Cognitive academic language proficiency

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Cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) is a language-related term developed by Jim Cummins which refers to formal academic learning, as opposed to BICS.[1] In schools today, the terms BICS and CALP are most frequently used to discuss the language proficiency levels of students who are in the process of acquiring a new language. These students typically develop proficiency in BICS well before they acquire a strong grasp of CALP or academic language. As a result, students may initially appear fully proficient and fluent, while still struggling with significant language gaps.

In a 1996 ethnographic study of Salvadorean students in Washington, D.C., Carolyn Vincent found that the students' language attainments were "largely deceptive".[2] Students were less proficient than they appeared because they were able "to converse on a few everyday, frequently discussed subjects" but often lacked proficiency in academic language.[3] Carolyn Edelsky was an early critic of the BICS/CALP distinction, arguing that academic language is measured inaccurately through a reliance on "test-wiseness".[4] Cummins countered this by noting that academic language proficiency does not rely "on test scores as support for either its construct validity or relevance to education".[3] Further, it is tempting for teachers and administrators to move students with a high BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills/Social Language Proficiency) level into a 'mainstream' class because they 'sound' like the other kids on the playground.[citation needed]

Although the terms BICS and CALP are still widely used, Cummins has more recently used the terms conversational language and academic language.[5] Instructors in bilingual educational environments, Cummins tells us, should be mindful that a student's apparent ability to interact at a high cognitive level on the 'street' does not necessarily imply the same cognitive or communications ability in the 'class'.[citation needed] Cummins insists that a more thorough assessment of the student's academic language abilities be performed before moving the student out of a 'sheltered' language development environment.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Cummins, James (1979). "Cognitive/academic language proficiency, linguistic interdependence, the optimum age question and some other matters". Working Papers on Bilingualism. 19: 121–129. Retrieved 20 April 2017.
  2. ^ Paulston, Christine Bratt and G. Richard Tucker, eds. Sociolinguistics:The Essential Readings. Malden, Ma.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003, p. 325.
  3. ^ a b Paulston. p. 325.
  4. ^ Paulston, p. 324
  5. ^ Echevarria, Jana. (2007). Sheltered Content Instruction: Teaching English Language Learners with Diverse Abilities. Special Edition, p. 10