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Language Awareness
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Exploring young learners’ foreign

language learning awareness
Carmen Muñoz
Department of English Studies, University of Barcelona, Gran Via
585, Barcelona 08007, Spain
Published online: 20 Dec 2013.

To cite this article: Carmen Muñoz (2014) Exploring young learners’ foreign language learning
awareness, Language Awareness, 23:1-2, 24-40, DOI: 10.1080/09658416.2013.863900

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Language Awareness, 2014
Vol. 23, Nos. 1–2, 24–40,

Exploring young learners’ foreign language learning awareness

Carmen Mu~

Department of English Studies, University of Barcelona, Gran Via 585, Barcelona 08007, Spain
(Received 1 January 2013; accepted 14 August 2013)

The present study explores young learners’ awareness of foreign language learning
and of their learning conditions. The participants were 76 Catalan-Spanish children
who were learning English at primary school. Both cross-sectional and longitudinal
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data were collected by means of two different interviews that contained questions
related to pupils’ views about themselves as learners, their learning of English, the
difficulty of English language learning, the classroom layout and the learning
activities with which they learnt most. Pupils’ answers showed an early awareness of
foreign language learning and learning conditions as well as the influence of the
learning environment and experience on the changes that reshaped their views as they
pass through primary education.
Keywords: language awareness; EFL; learner perceptions; language learning awareness;
young learners; awareness

While in most countries, and in a not so distant past, engaging in foreign language (FL)
learning was the consequence of a personal decision, the recent introduction of FL
instruction in primary education has made FL learning an unavoidable part of basic edu-
cation for children in many parts of the world. The progressively earlier introduction of
the FL in primary schools is well illustrated by the situation in the European Union, where
in 2011 only four countries retained a start age of 10 or 11 years, and 23 countries man-
dated an earlier start age.
Studies conducted in the young learners’ (YLs) classroom have focused on aspects
such as age-appropriate teaching methods, attitudinal and learning outcomes, and the
effects of second language (L2) learning on the first language (for surveys of FL in primary
schools in Europe see Edelenbos, Johnstone, & Kubanek, 2006; Enever, 2011; Nikolov &
Mihaljevic Djigunovic, 2011). But there are many aspects of such an early start that are
not yet well known. As in the case of the first language (see Sealey, 1996), research into
children’s development of consciousness about language and language learning lags
behind. For example, to what extent are YLs aware of the learning processes in which they
engage, of their own skills as learners, or of the conditions that are favourable for their FL
A simple survey of the Language Awareness journal shows that only seven out of the
73 papers published in the period of 2.5 years (between the start of 2009 and May 2012)
are concerned with YLs. If this proportion is representative of the relevant journals gener-
ally, there may be several contributing reasons. First of all, research in YLs may still be
very much concerned with aspects such as the implementation of the curriculum and age-
appropriate teaching methods, as well as attitudinal and learning outcomes, as noted


Ó 2013 Taylor & Francis

Language Awareness 25

above. In addition, researchers may fear that even if young children are conscious of
something, they may not be able to express that conscious awareness clearly. However,
knowledge of children’s language awareness may be considered essential for the teacher
since, as Andrews (2007) remarks, teacher language awareness requires ‘an awareness of
language from the learner’s perspective’ (p. 29).

Earlier research into children’s views about FL learning

Not many studies have looked into children’s viewpoints of learning a FL, and even fewer
have explored the L2 or FL learning experience from the perspective of very young chil-
dren (pre-school). These have mainly focused on aspects such as children’s participation
in and enjoyment of the experience (e.g. Elvin, Maggero, & Simonsen, 2007; Pelletier,
1998). Also, a few studies have pointed out that from a very early age ‘children are
knowledgeable about their learning environment’ (Hsieh, 2011, p. 256; see also Clark &
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Moss, 2005; Einarsdottir, 2005). In her study, Hsieh (2011) aimed at providing an under-
standing of children’s experiences in an English programme in a Taiwanese kindergarten
in relation to the instructional practices and expectations of adults. Three 5- to 6-year-old
children were observed in class and interviewed. The opinions expressed about learning
English in the interviews and drawings were categorised into three themes: (1) learning
English is fun, but challenging; (2) I know what I do in English classes; (3) but, I know
little about what I learned. Hsieh concludes that future studies should compare children’s
experiences of learning English through different instructional practices.
Primary school children’s viewpoints of learning a FL reflect their more mature cog-
nitive development and personality. Klatter, Lodewijks, and Aarnoutse (2001) found that
sixth graders in The Netherlands held relatively precise beliefs that regarded different
aspects of learning: purpose of school; learning orientation; regulation; learning demands;
and mental activities. In a longitudinal study of six 7- to 9-year-old children in Finland,
Alanen (2003) observed the progress from other-regulation to self-regulation of young FL
learners as they started drawing upon their own experience rather than appropriating signif-
icant others’ utterances. The study also highlighted the importance of other people’s opin-
ions and pupils’ previous language learning experiences on the formation of their beliefs.
Within the same research project, the study by Aro (2009) with 7-, 10-, and 12-year-olds
observed the influence of the school and societal context in children’s beliefs as well as
increasing expressions of agency as children grew older. With a more specific concern
with learners’ awareness, Kolb’s (2007) study indicated that 8- to 9-year-old German pupils
who had been studying English for three years were fairly aware of their learning process
and held clear beliefs about FL learning which influenced their behaviour in class and their
choice of learning strategies. According to Kolb, these pupils’ beliefs were similar to those
held by adults; they referred to learning through collecting words, imitation and reproduc-
tion, understanding language, speaking, and acting in and through the language. These
beliefs were grouped into two main areas: beliefs about language learning and language as
an object of learning, and beliefs about the nature of language and language learning.
The study reported in this paper focused on primary school children’s viewpoints
concerning themselves as learners, the learning processes in which they engage when learn-
ing a FL, and the conditions that are favourable for their learning. The work is situated in
the field of language awareness through its concern with ‘conscious perception and sensi-
tivity in language learning’ (Constitution of the Association for Language Awareness,
1994, cited in Garrett and Cots, 2013). By means of this exploration, the paper aims to con-
tribute to filling the gap concerning YLs in the area of FL learning awareness.
26 C. Mu~

