Introduction

The new Primary Language Curriculum marks a significant landmark in the ongoing development of the curriculum for primary schools. This introduction answers some frequently asked questions about the new Primary Language Curriculum under three headings: (i) About the new Primary Language Curriculum (ii) Using the Curriculum and Toolkit and (iii) Development and Publication.

(i) About the new Primary Language Curriculum

Who is the Primary Language Curriculum for?  

The Primary Language Curriculum is for teachers of children of all abilities in all school contexts. The school contexts for this curriculum include English-medium schools, Gaeltacht schools, Irish-medium schools and special schools. The first five sections—Introduction, Rationale, Aims, Strands and elements and, Planning, teaching and assessing for learning, are for teachers of children in all eight primary years. Section 6—English and Irish: Stages 1 and 2, is for teachers of children in the junior primary years, i.e., stage 1, which refers to junior and senior infant classes and stage 2 which refers to first and second classes. In this curriculum, ‘stage’ has replaced ‘level’ in the 1999 curriculum. This change responds to the challenge of using ‘level’ to refer both to a curriculum stage and to a child’s achievement.

What languages are included in the Primary Language Curriculum?  

This is a first language (L1) and second language (L2) curriculum for English and Irish. The L1 is determined by the language teaching and learning context of the school. The Language Curriculum is for all children in primary school including children who attend special schools or special classes attached to mainstream primary schools and children with English as L1, children with Irish as L1 and children with another language as L1. There are two versions of the curriculum: one with English as L1 which is focused specifically on English-medium schools and another one with Irish as L1 which is focused specifically on Gaeltacht schools and Irish-medium schools. The contents of the two versions are the same with three exceptions: (i) the L1 and L2 reflect the school's langugae context (ii) the Expectations for Learners at the end of each stage (i.e., Learning Outcomes and Progression Milestones) reflect the school's language context and (iii) in the version for Irish-medium schools the Progression Continua include additional features for Irish for each of the three strands. The aim of the different versions is that native speakers of English or Irish would achieve the same Learning Outcomes for the school's L1 at approximately the same rate. The L1 Learning Outcomes in the Primary Language Curriculum are organised under the same strands in both English and Irish. Support is given to the native and the non-native Irish speakers in the Learning Outcomes and Progression Continua at a level appropriate to their abilities. The curriculum supports teachers to help each child to achieve the Learning Outcomes for oral language, reading and writing.

What is the language context for the curriculum for English-medium schools?  

While English is the language of the home for the majority of children who attend English-medium schools, there are other children who speak a different language at home. The children in these schools will follow the Learning Outcomes for English as L1 and Irish as L2. Children’s engagement with Irish from the beginning of their primary education broadens their linguistic experience and deepens their cultural awareness. The curriculum recognises that for non-native speakers of Irish, experience and knowledge of Irish are important to enable children to define and express their understanding of national and cultural identity. In the same way, contact with English broadens the language experience of children with Irish as a first language (L1).  

What is the language context for the curriculum for Irish-medium schools?  

To provide a haven for Irish in the case of Gaeltacht schools and Irish-medium schools, the boards of management of the schools, following a consultation process with parents, will have the option of postponing children’s learning of English until the end of senior infants. Not all the children who attend Gaeltacht schools are native speakers of Irish. Often the native speakers in a Gaeltacht school are even in the minority. In the case of Irish-medium schools, only a very small number of the children have Irish as the language of the home. The integrated language curriculum attends to the various needs of all children, in all of these contexts. The immersion experience affords native speakers the opportunity to enrich and develop their Irish, and it affords non-native Irish speakers in Gaeltacht schools and Irish-medium schools the opportunity to immerse themselves in the language. When the learning of English begins after the period of immersion, the children will transfer many language skills from Irish to English, especially literacy skills (see section 6.1). During this time, English is not taught throughout the day in incidental ways but is confined to the discrete English lesson, to establish the target language of Irish.

Why is there a new Primary Language Curriculum?  

