BICS (basic interpersonal communication skills)

Rolstad, K., & MacSwan, J. (2008). BICS/CALP theory. In J. González (Ed.), Encyclopedia of bilingual education. (pp. 63-66). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi:

BICS (basic interpersonal communication skills) and CALP (cognitive-academic language proficiency) are acronyms frequently used in bilingual education to denote types or levels of language proficiency among minority students. Although the BICS/CALP distinction has become widespread among practitioners, it has been controversial among scholars. This entry includes the definition and origins of the BICS/CALP distinction and a summary of the criticisms leveled against this terminology.

Immigrant students often enter U.S. schools without full proficiency in English. At some point in each student’s second-language development, a reclassifi-cation decision is made, from the status of a “limited English proficient” student to that of a “fluent English proficient” student. How to determine the point at which such reclassification is appropriate is an important and controversial issue. For bilingual educators, a persisting fear is that some children may give the appearance of full proficiency before they actually do know English well enough to get along in an all-English classroom, prompting teachers, administrators, and test developers to reclassify them too soon.

One approach to this problem was the BICS/CALP distinction, introduced in the 1970s by Canadian researcher James Cummins. Cummins believed that language minority children who speak English on the playground or with classmates might display a kind of surface fluency, which he called basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS), although they have not necessarily achieved cognitive-academic language proficiency (CALP). Cummins identified schooling and literacy as the means by which CALP could be achieved. In monolingual contexts, Cummins explained, the BICS/ CALP distinction reflects the difference between the language virtually all 6-year-old children acquire and the proficiency developed through schooling and literacy. In a later definition of CALP, which he also termed academic language, Cummins described it as the ability to use spoken or written language without relying on nonlinguistic cues, such as gestures, to convey complex meanings.

Cummins reanalyzed cross-sectional language proficiency data reported in prior research by other scholars; the primary interest was to disentangle age of arrival from length of residence of immigrant children, both factors that could independently influence measures of language proficiency. Previous researchers had found that children who had arrived at 6 to 7 years of age eventually caught up to monolingual peers on grade-level norms, but later arrivals did not. Cummins noted that when grouping students by length of residence rather than age of arrival, one sees that older learners acquire academic second language skills more rapidly than younger learners. However, as Cummins noted, the measures used in the previous research tended to target academic rather than pure linguistic factors. In Cummins’s analysis of the data, children required 2 to 3 years to approach native-level ability on language tests but as long as 5 years to approach grade level on academic measures. Cummins used the terms BICS and CALP to characterize these different “levels” of language proficiency observed in students.

Later, in response to criticisms that the BICS/CALP distinction created an artificial and arbitrarily delineated dichotomy, Cummins introduced a four-quadrants model of language proficiency, in which language proficiency was conceptualized along two continua, called context embedded and context reduced. Context-embedded communication, Cummins stressed, derives from interpersonal involvement in a shared reality that reduces the need for explicit linguistic elaboration of the message. Context-reduced communication, on the other hand, takes place in the absence of a shared reality, hence requiring linguistic messages to be elaborated explicitly.

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Although the BICS/CALP distinction is deeply embedded in the bilingual teacher education literature as well as in the literature of bilingual special education, it remains a controversial idea among bilingual education researchers. In particular, Carole Edelsky, Marilyn Martin-Jones, Suzanne Romaine, Terrence Wiley, Kellie Rolstad, and Jeff MacSwan have characterized the BICS/CALP distinction as a kind of deficit theory; this is understood as an explanation of differential achievement that posits that students who fail in school do so because of inherent deficiencies related to their intellectual abilities, linguistic shortcomings, or lack of motivation to learn, typically transmitted by culture, social class, or familial socialization. Because the acquisition of a native language is an inherent human ability and because it reflects aspects of our biology and community lives, appealing to levels of native-language proficiency appears to explain school failure in terms of a presumed “low ability level” of the child in his or her own native language.

Critics have argued that the properties Cummins associates with the higher-order language of CALP are simply the language of a specific locus of cultural activity, namely, school. Rather than characterize this kind of language as more developed or complex, critics have argued that it should be characterized simply as different. There is no independent evidence supporting the presumption that academics are better at explaining their craft than the less schooled are at explaining theirs or that accompanying gestures are less useful to academics than to others. One might imagine a typical professor, for instance, trying to talk in detail about farming, boat building, or auto repair. Academics would typically lack knowledge of relevant vocabulary in these contexts—words that would be “low frequency” for them, but not for many others. Moreover, we might wonder why one would consider academic language to involve “complex grammatical structures,” as Cummins believes, in comparison to nonacademic language. No persuasive evidence has been presented to show this. Rather, the evidence Cummins discussed showed a distinction between linguistic assessment, which he interpreted as measures of BICS, and academic achievement assessment, which he took to be measures of CALP.

