Second language learners in our schools are of two types: children whose first language is not English, English Language Learners (ELL), and children whose first language is not French, French second Language Learners (FSL). Here are tools and resources to help you take this into account in order to provide them with learning support and in evaluating their competencies.

Phases of English Language Learning in Kindergarten

How do young English Language Learners (ELL) develop a second language over the course of a year? Short video clips illustrate the process of development in 5 phases. Practical information about the teacher’s role, strategies, as well as books and songs to support the second language learner are offered for each phase.  


In 2009-2010, the Kindergarten Provincial Committee (KPC) expressed concern over the fact that many kindergarten teachers working in an immersion or bilingual program are faced with teaching English to non-English speakers, in an English mother tongue context. Because of a lack of expertise in second language acquisition, the committee felt that support should be provided to assist English kindergarten teachers in this task. This site is a response to their request.

The KPC is made up of consultants and kindergarten teachers representing each of the 9 English school board as well as representatives from MEES, QAIS, universities, and LEARN.

Phase 1: Beginning

At this phase of development, children arrive in our classrooms with no English comprehension or oral communication skills. They are completely dependent on their mother tongue. These are children who may have immigrated to Quebec from another country or come from a French speaking household.

The "Silent Period" 
It is not uncommon for children who are in this phase of development to refrain from speaking. This stage is sometimes referred to as the “silent period” (1). During this silent period, children are listening, observing and accumulating knowledge of the English language. It is important to note that this silent period can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Children will begin to speak English when they are ready.

Children at this phase of development will often use gestures to communicate; they will imitate others, and will constantly use their mother tongue (L1) to interact in their learning environment. 

Phase 2: Emerging

At this phase of development for English language learners, comprehension is beginning to emerge. The children will understand simple and familiar phrases that have been learned through their daily routine, i.e. “Go get your snack, come and sit”. Their vocabulary is still very limited. They may produce one or two word sentences.

What will I see? 
They often use words they have become familiar with because they were exposed to them over the last few weeks, i.e. “Bathroom please, good morning, yes, no”.  They may begin to imitate phrases they have heard used by their fellow classmates, “Mine, my turn”.

What is new? 
They speak more during small and large group activities (e.g. songs, poems, and story time) but their comprehension is still limited. They are still very dependent on their mother tongue to communicate. They may understand a simple question in English, but will respond in their mother tongue.

Phase 3: Developing

In this phase of development, children have acquired good comprehension of the English language. They are able to understand simple conversations. They will move from memorized sentences that are linked to specific contexts to original productions of speech. However, they still have a limited vocabulary and will make many errors. The sentences they use are complete but remain simple. They will begin to use connectors (and, but, because). There is still a lack of fluidity in their speech. Trying to formulate what they want to say will result in long pauses.

What will I see? 
They will begin to communicate with their peers in English but will revert to their L1 if they cannot express their needs.

What is new? 
Children begin to express their likes, dislikes and interests more readily while in their learning environment. They also participate more readily in classroom activities that involve oral communication

Phase 4: Applying

During the stage of development, children have good English comprehension. They can follow conversations and engage in discussions using English. When speaking in English, they use complete simple sentences. They may still make errors in grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary. They may omit some words and may refer back to their mother tongue (L1) when they are not sure as to how to say something.

What will I see?
Children can be observed using English more readily when playing with peers.

What is new? 
 At this phase of development, children are beginning to be more creative in  the speech patterns they produce. They are less dependent on the familiar phrases they have been using over the last few months. They are creating their own messages for everyday purposes such as: “ You want to go play there?”, “ My zipper is stuck”. They are more fluent when communicating in English and although they may still pause while formulating a sentence, the pauses are less frequent. 

Phase 5: Extending

At this phase of development, children have excellent comprehension and their vocabulary is varied and rich. They can communicate using complete sentences that clearly describe something, express an idea or opinion. They are also less dependent on their mother tongue (L1).

What will I see?
They engage in English dialogue more consistently in their social interactions. They rarely revert back to L1. Their English closely resembles that of a mother tongue speaker.

What is new?
They can start, sustain, close and extend a conversation.
When speaking in English, the children’s speech is more fluid, there are fewer pauses and at times the child will self correct. 

Complete this information with the following print documents:

  • Strategies, books and songs related to the phases of development
  • Transcript of the FAQ audio clips  
    • Question 1
      Should we speak to a child using their mother tongue when we are trying to teach them a second language?  
    • Question 2
      How do you use the classroom environment and routines to support second language development?   
    • Question 3
      How do you assess and evaluate children’s progress with reference to the other competencies if they have limited language capabilities?   
    • Question 4
       How long does it take a child to learn English?



Author: Kim McGrath, Preschool Educator and MELS Consultant
Review: Christiane Bourdages-Simpson, MELS
Editing, Media Production and Web design: Christiane Dufour, LEARN
A special thanks to Kindergarten teacher Anne Provencher and her students at Riverside School Board, Québec.

Second Language Resources

  • Second Language Acquisition for English Learners
    French Second Language Oral Language Kindergarten Continuum 
  • Kindergarten Development Profile
    Competency 4: Language Competency Development
  • English and French second language progress report
    Report card insert


You may also want to consult

  • Supporting English Language Learners in Kindergarten. A practical guide for Ontario educators
    A practical and inclusive approach, looking at second language learning when the learners can include children of varied cultures and languages. Highlights It looks at the environment to create so all can thrive and grow.

  • One child, two languages: A guide for pre-school educators of children learning English as a second language.
    This highly readable book moves beyond the basics of child development to describe the natural progression of second-language acquisition in young children. Highlights Written expressly for teachers and offers specific techniques to facilitate second-language acquisition
    Go to site