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Typical Language Development and Second Language Acquisition

Typical language development and second language acquisition, with examples of instructional strategies

Typical Language Development and Second Language Acquisition

by Paula Conroy, Ed.D
Professor, School of Special Education
Coordinator, Visual Impairment and O&M Programs
University of Northern Colorado


Background Information

The United States becomes more ethnically and linguistically diverse every year. The demographics are clearly changing:

  • 19.5% of the U.S. populations speaks languages other than English
  • 65% of bilingual people living in the U.S. speak Spanish, followed by French, Chinese and German.
  • By 2030, the number of school-aged children who speak a language other than English is expected to grow to 40%
  • All states in the nation have ELL (English Language Learners).
  • 80.4 % of students identified as CLDE (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse students with Exceptionalities) speak Spanish as a first language.

English Language Learners (ELLs) is a current term used to describe the population of students whose native language is other than English and who are in the process of learning the English language. Other terms include English Learners (EL) and Limited English Proficient (LEP). EL or ELL is the current federal term used but you may still see LEP in some contexts. This term is viewed as less politically correct.

While there is no current accurate counting mechanism in place to determine the number of ELL’s with visual impairment, it has been estimated that the number is growing at the same rate as the general population of ELL’s (Milian, Conroy, Correa-Torres, in press). Since this population of students has unique educational needs, teachers of students with visual impairments (TVIs) must be knowledgeable of their role in addressing both the language and educational needs of students with visual impairments. While there may be a language teacher involved with addressing language needs, the TVI will need to assist with developing appropriate programs that are accessible to students with visual impairments.

Since this population of students has unique educational needs, TVI’s must be knowledgeable of both typical language development and the second language acquisition process as a start. With this solid background TVI’s can implement related teaching strategies in order to make appropriate educational decisions for intervention.


Typical Early Language Development

0-3 Months

Fussing, crying, cough, sneeze

3-4 Months

Laughs, chuckling

4-6 Months

Babbling sounds like speech of native language

6 months- 2 years

Exponential Language Growth

3 years

Children know about 515-1,116 words

8 Years

Children know about 6,000 words

18 Years

Children know about 175,000 words


Stages in ALL Language Development

  • Pre-production (silent period): minimal comprehension; no verbal production;
  • Early Production: Limited comprehension; one to two word responses; random errors;
  • Emergent stage: increased comprehension; simple sentences;  unable to correct errors; possible backsliding (plateau);
  • Intermediate fluency stage: Good comprehension; more complex sentences; complex errors in speech; able to correct errors when they are pointed out;
  • Stabilization stage: No problem with fluency and intended meanings; able to self-correct errors; possible fossilization (carry L1 into L2 permanently).
Jim Cummins makes a distinct difference between language learning and acquisition. He states that it takes from 5 to 7 years for a student to become proficient in all aspects of a second language. This has significant implications for the student in our schools. His theory has to do with BICS and CALP and has direct implications for teaching and learning in helping us understand the process. 

BICS & CALPS: Cummins’ Task Difficulty

BICS- Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills
The conversational language that children and adults use in daily face to face interaction.
CALPS- Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency Skills
The language used in academic settings, sometimes referred to as “academic language” ELL’s tend to learn social language quickly as it is learned for meaning in everyday tasks. Academic Language is more difficult to learn because it contains figurative expressions, non-repetitive vocabulary, inexplicit terms, emphasis on factual information and evidence, use of qualifiers, unfamiliar prosody.
Academic language also includes long sentences, passive or impersonal voice, nominalizations and “Bricks and Mortar” (content specific words and complicated sentence structure).
BICS and CALP Quadrant

Principles of Second Language Development

Language development is influenced by a number of variables that interact in complex ways. 
  • Some primary language skills will transfer to second language skills (e.g. analysis, learning strategies)
  • Academic proficiency in primary language facilitates academic language in English
  • High quality direct language instruction is required
  • English language learners need enhanced, explicit vocabulary development
(Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., Short, D. (2008). Making Content Comprehensible)

There are four key principles to language acquisition:

  1. Increase Comprehensibility
  2. Increase Interaction
  3. Increase Thinking/Study Skills
  4. Use the child’s native language to increase comprehensibility

Examples of Instructional Strategies Linked to Appropriate Language Acquisition Stages

This chart shows each of the five stages of second language acquisition linked to appropriate and specific instructional strategies.

Silent/ Receptive
Stage I

Early Production
Stage II

Speech Emergence
Stage III

Intermediate /Stabilization
Stages IV & V

Use of visual aids and gestures

Engage students in charades and linguistic guessing games

Conduct group discussions

Sponsor student panel discussions on the thematic topics*

Slow speech emphasizing key words

Do role-playing activities

Use skits for dramatic interaction

Have students identify a social issue and defend their position*

Do not force oral production

Present open-ended sentences

Have student fill out forms and applications*

Promote critical analysis and evaluation of pertinent issues

Write key words on the board with students copying them as they are presented

Promote open dialogues

Assign writing compositions

Assign writing tasks that involve writing, rewriting, editing, critiquing written examples*

Use pictures and manipulatives to help illustrate concepts

Conduct student interviews with the guidelines written out

Have students write descriptions of visuals and props

Encourage critical interpretation of stories, legends, and poetry*

Use multimedia language role models

Use charts, tables, graphs, and other conceptual visuals

Use music, TV, and radio with class activities

Have students design questions, directions, and activities for others to follow

Use interactive dialogue journals

Use newspaper ads and other mainstream materials to encourage language interaction*

Show films and videos with cooperative groups scripting the visuals

Encourage appropriate story telling

Encourage choral readings

Encourage partner and trio readings

Encourage solo readings with interactive comprehension checks*


Use Total Physical Response (TPR) techniques




*It is important to structure activities that are both age and linguistically appropriate.


Collage of ELL and Language Development


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