Are You Judging Your English Learners on Their BICS Instead of Looking for CALP?

boy-1946347_960_720Are You Judging Your English Learners Their BICS Instead of Looking for CALP?

You may have heard the terms BICS and CALP before and wondered what they meant. There are two basic levels of language: BICS and CALP.  BICS or Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills are the simple “playground talk” that ELs pick up quite rapidly. Linguist Jim Cummins calls these surface structures because they are often simplistic and routine in nature. This is the type of language students learn first.  Research has typically said BICS take 1-3 years for students to develop. CALP or Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency, on the other hand, is the more difficult, academic language and language structures students experience in the classroom and in text. This type of language is much more linguistically complex. Research has typically said it takes anywhere from 5-10 years to develop CALP (5-7 if you have formal education in your native language and 7-10 if you do not according to some researchers. Opinions on the exact timeline vary.).

Teachers often judge children on their speaking abilities alone, thinking that if a child can hold a conversation, they can speak English. These teachers see their students chatting away at the lunch table and interacting with their peers on the playground and are baffled when they refuse to participate in classroom discussions. Students with BICS will have plenty to say about familiar topics, use rote expressions (like “Good Morning!”), and do well in high context situations. When the conversation turns to academic topics, however, they may not have the linguistic sophistication to participate.  While students’ mastery of BICS may make them appear proficient, they must develop CALP in order to meet the rigorous intellectual and linguistic demands of the classroom-a process which requires intentional instruction on the part of classroom and ESL teachers.  While BICS often come naturally, academic language often requires specific instruction and structured practice for students to master.

I took the liberty of modifying the chart below based on the work of the West Virginia Department of Education and the book Balancing Reading & Language Learning by Mary Cappellini.  It shows the relationship between the two types of language and how they differ.

BICS VS CALPClick for a downloadable PDF: BICS VS CALP

You can clearly see how proficiency in one area of oral language, might lead teachers to believe students are more advanced than they are. Also keep in mind, that the four domains (reading, writing, listening, and speaking), rarely develop at the same rates.  Thus, a child’s oral proficiency is not necessarily representative of their proficiency in the other three domains. Your best source of information is whatever language proficiency test your state uses. If your state uses the ACCESS, the WIDA Consortium provides many different resources for assessing the various aspects of oral speech, including this rubric.

WIDA PICClick here for a downloadable PDF: WIDA Performance Definitions

Language learning is a complex and long term endeavor, so teachers beware when you listen to your students’ talk that you don’t judge the iceberg by its tip.


To learn more about communicating with ELs, checkout this article What is Comprehensible Input? 


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