How BICS and CALP influence your role as a CLIL teacher

May 11, 2021


BICS and CALP (Cummins, 1984) are often (if not always) discussed in a way that they might benefit the student. But during a recent coaching call with CLIL teachers I realised this way of approaching language learning also applies to teachers and their CLIL teaching.

Estimated time to read this article: 4 minutes

What does a student need?

Whenever I discuss CLIL related topics I often look at it from a students’ perspective:

  • What does the student need?
  • How can the teacher support the student?
  • Why is it important that the teacher uses scaffolding for the students’ learning process?
  • And many more

During a coaching call with a group of teachers we discussed the differences between BICS and CALP and the feedback of one of the colleagues made me realise that teachers are like students sometimes.

Not in bad way (although, teachers can be a lot like students, sitting in the back of the room etc. …)

But in a way that a lot of things that apply to students, also apply to teachers.

In this specific case: the teacher experienced the challenges students might face when BICS & CALP were not being implemented effectively himself.

Allow me to explain.

Key Take Away

A lot of things related to CLIL do not just apply to students, but also to teachers.

What are BICS and CALP?

BICS and CALP were invented by Jim Cummins in 1984 when he noticed students who were actually really good at speaking English scored low at language tests.

Cummins figured something must be going on he could now quite put his finger on.

By distinguishing a difference between ‘basic communication English’ and ‘English for school purposes’, he was able to figure out where the discrepancies in the results originated from.

Cummins came up with the phrases BICS and CALP.

BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) is essentially ‘everyday English’. The language you would use at the dinner table to describe your day or have conversations with friends.

CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) is the more school-like approach to language. Both more abstract as well as more subject-focused.

Key Take Away

BICS = everyday, dinner-table language use

CALP = subject-specific, school purpose language use

BICS and CALP in your classroom

An example I always use is: “Rain” is BICS, “Precipitation” is CALP.

Same meaning, different uses.

As such, CALP can even be used in CLIL education right from the start.

After all, as a mathematics teacher I introduced subject specific math phrases right from the batch.

Phrases like “Perpendicular Bisector” or “Point Symmetry” are not what you would call “Diner Table English”, would you?

With that in mind, let’s go back to the conversation I had with my colleague CLIL teacher.

Key Take Away

CALP can be used right at the beginning of CLIL education already.

How BICS and CALP influence your CLIL teaching

He mentioned he had experienced this himself:

His level of language proficiency was good enough, but he struggled with teaching in English.

The reason? Teaching in English requires a specific type of language.

Language used within a school, within a classroom.

You have to be able to setup your lesson, organise class management and improvise whenever something unexpected happens.

And that happens a lot.

In other words: If you would approach “Teaching environment” as a CALP category,

this teacher was really good at BICS, but not proficient at CALP.

Key Take Away

Just having a good level of English is not enough to be a good CLIL teacher.

What you can do to improve this

One way to tackle this is by having a look at Classroom English phrases or by observing fellow colleagues to see what they say in class.

Another way to improve your ‘education-CALP’ is by asking an English Language teacher to visit your classroom and provide you with feedback on your use of language.

And obviously asking me to help you with this is also an option. Would love to help out!

What do you think, do you experience this yourself sometimes?

Let me know in the comments below!

  • Thank you for creating this website and the resources Patrick. I am interested in supporting the development of language-driven CLIL in a rural community in Nepal by providing training to English language teachers there. I appreciate the work you have done here.

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