In Cummins’s framework, literacy is an aspect of language proficiency that develops later in life, layered atop the “basic fluency” or “species minimum” (a term borrowed from Jerome Bruner) that is BICS. A more traditional view among linguists, however, takes literacy to be a kind of technology used to represent language graphically. In this view, expertise in the use of print is no more an index of language proficiency than expertise in the use of photography is of visual acuity. Indeed, writing is a very recent human invention, which became widespread and publicly accessible only about 500 years ago with the advent of moveable type, and has been rejected by some societies as unimportant. By contrast, language existed long before the technology of writing and exists in all human societies today. But given Cummins’s conception of language proficiency, critics have contended, we are led inescapably to the conclusion that societies that do not use writing systems have relatively “low language proficiency,” restricted only to BICS, in contrast to the “highly proficient” language abilities represented in the academy in literate societies.

Hence, rather than viewing CALP (or literacy and related elements of academic achievement) as an aspect of language development, it might make more sense to view academic achievement in language-related domains as specific to the cultural setting of schools, and mastery of them simply as mastery of a domain of cultural knowledge. This permits us to view language growth independently from growth in academic subjects.

For Cummins, the BICS/CALP distinction is specifically related not only to children’s developing second language but also to their first language. The association of the BICS/CALP distinction with a child’s native language arguably makes the distinction reminiscent of classical prescriptivism, the view that some varieties of language are inherently superior to others. However, second-language learners exhibit errors of a sort that school-aged children do not exhibit in their native languages.

Unlike school-aged first-language speakers, second-language learners have developed only partial knowledge of the structure of their target language and exhibit substantial and consistent errors associated with tense, case, grammatical agreement, word order, phonology, and other aspects of structure. Moreover, whereas all normal human beings acquire the language of their speech communities effortlessly and without instruction, second-language acquisition often meets with only partial success and frequently depends on considerable effort and purposely structured input. Evidence suggests, too, that second-language development proceeds with considerable variation in rate and ultimate attainment, whereas native speakers exhibit remarkable uniformity in these respects. Because second-language teaching typically occurs at school, in a context that is outside of children’s home language communities, describing a child as having limited ability in a second language does not suggest inherent deficiencies related to the child’s genetic makeup, culture, class, or familial socialization, and therefore it should not be viewed from a deficit approach. The second language is specifically not a part of the child’s home culture and environment. Thus, limiting the notion of CALP to the second language only, while still seen by many as theoretically dubious, would not spark charges of prescriptivism and deficit psychology.

In sum, critics have argued that notions of language proficiency, in the context of linguistic minority education, crucially must distinguish between language ability and academic achievement and that blending these constructs in the context of native-language ability, in particular, leads to unintended conceptual consequences. Furthermore, distinguishing between first- and second-language development allows us to clarify that the BICS/CALP distinction implies deficiencies inherent in the child’s community only when applied to the first-language context.

SLIC: An Alternative View

Separating achievement and language as distinct psychological constructs allows us to contrast the learning situation of majority language (children in the U.S. who already know English) and minority language children in school. While majority language children have the single objective of mastering academic content (math, social studies, science, reading, etc.) in school, language minority children have two objectives they must meet to be academically successful. Like majority language children, they must master academic content; but unlike children in the majority, they must also learn the language of instruction at school. Bilingual instruction allows these children and youth to keep up academically while they take the time needed to master English. Also, in the course of developing children’s knowledge of school subjects, bilingual education provides background knowledge that serves as a context for children to better understand the presentation of new academic subject matter in the second language and also helps them make inferences about the meaning of new words and grammatical structures they encounter in the new language.

An alternative to the BICS/CALP distinction was introduced by Kellie Rolstad and Jeff MacSwan in an effort to avoid some of these pitfalls. They argued that once children have learned English sufficiently well to understand content through all-English instruction, they have developed second-language instructional competence (SLIC). Unlike CALP, SLIC does not apply to native-language development and does not ascribe any special status to the language of school. Also, while CALP appears to equate cognitive and academic development, SLIC simply denotes the stage of second-language development in which the learner is able to understand instruction and perform grade-level school activities using the second language alone, in the local educational setting. Children who have not yet developed SLIC are not considered cognitively less developed; they simply have not yet learned enough of the second language to effectively learn through it. The SLIC concept thus avoids the implication that a child is deficient and still allows us to stress the need for children to continue to receive interesting, cognitively challenging instruction that they can understand during the time needed to achieve second-language competence.

There is little doubt that James Cummins’s BICS/CALP theory has been a useful tool for practitioners in assessing where their students are in their linguistic development. At base, however, the construct remains a theory with little empirical evidence of its existence. This does not invalidate the contribution; several other important theories have remained unproven while serving as important bases on which to build additional research. Nonetheless, while critics have applauded the original intent of the BICS/CALP distinction, they have argued that certain refinements are needed to avoid some unintended negative consequences. By distinguishing between academic achievement and language ability and between first- and second-language development in school-aged children, we might be better able to characterize the language situation of linguistic minorities and their achievement in school.

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