Stages of Second Language Acquisition

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.

Helpful Suggestion:

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.


There are two types of languages. One type of language is called Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and the other is called Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). What is the difference between the two?

Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) is a term that means social language or conversational English. BICS is language used in casual settings such as the playground, cafeteria, or bus. It is the easier of the two to develop because the grammar and vocabulary are basic and simple, making the language less cognitively demanding. Vocabulary words contain only one or two syllables and the language is more concrete. These words are called tier one words. Tier one words are words used in everyday speech. All cultures have social language. Because of these factors, BICS is easier and faster to develop. It usually takes ESL students one to three years until they are proficient in BICS.

Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) is a term that describes academic language used in the classroom. CALP is more difficult language because the language itself is more complex, abstract, and sophisticated making CALP more cognitively demanding. Vocabulary words are multisyllabic and may be composed of prefixes, suffixes, and roots (construct, combine, observe). These words are called tier two words. Tier two words are words used in academic language in the classroom. Academic vocabulary words are not the only examples of CALP. Other examples of CALP are using language in academic situations. Examples of CALP are labeling the parts of the cell and explain their functions, explain the similarities and differences between the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan cultures, or use similes and metaphors in a poem. Tier three words also belong under CALP. Tier three words are words that are specific to a domain or field of study. They are low frequency words and are used less than tier two words. Examples of tier three words are “exponent”, “hyperbole”, and “adjacent”. Not all cultures have CALP. CALP is used only in literacy cultures. Because CALP is more difficult language to acquire than BICS, it usually takes ELL students five to seven years (or more) until proficient.  If a student is strong in their first language and has strong literacy skills, then it will take five to seven years to achieve advanced fluency.  If a student has not fully developed their first language and does not have strong literacy skills in their first language, then it may take seven to ten years to achieve advanced fluency.

Important Points About BICS and CALP:

It typically takes ESL students five to seven years to develop CALP, but this does not mean that they will receive ESL services for this long. ESL students may test out of your ESL program after three years of services. It is important to note that just because these students no longer receive ESL services does not mean that they are no longer learning academic English or need English support in their classrooms. It may be beneficial to mention this to their classroom teacher.

Students who “sound” competent in English may struggle with academic demands of English language instruction in the classroom.  Students may be fluent in BICS, but may still be developing their CALP skills.  Therefore, just because a student “sounds” proficient in English does not mean they do not need ESL services, are not learning academic English, or need extra support learning academic English in the classroom.  The goal for any ESL student is to achieve advanced fluency in social and academic settings.  Classroom teachers may feel confused and/or frustrated when their ESL students “sound proficient”, but do not perform as well academically.  It may be beneficial to mention this fact to their classroom teacher.

Why is knowing about BICS and CALP important? 

As an ESL teacher, it is beneficial to know about BICS and CALP because it is important to know the natural stages of English language development. If you know the pattern of how your ESL students typically learn English, then it will be easier to detect ESL students who do not follow this pattern. These students do not follow the typical pattern of English language acquisition and usually show a great amount of difficulty learning English. It is these students who you monitor and who may need special education services.

If you are certain that your ESL student has a disability after a year or two of ESL services, and a response from a staff member is, “Doesn’t it take at least five to seven years before ESL students acquire English?  It takes a long time for ESL students to learn English, so why are you concerned about this student having a learning disability already?”  Your response could validate this staff member’s knowledge that yes, it does take five to seven years until an ESL student acquires CALP skills, but because of this student’s slow progress due to this student exhibiting much more difficulty learning English than a typical ESL student, it may take much longer for this student to acquire English.  Therefore, this student may need additional services to support their English learning while shortening the time it will take for this student to fully develop their English skills.