The last two decades have seen significant changes in Irish society. Over 200 languages as well as Cant and Irish Sign Language (ISL) are now spoken in Ireland. Curriculum reviews and research during this time have highlighted strengths and challenges of the 1999 curriculum for English and Irish. Teachers have called for a less crowded curriculum with a greater emphasis on practice and on supporting progression in children’s language learning and development. Findings have highlighted the need for a new Primary Language Curriculum which:

  • integrates English and Irish and includes all children and the language knowledge and experiences that children bring to school
  • engages teachers and learners and supports children to develop positive dispositions toward language and literacy
  • supports teachers to help children to progress in their language learning and development through the primary years
  • is more than functional; which enables children to make and explore meaning as well as receive and create it.

Research reports that inform and support curriculum development are published at www.ncca.ie/primarylanguage.

How is the new Primary Language Curriculum different from the 1999 curriculum for English and Irish?  

The structure of the Primary Language Curriculum differs from the 1999 curriculum for English and Irish in several respects (Table 1):

Table 1: Curriculum for English and Irish: 1999 and 2015

Primary English Curriculum and Primary Gaeilge Curriculum (1999)

Primary Language Curriculum (2015)

Strand

Strand unit

Element

Different strands and strand units
for English and Irish

Same strands and elements
for English and Irish

Content Objectives

269

Learning Outcomes

94

  •  

Progression Continua

Assessment advice in Guidelines

Examples of children’s language learning
in the Primary Language Toolkit (online)

Guidelines

Support Material for teachers
in the Primary Language Toolkit (online)

 

The Primary Language Curriculum is an integrated curriculum. This means that it has the same curriculum structure and the same strands for English and Irish to support integration across the two languages. The number of Learning Outcomes included in this integrated curriculum is far fewer than the number of Content Objectives in the 1999 curriculum (94 and 269, respectively). The change from Content Objectives to Learning Outcomes shifts the focus from the teacher to the child and his/her learning. For each strand—oral language, reading and writing—it includes a continuum (map) of significant Progression Milestones and detailed Progression Steps involved in children’s language learning and development. The Learning Outcomes and Progression Continua are complemented by Examples of children’s language learning to help teachers to make professional judgements about, and support children’s achievement and progression across, both languages. These Examples are presented in an online Primary Language Toolkit along with Support Material for teachers. The Primary Language Toolkit replaces the Teacher Guidelines in the 1999 curriculum. Finally, the Primary Language Curriculum incorporates the principles and methodologies of Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework (NCCA, 2009).

Why is the Primary Language Curriculum described as ‘integrated’?  

Unlike the 1999 curriculum which has a different structure, e.g., separate strands and strand units for English and Irish, this Primary Language Curriculum has the same structure and strands for both languages. This integration between languages is important for primary teachers to plan for and support children’s progression in the L1 and the L2, whether Irish or English. Children transfer certain skills and concepts from their first to their second language and to a third language in some instances. When teachers are aware of opportunities for transfer, they can reinforce these skills and help children to generalise what they have learned to other languages. In this curriculum a link symbol   is used to show where the transfer of skills occurs across the Learning Outcomes for the school’s L1 and L2. (Further information is provided in Section 6.1 - Learning Outcomes: English and Irish.) Using the same curriculum structure for both languages supports teachers to plan for and to integrate children’s language learning across English and Irish. This builds on the two types of integration described in the 1999 curriculum, i.e., integration within a curriculum subject (linkage) and across curriculum subjects, i.e., English and Irish. It recognises a third type of integration which is related to language learning across the three strands of oral language, reading and writing.

What are the strands of the Primary Language Curriculum?  

The strands represent the main areas or modes of learning in English and Irish. The Primary Language Curriculum has three strands: oral language, reading and writing. Like the 1999 curriculum, ‘the strands are not discrete areas of learning, as they overlap and interact to form a holistic learning experience for the child’ (DES, Introduction, p. 42). The connectedness of the strands is emphasised in the definition of ‘text’ to include all products of language use: oral, gesture, sign, written, visual, electronic and digital. It is important that teachers understand this definition of text to help them make sense of the Learning Outcomes and the continua.