The present study

This study brings together cross-sectional and longitudinal data from two data sets that
were collected with the common aim of looking into YLs’ FL learning. The first data set
was cross-sectional and it focused on the exploration of children’s awareness of language
and of language learning by means of an interview specifically developed for this aim:
the language and language learning awareness (LLLA) interview.1 The second data set
came from a longitudinal study that followed primary school children from first to sixth
grade (sixth graders were included in the cross-sectional sample above as well), the
English language learning in Catalonia (ELLiC) study. These data were also collected by
means of an interview with learners that focused on FL learners’ perceptions of the learn-
ing experience. The ELLiC study originated as part of a larger cross-country comparison
study, the ELLiE (Early Language Learning in Europe) project, which during three years
followed groups of primary school pupils from seven European countries (Croatia, Eng-
land, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and The Netherlands) (see Enever, 2011). These chil-
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dren were learning English in all countries except in England where the target languages
were French or Spanish.
With the aim of exploring YLs’ awareness of FL learning, the present paper assem-
bles pupils’ responses to five questions from the two interviews and data sets. These five
questions can be related to the three spheres of learner belief that were identified by Ben-
son and Lor (1999) as significant for language learning: beliefs about themselves as learn-
ers (1 below), about language learning (2a and 2b below), and about the learning situation
(3a and 3b below):

(1) Themselves as learners

(2) Language and language learning
a. Their learning of English
b. The difficulty of English language learning
(3) The conditions for English language learning
a. The classroom
b. Learning activities

Barcelos (2003) notes that learners’ beliefs have been studied through three main per-
spectives: the normative and metacognitive, which tend to see beliefs as relatively stable
and enduring, and the contextual, which places greater focus on the socioculturally con-
structed nature of individuals’ learning beliefs, and so is particularly interested in their
variability across and within contexts. The contextual or sociocultural approach charac-
terises most recent research on beliefs, which tends to focus on how beliefs develop, the
interaction between beliefs and actions, and how they become appropriated and negoti-
ated in interaction with significant others (Barcelos & Kalaja, 2011). While the present
study does not set its lens for the close-up examination changes at the level of individuals,
it does look for changes in beliefs, or more generally changes in children’s views, as they
pass through their primary school years.

The participants in the cross-sectional study were 24 pupils in third grade (8- to 9-year-olds)
and 50 pupils in sixth grade (11- to 12-year-olds), that is, 74 in total. One school was the
source of all the third graders (12 girls and 12 boys) and 22 of the 50 sixth graders (10 girls
Language Awareness 27

and 12 boys). The 28 remaining sixth graders came from five different schools involved in
the longitudinal study (13 girls and 15 boys). All six participating primary schools were reg-
ular state schools in the greater Barcelona area.
The participants were all bilingual Catalan-Spanish. Catalan is the language of educa-
tion in schools in Catalonia and it is also used widely in the community and by many of
the children’s families, whereas Spanish is the majority language also used widely in the
community and by the children’s families. Some of the children had started learning
English before primary education, either in pre-school in the case of one of the participant
schools, or outside the school.

