Students who are learning a new language may be ‘silent’ at first as they listen and learn. This is the first stage of language acquisition. Patience and small successes can build confidence. (Note: This may also be a sign of respect.)


Areli Schermerhorn: What I remember about being an English learner

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Language Acquisition: An Overview

Language Acquisition: An Overview

"One generation plants the trees; another gets the shade."

— Chinese Proverb

When I read The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, I remember being fascinated by the "babel fish." These were fish, who when dropped in a person's ear, would provide immediate translation of any language, thriving on sound waves and converting them into comprehensible language.

Wouldn't it be just great if learning a new language were that easy (despite the "yuck" factor)? While we do have some technology that provides translation into a variety of languages, it often fails to translate accurately due to the complexity of language. Effective communication requires so much more than just being able to translate vocabulary words — it requires knowledge of intonation, dialect, and intent, and a nuanced understanding of word use, expression, and a language's cultural context. For example, one online translation application I tried translated "Fall Events" as "fall down events" in Spanish because it didn't know that I was referring to events in autumn.

So, without a babel fish or perfect technology, we are left with the old-fashioned way of learning a new language, which requires time, effort, and patience. How much time, effort, and patience depends a lot on the individual who is learning, as well as the learning environment and situation, but language researchers have developed a general outline of language acquisition that helps explain the process that language learners go through to develop skills in a foreign language. In this article, I will provide an overview to the stages of language acquisition, and offer strategies designed to support ELL instruction at different stages of language acquisition.

Stages of Language Acquisition

Researchers define language acquisition into two categories: first-language acquisition and second-language acquisition. First-language acquisition is a universal process regardless of home language. Babies listen to the sounds around them, begin to imitate them, and eventually start producing words. Second-language acquisition assumes knowledge in a first language and encompasses the process an individual goes through as he or she learns the elements of a new language, such as vocabulary, phonological components, grammatical structures, and writing systems.

The Six Stages of Second-Language Acquisition

Pre-productionThis is also called "the silent period," when the student takes in the new language but does not speak it. This period often lasts six weeks or longer, depending on the individual.
Early productionThe individual begins to speak using short words and sentences, but the emphasis is still on listening and absorbing the new language. There will be many errors in the early production stage.
Speech EmergentSpeech becomes more frequent, words and sentences are longer, but the individual still relies heavily on context clues and familiar topics. Vocabulary continues to increase and errors begin to decrease, especially in common or repeated interactions.
Beginning FluencySpeech is fairly fluent in social situations with minimal errors. New contexts and academic language are challenging and the individual will struggle to express themselves due to gaps in vocabulary and appropriate phrases.
Intermediate FluencyCommunicating in the second language is fluent, especially in social language situations. The individual is able to speak almost fluently in new situations or in academic areas, but there will be gaps in vocabulary knowledge and some unknown expressions. There are very few errors, and the individual is able to demonstrate higher order thinking skills in the second language such as offering an opinion or analyzing a problem.
Advanced FluencyThe individual communicates fluently in all contexts and can maneuver successfully in new contexts and when exposed to new academic information. At this stage, the individual may still have an accent and use idiomatic expressions incorrectly at times, but the individual is essentially fluent and comfortable communicating in the second language.

How long does it take for a language learner to go through these stages? Just as in any other learning situation, it depends on the individual. One of the major contributors to accelerated second language learning is the strength of first language skills. Language researchers such as Jim Cummins, Catherine Snow, Lily Wong Filmore and Stephen Krashen have studied this topic in a variety of ways for many years. The general consensus is that it takes between five to seven years for an individual to achieve advanced fluency. This generally applies to individuals who have strong first language and literacy skills. If an individual has not fully developed first language and literacy skills, it may take between seven to ten years to reach advanced fluency. It is very important to note that every ELL student comes with his or her own unique language and education background, and this will have an impact on their English learning process.

It is also important to keep in mind that the understood goal for American ELL students is Advanced Fluency, which includes fluency in academic contexts as well as social contexts. Teachers often get frustrated when ELL students appear to be fluent because they have strong social English skills, but then they do not participate well in academic projects and discussions. Teachers who are aware of ELL students' need to develop academic language fluency in English will be much better prepared to assist those students in becoming academically successful. (Learn more about academic language in Colorín Colorado's academic language resource section.)


Instructional Strategies

If you have ELL students in your classroom, it is more than likely there will be students at a variety of stages in the language acquisition process. What can teachers do to differentiate instruction according to language level? Here are some suggestions for appropriate instructional strategies according to stages of language acquisition.

