How Language Acquisition Works in School

Learning English can be a challenge for nonnative speakers, and particularly for children who must do so as they adapt to life in a new country and continue learning other subjects.

Yet education experts say that children can make enormous progress when parents and teachers cooperate to make language acquisition smooth, especially in the preteen years.

“Everybody needs to work together,” says Ileana Hilton, a bilingual education consultant at Seraphim Educational Consulting in North Carolina. “Schools need to collaborate with families and the community.”

Almost 10% of U.S. children in grades K-12 — about 5 million students total — are English language learners, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Federal education law under the Every Student Succeeds Act requires all states to provide reasonable accommodations to increase the success of language acquisition.

Schools must be prepared to support learning with specialized programs, qualified English as a Second Language (ESL) and bilingual teachers, and culturally responsive multilingual resources and materials, says Michele Goldin, an assistant professor of bilingual education at Touro College in New York. But accomplishing these levels of support can be a challenge for schools.

“While I prefer to consider them opportunities rather than challenges, multilingual students and families do bring additional considerations to public schools,” says Allyson Hile, director of language services at Kansas City Public Schools.

[Read: How Parents and Teachers Can Help With Spelling]

How Children Learn English

Children learn a second language more efficiently when they have established a solid foundation in their native language and when teachers are able to make connections to that language, says Silvia Gonzalez-Powers, who has been a teacher in Boston Public Schools for 19 years and now runs a tutoring business and trains educators.

It’s common for ESL students to receive English language instruction from an ESL teacher and grade level or content instruction from a different teacher, so it is essential that all teachers coordinate and work as a team, Gonzalez-Powers says. This way, they can deliver seamless and meaningful instruction in listening, speaking, reading and writing.

ESL teachers should also know students’ academic strengths and needs. “ESL students are most successful when direct, explicit, systematic and multi-sensory instruction is provided in conjunction with visual and language support,” she says.

If encouraged to continue learning in their home language, ESL students can actually have a larger vocabulary than English-only students, Hile says.

“They may go back and forth between their languages to write or think or process, but that just means they are using all the language at their disposal,” Hile says. “If students are taught to think about the connections between their language and English, then their skills will develop exponentially.”

Language Acquisition Across Grades

According to Goldin, there is an ideal window of opportunity for learning a second language, known as the “critical period,” which is generally anytime before the early teenage years. After that, students need different kinds of supports and instructional strategies.

“For all children, conversational language skills are acquired rather quickly while academic language takes several years to learn and master,” Goldin says.

She says the process of learning a second language changes with a student’s grade level:

Preschool and K-2. Children in this age range can learn second languages quickly and in a seemingly effortless way due to their brain’s ability to change and adapt. At school, a significant amount of time is dedicated to teaching important foundational literacy skills. Multilingual learners who have not yet learned to read and write in their first language may begin their literacy journey in English.

Grades 3-5. In this age range, many multilingual learners will already have literacy skills in their first language. Therefore, in addition to learning to speak a second language, they must also learn to read and write it while still advancing in other subjects.

Grades 6-8. As children reach their early teens, other factors come into play in the learning process, and language may not come as naturally, specifically in areas like pronunciation. Anxiety, embarrassment and self-consciousness can also make language learning more challenging.

The Peculiarities of English

English is a combination of many languages and has many grammar rules and many exceptions, according to Hile. “Words with the same spelling often are pronounced differently, such as ‘through,’ ‘bough,’ and ‘tough,'” she says.

This is because the English language is considered an opaque language, meaning that letters can represent more than one sound, Gonzalez-Powers says. “There are 44 sounds in the English language, but they can be spelled 250 different ways. There are many spelling rules, exceptions to those rules, and irregular words that make English a more challenging language to learn than a transparent and phonetic language, such as Spanish,” she says.

The degree of similarity in structure and pronunciation between English and a student’s native language can be key to language acquisition, Goldin says.

“For example, it’s harder for a Russian speaker to learn English than a German speaker because English and German are structurally similar,” she says. “However, English is difficult to learn to read for everyone because there is a lack of consistency in letter-sound correspondence. Despite the use of a complete alphabet, about 50% of the spelling of English words needs to be memorized.”

[READ: How English as a Second Language Affects Learning.]

How Teachers Can Help

Perhaps now more than ever, teachers are prepared with the tools and resources to help multilingual learners succeed, according to Goldin.

“One great tool teachers can employ is ‘translanguaging,'” she says — allowing students to use multiple languages to communicate. “Students who know their classroom is a safe space, and a place where they can use both English and their first language when needed, feel supported and less anxious.”

Displaying classroom signs and labels in multiple languages and using multilingual resources or texts can make language learning a natural part of the day for all children, Goldin says.

Immersion learning is also an effective model for bilingual education in which the mainstream curriculum is taught through two languages with the goal of fostering bilingualism and biliteracy. Children in immersion learning can use both languages to communicate across their curriculum and have authentic social opportunities to interact with peers.

“The majority of these programs in the U.S. are Spanish-English, but a range of other target languages are also offered,” Goldin says. “Two-way, dual-language programs serve a student population composed of nearly balanced numbers of English learners … and English-fluent speakers,” she says.

How Parents Can Help

Hile says parents don’t have to be English proficient, or even know English, to encourage literacy and language at home. They can develop their child’s home language and literacy through songs, chants, games and reading in their native language.

Practicing “environmental literacy,” such as reading traffic signs, menus, food labels and directions, can also help. “Environmental literacy … is really important, especially at a young age,” Hile says.

Experts say one of the best resources bilingual parents can give their children is the gift of the home language. Parents should use their native tongue as much as possible and read to and with their children.

“Anything parents can do to develop their child’s native language can help teachers transfer skills and vocabulary to English,” Hile says.

Searching for a school? Explore our K-12 directory.

More from U.S. News

What Is Dyslexia?

What Is ‘Decoding’?

How English as a Second Language Affects Learning

How Language Acquisition Works in School originally appeared on

Related Categories:

Latest News

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up