Data for the two databases were collected by means of one-to-one oral interviews in
Catalan or Spanish, depending on participants’ preferences. As seen above, the LLLA
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interview was specifically designed to explore YLs’ awareness and the second interview
was used in the longitudinal study mentioned above in order to gather information about
YLs’ perceptions of their learning experience all through primary education. Table 1
shows the questions analysed and the number and level of participants who responded.
The analysis of the interview answers also benefits from a very close knowledge of the
learners, who had been extensively studied during the six years of primary education; of
their teachers (and principals), who had been interviewed every year; of the lessons, that
had been periodically observed in the six-year-long period; and of their larger context,
through the answers of their parents to questionnaires administered twice in that period.
The questions themselves, each with their rationale, are as follows (numbered as

(1) Do you think you learn English as fast as other children in class, or faster, or
slower? How do you know? (ELLiE)

Self-beliefs have been recognised as central in successful language learning (e.g.

D€ornyei, 2005), and yet studies focusing on the nature and development of learners’ self-
beliefs specifically in the domain of FL learning remain scarce (see Mercer, 2011). Even
fewer studies have asked primary school pupils to reflect about themselves as FL learners,
and findings are mixed. For example, Harris and Conway (2002) found that the majority
of Irish primary pupils do not consider themselves better than most pupils in class. In con-
trast, the majority of English primary students in the study by Cable and colleagues
(2010) considered themselves good at languages. It is clear that the question itself (better
than or simply good), as well as individual factors (e.g. age and gender) and contextual
variables (cultural tradition, teaching method, and learning conditions) can influence

Table 1. Interview questions analysed.

Interview Interview questions Participant grades (N)

Language learning and 2a, 2b, 3b Longitudinal Cross-sectional

language awareness
6 (28N) 3 (24), 6 (22)
ELLiE 1, 3a 2 (36), 4 (36), 6 (28) –

A closed question followed by an open question about reasons for choice.
28 C. Mu~

learners’ reported self-perceptions (Blondin et al., 1998; Mihaljevic Djigunovic, 2009). In

the study reported here, learners were asked to compare themselves to their classmates in
terms of their pace of learning, and asked how they were able to make that judgement.

(2a) What does learning English mean to you? (LLLA)

As seen above, Kolb (2007) showed that 8- to 9-year-old German pupils who had been
studying English for three years were fairly aware of their learning process. The third
graders in the present study were also 8- to 9-year-olds and had also been studying
English for a minimum of three years, whereas sixth graders were 11- to 12-year-olds and
had been studying English for a minimum of six years. Differences between these two
groups may be expected in their conception of FL learning on the basis of their respective
age and learning experience.
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(2b) What do you think is most difficult about English? (LLLA)

While YLs are often asked whether they find the FL easy, difficult or fun (e.g.
Mihaljevic Djigunovic & Lopriore, 2011), a more challenging question for them is to
identify what it is they find most difficult in the language learning task. This may inform
us of how aware they are of what is difficult or easy to learn in the target language, which
involves language learning awareness as well as language awareness.

(3a) In which of these classrooms would you learn English best? Why? (ELLiE)

A number of authors have examined YLs’ views about what learning and teaching should
be and what roles learners and teachers should play in an FL classroom (e.g. Halliwell, 1992;
Pinter, 2009). According to the findings from the ELLiE longitudinal study, this awareness
begins very early and evolves with children’s growing cognitive maturity and accumulated
learning experience (see Mihaljevic Djigunovic & Lopriore, 2011). Hence, in this study,
learners were asked to look at four pictures of FL/English classes, and to say in which of
these they would learn the FL/English best, after which they were asked to explain why. The
first picture presented a traditional row-and-column classroom where the teacher seemed to
be in control. The second showed a classroom in which pupils were working in groups. The
third showed all the pupils sitting in a circle together with the teacher. The fourth displayed a
class in which learners were doing different things, most obviously playing or messing
around, though some learners were also trying to work, while the teacher was observing and
seemingly not in control.

(3b) What English class activities help you learn most? Why? (LLLA)

Question 3b elicited YLs’ judgements of the learning value of the different class
activities they engage in, since these are an important component of their learning con-
text, and were then asked to explain their answer. Research has shown that YLs enjoy the
playful activities they engage with in the FL classroom (e.g. Nikolov, 1999). In addition,
several studies have explored and compared the activities pupils enjoy and the activities
that are more frequent in class, indicating a discrepancy between the most frequently
used activities and the most enjoyable ones (Harris & O’Leary, 2009; Nikolov, 2009).
However, we do not know the extent to which young students are aware of how much
they learn through the different activities in class. Lyster (1998) asked grade 8 students
Language Awareness 29

from French immersion classes to rate various activities and their ratings for Learning did
not always match their ratings for Interest. For example, students indicated that they had
learned the most from the structural exercises that required them to provide correctly con-
jugated verb forms out of context, and their comments indicated that they dissociated
learning from having fun.

