Research in brief: Critique of BICS and CALP

BICS and CALP in a nutshell

BICS and CALP was an idea first proposed by Prof Jim Cummins in the early 1980s. BICS stands for Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills, and CALP is Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. Here’s what they are:

‘BICS refers to conversational fluency in a language while CALP refers to students’ ability to understand and express, in both oral and written modes, concepts and ideas that are relevant to success in school’ (Cummins 2008: 108).

Jean Conteh elaborates a bit more…

‘… BICS refers to all the social, everyday things we do with language, embedded in face-to-face, familiar contexts such as greetings, conversations, retelling, describing, recalling and so on. CALP…  refers to all the things we need to do with language in order to achieve academic and cognitively demanding purposes, such as explaining, analysing, synthesising, arguing and so on’. (2019:56)

The Cummins Quadrant is a pretty good visual for expanding on BICS and CALP, especially for medium-term planning (Conteh, 2019). It shows how support can be offered for EAL learners in the early stages of a lesson sequence through more context-embedded tasks with lower cognitive demand, and gradual progression to more cognitively demanding tasks (the academic, CALPy ones).

from Conteh (2019)

Some general points about Cummins’ BICS and CALP

  • This is relevant to all learners, but is particularly relevant for EAL learners
  • It takes time to acquire these different skills, BICS estimate is 1-3 years, CALP 5-7 years
  • Conteh says the concept of BICS/CALP is often misinterpreted. One example might be seeing these as acquired sequentially. However, Cummins later work suggests there’s a BICS and CALP continuum
  • BICS and CALP are linked in practice to Cummins’ other idea of learners having a common underlying proficiency (CUP) for languages. The suggestion is that use of L1 may support learners in developing either skill – it is not necessarily a case of learners lacking a skill as they might have it in their L1.

Cummins’ 2008 article is a good summary of how this theoretical construct came about, it’s implications for policy, planning and practice, and future directions. There’s also a nice summary post here with some practical examples of skills. If you’re thinking, like, ‘GIVE ME EXAMPLES!’ right now then Tan Huynh shared a snapshot from Fenner et al (2017) a while back which might help!

via Tan Huynh

Thinking about it…

The point about CUP was quite important for me. My first thoughts on reading about BICS/CALP was that it felt like it viewed learners as deficient, although I think I was off the mark there. I took this to be a sequence of skill acquisition at first, and seeing the skills as a hierarchy. That does makes sense in some ways if you consider the need to access academic language to succeed at school, but I couldn’t help thinking that these seemingly distinct language ‘types’ were interdependent. Actually, the distinction made between the two made me think of Bernstein’s elaborated/restricted code in a way, albeit loosely, hence I found it a tad harsh at first. My mistake I think.

Searching for ideas for how BICS and CALP skills are categorised and assessed in practice (beyond Cummins’ lit) did not help enhance my knowledge, that’s for sure! This link from Secondary ELL in Surrey to a checklist for evidenced BICS/CALP skills just confused me more, as I really couldn’t see the distinction between a lot of these terms in the criteria listed.

Ana Halbach’s article

Admittedly, I was more inclined towards critique with this one, but I really welcomed Ana Halbach’s take on BICS/CALP in Applied Linguistics (2012::33/5).

Halbach’s short article critiques BICS/CALP from the perspective of her role as a practicing teacher. The author’s doubts about the concept include the following:

The implicit sequential nature of BICS/CALP

  • The average time taken to acquire the two proficiencies does suggest that one precedes the other.
  • Cummins concedes that the order of acquisition here may alter.
  • Cummins suggests that children starting school are already competent users of their L1, although this is certainly not always the case. Such differentiation may have implications for the BICS/CALP model

Context-reduced language

  • Leading with a quote from Cummins about CALP referring to ‘language in decontextualised academic situations’, Halbach questions how often such conditions are evident. Can you believe it – Halbach even cites the standard resource of modern-day textbooks (among other things) as ensuring a learning environment is context-rich.
  • Halbach makes a fair point that the lack of context might actually be learners’ lack of prior knowledge, making learning context-reduced of sorts…

What does the ‘cognitive’ bit refer to?

  • Halbach questions the use of this term. She first states that Cummins’ was referring to Bloom’s thinking skills, so it’s tied to something, although that particular link may be seen as problematic (reinforces that hierarchy thing I mentioned). Product of the time, maybe.
  • Halbach then references Cummins’ remarks on processing demands, so we might be looking at cognitive load there?
  • Halbach also highlights that there may be different interpretations of the term depending on discipline – not an easy term to use, is it?!

Halbach’s conclusions are fair. She recognises the importance of Cummins’ work in drawing attention to EAL learner needs, makes valid points about how the BICS/CALP idea could be tightened, and reflects from her role as a practitioner that academic failure of her learners seems to have more to do with just lacking academic language.

TL;DR

The BICS/CALP distinction is certainly worth exploring if you’re moving into EAL. It may well be that the EAL provision in place, and the assessment of EAL learners, takes something from this idea. I find the WIDA scale which we use for assessment is more integrated in many ways, and personally I don’t see the need to distinguish between general communication skills and academic language proficiency in such a rigid way. Still, interesting stuff. The Halbach critique – 30 minutes well spent (I’m a slow reader).

Main reference:

Halbach, A. (2012). Questions about Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills and Cognitive Language Proficiency. Applied Linguistics, 33:4 (608-613)

Image is a reference to Cummins’ Iceberg theory.

2 comments

  1. Sorry for a basic question, but I note at the end you say “The BICS/CALP distinction is certainly worth exploring if you’re moving into EAL.”

    Moving into it from where? Presumably EFL/ESOL or similar?

    But then what are you seeing as EAL if that’s the case, especially more recently where it seems the designation EAL seems to have more to do with the location (e.g. state funded primary or secondary school) than the profile of the learners?

    It’s not a sector I work in so I might be wrong there.

    Like

    1. No that’s a fair point. It isn’t really a ‘move’ per se, it’s more a perspective I think. And the learning context is the key thing for me, mainly private Lang school vs say CLIL or EMI context.
      The distinction in general is certainly more interesting for teachers who are dealing with learners who are studying in an immersed setting. By that I mean that most if not all the students studies are in English at say a state school or in my context at int school. It becomes an idea that is easy to associate with then compared to something like working at the British Council (like I was) when you see your students for 2 hours a week on a Saturday. In other words the concept makes more sense when you are in a position to see it play out.

      The boundaries are blurring in that sense, but I think TEFL is on catch up. If you look at BC latest products like Secondary Plus with its Project-based focus, it’s moving far more towards the trend of CLIL, truly integrated content and lang. It’s a good bridge but it lacks fundamentals, like aligning to mainstream curricula (in whatever context). That will always keep it ‘fairly relevant but slightly too distant to fully connect’. Content key though.

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