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Teaching tips - Understanding BICS and CALP

As busy teachers it is easy to get stuck in a rut. Our Teaching Tips are aimed at those of you who are teaching and are looking for some new ideas or activities to use in your classes or for those who would like to develop professionally by expanding their content knowledge.

Understanding BICS and CALP

This article focuses on the difference between Basic Interpersonal Communication skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) and why language teachers should be aware of it.

By Anne-Louise de Wit

BICS and CALP refer to a conversational/academic distinction introduced by Cummins (1979) between basic interpersonal communicative skills and cognitive academic language proficiency. Gibbons (1991) describes this
difference as ‘playground’ language (Cummins’s BICS) and classroom language (CALP). Bruner (1975) made the distinction between communicative and analytical competence, whereas Donaldson (1978) called it embedded and disembedded language and Olson (1977) made the distinction between utterance and text. Despite the terms used, it boils down to the extent to which the meaning being communicated is supported by contextual or interpersonal cues or dependent on linguistic cues.

Although beginners or newly arrived students can often acquire conversational English – Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) – in a relatively short time, it generally takes them five to seven years (according to Collier 1987, Klesmer 1994 and Cummins 1984) before they can function academically on the same par as their monolingual peers. Cummins (1979) introduced the acronyms BICS and CALP to draw attention to the very different time periods immigrant children require to reach grade appropriate proficiency. Quite often advance bilingual students are “forgotten about” before they fully acquire CALP and do not receive the necessary ongoing support to fully develop CALP. According to Cummins (1984) these students will still require specialist help if they are to develop CALP and reach their potential within an English medium education system.

The literature that supports the notion of BICS and CALP include studies by Cummins, Gravelle, Coard and Haynes, but criticism against it has been made by Edelsky and Martin-Jones and Romaine. One of the first studies that brought attention to the fact that children might be fluent in language while their verbal academic performance are lower or below average was done by Skutnabb-Kangas and Toukomaa (1976) who studied Finish immigrants in Sweden. Cummins (1979) studied French students in Canada and drew attention to the very different time periods immigrant children required to reach grade appropriate academic proficiency. Cummins (1981b) found that CALP takes five to seven years to develop. Collier (1987) and Klesmer (1994) state that it takes at least five years for students to catch up to native speakers in academic aspects of L2.

Before BICS is fully developed newly arrived students will go through a “silent period” which is an interval of time during which they are unable or unwilling to communicate orally in the new language. This period may last from a few days to a year depending on a variety of factors. As soon as students break their “silent period” and start to communicate their BICS will develop. BICS is the day to day language skills needed in social situations and to interact socially with other people. These social interactions are usually context embedded and it occurs in a meaningful social context. For students it is not cognitively demanding and the required language is not specialized. The conversational skills usually take between six months to two years to develop after arrival and sometimes teachers mistakenly think that students are proficient when they demonstrate good social English. Cummins argued that BICS were acquired rapidly, but that the CALP took much longer. CALP refers to formal academic learning which includes proficient language skills in listening, speaking, reading and writing. CALP is largely required of school based learning and the students who appeared to be operating well within the social and personal context of the classroom were assumed also to be capable of the more linguistically demanding areas of their learning. When EALS struggle with CALP they are often labelled as under-achievers or even as students with special educational needs.

Cummins’s research has shown that because the pupils appear so fluent in everyday social language, “teachers are unaware of the need for explicit teaching of academic language. Students’ academic achievement should be maintained and Cummins (1984) noticed that many bilingual pupils were identified by schools as failing to maintain their potential after making good progress initially. Cummins argues that this is due to the misunderstanding of teachers of the language acquisition process. The need for all teachers to be teachers of language in the context of their subject cannot be overstressed and nor can the advantages of such an approach for their English as a mother tongue peers. There must, however, be a focus on the development of increasing CALP or else the students will take longer to acquire it. Teachers must focus on incorporating the principles of ‘joint productive activity’ and ‘language development’ (CREDE 2002). Language is an indispensable element of learning, thinking, understanding and communicating and is vital for all subjects.


Cummins created the iceberg metaphor, where BICS relates to surface features such as basic comprehension, reasonable pronunciation and control of essential vocabulary and grammar whereas at a deeper level we use language to analyse and synthesize information and to evaluate, interpret and make deductions.  Cummins went on to suggest that language proficiency could be conceptualised along two continuums. One relates to the extent to which ideas are contextualised and the other to the complexity of those ideas. Concepts which can be illustrated through real and familiar examples are highly contextualised as opposed to abstract ideas which are hard to exemplify and may be remote from students’ experiences. Even complex ideas can be understood if they are embedded in a familiar situation, whereas simple concepts may be harder to grasp if they are written rather than discussed orally.

Critique on the conversational/academic distinction has been made by Edelsky and her colleagues (1983 and a reformulated critique in 1990), Rivera (1984) Martin-Jones and Romaine (1986) and Wiley (1996). The major criticisms included that: a) it reflects an autonomous perspective on language, ignoring location and power relations, b) CALP only represents “test-wiseness” and c) CALP promotes a ‘deficit theory’ because it attributes academic failure to low proficiency rather than inappropriate schoolings.

Bruner, J.S. (1975) Language as an instrument of thought. In A. Davies (ed.), Problems of language and learning. London: Heinemann.
Collier, V. P. (1987)  Age and rate of acquisition of second language for academic purposes.  TESOL Quarterly, 21, 617-641.
CREDE (2002) Collier,V and Thomas, W (2002) A National Study of School Effectiveness Research for Minority Students’ Long-term Academic Achievement.
Cummins, J. (1979) Cognitive/academic language proficiency, linguistic interdependence, the optimum age question and some other matters.  Working Papers on Bilingualism, No. 19, 121-129.
Cummins, J. (1981b) The role of primary language development in promoting educational success for language minority students. In California State Department of Education (Ed.), Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework. Evaluation, Dissemination and Assessment Center, California State University, Los Angeles.
Cummins, J. (1984) Bilingualism and special education: Issues in assessment and pedagogy. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.
Edelsky, C, Hudelson, S., Altwerger, B., Flores, B., Barkin, F., Jilbert, K.(1983) Semilingualism and language deficit.  Applied Linguistics, 4(1), 1-22.
Edelsky, C. (1990) With literacy and justice for all: Rethinking the social in language and education. London: The Falmer Press.
Gibbons, P. (1991) Learning to Learn in a Second Language, PETA Australia
Klesmer, H.  (1994) Assessment and teacher perceptions of ESL student achievement. English Quarterly, 26:3, 5-7.
Martin-Jones, M., and Romaine, S. (1986) Semilingualism: A half-baked theory of communicative competence.  Applied Linguistics, 7:1, 26-38.
Olson, D.R. (1977) From utterance to text: The bias of language in speech and writing. Harvard Educational Review, 47, 257-281.  
Rivera, C. (Ed.). (1984) Language proficiency and academic achievement. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.
Skutnabb-Kangas, T. and Toukomaa, P. (1976) Teaching migrant children's mother tongue and learning the language of the host country in the context of the sociocultural situation of the migrant family. Helsinki: The Finnish National Commission for UNESCO.