Qualitative and quantitative approaches were used to examine the data collected for the
current study. Interviews were audiotape-recorded and transcribed verbatim. Answers to
the open questions were analysed using inductive content analysis where coding catego-
ries are derived directly from the data. For each open question two independent research-
ers read all the learners’ answers separately first. Then, they read them a second time
giving a provisional code or codes to each answer and attempting to limit these develop-
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ing codes as much as possible. When the two researchers reconciled any differences on
their initial checklists, they went back separately to read the answers again and recode
some of them following the consolidated checklist. The cycle was repeated until they
were satisfied that all the data fitted into an existing code (Gibson & Brown, 2009).2
Some codes were combined during the process (e.g. 3b), whereas others were split into
sub-categories (e.g. in 2a). In the instances in which pupils’ responses included more than
one argument, each of them was coded under the corresponding category. The descriptive
quantitative analysis consisted in counting the number of cases in each category sepa-
rately per grade and calculating frequency percentages. The frequency of the responses
corresponded quite approximately to the number of students in each group, although sixth
graders provided slightly more complex answers containing more than one argument.

Results and discussion

In this section, the responses to the five questions posed to the pupils are analysed and dis-
cussed in the light of previous research.

(1) Do you think you learn English as fast as other children in class, or faster or
slower? How do you know?

Pupils in the longitudinal sample answered these questions at the end of each school
year all through primary education. Table 2 displays the frequencies of each type of
answer for grades 2, 4, and 6, showing the evolution through primary education.
According to these data, while children in grade 2, and even more in grade 4, tend to
evaluate themselves as similar to their classmates, the frequency of this answer dimin-
ishes in grade 6. In contrast, the frequency of those who perceive themselves to be faster
than other pupils in class increases from grade 2 through grade 6, and the frequency of

Table 2. Evolution of learners’ views of themselves (longitudinal data set).

Grade 2 (n ¼ 29) Grade 4 (n ¼ 30) Grade 6 (n ¼ 27)

Faster 17.2% 23.3% 44.4%

Same 58.6% 66.7% 40.7%
Slower 24.1% 10.0% 14.8%
30 C. Mu~

those who perceive themselves as slow relative to their peers is lower in grade 6 than in
grade 2. What is important here is not so much the relative percentage of each category,
since some of the children in the sample were actually among the better pupils in their
class, but their changing, more accurate, perception from feeling the same to feeling
Figure 1 shows how the reasons and the sources of information on the basis of which
students judge their views about themselves as learners have changed over time.
Reasons mostly refer to the pupils’ performance in class, as in examples (1) and (3)
below. In grade 2, pupils also seem to pay a lot of attention to external support. In general,
those learners who take extracurricular lessons give prominence to this reason for being
faster than most of their classmates, as in example (2), which also shows this pupil’s
awareness of the importance of out-of-school contact with English. An evolution is
observed also in grade 6 in that pupils pay increasing notice to school grades, no doubt on
the basis of their school experience. This is exemplified in example (3), which also offers
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an insightful observation of pupils’ behaviour in class.

(1) perque hi ha nens mes llestos perque saben tot el que pregunten (Cat/6)3

because there are children who are more clever than me. . . because they know all the

(2) hi ha alguns que van molt pitjor, hi ha alguns que van molt be, una mica millor
que jo, perque s
on de fora i alla practiquen molt angles, pero jo crec que vaig lo nor-
mal, o una mica millor, com que vaig a l’academia fora (Cat/6)

some are doing much worse, some are doing very well, a bit better than me, because they
come from abroad and there they practice a lot of English, but I am doing okey or a bit bet-
ter because I take classes outside the school.

(3) a l’hora de les notes, i del comportament perque sempre et portes millor si vols
aprendre que si no vols aprendre (Cat/6)

because of the marks, and the behaviour in class because you always behave better if you
want to learn than if you don’t want to learn

In sum, the analyses seem to indicate that children attune their views and differentiate
themselves from the others further as they grow older and gain experience as school
learners. This evolution continues through adolescence, as seen in the study of early

Figure 1. Reasons for learners’ views.

Language Awareness 31

adolescent language learners in England by Williams and Burden (1999). These authors
observed how students emphasised both their own perceptions of their success and the
perceptions of their instructors and classmates as influences on their own impressions. In
other words, they formed their conceptions of themselves as language learners through
the interplay between the environment and the learner (see Wesely, 2012)

(2a) What does learning English mean to you?

