This link lists and explains the five language development stages for students learning English. Use this link as a resource to familiarize yourself with how ESL students develop their language skills.
Because you have the resource above, I will just briefly explain each stage.
The Pre-Production stage, or Silent Period, occurs when the ESL student is not producing any language and is therefore silent. This stage is natural and all students experience this stage when first learning English. It may appear that the student is not learning much during this time, but the student is actually learning a lot of English! He/she is building their receptive vocabulary, which means they are listening and learning various vocabulary words. They are also figuring out English grammar. While learning these English skills, the student is also observing teacher and student behaviors or, in other words, learning the school culture while also learning the country’s culture. The Silent Period may last from a few days to an entire school year! This period of time needs to be respected meaning that teachers and peers should not force the student to speak and should accept the fact that this is a challenging time for the student and to let them adjust to the language and culture in their own way. It is very helpful to make the student feel as comfortable and secure as possible. He/she usually feels overwhelmed and exhausted at this stage (especially at the end of the school day), so the student may need to rest or sleep throughout the day. It is acceptable for teachers to allow their ESL students at the Pre-Production stage to rest or sleep. Teaching and developing the student’s BICS is key at this stage. Total Physical Response (TPR) where the teacher teaches the student commands is effective at this stage as well as repetition of vocabulary words and phrases.
The next stage is called the Early Production Stage. ESL students will eventually begin to say a few words and short phrases. Because of this, the teacher can elicit one word or two word responses such as Yes/No questions. If the student feels comfortable, he/she can state commands during a TPR activity instead of the ESL teacher giving the commands. Texts that contain a predictable pattern are effective for ESL students at this stage. Students learn frozen language such as, “My name is _____. I come from _____. I am _____ years old”. The student continues to increase their receptive vocabulary and is still in the process of learning English grammar whether he/she is actually producing language or not. Social language is the priority at this stage. Depending on the student, the Early Production Stage may last several weeks. The teacher needs to continue to provide a supportive and low stress environment for the student. If the student makes an error, do not correct the student. Instead, correct the student by modeling the correct language to him/her. The reason for this is that you want to encourage the student to produce and learn the language in a very low anxiety environment. Praising the student is very helpful at this stage as you want your student to feel safe to produce language.
The Pre-Production and Early Production Stages falls under the Beginner Proficiency Level. The next stage, the Speech Emergence Stage, falls under the Early Intermediate Proficiency Level.
In the Speech Emergence Stage, the student has developed about 3,000 words and is able to use simple phrases and sentences when producing the English language. Language is used more naturally at this stage meaning that you can begin to have freer more natural conversations with the student. Students at this stage may not be grammatically correct, so teachers need to model the correct grammar instead of directly correcting the student (unless the student wants to be corrected in a direct way). The reason for this is that you still want to provide a safe and low anxiety learning environment for the student, so students feel safe to use or apply the language they have learned. Do not worry, the student will learn correct grammar. Students at the Speech Emergence Stage are able to participate in their classroom, especially in small groups and can understand and learn some academic content with support. Social language is still key at this stage in addition to some academic language. Journal writing and writing riddles are two appropriate activities that the student can do at this stage. They can also complete classroom work that is adapted to their language abilities.
The longest stage among the five stages of language development is the Intermediate Fluency stage. At this stage, ESL students are producing more complex sentences and the focus is less social language and more academic language. It is important for ESL teachers to develop the student’s CALP. Students are able to understand classroom content with some support. The more the student learns the English language, the better they are able to access academic content and the less support they will need. Academic vocabulary instruction is crucial along with intermediate grammar instruction, so students are able to express themselves in an academic setting. Students’ writing skills are weak at this stage and need to be a focus as well. The Intermediate Fluency stage may last for a few to many years.
The last stage among the five stages of developing the English language is the Advanced Fluency stage. Students at this stage are very close to having native-like proficiency in content areas. They are able to access content in the classroom, but may still need help with academic vocabulary or abstract language such as phrasal verbs or idioms. Students at this stage are close to, or already have, exited from ESL services. It is important to express to classroom teachers that students at this stage are still learning English and may need help with vocabulary words and abstract language.
Each student is different, so the time is takes for an ESL student to progress through each stage or a particular stage will vary. Typical English language learners move through each stage and show progress with their language skills. A sign that an ESL student may have a disability is when the student remains at a stage for a very long time and is exhibiting great difficulty at a particular stage. The student is unable to progress with their language skills or demonstrates very little progress with their English language development.
Many of my colleagues did not understand how to recognize a disability in an English language learner. They did not know how a typical ESL student learns English and, therefore, how to recognize a disability in an ESL student who was an atypical learner. Showing the work and progress of typical ESL students to a colleague who is questioning whether or not an ESL student has a disability is very helpful. Here is what I did:
When teaching English language learners, I documented my students’ progress and language development. Each student had a folder that contained the lists of vocabulary words and grammar structures they had learned and were currently learning. I wrote the date that indicated when the student began learning the vocabulary words and grammar structures and also wrote the date of when they fully learned these words and structures. I also did the same for each reading level (when we began a reading level and when the student finished this level and moved on to the next level). This shows how students progress and at what speed. In addition, I kept writing samples or photocopied writing samples of the student with the date on each sample. By doing this, I documented each student’s progress. For some students, I made two copies (removing the student’s name for confidentiality purposes) and placed the second copy in a folder as a reference. These copies were used as a reference to show colleagues typical English language development, which helped them to better understand atypical development.