Thursday, June 16, 2011

"But he speaks great English! Why does he have so much trouble?"

Blame it on the BICS and the CALPS.

Oh No! More ESL acronyms!! I know many of you are rolling your eyes, because few disciplines have as many acronyms as ESL. In this case, these are two acronyms that you need to be aware of because of the very important concepts and distinctions between them.

In 1979, J. Cummins made a very important distinction between the two types of language that can be acquired. According to Cummins, these are Basic Interpersonal Communications Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency Skills (CALPS). Both types of language skills are important for students in our classrooms.

Students need the BICS to do everyday tasks like ask to go to the bathroom, follow directions, make small talk, and interact with peers. For the most part BICS are oral, and most students seem to gain these very quickly after they leave their silent period. According to Cummins, BICS can be fully mastered in 1-2 years. But BICS are just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

CALPS are the language skills that students need to be successful on academic tasks in the classroom. CALPS are much more difficult to master; in fact, some native speakers are never able to fully grasp academic language. Cummins says that for a student actively engaged in learning academic language, mastery of CALPS can take 5-7 years.

So what does all of this mean to a classroom teacher? Many very good teachers make the mistake of thinking that just because a student can "speak English" or has mastered BICS, then they are proficient in English. Teachers are confused when a student who is always talking to their peers in what sounds like fluent English struggles with reading, writing, and academic content. This is because the student has not mastered CALPS. Language difficulties often go undiagnosed because many teachers are not able to make the distinction between BICS and CALPS and how they fit into a student's English language development.

One thing that I routinely notice every year when looking over my students English Language Proficiency test results (whether those results come from the Access, the ELDA or the LAS Links test) is that students always have much higher scores in speaking and listening than reading and writing. This is because these are the skills that the students use the most. They're always listening (even when we think they're not), whether it's to the teacher, a classmate or the TV. And as their teachers, we know they always seem to be speaking. This is also because these sub-tests allow the students to demonstrate their mastery of BICS.

Reading and writing however, require the use of academic language, or CALPS, which students have a much more difficult time acquiring. This is why many of the suggested strategies like word walls, sentence walls, and explicit vocabulary instruction are so important for our ESL students- it is our chance to model for them the academic language that they are expected to use. We need to not only explicitly teach the vocabulary and meaning of the words, but the structure and context of the academic language we expect them to produce. This means lots of repetition and modeling of the language of your content. It is also important to remember that vocabulary cannot be taught in isolation- it needs to be taught in context.

As I mentioned above, many native students have difficulty mastering academic language. By explicitly teaching and modeling academic language in your classroom, you will not only help ELLs, but all of your students!

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