Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

English Language Acquisition

Can you speak English? I’m assuming so, and this means that at some point you had to learn the language. Most of us in the U.S.A. learned English as our first language, but for many students, their real first exposure to English is when they begin school. These students need to learn all of the regular course material and a new language simultaneously. This is hard, but very important since falling behind on early education can create long term academic issues. So, as educators, we need to know how language acquisition works and how to deal with it in the classroom. Turns out, today is a perfect chance to explore this because we’ve got a new student! This is Juana Estudiante, she’s brand new to the class, nervous and shy, and doesn’t speak English at home. Let’s see how we can help her learn.

General Tips for Language Learners

Before we get into specifics, let’s go over just a few basic ideas about language acquisition. Children learn their first language naturally, instinctively, and through oral skills long before reading or writing are applied. Second language acquisition is quite different. It requires conscious effort and often occurs through oral and literacy skills simultaneously. Despite these differences, teachers have found that trying to stimulate the native learning environment can be helpful, especially since the student may not have many opportunities to practice the language at home.

Teaching an infant their first language is not something that can be standardized. It depends entirely on the child’s personality. The same is true of second language acquisition. Introverts and extroverts require different styles of reinforcement and education is much more successful if students are motivated to teach themselves, which means they need a reason to want to learn the language. So personal attention focused on the student’s personality and interests are vital to successful language development.

Stages of Language Acquisition

With those basic points in mind, let’s get into the five stages of language acquisition that students, like Juana, will go through on their way to being fluent in both oral and literacy skills. Now, different students will enter school with various levels of exposure to English, but Juana is coming in with almost no English background. So she is in the first stage of pre-production, characterized by minimal language comprehension. Students in this stage will generally require some translation assistance and are rarely able to communicate beyond nodding yes or no and pointing or gesturing.

This stage lasts for about six months and, as a teacher, it’s important to remember that even if the student isn’t communicating beyond basic gestures and nods, that doesn’t mean they aren’t learning. This teacher can help Juana progress through the pre-production stage by speaking slowly, but correctly, providing lots of opportunities to listen to English through various media, from reading aloud to music, and modeling the meaning of phrases. Also, at this stage, the teacher generally wants to avoid correcting most of Juana’s errors. Let’s get her comfortable with the idea of speaking English, then focus on correction.

As Juana develops some familiarity with English, she enters the stage of early production, in which she has some comprehension, can string words together, and can use the present tense. Teachers should continue using the same techniques as in the first stage, but encourage the student to speak more. The teacher can start by having Juana repeat phrases, then move to having Juana modify phrases to build up synonyms and antonyms.

After about another six months, Juana enters into stage three, speech emergent, in which she can produce simple sentences and understands well, but still misinterprets jokes. Juana’s teacher helps her in this stage with more advanced assignments, from fill in the blanks to writing down stories. The goal here is to gradually increase vocabulary and model more complex sentences, which Juana can begin to practice.

The speech emergent stage can last up to two years and many scholars sub-divide it into smaller increments, but at the end of this stage, Juana has excellent comprehension and can use more complex grammar fairly accurately, bringing her into the stage of intermediate fluency. This is the first stage where Juana’s teacher can start making frequent and detailed corrections, since Juana is familiar enough with the language to understand her mistakes and make the corrections. Juana is also introduced to idioms and should be spending substantial time working with other students in English.

Finally, she gets to the last stage, advanced fluency, in which she is very close to native fluency. By this stage, Juana’s teacher is encouraging her to take notes in English and offering complex activities to expand vocabulary to compare with native English speakers of the same age. However, despite the fact that Juana seems fluent, the teacher still wants to use many of the techniques we’ve seen from the beginning, using visual examples and modeling correct speech for new words and ideas. These tricks never stop being useful and, by this point, Juana is very familiar with how to apply them. But, through all of this, Juana can claim to be bilingual, able to function in two languages, and her education is off to a great start.

Lesson Summary

Learning a second language takes conscious effort, lots of practice, and time. Teachers who are helping students learn a second language need to exercise patience and create individual learning plans that complement the student’s personality. With this, students and teachers can work together through the five stages of language acquisition.

First is the pre-production stage, characterized by minimal language comprehension and communication through nods and gestures. This generally lasts about six months and leads to early production, in which the student has some comprehension, can string words together, and can use the present tense. After that is the speech emergent stage, where the student can produce simple sentences and understands well, but still misinterprets jokes. This can last a few years and represents a substantial familiarization with the language, leading to intermediate fluency, characterized by excellent comprehension and an ability to use more complex grammar fairly accurately. The final stage is advanced fluency, in which the student is very close to native fluency. By being aware of these stages and the best ways to navigate them, teachers can help students through the process of language acquisition and keep their education going strong.

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