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What patterns does English language development typically follow?

English language development is a process that occurs over a long period of time. Think about it. Even those who were born into English speaking families continue to acquire new language skills throughout the course of life. English language development occurs at a different rate for every student, and it is easy to misjudge a child’s language capabilities because of the seeming variance from week to week or even day to day. There are numerous factors contributing to this variance: the context for language use, the classroom environment, stages of culture shock, age, level of proficiency in the home language, motivation, parent attitudes towards English, and many others. However,
English language development does follow a few predictable patterns.

Beginning ELLs:

  • Many beginning ELLs go through a period of silence as they adjust to a new environment and experience an initial exposure to the English language. Though the silent period varies in length, most students will naturally begin to speak short functional phrases within a week to a few months of entering school.
  • Very young ELLs with little literacy in their home language are likely to develop oral language skills before reading and writing skills.
  • Older ELLs with well-developed literacy skills in their first language may develop skills in reading and writing prior to oral language skills.
  • Support for beginning ELLs includes both teacher and students creating a welcoming environment, using gestures and pictures to aid communication, and patiently waiting for students to feel comfortable to experiment with English.

Intermediate ELLs:

  • Intermediate ELLs can understand and speak in face to face interactions with minimal hesitation and few misunderstandings. They are developing skills in reading and writing.
  • To support intermediate ELLs focus on encouraging communication rather than grammar, spelling, and pronunciation, provide support for academic vocabulary, and teach strategies for processing information.

Another important distinction to make in English language development is between BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) and CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency). Research shows that it takes students about two years to develop BICS, the oral skills needed to communicate effectively at a social level with teachers and peers. On the other hand, it can take five to seven years or longer for students to develop more advanced academic language skills at a level comparable to the ESL student’s native English speaking peers. For this reason, it is important that general elementary classroom teachers provide support to ELLs even after they have formally exited ESL programs.

Although there are numerous ways to describe English language development, often a system of five levels is used. In many cases numbers are used, 1 to indicate the most basic English proficiency and 5 indicating the most advanced. The state of Pennsylvania uses the following terms to designate the same five levels: Entering, Beginning, Developing, Expanding, and Bridging.

Resource Guide for Working with ESL Students
Introduction
Who are English Language Learners? What does legislation say about educating and assessing ELLs? The Politics of Language What patterns does English language development typically follow? What are common program models for ESL education? What does the ESL specialist need from me? How can I support ELLs in my classroom? Conclusion Resources Appendix 1: Declaration of Rights for Parents of English Language Learners under No Child Left Behind Appendix 2: Legislation of the 108th Congress concerning Foreign Languages and International Education Appendix 3: Six Levels of Minority Language Policy