This open question elicited a variety of answers which were identified as belonging to
four different categories, following an iterative process. The first category grouped
together answers referring to the process of learning itself, and they could be considered
the most direct reply to the question posed. As seen in Table 3, answers in this category
alluded to learning a FL as studying, acquiring or increasing knowledge, and also in a
few cases to being helped by the teacher to know English or to parental influence (only
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third graders). The second category comprises answers that did not refer to the process of
learning but to the language as an object of learning; these replies highlight that English
or the FL is a new language (to add to their language repertoire). The third category
grouped together replies that referred directly to English, its importance in the world and
its wide use for international communication and for travel, as well as the convenience of
having English for future grown-up jobs. These answers do not include any reference to
the process of language learning, focusing on the value of English itself as a language to
learn. Finally, the fourth category contained answers that directly qualified the English
class or learning activities, providing comments about their interest or difficulty. These
answers assimilate learning English to the school subject and classroom activities. Some-
times learners’ answers contained more than one argument and they were classified under
their respective categories.
The comparison of percentages in the different categories in Table 3 shows some dif-
ferences in the answers by third and sixth graders. One of them is the relatively higher fre-
quency with which third graders refer to teacher and parents in their reply (see excerpts
(4) and (5)), and the decrease among sixth graders, which seems to indicate an increase in
personal involvement in their learning and self-regulation with age and experience.

Table 3. Views about English language learning (cross-sectional data set).

Categories Grade 3 (n ¼ 41) Grade 6 (n ¼ 110)

(1) What the process of learning a FL is like

Studying/acquiring/increasing knowledge 21% 14%
Adults’ help or influence 7% 1%
(2) What a FL is
A new language 15% 17%
(3) What English is
Important 7% 13%
Use for international communication, for travel 20% 27%
Use for future employment 5% 5%
(4) Evaluation of English learning activities/class
Qualifier 23% 16%
Other 2% 7%

Total number of arguments.
32 C. Mu~

(4) aprendre es que no saps una cosa i el profes t’ensenyen (Cat/3)

to learn is that you don’t know something and the teachers teach you

(5) para mı aprender ingles es mucho porque si me hacen ir a Inglaterra pues si me
hablan en ingles pues se hablar ingles y les contestare (Sp/3)

to me learning English is a lot because if they make me go to England, if they talk to me in

English, I know how to speak English and will answer them

Also less frequent in grade 6 are answers that evaluate learning activities or the
English class, as in the following answer by a third grader.

(6) a mı me gusta es un poco difıcil y es un poco divertido (Sp/3)

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I like it, it’s a little difficult and a little fun

In contrast, answers referring to the international role of English and its importance
increase in sixth grade. The utilitarian motive of learning English or a new language for a
future job is present from grade 3 and shows the same frequency in grade 6, as in the fol-
lowing answer of a sixth grader.

(7) aprendre una nova llengua, aprendre altres idiomes. . . i aprendre i saber mes idi-
omes per quan sigui gran poder trobar treball (Cat/6)

learning a new language, learning other languages. . . and learning and knowing more lan-
guages so that when I grow up I can find a job

In sum, the comparison between the answers by 8- to 9-year-olds and 11- to 12-year-
olds indicates that there is a development in self-regulation (i.e. teachers and parents
become less visible; see Alanen, 2003; Nikolov, 1999). Also significant is the decrease in
the frequency with which older pupils refer to the learning activities that take place in the
school, to shift the focus to the use of English outside the school for international commu-
nication and for travel. This move seems parallel to the changes in motivational orienta-
tions towards English that have been recorded by motivation studies from more intrinsic
to more extrinsic or instrumental (e.g. Tragant, 2006). Utilitarian motives were also higher
among students in grades 6–8 than among younger pupils in the study by Nikolov (1999) in
Hungary, resulting very much from very strong family pressure. However, more recent stud-
ies with YLs of English are finding that the requirements of the particular educational sys-
tems – and possibly the ever growing importance of English as a lingua franca – motivate
an earlier strong instrumental orientation (e.g. see the study in Hungary by Nagy, 2009)

(2b) What do you think is most difficult about English?

Table 4 shows the proportions of types of answers given by the learners from grade
3 and from grade 6, respectively. As for the previous question, learners’ answers could pro-
vide more than one argument (e.g. a student could find spelling and pronunciation difficult).
Beginning with the third graders, it is notable that half of their answers seem to be
triggered by the problems they have with English spelling and with its lack of transpar-
ency, as in the following example.
Language Awareness 33

Table 4. Most difficult to learn in English (cross-sectional data set).

Categories Grade 3 (n ¼ 28) Grade 6 (n ¼ 60)

Spelling/lack of transparency 50% 32%

Vocabulary 18% 14%
Pronunciation 14% 9%
Syntax 14% 20%
Morphology – 23%
Self-expression 4% –
Reading – 2%

Total number of arguments.

(8) las palabras como se pronuncian, se escribe de una forma y se dice de otra (Sp/3)
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words, how they are pronounced, you write them in one way and you pronounce them in
another way

These problems have not disappeared in grade 6 and represent 32% of responses.
While vocabulary and pronunciation problems seem less frequent in grade 6, these learn-
ers often refer to morphological (-ed morpheme) and syntactic complexities of the target
language that are included in the curriculum in grade 6 (a total of 43%). The following is
an illustration from a sixth grader.

