A Quick Lesson on Second Language Acquisition

◊ When hearing a second language for the first time, the student encounters a stream of unfamiliar sound. If directed at him or her, the stream of speech may be louder, slower, and disjointed, or enunciated more clearly than normal, but still incomprehensible. Gradually, the student learns to distinguish separate sounds, words, and meaningful utterances. Listening is the first important step in learning a second language, and students should be encouraged to actively listen to as much oral English as possible. A model of correct English is very important at this stage of language learning.

◊ Listening is a receptive or passive language learning activity, as contrasted with speaking, which is a productive or active activity. Likewise, reading is a receptive activity, while writing is productive. The four modes of second language acquisition are: Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing. Trying to include all four processes in teaching will increase comprehension.


◊ The key to achieving proficiency in speaking is achieving proficiency in listening comprehension. The classroom teacher can help the student by encouraging him or her to pay attention to and participate in class discussions, if only by having him or her identify objects or pictures related to the discussion at the beginning. The student should be encouraged to review previously learned materials and especially to use English in as many situations as possible, both in and out of class. A positive classroom atmosphere should be created in which the student is not afraid to make errors. The classroom teacher has the opportunity to employ all of his or her skill and sensitivity to draw the ELL into everything the class is doing, though in the beginning stage the student may not respond verbally.


◊ After listening for a while to the same sounds in repeated contexts, the student begins to process and organize what he hears, in the same way an infant develops his own rules for using the language of his parents. The second language (L2) learner will make mistakes because of the application of his rules, just as the young child does when he uses “mans” for the plural of “man” and “goed” as the past tense of “go.”

◊ Other factors also influence L2 acquisition. The student’s first language (L1) may interfere with his formation of rules about L2. In situations where a difficult sound sequence, grammatical complexity, and unfamiliar lexical items occur in the same sentence or phrase, the student will simplify the utterance in some way to make the task more manageable. When speaking to a child at this level of language learning, it is helpful if the school personnel develop the ability, as a mother does with her child, to simplify and adapt the language to a level that will cause the least amount of confusion for the child. It is important, however, that the language remain natural, i.e., using contractions and normal speed, tone, and pitch. Remember the importance of accepting all the ELL’s attempts to communicate.


◊ A student who knows how to read in his/her native language already knows how to read and decode. For these students, comprehension and word meaning should be stressed over decoding skills. They have an advantage because they have already learned to get meaning from the printed page. Now they must learn to get meaning from a new system.
◊ Maintaining and even strengthening the first language reading skills will only serve to benefit the student’s second language reading.
◊ The fact that an ELL can decode English words seemingly fluently does not mean the student has a fluent comprehension of the words just read. New vocabulary and phrases should be learned orally before or while being presented in context.

◊ As with reading, students write materials they can say, first copying, then filling in blanks, and then writing their own materials. Writing assignments should be on familiar topics, somewhat modified perhaps, to lie within the cultural experience of the ELL. When the teacher corrects written work, only the errors that prevent the reader from understanding should be marked. After the teacher indicates the blatant errors, the student should have the opportunity to correct the material himself. The teacher may then have to point out additional errors that make the writing difficult to understand. The ELL should be expected to provide proper punctuation. Do not judge a student’s ability in English solely on the basis of written work.
◊ The visual memory load for spelling will be higher for LEP students, so the spelling level may have to be at a lower level than the reading level. There is questionable value in knowing how to spell a word you don’t understand. Therefore, a focus on vocabulary rather than spelling should be emphasized.
(Adapted from information contributed by Storm Lake Community Schools)