Support learners throughout all
5 stages of language acquisition

How you can use digital tools to build content knowledge and language fluency

5 connected puzzle pieces

As they learn a second language, all students go through distinct stages of language acquisition. Effective ELL instruction reflects a student's stage, helps students move through stages and engages all students in high-level thinking.

Stages of language acquisition, identified through research by Stephen Krashen, the WIDA Consortium and others are:

Knowing these language development stages helps you accept a student's current ability and modify your instruction to help move them to the next stage. Digital tools help teachers differentiate instruction and provide tools for students to demonstrate comprehension through a combination of text, visuals, and voice recording.

1. Silent/Receptive Stage

During the Silent or Receptive Stage, students are acquiring language but not producing it. They may understand up to 500 words, but comprehension is low, and they rely on gestures and facial expressions. They can respond with nonverbal responses such as nodding yes or no, pointing to a picture, or drawing their own.

Have students use digital tools to click and drag to demonstrate comprehension and name and label objects to build vocabulary. Both types of activities can help you evaluate student understanding.

sample images of drag to sort and label activities

This is especially helpful in classrooms using the Sheltered Instruction Operation Protocol (SIOP) model to promote content knowledge, as well as language acquisition.

Students can also show knowledge, understanding, and creativity through the use of images or drawing tools: allowing them to participate in classroom learning.

sample images of student drawings that demonstrate content knowledge

2. Early Production Stage

While comprehension is still limited during the Early Production Stage, students can respond verbally using one or two words.

It is helpful to use cloze, or fill-in-the-blank, activities. Tools, like Wixie, make it easy to create your own cloze-style activities. These can be particularly useful for helping students focus on terminology essential to a unit of study, as well as use words already in their speaking vocabulary.

For example, if you have just visited a farm or studied farm animals, you might construct a page that provides a picture of a cow with a sentence such as "On the farm, I see a ____. It is ____ and _____." The image provides a clue as to the word you want them to use and also provides an opportunity to use basic adjectives.

You can also take an open-ended approach to fill in the blank to make this type of activity less tedious. For example, read Denise Fleming's In the Tall, Tall Grass to your students. Then, create an activity where students fill in the blanks, adding a noun and verb.

Students then complete the sentence, use digital images and paint tools to add illustrations, and record their sentence. Combine all student pages into a single book and print for your classroom library or send home as a PDF or interactive book. This not only provides a sense of pride as students see their work published, it provides a pattern story they can practice reading at home.

Explore the Adapt a Story lesson plan for a more complete process and this article for more great books to help turn your readers into writers.

3. Speech Emergence Stage

At this stage, students are able to produce and use simple sentences. You can encourage them to produce language by explaining their thinking using sentence starters. Graphic organizers also provide opportunities to demonstrate critical thinking through both visuals and simple sentences.

It is easy to use digital tools to create and customize Venn diagrams, cycles, timelines that provide additional scaffolding and thinking organization to support your learners.

Digital tools also allow students to record the sentences they write or complete. At this stage, they still make a lot of grammar errors, and listening to their speech can help them better identify the errors.

4. Intermediate Language Stage

In the intermediate stage, students have mastered basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS), making them sound like fluent speakers. Because they no longer make as many grammar mistakes, they have the confidence to ask more questions and even express their opinions. It is important at this stage to focus on building academic and domain-specific vocabulary.

While students have good language skills, they often don't feel confident about using language in all situations. Second-grade teacher, Katy Hammack, found it helpful to have students create instructional videos to teach others the new grammar skills they had mastered. Breaking down, restating, and finding examples helped students cement the grammar for themselves as well as help others better understand it.

Producing oral language and writing that are on public display can be intimidating, but provides opportunities for students to show off new language skills. Students can also use a headset mic and practice reading and speaking a passage over and over again until they are comfortable sharing their output.

5. Advanced Language Stage

At this stage, language learners have a nearly-native level of speaking. Focusing on complex ideas and critical thinking can help students continue building language expertise.

Explore more great ideas, like this If/But Comparatives, from Media Specialist Liz Allen in "Build Thinking Skills with Informational Text Projects."

You can also help students practice producing academic language through persuasive writing projects that tap into their passions. Public service announcements are great examples of writing and oral fluency that almost every student has seen. Infographics and comics are also fun ways for students to practice, showcase, and apply language skills.

No matter what level of language acquisition, digital productivity tools provide powerful opportunities to utilize visuals, practice oral fluency, and participate in meaningful language production.

Melinda Kolk

by Melinda Kolk

Melinda Kolk (@melindak) is the Editor of Creative Educator and the author of Teaching with Clay Animation. She has been helping educators implement project-based learning and creative technologies like clay animation into classroom teaching and learning for the past 15 years.

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