How does the age of my students affect my teaching?

How does the age of my students affect my teaching?

This is the distilled version of the Critical/Sensitive Period Hypothesis post. I am pretty sure you came across this post at some point in your PGDE or PGDCE training, however, we all know that the PGDE is for most of us THE TOUGHEST YEAR in your working life and you are totally exonerated for not remembering this particular piece of information.

If you do remember it, then I am afraid I about to blow your mind! Not quite, but I can confirm that the maxim of… ” Early is best” is not entirely attested. Drum roll!

R.I.P “Critical Period Hypothesis”

So, if you have already read the Critical Period Hypothesis under the SLA theory page, you will now know that the Critical Period Hypothesis was first coined by Peter Wenfield in the late 1950s and that it was originally focused on L1 learners.  Fast forward, a few decades and the latest studies have disproved that this L1 restriction is transferable to  an L2.

Older vs younger learners of L2

Whilst writing my dissertation, I came across an excellent study that summarised the strengths and weaknesses of older and younger learners.

Younger learners Older learners
·       May find it easier to acquire a good command of the sound system of the language. Not just pronunciation but also patters of intonation.

·       They are likely to be less anxious as older learners.

·       An earlier start enables productive links to be made between first and additional languages, which can have important benefits for a child’s language awareness and literacy.


·       May be able to plot their language on to concepts about world which they already possess from their L1. Thus helping their vocabulary acquisition (Ausbel, 1964).

·       They may be more experienced in handling the discourse of conversations and other language activities, and thus may be more adept at gaining feedback and in negotiating meaning (Scarcella and Higa,1982)

·       Due to their L1 literacy, they are likely to have acquired a wider range of strategies for learning. ie. note taking.


Table 2 Comparison of L2 advantages of younger and older learners (Johnstone, 2002:12:13)

So, to sum up…

As we can see from the information above, there are both advantages and disadvantages to being a young or an older learner and in fact, there seems to be more advantages in being an older child learner.  According to Krashen (1975, 1982) this may be due to the changes in cognitive development that occur around puberty and that are related to adult-child differences in second-language development (in McLaughlin (1982:71). Krashen (1975) adds that neurological events related to the cognitive maturation of the individual could in turn affect the development of a second language (in McLaughlin, 1984:71). Furthermore, Taylor (1974) claims that the degree of cognitive maturity of the learners is the only distinguishing factor in the psychological SLA strategies deployed by adults and children (in McLaughlin, 1984:71). McLaughlin (1984:71) on the other hand, argues that there does not seem to be evidence of biological limits to second language learning. Nor is there evidence that children possess special, biologically-based language abilities that give them an advantage over adults in language learning (1984: 69).

According to Long, in order to reach a consensus on what a “sensitive period” consists of in SLA, “there must be universal and regular limits that could demarcate it” (1990:251). Although an extensive amount of research would be required to even attempt to map the various sensitive periods in SLA, Long supports the idea that maturational constraints on language development is an important criteria that should be considered in SLA practice (1990:251).

Relevance to Pedagogy

In my opinion, this means that Primary teaching of MFL is still incredibly valuable as it can help pupils gain a better pronunciation and can improve their confidence. Not to mention the likelihood of them  choosing the language once in High School.  One of the challenges – at least in Scotland- is that not all primary schools have teachers have been trained on a second language.

For Secondary School teachers this is great news!  Our pupils’ ability to read and write gives them a much more competitive advantage over the younger learners when it comes to revision and note taking. Furthermore, their (hopefully) wider knowledge of the world should help them to recognise cognates and near-cognates in the L2. However,  it does mean that teachers would have to focus more and more on pronunciation in order to counteract the transfer LINK TO GLOSSARY of accent.

Hints and Tips
  • Focus more on intonation and pronunciation- This will boost their confidence in speaking. In my Spanish classes I often do a comparison of short and long vowels. For instance, the word donkey (Burro)  as Boorow  instead of  /ˈ  
  • Dictation:  No tapes, no preparation, just you,  A blank word document and your smart board!
  • Help learners identify cognates and near cognates- This will engage their prior knowledge the world ( or increase it!)
  • Exploit their literacy- Select a few easy reading texts and spend 15 minutes of the class just reading.  As MFL teachers we always feel that reading is cop out. It is not, it is a fantastic receptive skill. Reading in the foreign language can definitely have an amazing effect.
  • Metalinguistic feedback- By this, I mean, not correcting their grammar, but giving them clues how to. i.e.  That should be a feminite plural declension, instead of… it should be “amigas fantásticas”. This is because from around 11 year of age, children are able to think about metalanguage.
  • Study skills are often our nemesis is MFL, it is sad but true, kids just don’t seem to have efficient study skills and it is down to us to teach them if we want to keep them interested in our subject.



Long, M. H. (1990, September). Maturational Constraints on Language Development. Studies in Second Language Acquisiton, 12, 251-285.

McLaughlin, B. (1984). Second Languge Acquisition in Childhood: Volume 1. Preschool Children. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Johnstone, R. (2002). Adressing ” The Age Factor”: Some Implications for Languages Policy. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.

Oyama, S. (1979, April). The Concept of the Sensitvie Period in Developmental Studies. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 25(2), 83-103.

Paradis, J. (2008). Second Language Acquisition in Childhood. In E. Hoff, & M. Shatz (Eds.), Blackwell Handbook of Language Development. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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