How does a speaker of another language learn English?

According to Smyk et al (2013), there are five distinct stages of second language acquisition. The first stage is called the “silent/observer” stage, the second is “a few words or formulaic phrases” (sometimes known as telegraphic/formulaic use of language), the third is when language enters a more productive use, with “short sentences and phrases with multiple errors”, followed by the forth stage of “full sentences with a few grammatical errors”, and then finally “native-like production”.

At the first stage, when children are “silent/observing”, the child may appear to be nonverbal or in a sometimes called “silent period”. This is a critical period in which the child is learning the new elements of a language and focusing solely on receptive comprehension of the language. Their knowledge of the language is too minimal for them to produce very much of the language, except for maybe a few words or jargon. It is not uncommon for the child to play with sounds of the new language, as this is a means of exploration of their new language exposure. At this stage, because the child is so reliant on learning through observing the new environment to understand the new language, routines can be very beneficial for accommodating the child. For example, establishing continual use of familiar picture cards, gestures, and phrases that the child can anticipate will give the child a sense of consistency and stability. Pairing the child with slightly advanced speakers to demonstrate good peer models of the language, while also placing an emphasis on social interactions, will also benefit the child’s learning of the language during this period.

In the telegraphic stage, in which the child is now using some expressive output, sentence construction is rather fragmented and many errors exist. Single words, such as the utilization of only a content word, can comprise a child’s attempt at verbal expression during this stage. Pattern books, small group activities, advanced conversational partners, and routines are all especially beneficial for children during this stage. Educators need to be aware of the need for gestures, visual aids, and repetitions during this time.

During the productive stage, in which short sentences and phrases with multiple errors are produced, the child relies on formulas to build sentences. Sentences often contain errors that are overgeneralizations. They may use nonspecific words and fillers, and dysfluencies are likely to be present. During this stage, the introduction of more complex stories is acceptable. Children will need time to respond, due to the added effort they are making to formulate sentences. Additionally, they will need to have frequent check ins for comprehension, to make sure that they are truly understanding what is asked of them/new lessons. Educators can start to introduce more advanced vocabulary, in terms of tier II level words.

When the child enters the stage of being fluent with errors, the child now understands a lot of what is going on around him with increased ease. In this stage, the child can communicate effectively, though an accent and errors will still exist. It is important for educators to know that a need for supports is necessary, such as emphasizing grammatical markers when mistakes are made or providing models of proper phoneme production. The need for supports will be specifically essential when new context is introduced.

At the final stage, native-like proficiency, the child will make age-appropriate errors in language, though the child communicates in the second language with ease and is an adept communicator. An accent may still be present, and influence from the child’s dialect may be embedded in the child’s language. At the stage, it is likely safe to assume that the child’s comprehension is age-appropriate, but educator’s still need to be aware of the fact that academic struggles may be present. Educators should review key concepts, offer extra help and support whenever necessary, and keep ELLs on their radar in terms of any language struggles that may come up.

It is important to be proactive in finding potential speech and language deficits in order for the child to have the best potential for academic success. Effective practice starts with effective assessment. Rather than “waiting to fail”, educators should avoid this tendency and instead screen children early on. Educators should screen by looking for key skills, with a manner even as simple as a basic checklist. These checklists can include acknowledgment of concepts such as the amount of speaking the child engages in, the amount of opportunities the child has to speak, the relevance of a child’s comments on the established conversational topic, etc. This screening can also serve as a baseline for comparison of later data collection.

Because we know that literacy can be a problem for second language learners, it is essential to bear in mind the need to tie in curriculum and thematic contexts in reading activities. Educators need to acknowledge the fact that text is a rich platform for discussing a unit and therefore literacy can be tied in to every academic discipline. Thematically related literary works within larger units of studies helps to bridge the gap across school subjects, while building literacy skills. Combining larger units of study with books allows for children to grow their experiences within that topic of study to further solidify their understanding.

Written by: Taylor Viggers, MS, CF-SLP

Smyk, E., Restrepo, M. A., Gorin, J. S. & Gray, S. (2013). Development and validation of the Spanish-English language proficiency scale (SELPS). Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 44, 252-265.


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