Babies are not natural born linguists. A “goo” or “gah” might slip in between milk bottle feedings and dirty diaper changes, but infants go through months of mutterings and mumblings until they utter their first word. In order to acquire their first language, babies must go through the process of hearing sounds, imitating them, and producing words.   

Acquiring a second language is a whole other process in itself. With second language acquisition, the learner possesses knowledge in their first language, and then begins to learn elements in the new language, such as vocabulary or grammar. There are five stages in second language acquisition. However, every individual moves at their own pace throughout the process. As teachers, it is important to be aware of where your English Language Learners (ELLs) are within the stages in order to provide adequate accommodations.


Stage I : Pre-Production

  • This stage is also referred to as the “silent period”, because students tend to be non-verbal. These new ELLs listen attentively and can copy words off the board. However, they may become frustrated or overwhelmed by hearing a foreign language all day.
  • Length of stage: Zero to six months
  • What can you do? Use gestures, hand movements, and visuals when speaking to students in this stage. Make sure to pair students with a buddy for peer learning opportunities.  

Stage II: Early Production

  • During this stage, language and comprehension are limited. ELLs produce one- to two-word phrases and may repeat commonly used social language.
  • Length of stage: Six months to a year
  • What can you do? Ask students yes or no questions and accept one or two word responses. Continue to build vocabulary with the use of pictures.

Stage III: Speech Emergence

  • Students demonstrate increased language development as they communicate in simple sentences, sound out stories phonetically, and understand easy picture books. At this stage, ELLs can complete tasks such as using a graphic organizer with a word bank and matching vocabulary words with their definitions.
  • Length of stage: One to three years
  • What can you do? Introduce academic vocabulary and model how to use it in a sentence. Provide fill-in the blank options for assignments. Share a dialogue
  • journal with students to communicate regularly and offer written word practice.

Stage IV: Intermediate Fluency

  • ELLs use more complex language in oral and written form. Nonetheless, they may use incorrect grammar or verb tense. Students begin to think in the new language, rather than translating from their native language.
  • Length of stage:  Three to five years
  • What can you do? Introduce students to idioms and colloquialisms. Give students a larger role in cooperative learning activities.

Stage V: Advanced Fluency

  • At this performance level, most students exit their ELL program. Students reach near-native proficiency and produce highly accurate language. They also exhibit high levels of comprehension, but may not understand all academic language.
  • Length of stage: It takes four to ten years to achieve cognitive academic language proficiency in a second language.
  • What can you do? Continue using visuals to assist with content-specific language. Offer challenging activities, such as identifying synonyms and antonyms, in order to expand vocabulary knowledge. 

To help your ELL students with any of these stages, visit VocabularySpellingCity for ELL resources and best practices.

Stages of Second Language Acquisition

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