Language Development Stages
When working with students who are learning English as a second language, it is important to realize that many students often
progress through a series of natural language acquisition stages. The duration of each stage may vary greatly from student to
student. As teachers we can facilitate development within each stage and progression from one stage to the next by being aware
of which stage or stages our students are in and by engaging students in activities appropriate for their level of development.
Teachers can facilitate language development
during this stage by doing the following:
Do not force production (speech). Students will
begin to use English when they are ready.
Provide materials in the native language.
Use visuals such as pictures, objects, or gestures to aid in
Modify your speech: speak more slowly, emphasize key
words, simplify grammar and vocabulary, do not talk out of
context, and do not speak more loudly.
Involve students in activities that require them to listen
and do. Such activities might include making art projects,
drawing pictures, following simple classroom directions.
Stage 2: Early Production:
As the name of this stage suggests, students begin
using a limited number of words and phrases in
English. At this stage, you can encourage language
production in the following ways:
Use questioning techniques including: yes/no questions
such as, Is this your coat?; choice questions such as, Is this
your coat or Maria's?; questions which can be answered with
a single word such as, What is in your hand?; open sentence
with a pause for a response such as, Lin is wearing blue
pants, but Lou is wearing ____ pants.
Do not overtly correct student errors as this may inhibit
students from using language. Subtle forms of modeling may
be used as indicated by the following interaction:
Student: I goed to the store last night.
Teacher: Oh, you went to the store. What did you buy?
Expand student responses when possible.
Continue to use activities indicated for the Comprehension
stage, but encourage students to use their language to give
commands and describe pictures.
Have students keep dialogue journals.
Use shared reading.
Stage 3: Speech Emergence:
During this stage, speech production will usually improve
in both quantity and quality. Vocabulary will expand, and
grammatical errors will decrease if students are involved in a
language-rich environment. At this stage, students need to be
encouraged to use oral and written language. There are many
activities which foster development during this stage. Some
Involve students in activities that encourage them to
compare/contrast, sequence, and problem solve with charts,
graphs, tables, maps, and other visuals.
Use skits and role play to contextualize situations for students.
Use the Language Experience Approach to encourage reading and
Use semantic mapping to develop vocabulary.
Stage 4: Intermediate Fluency:
At this stage, students are orally quite fluent in English. They
will continue to make some grammatical errors, and their
vocabulary is expanding to include words beyond the concrete,
immediate environment. Though their oral skills may be very well
developed, oftentimes, academic skills and reading and writing skills
in English may lag behind. Students need to be included in content-
area activities at all stages, but at this stage in particular, activities
that encourage both content-area development and language
development need to be included.
It is also important to realize the different demands placed upon ELL
students depending on whether they are using language for social
purposes (often referred to as “Basic Interpersonal Communication
Skills” or BICS) or for academic purposes (often referred to as
“Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency” or CALP). Language
which is social in nature is usually less complex and is often heavily
contextualized, making it easier to learn and less cognitively
demanding. Students often acquire this type of language rather
quickly, within one to two years.
Academic language, on the other hand, makes use of more complex
grammatical and rhetorical patterns – in both its written and oral forms
– as well as specialized and technical vocabulary. Also, this type of
language is not inherently contextual.
Because academic language is more cognitively demanding than
social language, it is more difficult for ELL students to acquire. Many
students require anywhere from 5-7 years to learn this type of
language. Much current research, however, has shown that this
amount of time can be reduced if students have a firm foundation in
their native language. Thus, native language instruction in the content
areas and in reading and writing should be provided whenever
possible. Below is a chart that provides a framework from which to
understand the various language demands placed upon ELL students,
in terms of both the amount of extra-linguistic context and the degree
of cognitive complexity.
Students observe and internalize the new
language. They use gestures, pointing, and
nodding to communicate.
Students continue to acquire English and they
use language patterns, yes/no responses and
single words to communicate.
Students begin to use simple sentences. At this
stage they may begin to initiate discussion.
Students are fairly comfortable in social language
situations. They state opinions and ask for