English language learners move through five stages of language acquisition, and knowing which stage your learner has reached can greatly increase your chances of success in providing instruction. If you work closely with someone who is learning English as a second, or even third language, you will notice the clear signs of progress through the five stages.
According to Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrell in their 1983 book, "The Natural Approach: Language Acquisition in the Classroom," the first stage of language acquisition is known as preproduction. In this stage, the person learning English understands very little. She will seldom speak, and most likely will nod and point in response to questions posed in English. This stage may last as long as six months. The teacher may help by asking the learner to show answers by pointing to the answer, picking out the appropriate flash card, or even drawing pictures in response to questions.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the second stage of language acquisition may be considered "beginning production." The student speaks with hesitancy and difficulty. He may understand simple directions. Most of the verbs you hear will be present tense, and the student will repeat familiar phrases often. This stage begins after about six months of starting to learn English, and may take up to a year to complete.
At the third stage, speech emergence, the student has basic comprehension, though subtle meanings, symbolic language and humor may confuse him. Responses may come out as complete sentences, though you will hear grammatical and syntactical errors. According to Jane D. Hill and Kathleen M. Flynn's 2006 book "Classroom Instruction That Works with English Language Learners," this stage starts after about one year of beginning to learn English, and may last another two years.
The student at the intermediate fluency stage has achieved very good comprehension and can speak and write with few grammatical errors. The student may produce lengthy responses to questions that ask for inferences and conjecture. This student enters this stage approximately three years after beginning to study English, and this stage may last two years. The student should be writing in English in all subject areas, such as science, math, history and any other subject one might find in a high school curriculum, according to the Michigan Department of Education.
In the advanced fluency stage, the student sounds much like a native speaker. Subtleties, jokes, innuendo and inferences present few problems. This achievement can take as long as seven years of study and practice. The student may develop a regional accent. According to the Improving Schools in Maryland initiative, fluent students should be able to comprehend, analyze, interpret, and evaluate various literary and informational articles, stories and books.