(9) les frases, hi ha algunes paraules que jo se, pero aixo d’ajuntar-les per fer la frase . . .
o de muntar la frase, en canvi en catala ara estic muntant una frase pero en angles no
es pot (Cat/6)

sentences, there are some words I know, but to put them together to make the sentence . . .
in contrast in Catalan now I am putting together a sentence but in English it is not possible

The decrease in references to vocabulary and pronunciation difficulties with grade and
the increase in more grammatical types of concern seem to correspond to the progress in
the curriculum during primary education. Such progress is reflected in the increasing
attention paid to grammar by grade 6 teachers, as documented in the observation of those
classes and the teachers’ answers to the interview as well. Problems with word combina-
tion, as in the example above, are very vividly expressed in the data and reflect the long
struggle of learners to progress beyond the word level in an input-limited setting deprived
of significant contact with the target language.
Another interesting finding is the very high frequency with which learners reported diffi-
culties with spelling and the lack of transparency of English, which appears as an early con-
cern for these English language learners. Although rather unexpected here, this is an issue of
great concern for educators of English-speaking children. The difficulties encountered by the
latter are highlighted by Hawkins (1984, p. 118) in his comment that it takes English-speak-
ing children, on average, one or two years longer to learn to read than it takes speakers of
the other European languages which use the Roman alphabet. As Hawkins remarks, ‘(i)n
alphabetic writing the learner has to make a complex matching of grapheme to phoneme, par-
ticularly complex in English as compared with Spanish’. This complex matching calls for a
certain level of ‘linguistic awareness’: an ‘ability to recognise the patterned nature of speech,
to which the match of the written forms must be made’ (1984, p. 83).
34 C. Mu~

For YLs of English as a FL, the task seems even harder, since they need to learn the
meaning together with the pronunciation, spelling, and written form of each word. Begin-
ner FL learners cannot even benefit from the advantage which, according to Hawkins
(1984, p. 118), a good knowledge of the spoken language may grant to English speakers,
enabling them to build an awareness of the patterned nature of the language. Moreover,
the contrast between the shallow orthography of the learners’ first language/s, Spanish
and Catalan, and the deep orthography of English makes the difference even more accen-
tuated (see also Nagy, 2009, in relation to Hungarian learners of English and Cable et al.,
2010, p. 126, for English learners of Spanish and French). Going from a less demanding
orthography into a more demanding one, Spanish-Catalan learners of English need to
become aware that there is less one-to-one mapping of phonemes and graphemes in
English than in Spanish (see Marcos Miguel, 2012). But L2 proficiency is also a key
factor in developing grapho-morphological awareness, so that the more proficient L2
learners are, the more aware they are of the new system (Kuo & Andersen, 2006; Marcos
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Miguel, 2012).
Arguably, the fact that these YLs highlight spelling difficulties at this early stage may
be a reflection of the type of attention paid to written accuracy in these classrooms, which
may not be appropriate at this age and proficiency level. This seems to indicate a need for
school teachers of English as a FL to be trained to develop learners’ grapho-morphologi-
cal awareness and to be aware of the timing for that.

(2a) In which of these classrooms would you learn English best? Why?

The analyses conducted on the longitudinal data set showed a number of interesting
findings. First of all, it was seen that even the youngest children were able to express their
preference for one of the four pictures. Second, it was observed that the traditional
arrangement was preferred by children in all grades, as in example 10 (see Table 5).

(10) (la professora) t’explica el que tenim que saber, despres practicarıem i mes o
menys ja ens ho sabrıem (Cat/6)

(the teacher) explains what we need to know, then we would practice it and then we would
know it more or less

This choice was strongly influenced by their own experience, since their classes were
mostly teacher-centred and hence it was important to be able to see the blackboard (or the
interactive whiteboard) and hear the teacher. Also, it may have been reinforced by the
experience of teacher classroom management difficulties, most obvious when children do
not sit orderly in class. For example, one of the students rejected the group work arrange-
ment because though it was ‘fine’, he ‘would talk to his classmates’. On the other hand,
most answers favourable to the group work layout came from one school where the pupils

Table 5. Preferred seating arrangements (longitudinal data set).

Grade 2 (n ¼ 29) Grade 4 (n ¼ 30) Grade 6 (n ¼ 28)

Traditional 65.5% 80% 68.9%

Group work 24.1% 6.7% 24.1%
Circle 6.9% 13.3% 6.9%
Play 3.4% 0% 0%
Language Awareness 35

Table 6. Most frequent reasons for preference.

