Language Acquisition

Helping Students Develop English Language Proficiency

Did You Know?

  • Wichita has students who were born in 88 different countries.
  • From 48 of those countries, we have only one family with children in USD259.
  • Other than the US, the largest numbers of students have come from Mexico, Vietnam, China, Philippines, El Salvador, Saudi Arabia, Congo, India, Guatemala, and Honduras.
  • The number of new students from Central America and Africa have substantially increased, especially over the past 2 years.

Is learning a second language an entirely different process from learning a native language?

As educators you should know that learning the rules and linguistic structure of a second language occur in much the same way as learning a first language. Learning a language happens when people are living in real situations, having to communicate about important and interesting things. A child's first language develops before school through having conversations with family and listening to those around them communicate. It is important to remember that children often appear to understand language before being able to produce it and that second language learners are more sophisticated learners - they have already acquired some, if not most of the components of one language. See the table below for more information on the features of learning a second language.

Features of L2 Acquisition

  • L1 and L2 acquisition are similar processes but L2 learners are more cognitively mature than L1 learners.
  • Language learning involves hypothesis construction and testing - errors are an integral part to language learning.
  • Understanding language processes language production in most cases and a silent period is normal.
  • Younger learners don't necessarily have greater facility with language - they may produce the L2 with minimal accent, but older learners are often more efficient learners.
  • Mastering academic language may take L2 learners up to seven years.
  • L2 acquisition and success are influenced by sociocultural factors such as personality, prior schooling and teacher expectations.

Is learning academic English equally challenging for all second language learners?

The challenge of learning English for school varies tremendously from learner to learner and depends on many factors!

  • The strongest predictor of success in acquiring L2 is the amount of formal schooling in L1. The more L1 schooling, the higher L2 achievement.
  • Not all of our students will come to us with even the most basic of academic skills.
  • Some students may be illiterate in their first language or come from a language background that has no written form.
  • Riches and Genessee (2006) support this idea with their research, finding that literacy in the first language supports literacy in the second - that students with well developed literacy skills in their L1 progress faster and more efficiently in developing literacy skills in L2.
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Is is true that once second language learners are able to speak reasonably fluent English that they will do better in the school setting?

Being able to speak relatively fluent English does not guarantee a students success using language effectively in an academic setting!

Scenario: Recall whether or not you took a foreign language class during your formal schooling. Picture yourself sitting in that classroom - learning to pronounce words, understand the vocabulary, conjugate the verbs, etc... While you may have been able to communicate within that language fairly well, would you have considered yourself a "fluent" reader of that language? Now... imagine that all of your classes were taught in that language instead of English. Would you have felt competent and confident with Geometry taught in German? World History read and taught in Spanish? What about Creative Writing in French?

This is a daily reality and struggle for many of the English language learners you work with. While it may be easier for English learners to communicate about objects and concrete concepts (these are less cognitively demanding) - it is difficult to communicate complex notions or abstract ideas.

As students move through progressively higher grades, it has been shown that the language used becomes more complex and less contextualized (Collier 1989; Cummings and Swain 1986). As a teacher it is imperative that we carefully plan instruction that will help English language learners develop the decontextualized language skills they will need to be successful with demanding content in higher grades.

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My students who come from Asian countries are better English language learners and have more academic success than students from Spanish-speaking backgrounds, is this the norm?

It does not matter the student's language or cultural background - all are equally capable of learning English as a second language. When you consider "academic success" do not limit yourself to thinking about their intellectual progress. Success should not be attributed to their cultural background or language; instead think of each English language learner as a chapter book. Consider a student you are currently or have recently worked with that is an English language learner. These are his/her chapters:

Chapter 1: Social Background

What are the social norms, perceptions and experiences this student may be facing outside of school? Is this student a part of a caste-like minority group or an immigrant minority group?

Chapter 2: Emotional Needs

How does this student feel about himself/herself? How would this student describe the relationship between home and school?

Chapter 3: Intellectual Capabilities

What are the surface strengths of this student and what are the iceberg strengths of this student? Would he/she be able to tell you what he/she does well and what he/she struggles with?

Chapter 4: Academic Factors

When did this child's formal schooling begin? Would you be able to identify previous and current factors that may be leading to this child's progress or lack there of?

The relationship between one's culture and schooling is complex. While learning English is essential for success in school for all linguistic minority students, just acquiring English alone will not guarantee their success. As a teacher, it will be important for you to know each and every child's story - including each chapter!

To learn more about how teachers across the country are supporting the success of L2 learners and communicating with families follow the links below!


Collier, V.P. 1989. "How Long? A Synthesis of Research on Academic Achievement in a Second Language." TESOL Quarterly 23(3): 509-31.

Cummins, J., and M. Swain. 1996. Bilingualism in Education. New York: Longman.

Riches, C., and F. Genesee. 2006. "Literacy: Crosslinguistic and Crossmodal Issues." In Educating English Language Learners: A Synthesis of Research Evidence, ed. F. Genesee, K. Lindholm-Leary, W.M. Saunders, and D. Christian, 64-109. New York: Cambridge.

Samway, K., & McKeon, D. (2007). Myths and realities: Best practices for English language learners (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.