March 04, 2013

Affective Language Acquisition Stages: Pre-production

"Students have a lot to say, they  only lack the words."
Bernard Dufeu

It is with great pleasure that I start Affective Language Acquisition Stages, a collection of 5 posts that explore  the stages of pre-production, early production, speech emergence, intermediate fluency, and advanced fluency through an affective perspective. We will explore how language teachers can interact with young learners to provide them a supportive, meaningful, and productive language environment.

 This post reflects the work which is done at Juan Uribe Ensino Afetivo, a language school where children learn English affectively through play in small groups. You might agree or disagree with many or all of these strategies. They can also be hard to implement in your class.  These interactional learning strategies have been created and adapted in the light of the affective language learning paradigm.  (To know more about it, read this article about the work of Bernard Dufeu)

I hope you enjoy reading these posts as much as I do writing them!

Ready or not, here we go! 

Pre-production (or silent period) 

We want young learners to think and feel the following: 

I like English.

English is fun.

I am valued and respected.    

That's why I chose the heart to symbolize this stage. 

During this stage children have their first experience with English. This involves listening to the sounds and rhythm of the language, discovering meaning, and speaking their first words in English. I believe that during this period students should be allowed to express themselves in their native language as confidence and well-being is essential in their new relationship with English. Here the teacher can engage with students in student-centered authentic conversations mixing English with their native language, so that  students can discover their relavant language in an inductive way.  

Although in this stage learners may have a wide range of vocabulary in their receptive vocabulary, they might not speak in English yet. That’s fine. However, even if they are not producing in the target language, there is very intense activity in their minds, as they make sense and build their own foreign language models. Picture yourself learning Korean. Maybe you wouldn’t like to talk at first.

These new learners of English, usually between 2 and 5 years old,    copy words by babbling or saying them quietly, imitate gestures and movements, and say words and frequent sentences. During the pre-production stage students will say the words that come from their immediate needs of expression and from the activities that are done in class, specially storytelling and free play. They will start talking when they are confortable and secure. It's certainly worth the waiting! 

Students in pre-production can:

Answer you in their native tongue
Respond physically to commands in English
Babble and whisper words
Invent words in English
Insert words spontaneously in English in their discourse
Produce words with the help of gestures 
Produce frequent simple sentences with help 

Typical production at this stage:

Bye! - Yes/No - very good - here - 
Eu tenho uma "tartarrugah" (inventing words in English)
O que você tem na bag? (inserting a word in English) - What do you have in your bag? 
Let me see (with help)
Put it here (with help)

Educators should focus on:

1.     Providing a meaningful and pleasurable language environment for the child to develop a great relationship with English
2.     Respecting the child’s internalization time
3.     Making sure that language that is used is relevant and understandable

Educators promote optimal language learning to young learners in the silent period when they: 

Ask yes/no or either/or questions
Accept one or two word responses in English  
Use pictures and realia to build vocabulary and to support questions. 
Modify content information to student's language level.
Read simple books with predictable text many times. 
Modify speech to aid comprehension by speaking slowly, emphasizing key words,simplifying vocabulary and grammar, using related ideas, and not talking out of their immediate context.
Emphasize listening comprehension by using simple songs.
Use visuals and have students point to pictures or act out vocabulary.
Speak slowly and use shorter words, but use correct English phrasing.
Model routine  language by saying and showing the meaning. For example, say, "Open your book," while you open a book and the student observes.
Gesture, point and show as much as possible.

Language interactions and techniques for students in pre-production:

1.     Mixing (cognates, gestures, pointing, sandwich, spiraling): isolate English words and present them in a contextualized way, through which children can discover the meaning of words. Once they get these, we only use them in English. In this way we are able to foster a safe and gradual transition from their native language to English. Words can then be connected with new ones to form new sentences. 
Example: T: Esse boy (pointing) morava nessa house (pointing) e lá ele não gostava de ver television (cognate). Ninguém gostava de watch television na house que este boy lived. (spiraling)

2.     Receptive rephrasing: here we incorporate keywords that students have said in their language in our discourse, using them in English in a communicative way. I feel this is a great way to present them language once there is no need for translation or for the use of gestures.
Example: S: Na minha casa tenho uma tartaruga. (I have a turtle in my house.)
                T: Você têm uma turtle na sua house. Que bacana! I love turtles
                T: A sua turtle é big or small? 

3.     TPR teaching: here students are exposed to language without the need of translation. By doing the gesture language is self-explanatory. The gestures will be very helpful later, as the teacher can make the gesture as a trigger for students to either remember or as a cue to produce the command in English. 
Example: T: Open. / Close. / Look

4.      TPR narration: here we narrate what students are doing or are about to do. We might even "sing it" when they do it.
Example: T: Open the door, get the truck.  /   ♫ Washing your hands, washing your hands 

5.     Two-answer: this resource helps them to start producing in a very safe way by choosing and repeating one answer which was just said. With very beginners you can even use the same answer in both options. 
Example: T:  Do you want me to put it here or here?
                T:  Let's paint it blue or red? 

6.     Active rephrasing: Even though students do not talk in English at this stage we can invite them to produce in some moments by giving them words which come with a lot of expression.  As in an invitation, students choose to accept it or not. Accepting means saying their own words in English. Giving more than two words or trying to build sentences at this stage might be too much and make learners uncomfortable.
Example: S: Achei! / T: Found it!
                S: Olha aqui. T: Look here. 


