The transition from preschool to primary school is recognised in early childhood education literature as an important social and educational process for young children and their families (Hopps, 2014). This paper will consider a research project which was commissioned by Forbairt Naíonraí Teo (agency for Irish-medium preschools) and Gaelscoileanna Teo (agency for Irish-medium Schools) in 2010 on transitions between pre-school and primary school through the Irish language and aims to contribute to understanding the role of second languages within the transition process. A ‘second language’ is understood to mean a language that is learned after the native language has been acquired (Ellis, 2008, p.5). Both naíonraí (Irish-medium preschools) and gaelscoileanna (Irish-medium immersion primary schools) adopt a total language immersion approach in regard to using the Irish language for all classroom activities and interactions (Johnson and Swain, 1997). The paper presents an overview of the three phases of the project: a literature review, a small scale pilot study and an evaluation of the project. The paper concludes with some final reflections.

Phase 1: Literature review

The analysis of the early childhood education literature on transitions revealed that most children face a number of changes as they transition from pre-primary to primary school (OECD, 2006; Brooker, 2008; Dockett et al., 2013). These include changes in their physical environment, personnel and pedagogical changes, changes in their own identity and self-image, socialisation into the world of school and friendship and emotional security. The policy context was also examined, specifically the Primary School Curriculum (NCCA, 1999) and two educational frameworks that could act as a bridge across the sectors. Aistear (NCCA, 2009) is a curriculum framework for children from birth to six and Síolta (CECDE, 2006) is a quality framework also for children from birth to six.

There was very limited discussion in the literature on second language issues during the transition process and the project team drew on second language acquisition theories for insights into the language related issues. The interactionist approach was found to be particularly relevant to transitions as it links features of input and the linguistic environment with learner internal features (Mitchell and Mylers, 2012). Children who have spent one year in the naíonra will still be emergent bilinguals at the time of transition to primary school (Uí Chonghaile, 2012). The vocabulary they know will be related to naíonra activities, routines and incidental talk. They will have learned a stock of formulaic utterances for regular events in the naíonra, to ask for help, to describe their play and they will be familiar with the managerial language used by the early educators. They will have a repertoire of songs and nursery rhymes. The children’s active use of Irish will be scaffolded by the naíonra staff in specific ways, making use of their own personal second language teaching strategies. In summary, the children’s understanding and active use of the second language is context-bound, and is both formed and supported by the naíonra context. School is a new context with different routines, new learning experiences, new styles of interactions and above all new people. Unless there is very good, detailed communication between the naíonra and the primary school, the opportunity for children to transfer their knowledge from one context to another could be diminished or lost.

Additional insights were gained from over one hundred participants in two national workshops for early years educators and primary teachers. A research report was drawn up and recommendations were made for a transitions programme template, based on principles set out by Fabian (2002) and Dunlop and Fabian (2007). The following areas of development were proposed: identifying the aims and ideal situation at a local level, listing existing events and procedures, selecting initiatives and agreeing a timeframe, discussing resourcing and planning the evaluation of the project. A list of exemplar activities for the Irish-medium context was drawn up and included the provision of information for families from the naíonra and gaelscoil, school experience for the children before starting school and encouraging formal contact between the naíonraí and the school. This was published on-line (Mhic Mhathúna, 2011a) and as a summary booklet (Mhic Mhathúna, 2011b).

Phase Two: Small scale pilot study

A co-ordinator was appointed to manage a small scale transition programme between two primary schools and four associated preschools in 2012. In order for the scheme to work, it was necessary to appoint a person who would know both sectors well and who would be highly regarded by both sectors. They also had to be a fluent Irish speaker who could communicate well and offer guidance. The primary schools were selected on the basis that one school had a naíonra onsite and the other did not. Meetings were set up between each school, the local naíonraí and the co-ordinator. The  schools and naíonraí selected activities that were deemed appropriate for their contexts. It was clear that work was already being done by both the naíonraí and the schools to prepare children for the transition. Participants recognised the need for formal links between the naíonraí and the schools to further this work and ensure it was more collaborative.

In both contexts the value of sharing information about the children, with the permission of parents/guardians, was highlighted. The Child Snapshot (O’Kane and Hayes, 2013) and a locally developed profile were used to record this information. Information on the phrases, songs and poems used in the naíonra was forwarded to the school, with a booklet created by each child about themselves. A number of visits were arranged to the school for the naíonra children and early educators to increase their familiarity with the school and the staff. The principal and/or the junior infant teachers also visited the children in the early childhood settings. These visits were timed to support the practices already in place, where children visited the school with parents/guardians.

The pilot scheme was evaluated using semi-structured interviews with the two school principals and questionnaires for the four early childhood educators and four junior infant teachers. The questionnaire contained both open and closed questions about the implementation of the transitions scheme in regard to contact with families, giving children experience of school/transition activities, communication between the school and the naíonra and the role of the co-ordinator. One questionnaire was returned from the staff of each of the four naíonraí and all four junior infant teachers responded individually. In all cases the participants felt that the scheme supported the development of formal communication between the naíonra and the gaelscoil and also the sharing of information about the children (with parental permission) and about the work in each context. A number of statements from the participants are included below, translated from Irish.

We sat down a few times together and we discussed for the first time ever the children leaving the naíonra and starting in the school and how best to work together in the best interest of the child (Early Childhood Educator)

We saw the work being done in the school and the differences and similarities that existed (Early Childhood Educator)

We now know the teachers and the principal and they know us (Early Childhood Educator)

I had the opportunity to meet the children before they started and to develop a relationship with them to ease the transition (Teacher)

During the pilot scheme we found out that the children had much more Irish than we had previously thought (Principal)

As part of the pilot scheme, parents/guardians were given a resource pack of books and CDs to support and encourage the use of Irish during the  summer holidays. In addition, parents/guardians were invited to sign up for a bilingual electronic newsletter that was circulated fortnightly during the summer holidays.

Phase Three: Follow up study

To evaluate the longer-term impact of the pilot project, a follow-up interview was conducted with the two school principals a year later, in April 2013. In  one case the initiatives had continued between the school and both naíonraí, one on-site and one off-site. A development in the second year was that the activities began earlier in the year. The principal hoped to develop the involvement of the parents in the initiatives in the third year of the project. The principal in the other school noted that in the second year the initiatives continued between the school and one naíonra, which had moved on-site. Due to the distance between the other naíonra and the school there was less contact during the pilot project and afterwards. However, information on individual children was provided by the early childhood educators through the completion of the Child Snapshot (O’Kane and Hayes, 2013).

Final reflections on benefits and challenges

In this small-scale study, the benefits of the process emerged clearly in the feedback received from participants. The importance of sharing information on children’s interests, capabilities and strengths, including specific information on their second language experiences was acknowledged by all participants. The context-bound nature of this experience meant that teachers needed to know how to facilitate, prompt and scaffold children’s emerging bilingualism as well as learning about the children in advance of the school year. The benefits of sharing information about the work of the naíonra and the school were also highlighted by the participants and did not appear to lead to greater “schoolification” of the preschool, a concern that was highlighted in the first phase of the project. Most significantly, the vital role of parents in their children’s educational transition become obvious and the necessity of finding ways of communicating with them in person was noted. It is therefore recommended that parents be more involved from the beginning in any future transition programme.