Skip to main content
Young Latina student smiling in the classroom at her desk

English Language Learners

Acquiring a Second Language for School

Learning a second language for school is not simply a linguistic challenge; it poses social, cultural, academic, and cognitive challenges as well. This article describes a conceptual model for acquiring a second language for school that reflects all these challenges, and makes recommendations for instruction stemming from this model.

On this page:

During the past two decades, rapidly increasing language minority demographics have had a major impact on U.S. schools. Yet even with all the varied instructional approaches that U.S. educators have undertaken to address the concern for providing a “meaningful education” for language minority students (Lau v. Nichols, 1974), we are still struggling to identify the most effective education practices.

Given the misinformation that persists about second language acquisition among both educators and the public, this article is written to guide the reader through the substantial research knowledge base that our field has developed over the past 25 years.

Much misunderstanding occurs because many U.S. policy makers and educators assume that language learning can be isolated from other issues and that the first thing students must do is to learn English. To understand the reasons why this oversimplistic perception does not work, a conceptual model that explains the process that students are going through when acquiring a second language during the school years was developed.

Acquiring a second language for school: A conceptual model

The model has four major components: sociocultural, linguistic, academic, and cognitive processes. To understand the interrelationships among these four components, figure one illustrates the developmental second language acquisition process that occurs in the school context. While this figure looks simple on paper, it is important to imagine that this is a multifaceted prism with many dimensions. The four major components – sociocultural, linguistic, academic, and cognitive processes – are interdependent and complex.

Figure 1: Language acquisition for school

Social and Cultural Processes - Language Development - Cognitive Development  - Academic Development

(Copyright, Virginia P. Collier, 1994.)

Sociocultural processes

At the heart of the figure is the individual student going through the process of acquiring a second language in school. Central to that student’s acquisition of language are all of the surrounding social and cultural processes occurring through everyday life within the student’s past, present, and future, in all contexts – home, school, community, and the broader society.

Community or regional social patterns such as prejudice and discrimination expressed towards groups or individuals in personal and professional contexts can influence students’ achievement in school, as well as societal patterns such as subordinate status of a minority group or acculturation vs. assimilation forces at work. These factors can strongly influence the student’s response to the new language, affecting the process positively only when the student is in a socioculturally supportive environment.

Language development

Linguistic processes, a second component of the model, consist of the subconscious aspects of language development (an innate ability all humans possess for acquisition of oral language), as well as the metalinguistic, conscious, formal teaching of language in school, and acquisition of the written system of language.

To assure cognitive and academic success in a second language, a student’s first language system, oral and written, must be developed to a high cognitive level at least through the elementary-school years.

Academic development

A third component of the model, academic development, includes all school work in language arts, mathematics, the sciences, and social studies for each grade level, Grades K-12 and beyond. With each succeeding grade, academic work dramatically expands the vocabulary, sociolinguistic, and discourse dimensions of language to higher cognitive levels.

Academic knowledge and conceptual development transfer from the first language to the second language; thus it is most efficient to develop academic work through students’ first language, while teaching the second language during other periods of the school day through meaningful academic content.

In earlier decades in the United States, we emphasized teaching the second language as the first step, and postponed the teaching of academics. Research has shown us that postponing or interrupting academic development is likely to promote academic failure. In an information driven society that demands more knowledge processing with each succeeding year, students cannot afford the lost time.

Cognitive development

The fourth component of this model, the cognitive dimension, has been mostly neglected by second language educators in the U.S. until the past decade. In language teaching, we simplified, structured, and sequenced language curricula during the 1970s, and when we added academic content into our language lessons in the 1980s, we watered down academics into cognitively simple tasks. We also too often neglected the crucial role of cognitive development in the first language. Now we know from our growing research base that we must address all of these components equally if we are to succeed in developing deep academic proficiency in a second language.

Interdependence of the four components

All of these four components – sociocultural, academic, cognitive, and linguistic – are interdependent. If one is developed to the neglect of another, this may be detrimental to a student’s overall growth and future success.

The academic, cognitive, and linguistic components must be viewed as developmental, and for the child, adolescent, and young adult still going through the process of formal schooling, development of any one of these three components depends critically on simultaneous development of the other two, through both first and second languages.

Sociocultural processes strongly influence, in both positive and negative ways, students’ access to cognitive, academic, and language development. It is crucial that educators provide a socioculturally supportive school environment that allows natural language, academic, and cognitive development to flourish.

Research-based recommendations for educators

In current research (Thomas & Collier, 1995), when examining interactions among student background variables and instructional treatments and their influence on student outcomes, we have found that two-way bilingual education at the elementary school level is the most promising program model for the long-term academic success of language minority students.

Program characteristics include:

  • Integrated schooling, with English speakers and language minority students learning academically through each others’ languages
  • Perceptions among staff, students, and parents that it is a “gifted and talented” program, leading to high expectations for student performance
  • Equal status of the two languages achieved, to a large extent, creating self-confidence among language minority students
  • Healthy parent involvement among both language minority and language majority parents for closer home-school cooperation
  • Continuous support for staff development, emphasizing whole language approaches, natural language acquisition through all content areas, cooperative learning, interactive and discovery learning, and cognitive complexity of the curriculum for all proficiency levels.

ESL pullout in the early grades, when taught traditionally, is the least successful program model for students’ long-term academic success. During Grades K-3, there is little difference between programs, but significant differences appear as students continue in the mainstream at the secondary level.

When first language instructional support cannot be provided, the following program characteristics can make a significant difference in academic achievement for English language learners entering U.S. schools at the secondary level:

  • Second language taught through academic content
  • Conscious focus on teaching learning strategies needed to develop thinking skills and problem-solving abilities
  • Continuous support for staff development emphasizing activation of students’ prior knowledge, respect for students’ home language and culture, cooperative learning, interactive and discovery learning, intense and meaningful cognitive/academic development, and ongoing assessment using multiple measures.

Our data show that extensive cognitive and academic development in students’ first language is crucial to second language academic success. Furthermore, the sociocultural context in which students are schooled is equally important to students’ long-term success in second language schooling.

Contrary to the popular idea that it takes a motivated student a short time to acquire a second language, our studies examining immigrants and language minority students in many different regions of the U.S. and with many different background characteristics have found that 4-12 years of second language development are needed for the most advantaged students to reach deep academic proficiency and compete successfully with native speakers.

Given the extensive length of time, educators must understand the complex variables influencing the second language process and provide a sociocultural context that is supportive while academically and cognitively challenging.

Excerpted from: Collier, V. P. (Fall, 1995). Acquiring a Second Language for School. Directions in Language & Education, vol. 1, no. 4. National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.
You are welcome to print copies for non-commercial use, or a limited number for educational purposes, as long as credit is given to Reading Rockets and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact the author or publisher listed.