BICS and CALP: Supporting the Language Needs of English Language Learners

by | Sep 28, 2023


Each day at school, English Language Learners (commonly referred to as ELLs), face the daunting task of navigating the day in a language that they did not grow up speaking. For newcomers (students who New York State Education Department defines as those “who have been in our schools for three years or less”), language not only stands in the way of accessing classroom instruction, but can also prevent them from being able to navigate even the simplest aspects of the day. Asking for a drink of water, where the bathroom is, or how to get food from the cafeteria are all essential tasks that require language that many newcomers do not yet possess.

As educators, our goal is to support ELLs as they navigate learning the linguistic and cultural differences of the English language. One thing that is important to consider is the difference in types of language that ELLs are learning.

English as a Second Language Development researcher Jim Cummins has identified two major aspects of language acquisition:

  • BICS – Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills

BICS can be thought of as the language used on the playground – the language that students use in the hallways, cafeteria, and at recess. BICS refers to the vocabulary that students need to navigate conversations and communicate their needs, both with their peers and adults. In his research, Cummins found that this language of social interaction generally takes around 2 years of exposure to English to develop, as the language is heavily embedded in context. Every passing conversation solidifies ELLs’ social language acquisition.

  • CALP – Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency

CALP, on the other hand, is the language of the classroom – the language that students are required to use to be successful in an academic setting. CALP refers to the vocabulary and syntax found in textbooks, science class discussions about light refractions, and presentations on historical figures. This language, since it is much less context-embedded, requires explicit instruction and takes much longer to develop than BICS – approximately 5-7 years.


Why is it important to distinguish between these two aspects?

The distinction between BICS and CALP language development is important for any educator who is working with an ELL in order to understand their student’s unique strengths and needs. If attention to this distinction is not made, it can have a significant impact on learners.

For example, it is disorienting to an educator when students who seem to have a strong command of conversational English, similar to that of their native English-speaking peers, are not able to complete their classroom writing task, or when they are not raising their hands to participate in a classroom discussion. This disconnect can result in ELLs being misidentified for special education programs.


How can I support CALP language development in my classroom?

Since academic language is less context-embedded, it is our task to implement explicit strategies that support academic language development:

  • Visuals

The use of images provides helpful context to ELLs when they are faced with paragraphs of academic terminology that they do not understand. Before reading a text, you can use a central image that is related to the theme to spark discussion and activate students’ prior knowledge. Using a visual provides an immediate clue to ELLs and helps them ground their understanding before they begin to read. 

Another useful way to use visuals to support ELLs’ language development is by identifying key academic terms within the text and teaching them to ELLs alongside a picture before reading.

  • Sentence Frames

Since academic language is different from the language of social interaction, sentence frames are a helpful tool to expose ELLs to the sentence structure and vocabulary of academic language. By providing a sentence starter, the student is given a scaffold that supports their spoken and written learning of academic terms.

  • Chunking Text

Long pages of text filled with new words can feel overwhelming to an ELL. To help reduce cognitive load, chunk the text into smaller sections. Instead of presenting your student with a page of four paragraphs, narrow it down to show one paragraph at a time. You can then underline words to draw students’ attention to key academic terms. This practice allows students to hone in on a specific section and works to prevent them from feeling overwhelmed by long pages of unfamiliar text.



Every day, ELLs continually work towards developing both their BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills) and CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency). As classroom teachers, we can implement various strategies, including the use of visuals, sentence frames, and chunking text, to support students as they learn the rigorous academic language of the classroom.


1 Comment

  1. Laura Davis

    Thank you for providing such an clear and practical guide for teachers of ELLs. With EL population on the rise, we really need to get the word out to teachers.


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