Rationale

Language learning enables children to understand the world around them and to communicate effectively with others. Communication takes many forms, from the non-verbal and verbal to print-based and digital texts. Through interacting with adults in the social environment, children are initiated into, and engage in, communicative relationships through which they come to understand, interpret, construct meaning and critically appreciate the communication of others. Language enables children to engage emotionally, socially, cognitively, imaginatively and aesthetically in relationships and cultural experiences. It empowers children to develop their thinking, expression, reflection, critique and empathy, and it supports the development of self-efficacy, identity and full participation in society.

Language shapes who we are  

Language is central to how and what we learn. It is the primary medium through which new learning is acquired and assimilated. It plays a vital part in the expansion of the child’s conceptual framework and growth of the child’s conceptual knowledge, dispositions and skills. Language is our chief means of intrapersonal and interpersonal communication and is key to the development of the child as a person. Each curriculum area has its own particular language or languages, therefore every lesson is a language lesson in itself. Access to knowledge within the curriculum requires that children understand and use increasingly complex language at each class level within primary school. Effective language concepts, dispositions and skills are therefore crucial to both living and learning.

Language learning is a developmental process  

Language learning is a developmental process in which each child engages at his/her own individual rate. From birth, children progress at differing rates along a continuum of learning and development. The range of abilities children bring to language-learning tasks and the influence of their environment, their homes and their early years experiences, contribute to the variation in children’s rates of progress in language learning. Children’s language develops through communicating; by giving, receiving and making sense of information. For teachers, it is important to recognise children’s individual, inherent abilities and needs and their early experience of language when establishing a starting point for further language development.

Language learning is an integrated process  

Learning languages at home, in early years settings, in school or in community settings enables children to extend their linguistic experiences and to deepen their understanding of and connection with culture and heritage. Languages by their nature are interconnected. Developing skills in one language will help children to develop similar skills in another language provided they have adequate exposure to the language, and adequate motivation and opportunities to engage with the language. An explicit focus on integration between languages enables children to make cross-lingual connections and develop an awareness of how language works, which leads to learning efficiencies for the child. Using language across the curriculum in other subject areas outside of the discrete language lesson enables children to reinforce and generalise what they have learned.

 

In the context of this curriculum, it is important to note that Ireland is a linguistically and culturally diverse country which has two official languages: English and Irish. However, most schools and classrooms include children whose home language is a language other than English or Irish. Our schools include children with English as a first language, children with Irish as a first language and children with another language as their first language. Children with neither English nor Irish as a first language are already learning in an integrated way which will enhance their learning of English and Irish in primary school. Although discrete language skills associated with each strand are essential, engaging with all three strands of oral language, reading and writing in an integrated way enables the child to become a more effective communicator. Within this Primary Language Curriculum integration is defined in terms of:

  • the transfer of skills learned across languages
  • teaching language in other curricular areas
  • interaction across the three strands of oral language, reading and writing.

Skills that transfer across languages allow teachers to reinforce what has been taught in the school's first language, using the second language. Not all skills will transfer across languages. Some differences do exist between the languages of English and Irish, such as morphology, syntax, sentence structure and some aspects of phonics. Schools can make specific provision for teaching these differences as part of the planning process. To effectively support children’s learning of and across the two languages, it is important that Irish is taught through Irish and that English is taught through English.

Children learn language through interactions  

Children’s homes and communities play a key role in their language learning, which is developed through meaningful interactions with parents and extended family and friends. Parents play a key role in supporting children’s language development and in establishing the language of the home prior to children acquiring additional languages. The majority of children in Ireland avail of the universal Free Pre-school Year through the Early Childhod Care and Education Programme prior to beginning primary school. This year provides children with further opportunities to enjoy and learn through rich oral language experiences, and to use emergent literacy skills in playful and purposeful ways. Building on this language foundation and supporting progression in children’s learning and development as they move to primary school, the Primary Language Curriculum identifies adult-child and child-child interactions as essential for language teaching and learning. Language is co-constructed between the adult and child through joint attention, mutual interest and enjoyment. Meaningful interactions and conversations between adult and child, or child and child, develop children’s language learning. The role of the teacher is to support and develop children’s talk during processes of exploration, discovery, and problem-solving.

