With ever-growing numbers of English language learners, or "ELLs," joining the ranks of American schoolchildren, teachers and support staff need to have a basic understanding of language proficiency levels among these individuals. Student proficiency in a second language may differ when the student uses the language for different purposes. Linguist Jim Cummins developed the BICS and CALP framework to support better understanding of the ELL process.
Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills
"Hey man, how's it going?" "Did you enjoy the movie last night?" "I'm having a party this weekend; you should come!" These are all examples of speech falling into the basic interpersonal communication skills, or BICS, classification. BICS is just what the name suggests: the fundamental skills to interact with other humans, using facial expressions, gestures and even props to enhance your understanding of the dialogue that's occurring. BICS occurs in what Cummins called a "context-embedded" situation, where the conversation is generally related to the language learner in some fashion.
Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency, or CALP
By contrast, cognitive academic language proficiency, or CALP, is demonstrated in context-reduced settings; that is, the content of the discussion is more theoretical in its relation to the speaker's life. CALP is practiced in classroom discussions about geometry proofs, examination of the Federalist Papers or any other discussion that requires the speaker to use higher-order thinking and content-specific vocabulary. It generally takes English language learners a much longer time to acquire proficiency in using academic content language than to fully express themselves in situations that require BICS.
Understanding the Difference
Teachers need to understand the difference between BICS and CALP. English language learners acquire proficiency in basic situational conversation in two years, on average. By this point, they are conversing freely with classmates and perhaps using common English slang. Students may still be struggling in the classroom, however, as proficiency in discussing academic concepts may take five to seven years or longer to attain. Teachers should understand that this is a normal phenomenon and that even students who exhibit exceptional communication in conversation with peers may need extra response time, support via sentence starters or advance practice with vocabulary to participate in classroom discussions.
Embedding the Context
A teacher can support an ELL by embedding the context and making it meaningful. Students attain BICS proficiency much sooner than CALP efficiency, and this is due to the context embedded in those interpersonal types of conversations. By using realia, or objects found its students' everyday life; pictures; music; art; and hands-on sensory experiences, teachers can provide deeper context to academic discussions and support the acquisition of new content material in the face of a language barrier.
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