The Stages of Language Acquisition for ELLs
Language acquisition is a key educational goal of any English language learner (ELL). In order to ensure ELLs are on track, it’s crucial that parents and teachers understand the stages of language acquisition for ELLs and how they differ from the stages of first language acquisition. Let’s take a deeper look at the stages as well as techniques for teaching at every step of the way.
Stages of First Language Acquisition
When we talk about ELL stages of language acquisition, a common point of reference is the stages of first language acquisition that nearly all babies go through. While the two processes differ significantly, having an understanding of how children learn a language is key to ELL success.
This stage takes place from birth to around six months of age. During this time, the child does not speak but is beginning to understand short words and phrases that are central to their needs and interests.
The babbling phase occurs from around six to eight months old. In this phase, the infant begins to “babble” and makes noises and syllables that are not yet words. Physically, teeth begin to appear and the muscles in the mouth required for speech begin to develop.
The holophrastic stage is significantly longer, occurring between nine and eighteen months old. During this phase, the infant begins to learn and speak single words. In the beginning, these words are strongly centered around basic needs and interests as well as names or identifiers like “mama” and “dada.”
This stage takes place from eighteen to twenty-four months old. Once children have developed single-word speech, they begin to pair groups of words together into mini-sentences and phrases like “I want” or “give me.”
The telegraphic stage takes place from two to three years old. Over time, children begin to expand their two-word phrases into short sentences. They also begin to utilize lexical morphemes to make the words they use fit the sentence. For example, they understand to use the plural form of “boys” instead of “boy” when referring to a group of boys.
Past the age of three, most children fall into the multiword stage. In this final stage of language acquisition, children now learn to use functional morphemes to change the meaning of the words they use. Examples include the words but, in, the, and that.
The Stages of Second Language Acquisition
Now that we’ve reviewed the basic structure of first language acquisition, let’s take a look at the stages of language acquisition for ELL students. Much like with first language acquisition, there are general time periods associated with each stage.
However, these guidelines are much looser than those for first language acquisition and can differ greatly based on a variety of factors. Every student is different and depending on these factors, some stages may take longer or shorter than expected.
For ELLs, the pre-production stage or “silent period” occurs during the first six months of exposure to the language. During this stage, students have no spoken English skills. They have minimal comprehension and listening skills and often utilize gestures like nodding, pointing, and drawing to explain themselves. This stage is somewhat comparable to the pre-talking and babbling stages of first language acquisition.
Teaching ELLs in their early English acquisition stages can be tricky. Here are a few tips to maximize learning and comprehension during the early days:
- Use simple prompts and questions, like “Point to…” or “Show me…”.
- Provide visuals and/or realia to communicate whenever possible.
- Demonstrate and practice classroom routines. Don’t assume that ELLs know the cultural norms or procedures for asking for help, using classroom materials, or going to the bathroom.
- Limit the amount of technology students are exposed to early on (and ask other teachers to do the same to provide consistency) until students have an adequate understanding of procedures and policies for using computers and other platforms.
- Focus on repetition, especially with new vocabulary and concepts.
- Get to know your students, the culture they come from, and the norms associated with their culture (e.g., in some cultures it is inappropriate to make eye contact with a teacher).
Around six to twelve months after ELLs are regularly exposed to English, they will begin to use one- and two-word English phrases. Depending on age, immersion, and the specific student, this stage can occur much sooner or take longer. This is why it’s important to see the stages of language acquisition for ELLs as guidelines, not a hard and fast set of benchmarks for students to follow precisely.
At this point, the ELL has absorbed thousands of words and has gained limited comprehension of the key words they hear most and that are most important to them. As their comprehension increases, students begin to speak more and will likely use only present tense nouns – a grammatical trademark of this phase.
Our tips for teaching ELLs in the early production stage include:
- Build on strategies from the pre-production stage.
- Ask yes/no questions and questions asking who, what, where, and when.
- Provide sentence starters and framed sentences to encourage more complete thoughts.
- Use students’ errors to better understand their learning and identify skills they have mastered and are struggling with.
- Remind students that making mistakes is a part of learning and totally okay.
After one to three years of exposure to English, ELLs have developed significant comprehension and can read, write, and understand simple sentences. They will continue to make new grammatical and pronunciation errors and will still struggle with homophones, jokes, and cultural slang in conversation.
During the speech emergence stage, teachers should:
- Ask longer-form questions with prompts like “why” and “how.”
- Simplify language when teaching new concepts to allow students to focus on learning one thing at a time.
- Explicitly teach language and writing structures alongside content and vocabulary.
- Teach text organization and explore the similarities and differences between how your students’ cultures organize sentences and thoughts.
- Understand the difference between oral fluency and proficiency. ELLs may have mastered conversational English but acquiring academic language can take far longer.
- Begin to expose students to higher-order thinking and model appropriate language.
Fluency can occur as early as three years but may take upwards of ten years or a lifetime depending on various factors. However, most students eventually reach fluency or near-fluency with ongoing education. Students will also progress through a spectrum of fluency, from beginning to advanced.
At this stage, they have excellent comprehension, speech, and writing skills. They may still struggle with pronunciation depending on the age of their initial exposure to English. However, it’s important to keep in mind that difficulty with pronunciation does not equate to a lack of language comprehension.
