Sweden has for many years suffered from a shortage of teachers appropriately trained to teach English to young learners. In 1987 The Swedish National Agency for Higher Education decided that English should no longer be a compulsory subject within primary teacher training, instead it was offered as an optional subject within the primary teacher training programmes This policy decision had dire consequences and ultimately led to the current position which sees a mere 30 % of trainee Teachers opting for the English language pathway.
Although consensus has been achieved in Europe and beyond relating to the advantages of teaching modern languages at an early age there are significant variations between regions and schools relating to the introduction of English in primary schools and implementation of the national syllabus for English is still undeveloped in many schools. The syllabus for English and the learning objectives to be attained by the end of Year 5 in school (11-year-olds) are very wide. These wide goals can appear very attractive to a qualified teacher, educated in appropriate methodology and having access to plenty of authentic target language teaching material, but for an unqualified teacher these national goals are not easily transferred into practice. This is probably the main reason why the use of textbooks and workbooks seem to be regarded as the most appropriate pedagogy instead of a more communicative approach to teaching and learning of English.
This contextual background was the starting point for the design of an in-service course for primary teachers who are unqualified to teach English to young learners but who are obliged to do so as the Swedish primary school system operates mostly on the principle of a generic class teacher who delivers all curriculum areas. The shortage of teachers appropriately trained to teach English to young learners and the lack of parity for English as a subject in the early school years brought about the call for effective in-service training with a built-in capacity for challenging traditions and the development of sustainable change and improvement towards a more communicative approach of teaching and learning in the language classroom.
The in-service course was designed as a part-time, distance course of 15 ECTS over a period of 20 weeks, the model being for teachers to divide their delivery and study time on a 50/50 basis, a blend of theory and practice. The aims were to emphasise research-based teaching and strive for a goal of better applications into practise of the centralised syllabus based on the European Framework of References, CEFR, and the communicative approach to teaching and learning of languages. A further aim was to
develop more confidence and autonomy in the teachers. An action research module was integrated into the course as it was considered to have the capacity to improve educational practice, promote professional development and enhance classroom performance. Action research is also understood to have a potential for long-term change and commitment through encouraging professionals to reflect critically on their often taken-for-granted practices where uncontested beliefs and values are held by staff members.
The results of the action research projects reveal that whilst it is difficult to bring about change in school cultures which have strongly embedded traditional teaching habits there is also an accompanying body of evidence demonstrating improvement in teaching and learning pedagogy for young learners in the north of Sweden. The action research projects have been organised into five themes: (1)An Early start, (2)Target language use,(3) Motivation, (4) Language methodology and didactics and (5)Documentation and progression.
A summary of the analysis of 123 action research project reports indicates that teachers seem to be convinced that children as young as 6-7 can benefit from early language learning if the circumstances are right with age-appropriate methodology and a secure classroom climate. Teachers have initiated a more consistent target language approach in their classrooms and the pupils have actively engaged by starting to use the target language more frequently during lessons and even beyond their formal sessions.
Both teachers and pupils alike have begun to articulate that English is fun, stimulating and enjoyable. The use of language strategies such as guessing competence and strategic competence has increased together with continuous discussions about the processes of language learning and addressing of didactic core questions revolving around why, how and what. The introduction of small steps of scaffolding technique for learner autonomy has resulted in pupils generating lots of ideas for English to bring the subject alive and English is no longer an isolated stand alone subject instead it is more successfully merged holistically into the generic skill and competence base for Early Learning provision. All kinds of inventive documentation and evaluation ideas, language portfolios and recordings of oral skills have become useful tools for assessing language progress and for assurance of continuity and progression in language learning.
Teaching is an increasingly challenging process requiring sophisticated skills, competencies and qualities. Teachers therefore are playing pivotal roles in the drive towards improving language learning amongst our pupils and the application of action research seems to have assisted their practice. With action research as a tool teachers are able to develop their professional learning through systematic investigation rather than by reproduction of disconnected teaching tips. Through action research, teachers will begin to understand what is really happening in their classrooms, why it is happening and how teaching and learning can be systematically improved. This study illustrates how 123 action research projects, carried out by the teachers in their own practices, have encouraged self directed professional learning, increased confidence, competence and pupil engagement.
Umeå: Umeå universitet , 2007. , 217 p.