Stages of language learning

This page has information on the stages that ESL students typically go through while learning English.


This article has brief summaries of the stages that ESL students typically go through when they start to learn English in school. The summary of each stage is followed by a discussion of the implications for the mainstream teacher.

It is important to note that not all learners go through all the stages discussed below. And not all learners stay in the stages for the same length of time.

Silent stage

The first stage for many children starting to learn English in the classroom is called the silent stage. In this time they are listening carefully to the language they hear but are not yet ready to start speaking.

Depending on the personality and nationality of the child, this stage may last 1 day or 6 months or more. It is important not to be concerned if this stage seems to be taking a long time. The child can learn a great deal without saying a word.

In fact, the power of listening is so strong (provided that the language you hear is at the right level of difficulty for you) that one influential researcher* into second language learning says that this is all you need to learn a new language.

I had evidence of the truth of this theory a few years ago when I taught an Italian boy in grade 6. He refused to say a word of English for more than half the school year, then he suddenly he lost his inhibitions and started to talk. Before the end of the same year, he was almost fluent in English and made few serious grammatical errors.

- Implications of the silent stage

Students going through the silent stage should not be forced to speak in class. This makes them feel very uncomfortable. They will be under permanent stress if they believe they could be asked a question or required to speak at any time during the lesson.

The best way to help students through this period is to organise the lesson such that there are times when the student is working alone or with a student partner. You can then go up to the student and offer help and encouragement as needed, without the focus of the rest of the class being on her.

You could ask questions that require a simple movement of the head (Do you understand what to do?), or a pointing gesture (Which word do you not understand?).

Control of the grammar system

The next stage of language learning comes as students try to acquire control of the English grammar system. @@@ Researchers have found that there seems to be a fixed order in which certain aspects of the grammar system are learned, and this cannot be influenced very much by direct teaching. ~~~

I see evidence of this every year with my beginners classes. Early on they learn that you cannot say he go, she like and so on, it has to be he goes, she likes. This rule is not very difficult to remember, and if students are tested on it directly in a grammar quiz, they usually get all the answers right.

However as soon as they are writing or speaking naturally, without thinking about grammar rules, they forget to use the -s ending. They are just not ready to produce it automatically.

- Implications of the grammar control stage

Mainstream teachers may feel the need to accelerate the grammar learning of the ESL students in their classes. This is laudable - especially in view of my contention elsewhere on this site that all teachers are language teachers.

But it can be problematic to fixate on an aspect of grammar that the student is not yet ready to learn. It is better to teach English by providing students with comprehensible input.


Another typical phase in second language learning is the backslide. By this I mean that students have periods when they get wrong what they seem to have already learned. And they do this in exactly the same way as a child learning English as her first language.

Taking English verbs as an example, it very often happens that children seem to have learned some irregular past tense forms. They hear their parents saying sentences like I went to the shops, or I saw a big cow, and they use these correct forms themselves.

A little later, however, they start to say sentences like He goed to the shops or I seed a big cow. What has happened is that they have started to unconsciously work out the rules of English grammar. They realize that the past tense in English is formed by adding -ed to the verb, but they overgeneralize this rule out to include all verbs.

It takes a little more time before they further refine the rule to include both regular and irregular endings. So this apparent backward step is in fact a sign of progress in learning the language.

- Implications of the backsliding stage

Again, mainstream teachers should not fixate on the grammatical errors made by the ESL students in their classes. An error may in fact be a sign of progress. Just continue to provide lessons in which the language that ESL students hear and read is (made) comprehensible to them.

Understanding informal and academic English

Another aspect of learning English is understanding the distinction between the kind of language needed in everyday conversation and the language needed to do well in school work.

Most students, particularly those with language backgrounds similar to English, learn the skills of listening and speaking very quickly on joining our school. It is not uncommon for some to be completely fluent in English by the end of their second year.

At this point both they and their parents might feel that they have now learned English. After all, if they can understand everything they hear and say what they want to say, what more can they have to learn?

The answer is: They have a great deal more to learn to catch up with the native speakers in their classes. In the areas of vocabulary and understanding of academic language they are still a long way behind.

It is one thing to talk with your friends and make arrangements for your weekend. It is quite another thing to read a text about the French Revolution and write an analysis of the causes.

- Implications of the informal/academic language stage

@ It is essential that teachers realize that the ability to speak English fluently does not mean that the student has 'finished' learning English. ~ Students who are good in conversational English may nevertheless struggle very badly in their school work.

It doesn't mean they are unintelligent or lazy. It means they simply have not had enough time to learn the academic language they need to help them do well in their school subjects. Indeed, some researchers** say it takes seven years or more for a non-native speaker of English to reach the same level as the native speakers in her class.

Elsewhere on the Teachers site there is plenty of advice on how to help students to do well in their mainstream subjects.

Variable progress

Finally, it is worth remembering that language learning does not follow a straight line getting higher and higher. @@ For most learners there will be times when lots of progress seems to be made in a short period. At other times, however, progress is slow or even seems to stop, and everything seems a struggle. ~~

- Implications of the variable progress stage

The best thing mainstream teachers can do is to continue to be sympathetic and optimistic. Make students aware that it is normal to discouraged at a perceived lack of progress. And tell them that in fact they are learning English every time they hear or read it. At the end of what seems a long plateau, their learning will no doubt start to climb once more.

Just being aware of the fact that progress is rarely constant will help take the pressure off the student. Encouraging them through the difficult times will usually be more productive than showing disappointment or anger.


It is worth repeating the points made above that not all learners go through all the stages discussed here or stay equally long in them. But if you are concerned about the language learning of an ESL student in your class, it is a good idea to talk about this with the ESL teacher.


* ^ 36 ^

** ^ 10 ^