Language Labyrinth: How Do ELLs Navigate the Maze of English Language Acquisition?

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The first day of school is always an adventure. Adrenaline runs high as parents encourage their children to work hard and be on their best behavior, students exude nervous energy as they timidly walk into their classrooms for the first time and teachers anxiously welcome their new learners. I remember my first “first day” of school vividly, as do my students. I had spent hours preparing my classroom, making it a warm and welcoming environment. I diligently constructed a classroom library that included a rug and pillows so that students would have a comfortable place to read. I enthusiastically set up centers around the classroom to facilitate student-centered small-group learning activities. I carefully labeled students’ desks and cubbies to ensure they felt they were part of a classroom community as soon as they walked in.

I expected my students to walk into the classroom with timid smiles and a sense of excitement. Instead, I was surprised to find a bunch of exceptionally concerned little third-grade faces staring back at me. I was completely confused—why were my students so preoccupied? Why were they nervously whispering to one another and casting distressed glances my direction? This is not at all what I anticipated. I had no idea what the problem was until one student, Valentina, suddenly burst into tears and sobbed quietly to herself, her head on her desk. “No hablo ingles. La Miss no me va a poder entender, y no le voy a poder entender a ella. ¿Qué voy a hacer?”  (I don’t speak English. The teacher can’t understand me and I can’t understand her. What am I going to do?).

My students, all of whom were English language learners (ELLs), had taken one look at me and had decided that they were in trouble. I was the first Anglo teacher with whom they had interacted, and they were terrified. This interaction left a lasting impression on me—it taught me about how complex and emotionally taxing the English language acquisition process can be for our ELL students, and it inspired me to learn more about the stages of language development so that I could better support my students

Stages of Second Language Development

Second language acquisition is a challenging process for our ELL students. Knowledge of this process can help educators better serve their ELL students.  According to second language acquisition theorists, ELLs flow through a series of five language development stages. Krashen and Terrell’s (1983) stages of second language acquisition are widely accepted by professionals in the field:

  1. Pre-production: During this stage, students are only able to communicate minimally in their second language. They may not be able to verbalize any words in English or may be able to communicate by simple yes/no responses or by drawing or pointing.
  2. Early production: In this stage, students have limited comprehension in their second language and are often characterized by having the ability to produce one or two high-frequency words or simple phrases. Students also tend to conjugate verbs in the present tense.
  3. Speech emergence: During this stage, students have developed comprehension skills and are able to produce simple sentences, but they may make frequent grammatical or pronunciation errors. Students may also struggle to understand jokes in their second language.
  4. Intermediate fluency: Students in this stage typically have strong comprehension skills, but at times make a few grammatical errors.
  5. Fluency: In this final stage, students demonstrate near-native fluency and comprehension.

Having an understanding of each ELL’s stage of English language acquisition can help us better serve our students. For example, I quickly came to learn that Valentina, my distraught third grader, was at a pre-production stage of English language acquisition. Because I knew this, I was able to better support her by using specific strategies and prompts to scaffold her learning, both to facilitate her second language acquisition and to ensure she was able to access academic content.

ell tool issue5 thumbnailWe invite you to explore the following table to learn more about specific teaching strategies and prompts that you can use to support your ELL students as they work through the different stages of second language acquisition.

In our next issue, we will expand on the topic of second language acquisition by discussing some of the factors that influence the rate at which students acquire English proficiency. Please feel free to email us with questions or comments!




Until the next issue,

Madeline Mavrogordato & Jennifer Paul



Haynes, J. (2013). Stages of second language acquisition. Retrieved from

Hill, J. D., & Bjork, C. L. (2006). Classroom instruction that works with English language learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Krashen, S. D., & Terrell, T. D. (1983). The natural approach: Language acquisition in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Allemany Press.

Oswego School District (2013). Stages of language acquisition for ELLs. Retrieved from