 

The learning environment influences what and how children learn. An environment that supports and promotes children’s differences is important for children to feel accepted and comfortable, an environment where differences of need and language are celebrated. Children for whom English is an additional language (EAL) bring greater awareness and appreciation of languages and cultures to a classroom. Encouraging these children to contribute e.g., to explore similarities and differences between languages and cultures, can be of great benefit to the classroom language-learning environment by fostering a greater appreciation of languages. In the same way, children who have special communication needs and use gestures or aids to communicate help raise awareness of how different methods of communication can contribute to the language-learning environment. An engaging environment encourages and helps all children to explore, make discoveries, solve problems, express themselves and interact with others. In the early years of primary school, playful experiences are an important part of this language-learning environment.

 

When children play, or are involved in playful activities, they are engaged in meaningful communication. They use language for different purposes, matching language style and tone to these purposes and to different audiences. They also play with language, sharing rhymes, jokes, nonsense syllables and gain an early understanding of language as a system that can be manipulated. An appropriate, stimulating and playful learning environment facilitates children’s language learning and development.

Children learn language in different school contexts  

There are different school contexts in which language learning occurs: schools where English is the medium of instruction, Gaeltacht schools and Irish-medium schools. The prior and current Irish language learning experiences of children, of teachers and of schools vary greatly across the different types of schools. In an English-medium school, English is the working language and Irish is taught as the school's second language. There are particular challenges for children learning Irish as an L2, because the language that they learn at school cannot in the case of most children be practised, used and consolidated in the same way as the language that they learn in English and speak as their L1.

 

The centrality of the classroom in learning Irish is therefore pivotal. Teachers need to plan, at individual-teacher and whole-school levels, to provide children with opportunities to use the second language that they are learning outside of the Irish lesson. Teachers do this by using Irish regularly as an informal means of communication throughout the day and by teaching other subjects or aspects of other subjects through Irish using Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), which provides opportunities to learn through Irish in another area of the curriculum. In this way, the children will hear and speak Irish throughout the day as is recommended in 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language (2010). By teaching Irish effectively as L2, a foundation is laid on which the teaching of the third and fourth language will be built later.  

 

In Gaeltacht and Irish-medium school settings, Irish is the working language of the school and the children use it to communicate and to access a broad range of subjects across the curriculum. Children in the Gaeltacht access the curriculum through Irish. For children who are native Irish speakers, their language is developed and enriched at school. The school provides an essential setting where language is maintained and perpetuated. The teacher has a key role in affirming the type of Irish that the child speaks at home and in drawing attention gradually to other versions and to vocabulary from other dialects. Children who are not native Irish speakers are immersed in the language as the school contributes to increasing the number of Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht as laid out in 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language (2010). The Gaeltacht school is engaged in preserving and fostering the language of the community by enabling children who are not native speakers to achieve advanced skills in Irish.

 

It is recognised that a central written standard for Irish is necessary but, on the other hand, the principles of choice were accepted in the last review of the Official Standard. In the Revised Official Standard, forms and versions that are common in speech in the major dialects were included as part of it. The Official Standard is now closer to everyday speech than it used to be although, of course, the Official Standard was laid down for the written language.

 

Children in Irish-medium schools also access the curriculum through Irish. While Irish is the working language of the school, it is recognised that it is not the language of the home for the vast majority of the children. The school enables the children to achieve advanced skills in Irish and therefore functions as a place where language is revived. This policy is in keeping with 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language (2010).

 

The different contexts in which children learn languages in primary school in Ireland are represented in this Primary Language Curriculum: English-medium schools, Gaeltacht schools and Irish-medium schools. The language experiences of children attending primary school varies considerably.  The number of children who speak a language other than Irish or English at home is a feature of Irish primary schools, creating a multilingual context for language learning. For children with English as an Additional Language (EAL), partnerships between the primary school and their homes are critical for planning for and supporting their language learning, developing their first school language while maintaining their home language. Additionally children with special educational needs may encounter challenges in the development of language and communication skills. A differentiated approach which focuses on the identified needs of children with special educational needs will involve planning at individual-teacher and whole-school level.

 

All children come to school with a level of competence in one or more languages, which may or may not be the first language of the school. The language curriculum supports teachers to value the language experience of all children. It recognises that, when children develop skills in one language, they are not just learning the skills of that language, they are also developing a common underlying proficiency which enables them to transfer language skills and learning strategies to other languages. The surface aspects of different languages vary. A lot of these variations relate to aspects of oral language, e.g. vocabulary, pronunciation, phoneme grapheme correspondence, language fluency etc. These skills are not transferred. The skills most transferred are literacy skills, e.g. left to right and top to bottom orientation, knowledge of sound systems (i.e, that words are made up of various sounds), decoding skills, comprehension skills and so forth.