What are the elements of the Primary Language Curriculum?  

Elements describe the essential language learning within the strands; they replace strand units in the 1999 curriculum. There are three elements:

  • Developing communicative relationships through language
  • Understanding the content and structure of language
  • Exploring and using language.

For ease of reference, the three elements can be abbreviated as follows: (i) Communicating, (ii) Understanding and (iii) Exploring and Using. Each element has a specific set of Learning Outcomes. Like the 1999 curriculum, the elements are interdependent.

How is the Primary Language Curriculum structured and presented?  

The Primary Language Curriculum and the companion Primary Language Toolkit include:

Table 2: Contents of the Primary Language Curriculum and Toolkit

Introduction

What are the key messages in the new Primary Language Curriculum?

Rationale

Why is language learning and development important in primary school?

Aims

What do we value in children’s language learning and development in primary school?

Strands and elements

What concepts, dispositions and skills are important in children’s language learning and development in stages 1 and 2 with reference to the strands and elements?

Planning, teaching and assessing for learning

What are the parts/components of the curriculum and how do these work together?

  • Learning Outcomes
  • Progression Continua
  • Examples of children’s learning and development*
  • Support Material for teachers*

Glossary

What are the important terms used to describe concepts, dispositions and skills in children’s language learning and development and how are these explained?

* Published in the Primary Language Toolkit: www.curriculumonline.ie.

What are the four interconnected parts of the curriculum?  

Section 6 of the Primary Language Curriculum, English and Irish: Stages 1 and 2, describes four interconnected components— Learning Outcomes, Progession Continua, Support Material and Examples of children’s learning and development (see Figure 1). Learning Outcomes describe the expected language learning and development for children at the end of a two-year period while the Progression Continua describe, in broad terms, milestones and steps in a child’s journey in his/her language learning and development. Support Materials include a range of practice guides, podcasts, videos and photo galleries to support teachers’ use of the Primary Language Curriculum in the school’s first and second language. The Examples of children’s learning and development have been developed by teachers and children and show children’s language learning and development across the three strands and across a range of school contexts.

 

Figure 1: The four interconnected components of the Primary Language Curriculum

 

(ii) Using the Curriculum and Toolkit

What are Learning Outcomes?  

Learning Outcomes are used to describe the expected language learning and development for children at the end of a two-year period. They replace the Content Objectives in the 1999 curriculum. Stage 1 Learning Outcomes refer to junior and senior infant classes and stage 2 Learning Outcomes are for first and second classes. Reflecting Aistear’s Learning Goals, the phrase, 'Through appropriately playful learning experiences, children should be able to...' is used to introduce all stage 1 Learning Outcomes. The curriculum acknowledges that children’s progress towards Learning Outcomes will be influenced by their varying circumstances, experiences and abilities. Given the diversity in children’s language learning and development across any class group, this Primary Language Curriculum describes children’s language learning on a continuum. The Progression Continuum supports teachers to work with children whose learning and development may progress at a different level or rate to their peers.

What are the Progression Continua and how do they work?  

There are three Progression Continua in the Primary Language Curriculum, one for each strand: oral language, reading and writing. The Progression Continua describe, in broad terms, a child’s journey in his/her language learning and development. Each child’s journey, from junior infants to second class, can be located in one of the eight Progression Milestones—important points of achievement which are further described in Progression Steps. Examples of children’s language learning and development in the Primary Language Toolkit show teachers what these Progression Milestones look like.

