Four differences between BICS and CALP (and why)

January 7, 2019


Why a student who speaks English fluently still scores low grades

If you start out with CLIL, your main concern is probably mastering the second language you have to teach in. Soon after though, if you start to learn a little bit more about CLIL, you will hear about BICS and CALP.  After reading this post, you will understand them perfectly!

Estimated time to read this article: 2 minutes

Basics of CLIL

To be able to start teaching with CLIL I think you need to understand some basic things first. Among those the most important question: What is CLIL?

If you read about CLIL you will soon find many phrases commonly used in combination with CLIL, like "Scaffolding", "Bloom" or "Lesson Planning".

BICS & CALP are also among the most common key terms when talking about CLIL. However, they differ from the other mentioned key terms because these phrases do not focus on learning, but rather on language itself. 

Or, even better, language learning.

Who introduced these phrases, and why?

Jim Cummins, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, came up with these phrases in 1984 (!!) when he encountered challenges with categorizing learning problems of students who were studying in a second language.

In his opinion, students who seemed to talk without a lot of problems still seemed to miss out on more academic skills. However, there was no way to categorize that.

That is when he came up with BICS and CALP

Key Take Away

BICS & CALP were invented to make the distinction between two types of language learning by Professor Jim Cummins

So, what is BICS?

Without further ado: BICS stands voor Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills.

Or, in normal English, Basic Language Skills.

This is the level of language a person has when communicating in everyday life or class situations and is used particularly in informal communication.

Key elements of BICS

  • Context rich: Topics are concrete and make sense
  • Cognitively undemanding: Easy to understand everyday language, simple structures
  • Takes 2 to 5 years to achieve (as a second language)
  • BICS often refers to speaking and listening skills

Examples of BICS might be:

Understanding written worksheets, understanding and using non-verbal communication and understanding and using simple and short texts

Alright, so what is CALP?

Now that you know about BICS, you might understand a little better what CALP is. 

The abbreviation stands for: Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency.

Or, in normal English, Academic Language use.

CALP is the language necessary to understand and discuss content in the classroom or at University (or other Academic environments)

Key elements of CALP

  • Context reduced: Topics are more abstract and need a certain level of prior knowledge
  • Cognitively demanding: Specialized vocabulary and more complex language structure
  • Takes 5 to 7 years to achieve (as a second language)
  • CALP is used with all language skills

Examples of CALP might be: writing an essay, understanding a scientific paper or reading content area textbooks.

Why should you care..?

Because this knowledge is not just out there for knowledge sake.

The reason Professor Cummins figured out these different categories, is because he observed students in school situations and found the models that were used lacking.

In other words: using BICS and CALP we can help our students to achieve results better.

Okay, but how?

You might recognise the students that talk to you in a way that suggests they understand English really well. The language is fluent, the grammar is pretty correct and the student uses the second language in a lot of different situations.

Yet, he (or she) scores very low on certain tests.

That is where BICS and CALP comes in!

This particular student is really good at BICS, but lacks at CALP.

And more importantly: that is totally fine!

As mentioned before, CALP takes some time to master, so we might just be asking a bit too much from our students if we expect this the first year around.

Just be aware of this difference and have a look at the language your work with. That might be the reason a student struggles.

"If we don't make the distinction, we can run into all kinds of problems" - Jim Cummins

Jim Cummins explains

Want to hear Jim Cummins explain the concept yourself?

Have a look at this short video. 

At the end, he explains what might go wrong if the distinction is not made.

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      • If you haven’t found out by now. It’s simple. Have you ever worked with someone and you were in well over your head and the person next to you thought it was easy? That is the difference. BICS can speak and listen well and have no problems communicating. and can do tasks that are not demanding but can’t do tasks where they have to use prior knowledge to think it through. Like taking a test. You don’t have any clues to help you. Use those cognitive skills you have been taught and you will get it.

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