Saturday, April 29, 2017

Understanding the Language Acquisition Process: The First Step in Understanding the Needs of ELs

What is the Language Acquisition Process?

When exploring the needs of English Language Learners, we must review the development of language acquisition. Students are expected to learn two types of language, conversational language and academic language. “The distinction between academic and conversational proficiency was first articulated by Jim Cummins, who coined the terms basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) years ago and has written extensively about them…” (as cited in Goldenberg, 2010). Conversational language is informal and acquired more easily than academic language. Academic language is the language used in textbooks, writing, and academic conversations. Students can acquire conversational language in a couple of years, but take much longer to master academic language. “Research in language acquisition supports the hypothesis that we all acquire language the same way-by understanding messages” (Krashen & Biber, 1988). The messages that are understood and that the brain receives, referred to as “comprehensible input,” make the acquisition of language inevitable (Krashen, 1988). The more background knowledge a student has, the more comprehensible the input. Having background knowledge increases comprehension, therefore increasing language acquisition. The acquisition of language takes time; it is a slow process that occurs in a relaxed and nurturing environment. In other words, pressure from a parent or teacher to learn the language “now” will not speed up the process!

Cummins (1986) reports that it takes five to seven years to approach proficiency in tests of academic English. He explains that native English Speakers are not standing still while our English Learners are trying to catch up. Native speakers are building academic language quickly, gaining subject matter knowledge and language ability. Advocates of immersing kids in the language feel that this is a non-issue, while advocates of using primary language for instruction do not believe it’s that simple (Goldenberg, 2010).

Educating English learners will never be a one-size-fits-all model but successful programs should be continuously analyzed and used as a foundation to develop curriculum, teaching strategies, and authentic assessments for ELs.  With limited resources and guidance, many districts are simply avoiding the issue or taking approaches that fail, as substantiated by the consistent achievement (opportunity) gap.  Understanding the Language Acquisition process is a first step in understanding the academic needs of English learners.

The needs of English Learners cannot be wished away or ignored. Educators must have patience and an understanding of the English language acquisition process, literacy, and language proficiency, especially those who have an opportunity to work with English Language Learners. Classrooms should be a place where information is comprehensible and accessible to all students, regardless of their English proficiency level.


Cummins, J. (1986). Bilingualism in education: Aspects of theory, research, and practice. New York: Longman Inc.

Goldenberg, C., Coleman, R. (2010). Promoting academic achievement among English learners: A guide to the research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Krashen, Stephen D. (1988). Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Prentice Hall International.

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