While teaching ELLs during this stage may begin to feel like teaching native speakers, here are a few tactics and strategies to keep in mind:
- Language acquisition can vary across content areas. Be intentional about developing your students’ fluency in all content areas and provide additional support where needed.
- Continue using visuals and strategies from earlier stages where possible for increased consistency.
- ELLs still need extra support, like explicit instructions for navigating difficult texts and organizing thoughts and ideas according to the content area.
- Provide ELLs with opportunities to teach others and prove full understanding of the content in question.
What Are the Similarities Between First and Second Language Acquisition?
While there are significant differences between the stages of first language acquisition and the stages of language acquisition for ELLs, there are also notable similarities.
- In both, there are predictable stages. Not every student will progress at the same rate, but all ELLs will go through the stages in the same order.
- In both first and second language acquisition, there is a delay between comprehension and speech. In both processes, children understand more than they can say or explain.
- In both types of language acquisition, children may speak or comprehend better in low-pressure situations than in front of the class. This is something we typically associate with ELLs but can be true for native speakers as well. Be sure to provide students with a variety of ways to show their knowledge, rather than assuming they don’t understand because they can’t communicate it in a specific way.
- In both first and second language acquisition, children learn largely through making mistakes. Teaching a growth mindset is crucial to encourage students to continue to write and speak often despite the mistakes they make. Try modeling resilience by making an effort to learn a few words from your students’ languages and demonstrating perseverance and how you move forward after making a mistake.
What Are the Differences Between First and Second Language Acquisition?
In addition to the similarities above, there are a number of significant differences seen in the stages of language acquisition for ELLs. It is paramount that teachers understand these differences and how they impact learning.
- Depending on their native language proficiency, ELLs may have already built a foundation for language learning, whereas first-language learners have not. This means ELLs will likely pick up speech, reading, and writing faster if they are already competent at these skills in their native language. Research has shown that strong first language skills have a positive impact on second language acquisition.
- ELLs are also expected to learn their second language much faster than their first. When acquiring a first language, children have nearly twenty-four months before they are expected to speak two-word phrases. This timeline shrinks to just twelve months for ELLs. For many students, especially those getting used to a new home in a new country, twelve months simply isn’t enough time to digest and comprehend a completely new language. Patience, compassion, and focusing on your students’ strengths rather than their weaknesses will create a more positive learning environment for ELLs.
- Second language learning requires explicit instruction whereas first language learning is generally a more passive process. ELL students may have more limited opportunities to practice English skills with native speakers, as their parents are likely ELLs as well. They need direct, intentional instruction to develop their second language skills.
Factors that Affect the Stages of Language Acquisition for ELLs
So, how do students develop proficiency in a new language? Can they learn at any age and in any setting? The bottom line is that any student can learn English in time with the proper resources. Here are some of the foremost factors that affect the timeline and stages of language acquisition for ELLs.
Age is a major factor in how fast ELLs learn and at what point they reach fluency. Learning a second language early while the brain is still actively forming connections can help students learn more quickly. However, older ELLs have the advantage of understanding grammar and how language works. They will likely learn grammar and pronunciation more efficiently but will struggle with retention and vocabulary more than a younger ELL would.
Immersion level has a significant impact on the stages of language acquisition for ELLs. Students who have opportunities to speak English not only at school but also at home will typically learn more efficiently than those only speaking English at school.
This can especially affect speech over listening and comprehension. Nearly all ELLs will be exposed to six or seven hours of listening to English each school day. But, for many ELLs, this can be mentally and emotionally exhausting, and they may go in and out of active listening. Furthermore, they may only spend an hour actively speaking and conversing. In these cases, speaking English in a comfortable environment at home (in manageable amounts) is crucial to their language acquisition.
Alongside immersion level, the settings in which ELLs learn matter greatly to their long-term fluency. Especially for older learners, speaking and writing only in a classroom setting can limit their ability to achieve fluency.
Consider a world where you learned English only in a semi-formal classroom setting. You likely would never learn slang, jokes, or more casual language. You might miss out on the finer details of speech like timing and tone of voice. Learning in the classroom, at home, and out in the world is the best way for ELLs to achieve near-native fluency.
First Language Proficiency
As previously mentioned, there is a positive correlation between native language proficiency and second language acquisition. Students who have strong first language skills are generally able to learn a second language more easily because of language transfer.
Mara Salmona Madrinan writes, “Research has shown that writers will transfer their writing abilities and strategies, whether good or deficient, from their first language to the second (Friedlander, 1997)…In addition, writing, speaking, reading or listening in the first or the second language helps the entire cognitive system to develop…(Baker, 2001).”
A growing body of evidence suggests that a student’s first language is an asset to their learning.
When teachers have an understanding of the process of second language acquisition, they can better support their ELLs’ language development.
Language-centered ESL activities for students with limited English ability help develop vocabulary and life skills necessary to communicate effectively with others.View Product →
Thank you to Ellen Richardson, an ELL teacher at Abraham Lincoln Middle School in Lancaster, PA for consulting on this blog post.
This blog was originally published on April 1, 2021. It was updated on May 2, 2023.