The Progression Continua reflect the reality that children come to school with different language experiences, are at different places in their language-learning journey, and develop at different rates, especially children with special educational needs and children in the early years of primary school. For the majority of children, their language will have been further developed through their experiences in the Free Pre-school Year. Some children beginning junior infants and having experienced pre-school education guided by Aistear, may be at Progression Milestone d in oral language while other children with a similar experience may be at Milestone b. In addition, children may be working at one Progression Milestone in oral language and at an earlier Progression Milestone in writing or reading at the same time. They will also be working at different Progression Milestones in their L1 and L2. In the case of each language and using the Progression Continua, teachers can identify the Progression Milestone for the majority of children in the class, and for children at an earlier or later point in their learning and development. The Progression Continua support teachers in using their own judgement and experience to identify where children are in their language-learning journey in L1 and in L2 and to plan appropriate learning experiences which support all children to progress in both languages.

What are Examples of children’s language learning and development?  

This online Primary Language Toolkit is a resource which includes Examples of children’s language work in L1 and L2. For each Example, four points of information are provided: the context for the learning, the relevant milestone, the Progression Steps demonstrated by the child, and the next steps in learning. Each Example links to the relevant milestone in the Progression Continua. The Examples have been developed and recorded by children and teachers in primary schools. They are presented in print, audio and video formats in the Primary Language Toolkit. The number of Examples will be increased over time to provide teachers with a rich bank of Examples to show children’s language learning and development across the three strands and across a range of school contexts.

What is the Support Material in the Primary Language Toolkit?  

In addition to the Examples described above, the Primary Language Toolkit also includes a range of Support Material for teachers to use the Primary Language Curriculum in the school’s L1 and L2. The Support Material replaces Teacher Guidelines in the 1999 curriculum. It focuses on the ‘how to’ of teaching different aspects of language learning at stages 1 and 2. Items of Support Material, grounded in research and development, are presented in Portable Document Format (PDF) and many contain supplementary videos which show practice across different learning contexts which teachers may adapt to suit their own contexts. The Primary Language Toolkit is a rich resource for supporting practice in the classroom and additional items of Support Material will be developed over time as needs and new practices are identified.

How do teachers begin to use this curriculum?  

While the language experiences of children, teachers and schools vary greatly across the different school contexts, all teachers will begin with the same starting point which involves asking, where are children at, and where are they going in their language learning and development? Teachers begin to answer this question by looking at the Learning Outcomes for the relevant stage and the Progression Milestones and Progression Steps linked to these Learning Outcomes on the Progression Continua. Teachers can use the Examples to look at evidence of children’s language learning and development in other classes/schools, each linked to the relevant Learning Outcomes and Progression Milestones. Working alone, or collaboratively with colleagues, teachers can compare the Examples with work from children in their own class(es) and in this way, identify the relevant Progression Milestone(s) for their children, and plan to support progression for all. The Support Material for teachers provides guidelines for practice. Further information on the starting point for using the Primary Language Curriculum is provided in Section 6 - English and Irish: Stages 1 and 2.

Figure 2: Starting to use the Primary Language Curriculum

 

(iii) Development and Publication

Where can I find out about the research that underpins the Primary Language Curriculum?  

Three research reports underpin the development of the Primary Language Curriculum. Two of the reports focus on oral language and literacy for children aged 3-8 years (Shiel et al, 2012; Kennedy et al, 2012). A third report discusses an integrated language curriculum for children aged 3-12 years (Kennedy et al, 2012). These full reports and their executive summaries (NCCA, 2012) and podcasts are published on the review and research webpage at www.ncca.ie/primarylanguage along with other research and development publications relevant to primary language. A report of the consultation in 2014 on a draft version of the Primary Language Curriculum is also published at www.ncca.ie/primarylanguage.

Where is the Primary Language Curriculum published?  

The Primary Language Curriculum and Primary Language Toolkit are available online at: www.curriculumonline.ie. The Primary Language Toolkit includes Support Material for teachers to guide their language planning and teaching and Examples of children’s language learning. The first five sections of the curriculum (Introduction, Rationale, Aims, Strands and elements and Planning, teaching and assessing for learning) are for teachers of children in all eight primary years. Section 6; English and Irish: Stages 1 and 2, are for teachers of children in the junior primary years.