5 Stages of ESL Vocabulary Acquisition

I’m not an educational expert, but after teaching ESL vocabulary to a wide variety of students, I’ve found that most kids seem to go through a through a five stage process as they learn new words. Students are often very shy around vocabulary words that they do not know. Sure, you’ll occasionally get a student who will proudly shout out a wrong answer, but these students are few and far between. By understanding and recognizing the stages that students are going through when learning new ESL vocabulary, you can tailor your lesson to the particular stage that they are at. This will improve the lesson for both you the teacher and your students.

The 5 Stages

1. Repeat the teacher. At this stage, students are completely unfamiliar with the vocabulary. They will feel most comfortable working in a group situation. This is where you’ll use your flashcards, say the word and have them repeat it. Use a 1-1-3 pattern when teaching new ESL vocabulary. Say the word once and have the students repeat. Say the word once again and have the students repeat. Then say the word three times quickly and have them repeat the word three times quickly. This fast repetition causes them to think less about the pronunciation and gives them a more native pronunciation.

2. Recognize the word. At this stage, students can associate the word with the picture on the flashcard, but are not yet confident enough to say the word on their own. You can lay out all the flashcards and ask a student to touch a particular card. Usually they can do it.

3. Speak alone, with prompting. At this stage, students feel confident enough to say the word on their own, but may still be afraid that they will say the wrong word. This can be resolved by the teacher prompting them with the right word to say. Then they will feel confident enough to repeat it.

4. Speak alone, without prompting. At this stage, students feel confident that they know the vocabulary word and can say the word out loud without prompting from the teacher.

5. Use the word in a sentence. At this stage, students know the vocabulary and can start to use the words in simple sentences (e.g. “It’s a…” or “I like…”).

This is a natural progression for students when learning new ESL vocabulary. Don’t get too fussed if students spend longer on any one stage than you had planned. It’s not a race, and eventually they will come around.

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