New Jersey Department of Education

DOE A to Z: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z #

English Language Learners (ELL) in the Mainstream

Part Two: The Theory of Second Language Acquisition

Red Arrow

Stages of Language Acquisition - Sample Teaching Strategies at Each Stage of Language Development [For further information on English Language Proficiency Standards, go to:].

Stage I: Preproduction

Definition: Students at this stage tend to be non-verbal. Most of what is spoken in English is completely incomprehensible. Students will exhibit some level of frustration, anxiety, and withdrawal, characterized as “culture shock.” Students will focus intensively on listening and viewing what is happening in the classroom. They will copy from the board and repeat what they hear with little or no comprehension at first. Please note: Students may exhibit inattentiveness at times. However, it should be noted that the language overload of second language learning can be exhausting. Suggestions for the classroom are:

  • Use of visuals, real objects, manipulatives.
  • Response through physical movement or manipulation of objects.
  • Allow students to listen, observe. Do not force students to speak. Provide many listening opportunities.
  • Group students with more advanced ELLs or cooperative mainstream peers for group activities.
  • Provide reading materials with simplified text and numerous pictures.
Stage II: Early Production
Definition: Students will begin to repeat language commonly used in social conversation and will be able to use routine expressions. They will make statements and ask questions with isolated words or simple phrases. They will decode according to the phonetic rules of first language. Students can identify people, places, and objects and can participate in class activities by relating information to this type of information. Students may continue to exhibit inattentiveness at times, but not to the frequency and intensity noted for students at Stage One. Suggestions for the classroom are:
  • Use simplified, abbreviated text materials, focusing on the main idea[s].
  • Continue to provide listening activities with visual support.
  • Begin writing activities, such as dialogue journals for reflection and response to learning materials.
  • Ask yes/no questions, or questions requiring a 1-3 word response.
  • Response to assessments can take the form of actions, manipulation of materials and/or simplified response.
  • Introduction of predictable books with limited words, more pictures and/or graphics for primary age ELLs.
  • Introduction of structured retelling activities, with the use of physical responses, visuals, manipulatives for primary age ELLs.
Stage III: Speech Emergence

Definition: Students will exhibit increased proficiency in decoding and comprehending second language words and text. Students will begin, with or without phonics instruction, to decode according to second language rules and from expanded experiences with oral interactions and text. Students will demonstrate an increased understanding of conversations, dialogues, simple stories containing a few details and factual or simple procedural information from content area texts. Teachers will note that written expression will include an expanding vocabulary and the emergence of a writing style. Students can edit writing with guidance [e.g. checklists, peer editors, teacher assistance] and will be able to self-evaluate writing. Suggestions for the classroom are:

  • Develop activities with content and context embedded practice in all four skill areas.
  • Ask open-ended questions, but provide models for response orally or through word banks.
  • Shared or partnered reading and writing activities.
  • Expanded use of predictable books containing more text, with primary-age ELLs.
  • Use of content area picture books, with expanded text [fiction and non-fiction] to support learning of content [e.g. science and social studies, such as Adler, David A. A picture book of Sacagawea; illustrated by Dan Brown. New York: Holiday House, 2000. ISBN 082341485X. A biography of the Shoshone woman who joined the Lewis and Clark expedition. See “Resources” for a short list of other suggested content area picture books.
  • Expanded writing opportunities in a variety of genres—descriptive, narrative, instructive, etc.
  • Introduce learning strategies instruction examples. [See CALLA in Part Four.]
Stage IV: Intermediate Fluency

Definition: There is a marked increase in listening, speaking, reading, and writing comprehension and accuracy of response. Students will demonstrate an increased use of strategies for word attack and comprehension of content reading materials. In addition, the student can read and understand a wider variety of genres in literature. He/she can summarize, make simple inferences, and can use language to express and defend opinions. First language background knowledge and strategies become a resource for the student. Overall, the student, at this stage, can perform well in the classroom, but teachers will need to provide structure, strategies, and guidance. Suggestions for the classroom are:

  • Provide guided instruction in the use of reference/research materials for middle-high school ELLs.
  • Expand learning strategies instruction.
  • Provide practice in making inferences from content reading.
  • Model appropriate language for expressing abstract concepts from content learning by providing students with response “stems.”
    • Example One: For students studying Colonial America and the events that led up to the Revolution, teachers want to help students learn to make inferences and reflect on different points of view about historical events and be able to discuss the underlying causes of events, a teacher might ask one or more of the following structured question types, with a provided “stem” for student response:
      • Question: What was Great Britain trying to show the colonists by putting a tax on tea?
      • Student response “stem”:
        The British were trying to   **   that:
        • Place a choice of response words appropriate for the ELLs current level of comprehension, such as: **show, prove, demonstrate, illustrate, confirm, uphold, etc.
    • Example Two: For students studying light, light waves, reflection, refraction, and telescopes, teachers would want students to be able to compare the differences between how each telescope works and the purposes for which they are used. A teacher might ask one or more of the following structured question types, with a provided “stem” for student response:
      • Question: How is the view through a reflective telescope different from the view through a refractive telescope?
      • Student response “stem”: The view through a reflective telescope [1] a refractive telescope [2]:
        • Place a choice of response words appropriate for the ELLs current level of comprehension, such as:
              [1] is different from, differs from, is dissimilar to
              [2] because, since, in that, given that
  • Move toward expanded text reading to include supporting details and extended reading activities.
  • Expand writing repertoire to include various types of letters, newspaper journalism, and creative writing experiences.
  • Can begin to work in collaborative groups for content activities.
Stage V: Advanced Fluency

Definition: At this stage of development, the student performs “almost” like a native speaker. He/she can produce language that is highly accurate, incorporating more complex vocabulary and grammatical structure in his/her communicative discourse. The student’s reading interests broaden and he/she can read independently for information and/or pleasure. His/her writing skills are at a near native English level. The student continues to use his/her native language as a source to enhance comprehension of English. Although most English Language Learners are exited at this level of performance, students may still need a “lifeline” for clarification of new concepts and/or vocabulary. Suggestions for the classroom are:

  • Continue to build concepts through advanced content area reading.
  • Continue to expand on learning strategies instruction.
  • Continue to provide enriched writing activities.
  • Help to build an expressive vocabulary to match the strength of the receptive vocabulary development.
  • Work in collaborative groups for content activities.