Language Stage


  • Emphasize listening comprehension by using read-alouds and music.
  • Use visuals and have students point to pictures or act out vocabulary.
  • Speak slowly and use shorter words, but use correct English phrasing.
  • Model "survival" language by saying and showing the meaning. For example, say, "Open your book," and then open a book while the student observes.
  • Gesture, point and show as much as possible.
  • More advanced classmates who speak the same language can support new learning through interpretation.
  • Avoid excessive error correction. Reinforce learning by modeling correct language usage when students make mistakes.

Early Production

  • Continue the strategies listed above, but add opportunities for students to produce simple language.
  • Ask students to point to pictures and say the new word.
  • Ask yes/no and either/or questions.
  • Have students work in pairs or small groups to discuss a problem. Have literate students write short sentences or words in graphic organizers.
  • Model a phrase and have the student repeat it and add modifications. Teacher says, "This book is very interesting." The student repeats it and says, "This book is very boring." Continue with as many modifications as possible.
  • Avoid excessive error correction. Reinforce learning by modeling correct usage.

Speech Emergent

  • Introduce more academic language and skills by using the same techniques listed above, but beginning to use more academic vocabulary.
  • Introduce new academic vocabulary and model how to use it in a sentence.
  • Provide visuals and make connections with student's background knowledge as much as possible.
  • Ask questions that require a short answer and are fairly literal.
  • Introduce charts and graphs by using easily understood information such as a class survey of food preferences.
  • Have students re-tell stories or experiences and have another student write them down. The ELL student can bring these narratives home to read and reinforce learning.
  • In writing activities, provide the student with a fill-in-the blank version of the assignment with the necessary vocabulary listed on the page.
  • Provide minimal error correction. Focus only on correction that directly interferes with meaning. Reinforce learning by modeling the correct usage.

Beginning Fluency

  • Have students work in pairs and groups to discuss content.
  • During instruction, have students do a "Think, pair, share" to give the student an opportunity to process the new language and concept.
  • Ask questions that require a full response with explanation. If you do not understand the student's explanation, ask for clarification by paraphrasing and asking the student if you heard them correctly.
  • Ask questions that require inference and justification of the answer.
  • Ask students if they agree or disagree with a statement and why.
  • Model more advanced academic language structures such as, "I think," "In my opinion," and "When you compare." Have students repeat the phrases in context.
  • Re-phrase incorrect statements in correct English, or ask the student if they know another way to say it.
  • Introduce nuances of language such as when to use more formal English and how to interact in conversations.
  • Have students make short presentations, providing them with the phrases and language used in presentations ("Today I will be talking about") and giving them opportunities to practice the presentation with partners before getting in front of the class.
  • Continue to provide visual support and vocabulary development.
  • Correct errors that interfere with meaning, and pre-identify errors that will be corrected in student writing, such as verb-tense agreement. Only correct the errors agreed upon.
  • You may want to assist in improving pronunciation by asking a student to repeat key vocabulary and discussing how different languages have different sounds.

Intermediate Fluency

  • Identify key academic vocabulary and phrases and model them. Ask students to produce the language in class activities.
  • Use graphic organizers and thinking maps and check to make sure the student is filling them in with details. Challenge the student to add more.
  • Help the student make connections with new vocabulary by instructing him or her in the etymology of words or word families such as, "important, importance, importantly."
  • Create assessments that give students an opportunity to present in English after they have an opportunity to practice in pairs or small groups.
  • Introduce more academic skills, such as brainstorming, prioritizing, categorization, summarizing and compare and contrast.
  • Ask students to identify vocabulary by symbols that show whether the student "knows it really well, kind of knows it, or doesn't know it at all." Help students focus on strategies to get the meaning of new words.
  • Have a "guessing time" during silent reading where they circle words they don't know and write down their guess of the meaning. Check the results as a class.
  • Introduce idioms and give examples of how to use them appropriately. For example, "Let's wind up our work." What's another way you could use the phrase "wind up?"
  • Starting at this level, students need more correction/feedback, even on errors that do not directly affect meaning. They should be developing a more advanced command of syntax, pragmatics, pronunciation, and other elements that do not necessarily affect meaning but do contribute to oral fluency.
  • It may also be helpful to discuss language goals with the student so you can assist in providing modeling and correction in specified areas.

