Mind Your BICS and CALP: English Learners and Academic Language

Mind Your BICS and CALP: English Learners and Academic Language

This is a guest post from author and edtech educator Dawn Casey-Rowe.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Translating,” the student said. She was using an app to translate the article I’d assigned, reading it in Spanish even though I’d assigned it in English.

“Awesome,” I said. I didn’t need her to read in English, I needed her to read. Besides, I’d done the same thing myself as a language learner when I lived overseas. It was before smartphones could scan and translate text in the blink of an eye, so I walked around the main strip until I came upon a book vendor with the exact same textbook we were using in class—only this one was in my native language of English.

I’d bring my English textbook to class and hide it behind the official textbook, the one I couldn’t understand. It was the only way I survived the class.

Whether or not you have personally struggled with learning a foreign language, you may be struggling to gauge the language proficiency of the English Learners in your class. They may nod at the right times, laugh at your jokes, and even speak well in day-to-day conversations, but while these are great indicators that your students have a strong command of language for important social purposes, chances are they are still lacking in other key academic areas. Educators are tasked with helping language learners develop the language needed to thrive in an academic setting—commonly referred to as academic language. Even once social language is mastered, it can take learners several additional years to acquire academic language.

I experienced this phenomenon while working in my first job. I often needed to communicate in many languages, some of which I could navigate fairly well until the conversation became industry-specific (i.e., until I needed academic language.) At that point, I was lost.

We learn common words first in our native language and, in most cases, in any new language we’re studying. Often, we don’t need specialized academic or field-specific language in our day-to-day conversations. However, when entering a specialized field, there is a plethora of challenging vocabulary to learn and new linguistic competencies to apply. Now, imagine trying to do that using a second language that you haven’t yet mastered.

This is the position our English Learners are in every day. They learn survival English, move on to conversational English, and before long, they’re talking up a storm. They’ve mastered the basics—or, as as language acquisition expert Professor Jim Cummins calls them, Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS).

Cummins suggests that we picture language as an iceberg; the basic skills of conversation are the tip of the iceberg and the academic language is what lies underneath. Gaining academic language, which Cummins terms Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP), is far more intensive, taking more time and requiring more focused learning. While a student may master BICS in a couple of years, CALP often takes five years or more to gain. 

Because of this, teachers must be aware that simply because a student speaks well in class, that doesn’t mean he or she has sufficient academic language skills. These students still may need your help breaking down the parts of complex, domain-specific texts or they could fall behind.

What does this mean for the mainstream teacher with English Learners? 

Your students may not tell you they’re struggling with language

Many of my EL students come from countries where education is prized and they are constantly pushing to be the best of the best. Because of this, they don’t like to admit deficits. I have to develop a relationship with each student and explain that I’ve been through this and I’m not questioning their intellect.

Your content might be too easy, while the vocabulary is too difficult

Students want to learn new language and vocabulary, but they don’t want “baby work.” This is something I experienced when learning foreign languages using the “old-school” method—I started with reading children’s stories. Even if their reading levels are quite low, it is very important to give your students content that is age-appropriate to keep them motivated. As the EL population continues to grow, more materials have become available to help address this problem. For example, there are lower Lexile reading materials for older students who may be reading at very low reading levels—these are often referred to as Hi-Lo books.  

You have to mix it up

Give students a mix of materials to help reinforce new vocabulary. You can record yourself using the words, allow students to translate for each other and explain key concepts, or provide information in both languages. Make sure your ELs are not only looking at vocabulary words, but are also reading about them, using them in their writing, and incorporating them into dialogue. Incorporating a mix of the four areas of language acquisition—reading, writing, listening, and speaking—as often as possible is critical to making academic words, contexts, and language patterns stick.

As your ELs continue to use and develop their literacy skills, it is equally important they develop both oral language and academic language skills. Understanding the difference between everyday language and academic language—minding your BICS and CALP—could be the difference between English Learners struggling in silence or achieving proficiency right before your eyes.


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