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5 Stages of Second Language Acquisition

By VIPKid  |  September 15, 2020

Learning a new language doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it happens in five different stages, and understanding them can be the key to helping your students learn English faster. 

What do ESL teachers need to know about the stages of Language Acquisition?

Understanding each stage of Second Language Acquisition is vital for teachers who have English as Second Language (ESL) students in their classrooms. Identifying which stage your students are in will allow you to come up with different strategies and activities to help them reach English fluency while still achieving grade-level academic goals.

Keep in mind that everyone progresses through these stages at different speeds. This depends on many factors, such as age, background, and level of education.

The five stages of second language acquisition are:

1st Stage: Pre-production

This is the time when students learn basic vocabulary without speaking the language. Students in this stage might repeat words and practice their pronunciation, but they don’t understand the language. This stage can last anywhere between 0-6 months, and students usually have a vocabulary of up to 500 words.

Exercise Tip: Focus on vocabulary and listening comprehension. Ask students to identify objects, people, colors, etc. Having a classmate that can communicate with them in their first language can be very beneficial.

2nd Stage: Early Production

Once they reach this stage, students are usually able to communicate using phrases with one or two words. They tend to be most familiar with basic words and expressions and can manage a vocabulary of around 1000 words. The phrases they create might not be grammatically correct, but they are said with meaning and can be understood.

Exercise Tip: Ask simple questions that can be answered with “yes/no” and accept simple responses. Simplify your vocabulary and complement it with pictures. Focus on key concepts and words.

3rd Stage: Speech Emergence

These students have a vocabulary of around 3000 words and can communicate using simple sentences and questions. They will be able to understand simple stories and start short conversations. Students in this stage will be able to begin to read and write simple content. 

Exercise Tip: Ask students to write and illustrate stories or lessons. Group activities and flashcards can be helpful during this stage. Ask questions that require short-sentence answers.

4th Stage: Intermediate Fluency

During this stage, students learn to communicate using more complex vocabulary than before. Students in this stage have good comprehension and make few grammatical errors – mostly in written English-. They have a vocabulary of up to 6000 words, and they are more willing to share their thoughts and opinions in English.

Exercise Tip: Support your students while they work on grade-level assignments on subjects such as math and science. Provide assignments that require students to read texts and synthesize what they understood from the text. Ask questions that require multiple-sentences answers.

5th Stage: Advanced Fluency or Continued Language Development

It can take students anywhere between four and ten years to reach this stage. These students will have a grasp of English, but they still need ongoing opportunities to express themselves in English in order to remain fluent.

Exercise Tip: Some students in this stage can still require teacher assistance with subjects like history and social studies. At first, students transitioning from ESL programs to mainstream education could still require writing and understanding colloquial expressions. You can ask students in this stage to retell stories and provide opportunities to express themselves in English to reach complete fluency.

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