloaded here: