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TESOL in Real Time: BICS versus CALP

A guide to helping your students for whom English is a second language

Fast Tracking English Language Learners

What's the Difference?

by Sarah Anne Shope, MAPW, MS Ed. TESOL, PhD

Students who've learned English as a second (or other) language often haven't acquired a full foundation in vocabulary and concepts for cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP), and therefore struggle to comprehend general instructions and details that other students usually pick up automatically. A student may or may not be deemed ESL or ESOL, but he or she is continuing to gain the language. That student is always an English language learner (ELL). It can take between 10 and 12 years in academia for ELLs to develop a strong foundation in CALP. During that time, the student must attempt to focus on the instruction and put words in order with correct meaning. That requires double duty for the student's brain and emotions. For the ELL that ongoing challenge can feel like trying to hold on to bunches of balloons filled with helium; every time you move one, another one slips out of your hand. The difference is that those balloons feel as though they are in your head. That makes it incredibly difficult to focus, and the academic experience can be exhausting. All ELLs experience this on some level, and each ELL has his or her own variety of struggle.

That student has a far better chance of staying in school if he or she happens onto instructors who understand the process and perhaps know some of the pathways that the ELL takes or should take. One major challenge for us as instructors is that we hear the students speaking easily to friends or in class, yet we notice a reserve in academic participation and that doesn't seem to add up. Why is it hard for instructors to distinguish between basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP)?

Why Is it So Hard to Distinguish between CALP and BICS?

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The problem stems from our magical experience of acquiring English as a natural process in such an instinctive manner. The acquisition of our first language was subconscious, and we can hardly recognize how we came to know what we know. That's the incredible ability of the human mind to absorb language as a natural part of growing up among caretakers who speak a particular language. Second-language acquisition is a different process, which usually requires a mix of acquisition and learning. If we didn't go through a language-learning process –as opposed to a language-acquisition process, we do not automatically understand or empathize with ELLs. ELLs tend to pick up BICS simply by interacting socially or by listening to television and music. But CALP is a developmental process that takes place over years of academic preparation. After we sit through years of being schooled through English, we naturally acquire a foundation in academic proficiency to one degree or another. But for a person who has not gone through that experience, while he or she might display excellent BICS, that foundation doesn't exist. The BICS fools the instructor into assuming that CALP is there.

When we don't understand BICS versus CALP, we tend to think the student simply needs to try harder or that the problem stems from speaking the first language in the home or that there is something oddly lacking in the student's enculturation. Of course the worse scenario is when instructors take a deficiency orientation rather than a difference orientation toward the ELL or when the instructors assume that language deficiency is related to intelligence.

So Where Does it Take Us?

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There are many myths about second-language acquisition, and they often get in the way of our understanding of ELLs. We never want to think of them as deficient, and surely we want to do everything within our power to help them. But where do we begin, and do we need to alter our ideas about teaching methodology, strategies, and techniques? The answer is no! We simply need to understand what's going on with ELLs and then enhance our strategies and techniques for working with them. As we do that for ELLs, we naturally extend to all struggling students.

A study of applied linguistics and language acquisition take us into the issues of how the human mind deals with first and second languages and how we make connections from one language to another. A student from a non-English-speaking country might enter the sixth grade in an English-speaking school and bring with him a strong foundation in a favorite subject of mathematics. After a year or so of instruction in English that student might drop in grade and interest and eventually fall so far behind that he or she entirely gives up that favorite subject. Teachers, friends and family might think that "he's so smart" or "her English is so good" and question why he or she doesn't try harder. There is the problem; teachers, friends, and family do not recognize the difference between BICS and CALP. That student probably speaks easily and clearly, maybe even with no accent at all; however, that cognitive academic foundation was never put in place in the English language.

So, with that realization, how can we help our ELLs? We can apply those issues related to language acquisition and language connection to our teaching strategies. The basics include lowering anxiety, comprehensible input, scaffolding of terminology and concepts, employing meaningful activities and interaction, and providing integral assessment and review.    

Author: Sarah Anne Shope, MAPW, MS Ed TESOL, PhD

Dalton State College Faculty, University of Georgia Global TESOL Certificate Program Director/Instructor