Advanced Fluency

  • Students at this level are close to native language fluency and can interact well in a variety of situations. Continue to develop language skills as gaps arise by using the strategies listed above. Although the student may seem completely fluent, he or she still benefit from visual support, building on background knowledge, pre-teaching vocabulary and making connections between content areas.
  • Offer challenge activities to expand the student's vocabulary knowledge such as identifying antonyms, synonyms and the use of a thesaurus and dictionary.
  • Demonstrate effective note-taking and provide a template.
  • Offer error correction on academic work and on oral language. Because students at this stage have achieved near-native fluency, they benefit from support in fine-tuning their oral and written language skills.


Scaffold instruction so students receive comprehensible input and are able to successfully complete tasks at their level. Instructional scaffolding works just like the scaffolding used in building. It holds you at the level needed until you are ready to take it down. Scaffolding includes asking students questions in formats that give them support in answering, such as yes/no questions, one-word identifications, or short answers. It also means providing the context for learning by having visuals or other hands-on items available to support content learning. Also, when practicing a new academic skill such as skimming, scaffolding involves using well-known material so the students aren't struggling with the information while they are trying to learn a new skill. Scaffolding includes whatever it takes to make the instruction meaningful for the student in order to provide a successful learning experience.

Use cognates to help Spanish speakers learn English and derive meaning from content. The Colorín Colorado website has a helpful list of common cognates in Spanish for teachers to reference. Teachers can explicitly point out cognates for Spanish speaking students so they begin to realize that this is a useful way for them to increase their English vocabulary.

Explicit vocabulary instruction is very important in accelerating ELL students' English language development. Textbooks include lists of new vocabulary words based on grade-level content, but ELL students need further vocabulary instruction. There are many words in a text that may affect the ELL student's comprehension of the text that a teacher may assume he or she knows. It is important for teachers to develop ways to help students identify the words they don't know, as well as strategies for getting their meaning. Of course it is also beneficial if teachers reinforce the language structures or common associations of vocabulary. For example, "squeak" is a sound that often goes with "mouse" or "door" and it may be stated as, "squeak, squeaky, squeaks, or squeaked."

Error correction should be done very intentionally and appropriately according to student language ability, as noted earlier in the article. Students who are just beginning to speak English are already nervous about using their new language skills and constant correction will not improve their ability; it will just make them want to withdraw. I inform students in advance of the type of errors I will correct, such as "missing articles" and "third person agreement," and then those are the only errors I check. In my class, I do not correct the errors; I circle the mistakes and return the paper to the student. They are responsible for correcting the errors and returning the paper to receive more points. Most of the time the students can make the corrections themselves when they see the area I've circled, but if they have difficulty, I guide them as they make the correction. In this way, I feel there is a manageable amount of correction information to work with and the student will actually learn from doing the correction.

Learning another language. If you learn the language(s) your students speak, they will be thrilled to hear you try it with them. I learned how to say "good morning" in Somali and had to practice for an hour before I felt comfortable saying it. When I did I was rewarded with the big grins of students as they entered the room. They were excited to teach me other phrases as well, and we discussed how much English they had learned since they arrived in the country. They were very proud to think of how much progress they'd made.

Seek the experts in your building or district who can offer you guidance on effective instructional strategies for your ELL students. There are many teachers who have taught ELL students in your content area, have taught a certain population of students, or are trained ESL or bilingual teachers who have a lot of advice and support to offer. Don't hesitate to look for support when you are challenged to reach students who are learning English. This can be especially true when you have a "pre-production" or "beginning level" student and you are responsible for grade level content instruction.

Visit the hotlinks section for this article for more information on specific research regarding language acquisition and recommended instructional strategies. You can also search the Colorín Colorado educator information for useful information and resources to assist you in meeting ELL student needs.

ELL teachers encounter students with a variety of backgrounds and abilities, and until the babel fish comes into existence, they will need to have flexibility, creativity and skill in order to help ELL students make meaning from the new language and content they are learning. An understanding of the language acquisition process and levels will help teachers tailor instruction to meet the needs of a diverse group of learners. Students will benefit from everything teachers do to support the development of their language skills while teaching them grade level content. Together teachers and students develop their understanding of each other, the world around them, and the language that connects us all.

Hot links

The Stages of Second Language Acquisition

This chapter from Classroom Instruction That Works with English Language Learners Facilitator's Guide, by Jane D. Hill and Cynthia L. Björk, offers information on the second language acquisition process and effective ELL instruction. It includes a a simplified chart of language acquisition levels and the kinds of language teachers can use to help students at each level.

Simple description of the stages of language acquisition and recommendations for instructional strategies according to level.