Silent period does not mean silence in class. We can have students who are very talkative in their language and are still in the  silent period in the target language. But remember that students in the silent period also need silent moments in class as much as other students. Silence conveys acceptance and gives them time to assimilate the new language. 

Even with 2-year olds we start with approximately 50% in English. Students at this stage are bright and are going through a very intense process of language acquisition in their own native language.

Speaking louder or slower won’t make the children understand new language. The important thing is for language to be in their zone of proximal development. Students at this stage might not know words we might consider basic such as boy, house, blue, dog. Do you know to say these in Hungarian?

The silent period usually doesn’t happen with older students once they probably have had some contact with English. If it happens one approach is to develop a plan to assess the child’s feelings towards the language.

   Sosô and Juan’s secret hints

You can start by modeling interjections before starting the actual rephrasing. Children love to copy faces and sounds. You can copy them as well. Make sure you use interjections in English.

When you do the active rephrasing with the student, establish good eye contact, and match the student’s volume and mood. If the volume is different, the student might not recognize himself/herself in the language mirror and will then not say it.

There are many words that can be presented straight in English using gestures and pointing. Some examples are I, you, we, he, she, this, that, one, two, three, look, catch, many, little, far. By presenting them directly in English you maximize language use student’s!

Wow, this post was long. Thank you for still being here! 
Do you have any questions? Comments? 
Would love to hear from you! 

Send you a big hug!


The second post of this series is Early Production. Check it out! 

Did you like it? Share it! 


  1. Dear Juan!
    I really enjoyed reading your post! It's very interesting and useful! Sometimes I wonder why my students don't open their mounths and you have given me some clues! As far as inventing words... they do the same with Spanish words, for example "rasketing" (the English version for "scratching" for which the Spanish is "rascarse"). I love the way they invent and give new intonation and pronunciation to the words. I agree, the silent period doesn't mean being quiet!! Thank you very much for having shared it and I hope I can keep reading about these topics!
    Smiles from Argentina, Maria :)

    1. Hi Maria!

      I'm really glad that my post is interesting and mainly useful to you.
      I also love when students create their words, specially because we can see in these funny constructions their progress and how they are catching the language. Rasketing is a lovely example!
      I will write about early production next week and will let you know when I publish it.

      Hugs from Canada,


  2. Dear Juan,
    I really loved your post. I've been teaching English for kids since 6 years ago. Honestly, At my 1st year,I sometimes got " a sudden blank" while teaching them. But then,I can handle it. Personal approach is also very important to build a warm atmosphere in the classroom. I like to spend 10 minutes before I jumped into the lesson as "ZIPP YOU" (it's the time when I ask all of my kids sitting on the rug in circle and I ask them about anything). This is one of their favorite terms. It could be very noisy but It makes us getting closer.
    After reading your post,I got more knowledge how to create a fun class.
    Thank you so much for sharing,Juan. I will learn it and apply it in my teaching.

    Cheers ^^

    Ika Chieka , Indonesia

    1. Hi Ika!

      Thank you for taking the time to write me.
      It really takes some time until we are able to understand how children learn. I'm still learning everyday!
      I agree with you that it is essential to have a moment in the beginning of the class in which children and teacher talk about their lives. This is a precious moment to connect with students.
      Try these strategies in your classes and let me know how they go.

      Hugs from Canada,


  3. Hi Juan! Thanks for sharing all these ideas - they are really useful!

    One thing I think we need to do as teachers of very young learners is talk to parents about our expectations, and try to get them to lower their own - most parents seem to expect their child to be speaking in English after only a few weeks. I have had parents complain that "their child isn't learning anything" simply because the child in question couldn't (or wouldn't)tell their mum what they had been learning/practising/doing in class. I usually give these parents a copy of all the language we had covered up to that point, but I think it is advisable to have some kind of meeting at the beginning of the school year for parents of new children where we can introduce and explain the concept of a "silent period".

    Looking forward to the following posts :)

    1. Hi Shelli!

      Lovely to see you here!
      Happy that they seem useful to you.

      I agree 100% with you that it is really important for parents to understand the silent period their children go through. Many times parents get anxious as they expect their children to be taught how they learned English and to display quick results. I feel they are afraid their children are only playing and not learning. The thing is that children learn best through play!

      Next week I will post about the second stage: early production.



  4. Hi Juan,
    Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful insight in teaching English for the young Learners. I am sure with your tremendous efforts, the wonderful young learners are profiting much from your care and affective teaching of the English language!I totally agree that teaching English to young learners needs a lot of facilitating techniques and methods from the part of the teacher, such as: using realia, gestures, TPR, and a lot of care and patience!
    It's clear that your devotion to teaching the language has spurred much enthusiasm and motivation in your learners. I would like to thank you because I am learning much from your experience. Keep writing and sharing with us your insights.
    Best Regards

    1. I feel valued and recognized by your kind words, Faten. Thank you!

      Affective Language Learning with children has been a very important part of my life and I have indeed dedicated a lot to learning and teaching. Writing about it allows me to connect ideas, make sense of my experience, and share it with other educators around the world.

      Since we have started exchanging messages I have felt your enthusiasm and determination in your teaching. It's not by chance that we are connected now.

      Next week I will write about the second stage children go through while acquiring a language: early production.

      Greetings from Canada,


  5. HI again! I've re-read your post and my previous comment... wow... I was able to do some of all you suggested and I'm very happy with the outcome! Thanks again! Smiles from Argentina :)


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