Categories Grade 2 (n ¼ 44) Grade 4 (n ¼ 43) Grade 6 (n ¼ 60)

Student engagement 35.3% 28.4% 25%

Teacher’s role 24.3% 19.1% 23.3%
Sitting with classmates &/or interacting 6.9% 18.4% 15%
Discipline and classroom climate 11.3% 9.6% 10%
Other 22.2% 24.5% 26.6%

Total number of arguments.

had frequently worked in groups, as noticed in the lesson observations. Likewise, the
analysis of the data from the ELLiE project showed that children’s preferences were
clearly influenced by their own learning experience in their particular educational system
(see Buzatu, 2011; Sevillano, 2011).
Another interesting finding is that children could clearly explain the reasons for their
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choice, which revealed what they perceived as contributing to their learning success.
Table 6 shows the frequencies of the more common answer categories among second,
fourth, and sixth graders, and it indicates that the Student engagement category main-
tained the highest frequency, followed closely by Teacher’s role in grade 6. Sitting with
classmates and interacting increased in frequency from grade 2 to grade 4. Student
engagement and Teacher’s role were very often mentioned together as in example 11.

(11) Tots estan atents i escoltant i la professora esta explicant (Cat/6)

They are all attentive and listening and the teacher is explaining (the lesson).

In sum, the impact of the learning experience on learners’ views about the most con-
venient classroom arrangement is notable, since the reasons given for the choice in each
case are illustrative of their school learning experience. From very early on the school
experience these learners have seems to help them build a conception of learning along
traditional teacher-centred lines (shown also by the pupils from six other European
schools in the ELLiE study; see Mihaljevic Djigunovic & Lopriore, 2011).

(2b) What English class activities help you learn most? Why?

Table 7. Activities that help pupils learn most.

Types of activities Grade 3 (n ¼ 33) Grade 6 (n ¼ 78)

(1) Vocabulary 39.4% 21.8%

(2) Form-focused 0 17.9%
(3) Listening 3% 7.7%
(4) Reading 6% 3.8%
(5) Writing 9% 5.1%
(6) Speaking 9% 14.1%
(7) Practice and evaluation related 3% 2.6%
(8) Games 6% 3.8%
(9) Songs 3% 5.1%
(10) Activity book exercises 3% 5.1%
(11) Translation 9% 5.1%
(12) Memorisation 3% 3.8%
No answer 6% 2.6%

Total number of arguments.
36 C. Mu~

A first analysis of the answers to the first open question yielded 12 different categories,
which were later grouped into three sets: language focus (1–2), language skills (3–6), and
activity types (7–12) (see Table 7). These were not mutually exclusive, and sometimes
answers referred to both a language component and an activity type proper, as for example
a vocabulary game.
A few differences can be observed between the choices made by third graders and
sixth graders. To begin with, the importance of vocabulary activities is greater for the former
than for the latter (see (12) below). While vocabulary activities are still the most frequently
mentioned type of activity in grade 6, form-focused activities are now mentioned often as
well (see (13) below). Interestingly, when games are mentioned by sixth graders (on four
occasions) they target grammatical elements as well (see 14 below). Grade 6 pupils also
mention speaking activities with high frequency.

(12) ahora estamos estudiando los deportes, como por ejemplo, el tenis, el futbol,
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correr, ir en bici (Sp/3)

now we are learning sports, as for example, tennis, football, running, cycling

(13) hay un ejercicio que tienes que poner las palabras en pasado, y eso para mı es
aprender porque me sirve para estudiar (Sp/6)

there’s an exercise that you have to put the verbs in the past, and for me that’s learning
because it helps me study

(14) la professora ens tira la pilota i hem de dir rapidament un verb en passat (Cat/6)

the teacher throws the ball at (one of) us and we have to come quickly with a verb in the past

It is interesting to note that the choice of activities with which they learnt the most
does not necessarily match the choice of activities learners enjoyed most. This contrast
could be made with the data from 28 child participants in the longitudinal study since
they were asked the two questions in grade 6 (with an interval of six months in between).
The analysis of the two sets of answers indicates that they most enjoyed games, songs,
listening and speaking activities, in this order. In contrast, they learned most from vocab-
ulary, form-focused, speaking and listening activities. This mismatch – as in grade 8
learners in Lyster’s (1998) study – reflects an early awareness of learning processes and
the conditions that favour them.
In sum, the emphasis on vocabulary activities by these YLs seems to indicate a per-
ception of learning through collecting words (Kolb, 2007), so that learning more words
equals learning ‘more’ English. However, by the end of primary education pupils identify
form-focused activities as good for their learning (though they do not seem to enjoy them
so much). The reasons that were given for these answers point to two aspects of form-
focused activities that are considered positive by children. First, as seen in the first exam-
ple above, there may be a realisation of the importance of formal issues that results from
a washback effect of exams. Second, these activities help students focus their attention
explicitly on form and this may result in uptake. An interesting finding is also the contrast
between listening and speaking activities: learners enjoy listening activities but find that
they learn more from activities that require speaking. This may indicate that learners find
it easier to become aware of their learning when they are challenged by an oral productive
Language Awareness 37

activity. As noted by Swain in her Output Hypothesis (e.g. 1995), output can provide
learners with opportunities to test hypothesis about the target language. Hypothesis test-
ing may be seen as originating in as well as reinforcing their learning awareness. Learners
can also build fluency through output practice, of which they can easily be aware.