Overview of Second Language Acquisition and Strategies

Downloadable booklet from the Northwest Regional Education Laboratory, "Strategies and Resources for Mainstream Teachers of English Language Learners." Includes useful information on language levels, acquisition and 10 things teachers can do today to help ELL students.

Understanding the "Silent Period" with English Language Learners

This article describes some strategies used by two kindergarten teachers to communicate verbally and nonverbally.


You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact

5 Myths About English Language Learners (ELLs) and Special Education

5 Myths About English Language Learners (ELLs) and Special Education

Young student at board

Learn more about common myths related to English language learners (ELLs) and special education along with strategies for identifying and supporting students' strengths and needs.

When English language learners (ELLs) experience challenges in school, it can be hard to figure out why. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about services and supports for students who are learning English. Knowing the facts behind these myths can help you not only debunk them, but also make changes that can result in better outcomes for your students.

Myth #1: The ability to speak English (or not) is a measure of intelligence.

Fact: It can be easy to focus on what students can't do instead of what they can do. But consider this: English language learners are not only on the path to learning English, they're also on their way to becoming multilingual. It's not as unusual as you may think. Research shows that 20 percent of school-age children in the United States are bilingual. 

ELLs bring unique skills, gifts, and talents to the classroom. They often have rich background experiences, different perspectives, and the ability to navigate between multiple languages and cultures. They may also have sophisticated social-emotional skills (such as being tuned in to body language and tone of voice). 

In fact, when some of these kids were asked what they wished their teachers knew about them, they said they wanted teachers to remember that they're intelligent. They also wanted to build meaningful relationships with their teachers. 

Strategies for successfully addressing this myth in the classroom:

Myth #2: Students who rarely speak have a speech delay or auditory processing disorder.

Fact: Many students who are starting the process of learning a new language go through a nonverbal or "silent period." It's not unlike when toddlers and preschoolers first acquire language. They typically understand what they hear before they learn how to speak. 

The length of the silent period when learning a new language depends on several factors. The richness of the student's language instruction and interaction in the classroom both matter. Students' confidence and whether they're being encouraged to take risks are key, too. 

Even students who understand much of what they hear may still speak in short phrases or remain silent if they are not specifically engaged or don't feel welcome to participate in the classroom. 

Strategies for successfully addressing this myth in the classroom:

  • Learn more about the stages of language acquisition and ways to support oral language development.
  • Look for ways to increase students' speaking time in class. Expert Claudia Rinaldi, PhD, suggests timing the amount of "teacher talk time" vs. "student talk time." She also suggests setting a goal for increasing the student talk time each week. For example, provide more "turn and talk" opportunities so students can interact with peers.
  • Give your English language learners questions they can answer ahead of time, and tell them they can try to answer during the classroom instruction. Also allow for ample time between when you ask questions and when you call on students. 
  • Look at data from the student's most recent English language proficiency exams. Things to look for include: How do speaking and listening compare to reading and writing? Do the scores match what you've noticed in class? 
  • Partner with your school's ESL teacher to learn strategies to increase student talk time, and to get support in interpreting student data.

Myth #3: Students who don't understand spoken directions have a learning disability.

Fact: In many situations, students are actually succeeding, even though it doesn't look like success to their teacher. Consider this scenario:

A kindergarten teacher is concerned that despite her engaging, rich use of literacy and language in the classroom, she has an English language learner who continues to struggle to tell the difference between initial consonant sounds. 

The teacher asks a bilingual colleague to observe a lesson. When she asks students for words that begin with the /t/ sound, the native English-speaking students give examples like "tooth," "treat," and "tower." 

The student she's concerned about raises his hand and says confidently, "Maestra." The teacher gently tells him that this word begins with the /m/ sound. He looks down at the carpet, confused. 

After class, the bilingual colleague explains to the kindergarten teacher that "maestra" is the Spanish word for "teacher." 

This scenario is a clear example in which a student is succeeding, even though it doesn't look like success to the teacher. At first, it looked as though the student was struggling with phonemic awareness, which can be a sign of a learning disability. 

With the support of her colleague, the teacher was able to recognize that the student understood what was being asked of him, but didn't know enough English yet to say all the words he understood. 

Strategies for successfully addressing this myth in the classroom: 

  • Invite a bilingual colleague to observe your class or to review some student work. 
  • Learn more about making your teaching more student-friendly and easier to understand. ELL-friendly strategies can help, including things like using visuals, graphic organizers, and concrete, everyday objects.
  • Use visuals to support written instructions or have students repeat the instructions to each other.

