Language acquisition requires three critical variables which include input, output and a supportive environment. First, English as a Second Language (ESL) students have to take in the second language. Using decoding and receptive skills, these newcomers listen and filter input. This requires a great deal of repetition of comprehensible input chunks at the appropriate level.

Second, English Language Learners (ELLs) have to produce the new language by encoding or speaking. This kind of output requires considerable time. Immersion in the new language with exposure to thousands of vocabulary words with regular frequency is required before communication is verbalized with any kind of accuracy or confidence.

Third, English Language Development (ELD) progresses at a faster rate when a supportive social environment makes risk taking feel safe. When those first vocalizations are made, close approximations need to be applauded so that further attempts will be made. Lots of peer and teacher support help to lower the affective filter. Partner work with a strong emphasis on oral communication speeds this process.

Stephen Krashen said, “Acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language, natural communication, in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances, but with the messages they are conveying and understanding.

The stages of oral language acquisition begin with preproduction and move through early production, speech emergence, and intermediate fluency before fluency is reached. At the preproduction stage, which often takes six months, teachers use sentence stems with commands such as “point to… and show me...” Students also echo the teacher as she says words or phrases.

During early production, from the sixth month to the first year, students give one or two word responses. When teachers ask questions of the whole class and then signal for them to verbalize short answers in a choral response, they are often more willing to risk.

As speech emerges in the first three years, students’ comprehension improves, but their vocabulary may remain limited. Grammar and pronunciation errors occur frequently while speaking, but frequent opportunities to express in authentic conversations allows for natural correction. Teachers can help students feel more confident about speaking by offering sentence frames to prime the conversation pump.

During these earlier stages of language development, technological supports help to clarify misunderstandings and make the basic concepts of a lesson more digestible. Using an iPad as a translation device, newcomers can download the Google Translate app. This allows them to type in their language and press a button to have it translate into English.

Reversing the arrows between the two text boxes allows the teacher to give directions in English which are then translated into their native tongue. The microphone can also be used to record the directions rather than type them.

This translation app even has a camera function so that a picture can be taken of the assignment whether it’s a worksheet or a page of text. After a careful focus and click, the picture of text is translated.

Increasing the frequency of student interactions enhances language production when target vocabulary is introduced with pictures and reinforced in context. One engaging warm up is projecting a large mystery picture for students to describe. Students suggest words which the teacher points to and then writes on the white board. Then students create sentences using key words from the word bank of the image.

Multiple opportunities to practice the new language also speed acquisition and increase retention. ELD teachers use many collaborative structures such as Inside Outside Circle. This involves two concentric circles of students facing each other. The teacher asks a question and students have brief conversations before rotating to a new partner.

ELLs are encouraged to talk about the content being covered using words from the word bank. When communication breaks down, partner pairs can use the Google Translate app, to enhance comprehension.

While language acquisition has several predictable phases, it is not a linear process, but rather an experiential one. While learning verb tenses and memorizing vocabulary is helpful, acquisition requires meaningful communication.

Kristi McCracken, author of two children’s books and a long time teacher in the South Valley, can be reached at educationallyspeaking@gmail.com.

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