Skip to main content Skip to navigation
Print this page

Stages of Learning in Languages

AusVELS takes account of the developmental stages of learning young people experience at school. While student learning is a continuum and different students develop at different rates, they broadly progress through three stages of learning. 

The following statements describe ways in which these characteristics relate to learning experiences and standards in each of the three stages of learning in the Languages domain.

Although some of the processes that we use to learn our first language, or mother tongue, are involved in learning a second language, there are also considerable differences. For most children, the mother tongue is learned within a family, where many people are involved in making clear the connection between sounds and actions, messages and basic needs. For a child’s first language, the input is continuous and full time, much of it is adjusted to the child’s needs, and the child’s efforts at communicating are acknowledged, guided and accepted.

A second-language learner already knows the essential functions of voice or signed communication, and how language is involved, when engaging in meaningful activities. The learning usually occurs at school with far fewer providers offering input, for far less time, and shared by many more learners. The providers tend to be adults rather than people of all ages, the learners tend to be of similar ages, the relationships are professional rather than intimate, and the input is restricted in time, quantity, meaning, and personal significance for the learners.

Prep to Year 4 – Laying the foundations

In the earliest years of learning a second language, some processes and sequences are similar to those involved in first language acquisition. Language is adapted to students’ direct needs. Ideally, students are immersed in communication tasks that are engaging, relevant, well designed and directly linked to their general learning experiences.

A second language makes its own specific cognitive, behavioural and emotional demands on, and contributions to, the development of the learner. Students detach from the intimacy of family and connect with teachers and fellow students. The new social world of the second-language classroom requires students to adapt from self expression in the mother tongue to the new norms and practices of the target language. The cognitive demands on the learner are significant. Learners need to transfer to a new communication code their only recently acquired skills as social beings and are required to learn the distinctive rules and conventions of the target language.

Students will notice a contrast between the two language systems. They will notice various culturally specific ways in which meaning is constructed and conveyed in the target language. As speaking and listening come before reading and writing, the foundational processes of learning a second language will ideally immerse students in concrete oral communication activities. The focus of these tasks should be on ‘getting things done’ – in music, drama, dance, drawing and painting, physical activity and early science or number experimentation – rather than language. Continual immersion in the target language for activities in which naturalistic communication prevails minimises the chance that students will continually translate. However, while teachers will use only the target language for activities, they will accept all forms of communication from students – communication in English, code-mixing between the target language and English, and the use of other languages, mime, gesture and so on. By modelling only correct forms of the target language, the teacher’s language becomes the key source of input for students’ growing ability to discern and use the target language for classroom communication. Students need to gain ‘procedural language’ early so that they and the teacher will share a communication code for all classroom activities.

For students of a language with close connections to English, and a similar alphabetic writing system, these years also make bridges between students’ evolving literacy in English and their growing familiarity with the writing system of the target language. For students of target languages that are familiar from the home, the connection between the sounds and symbols of the target language is a valuable resource. For learners of a language whose writing system is unlike that of English, this foundational stage of learning needs to build on noticing differences between the two writing systems.

In Prep to Year 4, all areas of the curriculum can support the learning of a second language other than English; such study reinforces, extends and enriches all other learning. All teachers can make a direct and powerful connection establishing confident early literacy practices between English and the language other than English. Becoming literate helps students realise that language has form and structure as well as meaning. The study of a second language at school bolsters this important insight and helps students to extend and deepen their overall literacy. Learning a second language can show students that the conventions of writing and speaking in any language are arbitrary – the result of choices that have been made.

Through communication, students begin to recognise a range of expressions, greetings, and other formulaic language for routine interactions with people, and notice that these vary according to the participants. Much of this communication is scaffolded and prompted by the teacher, and related to concrete experiences in the classroom.

In all the practices described above, the two dimensions of the domain – Communicating in a language other than English and Intercultural knowledge and language awareness – are integrated with the entire range of learning experiences of students between Prep and Year 4.

Years 5 to 8 – Building breadth and depth

Years 5 to 8 encompass the transition from childhood to adolescence. This is a critical and challenging period for students and teachers. Emotionally, it can be a difficult time for students and it can have particular effects and challenges for second language study. In Languages, this stage of learning comprises two distinct phases and contains the traditional period of second-language teaching in our school system.

In the first phase (Years 5 and 6) – essentially an extension of the first stage of learning – students extend in depth and breadth the words, expressions, texts, ideas, relationships and activities they know of the second language.

In the second phase (Years 7 and 8), although the nature and level of teacher scaffolding and prompting is reduced and students are now encouraged to interact, directly or through various media, with a range of speakers of the target language, the essential process is similar. However, this second phase is qualitatively different. The onset of puberty affects students’ emotional lives, and the maturational and physical changes involved often have deep consequences for identity, relationships, motivation, behaviour and cognitive development. Such changes, stressful but exciting, coincide with more overt standards being expected of students, an unfamiliar subject division in the curriculum, and a significant change in the institutional operating arrangements of schooling.

Years 7 and 8 are also a challenge for teachers and schools, and specific planning and collaboration across schools to ensure that Pathway 1 and Pathway 2 students are catered for. Pathway 1 students – those who are continuing with languages studied at primary school – need to have their prior study acknowledged and recognised; Pathway 2 students are those who take up languages for the first time at Year 7, or who change from the language they studied at primary school. The many changes that characterise Years 5 to 8 have an impact on teaching too; activities that younger students find enjoyable, such as playing with the sounds and communication style of a new language, might represent a problem for those experiencing difficulties in the process of transition to adolescence.

Primary and secondary schools should collaborate closely to ease the transition between primary and secondary language study. Students should be able to see continuity in the outlines of the programs and what is taught, and see how their demonstrated achievement of the standards at one level articulates with the teaching and learning practices at another level.

At this stage, students begin to initiate communication and follow personal interests and ideas. Communication activities that acknowledge the sharpening individuality of students, and the more subject-divided basis of the curriculum, become more important in second-language teaching, as do connections to other domains, access to a wider range of interlocutors (such as native speakers and other students of similar age), and direct or virtual communication.

Years 9 to 10 – Developing pathways

During this stage, students begin to explore the implications and possibilities of languages other than English for further study, career and citizenship. This growth in personal responsibility is reflected in the increased stakes involved and the choices that they make, impact in important ways on the study of languages.

As more cognitively mature learners, students increasingly make explicit choices with longer term consequences, and teachers and schools are called on to connect the study of languages other than English to all fields of relevance for them – their future pathways of study, their likely or possible careers, and their engagement in the world of civic life and responsibility.

Making such links to these fields, requires an explicit effort by students to understand the multicultural and multilingual nature of Australian society, and a world that is globalising and highly mobile. Teachers can anticipate these requirements by selecting texts, activities and domains that draw on the contexts in which languages other than English are used in Australian society, including the many study and occupational fields in which a second language is useful, locally and globally. Intercultural competence can be seen as a useful practical skill, as well as having value in opening up knowledge of other human societies and national traditions.

Scroll to the top of the page