Second Language Acquisition

Second language acquisition research claims that it takes many students 1-3 years to learn “social” language (or the language of the playground, also known as BICS or basic interpersonal communication skills), and 5-7 additional years to learn academic language [or the language of the classroom, also known as CALP or communicative academic language profiency (Cummins, 1979)]. Therefore, it can take some students 10 years to be considered fully English proficient, and this does not take into account any additional learning disabilities or challenges, etc.

ELLs have a double cognitive load in school: they are learning English and they are learning in English. Due to the extra efforts ELLs must exert in the classroom to learn, some ELL behaviors such as delayed responses, struggle for word recall, or distractibility are often mistaken for learning disabilities. Many of these behaviors can be caused by the language acquisition process as opposed to a disability. It is important for teachers and parents of ELLs to understand some of the key components of the second language acquisition process in order to ascertain the ELL's strengths and needs in and out of the classroom.

Performance Definitions for the Levels of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12, according to the WIDA Consortium (ACCESS test)

At the given level of English language proficiency, English language learners will process, understand, produce, or use:

  • Linguistic Complexity—the amount and quality of speech or writing for a given situation
  • • Vocabulary Usage—the specificity of words or phrases for a given context
  • • Language Control—the comprehensibility of the communication based on the amount and types of errors

Another way of looking at language proficiency uses the following labels for each level. Note that these levels are ascending, whereas the ACCESS levels were in descending order.

What is particularly helpful in this chart is the types of questions that are appropriate at the various levels.

For Early Production students, questions that require a one-word response, such as yes/no and either/or questions, are acceptable. You also want to begin asking students at this stage questions that require a phrase or short sentence.

Speech Emergence students should be asked to answer questions that require a short-sentence response. It is OK to sometimes ask these students questions requiring a multiple-sentence response, but it is not OK to ask them questions requiring a pointing or one-word response.

How about Intermediate and Advanced Fluency students? It is OK to ask them questions that require a lot of verbal output, but it is not OK to ask them questions requiring minimal verbal output.

You can use tiered questions to include all ELLs in whole-class activities or one on one to check comprehension or content learning. To accomplish this, you will need to know each student's stage of language acquisition.

Links- (brief overview of the second language acquisition process)

Another Way of Looking at Language Acquisition as it Relates to Cognition and Schooling

For native English learners, these 3 processes are more or less parallel.

For ELs, they happen at different times for different learners. It's important to provide comprehensible input at all levels.