Don't Let ELs Chatter Fool You

Have you ever wondered why your English learners can chatter away in English, telling detailed stories about their weekend? Or why they complain about a fellow student cheating during a recess game, but then falter when it comes to completing academic work?

It probably seems that if your expectations are grade-level appropriate, then the chatter you hear in English should transfer to their academic work. They sound proficient in English. So, shouldn’t they be as successful as your native English-speaking students?

The key to answering this question is in that last sentence: English learners are not native English speakers. They are native speakers of Spanish or Chinese or Arabic. Expecting their performance to mirror their native English-speaking peers is sometimes unrealistic. Often, their performance differences are rooted in BICS and CALP.

Distinguishing between BICS and CALP

Students who use English well to talk about their weekend or tattle on a peer are using a BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) level of English. BICS is often referred to as playground language. 

These same students may struggle with academic work because they have not yet mastered CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) skills in English. CALP is known as school language or academic language.

Jim Cummins first described the difference between BICS and CALP in a 1979 article, Cognitive/Academic Language Proficiency, Linguistic Interdependence, The Optimum Age Question and Some Other Matters.


BICS  = playground language

  • The type of language you hear in everyday conversations, such as those on the playground.
  • It can take 6 months – 2 years to master.
  • It is context-embedded, meaning the participants are both present in the situation. To communicate a message, the speaker can use facial expressions, gesture to objects, or draw a picture or diagram. 
  • Speakers can also use simplified language

For example, during a science experiment in class, a student can point to water being poured on a pile of sand and say, “Look, it made it all move!” The other participants know exactly what the speaker means. (The water made the sand move due to the process of erosion.) The speaker used language that is common across many situations and conversations. 


CALP = academic language 

  • The type of language needed to learn and to display learning of academic content. 
  • It can take 5 – 7 years to develop (maybe even 10), depending upon a number of factors, including the individual’s schooling history.
  • It is often context-reduced, meaning the participants may not be in the same location. For example, the author of the Science textbook is not present when students are reading. In order to understand the author’s intent, the reader must use his or her own knowledge and linguistic skills to decode the text. They can’t ask the author for clarification or ask for an illustration. 
  • Speakers must make their thoughts explicit with detailed, specific language.

For example, if a student wants to tell a family member about the science experiment they did in school, they cannot simply say, “It made it all move.” The listener will have no idea what is being talked about! Instead, the speaker must give more context and explicit information. For example, they might say, “Today, in Science, we did an experiment about erosion. In our groups, we used sand, dirt, and rocks to construct a landscape. We could put the items anywhere we wanted. Our group piled the sand really high on one side because we thought it would hold the water back. When I poured the water on the top of the pile, it made rivers in the sand, eroding it away.” In order for the family members to understand the context of the “It made it all move” statement, the child would have to use more detailed, specific language than was needed with their classmates. 


Now what?

The next time you hear your students speaking proficient English, stop and ask yourself what type of language they are using. Is it everyday, conversational English (BICS)? Or, is it more complex academic language (CALP)? Students can use BICS language to orally process their understanding of academic content, but to read textbooks or perform many required tasks in the classroom, they’ll need a good handle on CALP. 

So, don’t let students’ BICS language fool you into believing they should be equally competent with academic language. Instead, be patient with their development of amazing bilingual skills.

Encourage them to use their everyday English skills to begin discussions of academic topics and then show them how their understanding is described in academic language. In these ways, you will help them bridge from BICS to CALP. 


Excerpts of this article appeared previously in “Are My English Learners Lazy?
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Copyright ©2022 Angela J. Mooney, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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