Myth #4: ELLs will get the kinds of support they need in special education classes. 

Fact: A special education placement in and of itself is not an appropriate strategy to help English language learners succeed.

However, some schools may provide special education services to these students with the assumption that it will provide at least some help. This is often because special education services are designed to meet an individual student's needs and provide supports that may not be available in the general education classroom. It can also happen because there are certain strategies that support both students who need specially designed instruction and English language learners. 

ELLs have specific language, literacy, and academic needs. They need exposure to a rich language environment and scaffolded support that matches their level of language proficiency. Like all students, they also need access to the same rigorous curriculum as their peers. (Ideally, they will also have some level of academic support in their native language in order to tap into existing content knowledge and prior experiences.)

This is not to say that when an English language learner experiences academic challenges, it is always only a question of language. But special education placement without careful consideration is not likely to help.

Researchers note that more traditional interventions that help students with language-based learning disabilities often do not help students acquire proficiency in a second language. In fact, it can sometimes present additional challenges by limiting access to core curriculum and focusing on discrete skills taught out of context. This constricts language usage and can make it more difficult for ELLs to understand and retain information

Strategies for successfully addressing this myth in the classroom:

  • Learn more about the differences between the goals of special education services and ESL services to better understand what each is addressing and the support they are providing students. 
  • Keep in mind that sometimes this kind of policy reflects a bigger, systemic issue at the school or district level. Nevertheless, small steps on behalf of individual students can add up to systemic change over time because you can use these small successes to advocate for bigger changes.
  • Know the services your school provides for ESL students. Talk with an ESL teacher about how the programming works and whether the response to intervention (RTI)/multi-tier system of supports (MTSS) takes the needs of these learners into account. 
  • Start to identify some small areas you might like to focus on together in collaboration with the ESL teacher in order to improve outcomes for ELLs. You can also identify some bigger aspirational goals to work on over time. 

Myth #5: Schools should wait a certain amount of time before assessing an ELL for special education services.

Fact: Providing special education services to English language learners when they don't need them focuses on overidentification. But the challenge of underidentification is also widespread. That's when schools don't identify students as needing special education services when they do need them.

One of the most common reasons for underidentification is the use of subjective policies that determine when to test an ELL student for special education services. Many of these policies are put in place to avoid overidentification. But one expert notes that this can result in overcorrection, leading to students not getting the help they need in a timely manner.

For example, some schools decide to wait anywhere from one to seven years before assessing an English language learner for special education. That's because students generally take five to seven years to acquire an academic language.

Those policies don't consider the needs of students who may be struggling all of that time. Researchers point out that students have a better opportunity to be successful in school when they're identified sooner rather than later, and supported in culturally and linguistically responsive ways.

Strategies for success in the classroom: 

  • Ask yourself if the policies and practices at your school serve the needs of the students in front of you. If you see some areas that might need to be revisited, talk with the ESL teacher, special education staff, and other colleagues. Making even small changes can build momentum for bigger change down the road. 
  • Continue to closely monitor progress and determine the most appropriate course of action for students about whom you or a parent has ongoing concerns.
  • Advocate on behalf of the students about whom you have concerns by speaking with your school's teacher assistance team or by making a referral for special education evaluation. 
  • Learn about the students' native language and educational background. And ask parents if their child is showing similar challenges in the native language. Share that information with the ESL teacher, and work closely together to corroborate that this is what is happening at school as well. 

What You Can Do Next

Becoming better informed about the needs of your English language learners is a great first step to helping them succeed. It also can help you begin to identify what's working (or not) in your setting. Don't be afraid to ask questions, try new things, develop new collaborative relationships, and share what works with your colleagues. 

As you learn about your students' family background, learn more about the educational system they come from and cultural interactions as well. It allows you to interact with families in ways that respect their culture and cultural perspectives on education and learning challenges. You might just find the opportunity you've been looking for to make a difference for your students. 

Additional Resources to Explore


This article originally appeared on Understood as part of a partnership between Colorín Colorado and Understood. ©2019 Understood For All, Inc.


Hamayan, E., Marler, B., Sanchez-Lopez, C., and Damico, J. (2007). Some myths regarding ELLs and special education. In Special education considerations for English language learners: Delivering a continuum of services (pp. 7–8). Philadelphia, PA: Caslon Publishing. ©Caslon Publishing. Printed with permission on Colorín Colorado, all rights reserved.


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.