Summary and conclusion

In this exploratory study, YLs’ voices have conveyed insightful information concerning
their views about different aspects and dimensions of FL learning. In relation to their
views about themselves as learners, children have shown us that they are able to compare
themselves to their classmates from the beginning of primary education. But the analysis
of their evolution has also indicated that as they grow older pupils increasingly differenti-
ate themselves from their peers on the basis of their school experience; they are fully
aware of factors such as classroom participation and behaviour and of the importance of
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As regards their views about English language learning, we have observed a transition
towards self-regulation with cognitive maturity and a shift of focus from the classroom to
the role of English as an international language. When asked about the major difficulties
in learning English, children have highlighted the lack of transparency of English orthog-
raphy, which stands in contrast to these children’s first languages. By the end of primary
education these pupils have also become aware of the difficulty in going beyond isolated
words and building sentences, at the time when English language learning ceases to be
mostly fun to become an academic challenge in this FL setting with little real contact
with the language.
These YLs have also shown an early awareness of the conditions that help them learn
English, of classroom management issues and of learning-effective activities. They have
increasingly chosen the traditional classroom configuration, no doubt on the basis of the
experience accumulated over time. They have moved from mostly choosing activities
with a focus on learning vocabulary to appreciating activities focused on form and oral
production as positive for their learning.
In sum, this study has shown us that from very early on learners construct their own
views about FL learning and that these are influenced by their personal development,
school experience, and also the attitudes of parents and teachers and the community at
large. In that sense, these views, like older learners’ beliefs, seem to be emergent,
dynamic and context-dependent (Barcelos, 2003; Barcelos & Kalaja, 2011).
To finish, the contribution of this study is twofold. First, the study has examined an
age group that is under-researched both in the area of learner beliefs (see Wesely, 2012)
and in the area of FL learning awareness, and the partially longitudinal nature of the study
has allowed us to see the evolution of YLs’ views and of their increasing FL learning
awareness. Second, children’s voices have pointed out areas for reflection in relation to
FL teaching in these primary schools. For example, these YLs have told us that their
learning experience does not differ greatly from that of older learners (i.e. spelling accu-
racy) or from their experience learning a content subject (i.e. ‘the teacher explains what
we have to learn’), which seems to reveal that the school is not taking into consideration
YLs’ distinctive characteristics (see Mu~ noz, 2007). In other words, these primary schools
are not adapting their teaching to YLs, for example, by taking advantage of their potential
for learning in communicatively oriented classrooms. The study also has some limita-
tions. First of all, the relatively small size and lack of random sampling of the schools lim-
its the generalisability of the results even in the wider context of its own educational
38 C. Mu~

system. In addition, the design of the study and the young age of the participants did not
allow very in-depth insights into the dynamic and contextual nature of individuals’ beliefs
(see, e.g. Gao & Ma, 2011; Kalaja & Barcelos, 2011; Kalaja & Barcelos, 2003; Kramsch,
2003). Further research in both directions seems necessary.
The study has also suggested future avenues for research. First, because the YLs in
this study are early bilinguals learning a third language, further research with monolin-
gual children learning an additional language may reveal differences in metalinguistic
awareness of bilingual and monolingual learners. Second, while some of the findings in this
study may be expected to be common to the experience of learning an additional language
and some may be argued to be specific to the FL setting in which these children are learning
English, some other findings seem specific to the target language, English, and its role as an
international language. Comparative research that includes other FLs will be able to reveal
that which is common to any FL learning and that which is specific to English.
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The research reported here was supported by grants FFI2010-21478, SGR137-36820, and ICREA
Academia. The ELLiE project was supported by a European Commission grant (135632-LLP-
2007-UK-KA1SCR) and a British Council grant. My thanks go especially to Elsa Tragant for her
insightful collaboration on the project. My deep appreciations are also for the ELLiE team and
Colleen Hamilton, as well as the pupils and the teachers in the schools. Two anonymous reviewers
and the editors provided helpful and detailed comments on earlier versions of this paper.

1. The LLLA interview can be found in the address:
instruments.html. The whole ELLiE interview from which two of the questions were analyzed
here can be found at
2. An example of a code (Q.2a.: What does learning English mean to you?)
Code: Fun
Pupil: una cosa guai (FUN)
Something cool
3. Learners’ utterances are presented in the original language, Catalan (Cat) or Spanish (Sp), and
their English translation. The code reads: language/grade.

Notes on contributor
Carmen Mu~noz is professor of English Applied Linguistics at the University of Barcelona where she
coordinates the GRAL research group. Her research interests include the age factor, individual dif-
ferences, and instructed foreign language learning. Her work has appeared in journals such as
Applied Linguistics, Language Awareness, Language Learning, and Language Teaching.

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