Understanding BICS and CALP

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Teachers who work with English Language Learners (ELL) are often puzzled by the differences that they see between different language skill areas. For example, a teacher may observe that an ELL speaks easily with his peers about lunch, music, video games and what he did on the weekend, but may struggle a lot with his chemistry lesson. The teacher often tends to think that the student is “playing dumb” in chemistry in order to get out of doing the work, or that the student has a learning disability.

While either of these could be the case, the explanation is more likely based on the fact that the language needed for a lesson in chemistry is very different from the language required for casual day-to-day conversation. Infact there are two very different types of language acquisition – BICS and CALP.

The first is the language used in social situations, called Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS). The second is needed in formal academic settings, like the chemistry lesson, referred to as Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP).

An awareness of the difference between BICS and CALP can help education professionals understand why an ELL may speak well in social situations and yet lag behind peers academically. An ELL often just needs time and support to acquire the complex language needed for schoolwork. Given such assistance, ELLs can have great academic success.

From Professional Learning Board’s online continuing education course for teachers: Teaching English Language Learners

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