If you teach English language learners (ELLs, ESLs, EFLs, ELTs, whatever you want to call them), you probably observe a lot about your students’ language levels. But, do you have the proper terminology to describe what you know about them?


With these two terms, you can distinguish students’ language abilities, understand what they are capable of, explain their level to parents and other educators, AND impress your boss with your up-to-date knowledge of the field.


And, the two magic terms are…. (drum roll please!)....




BICS: Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills

This stage of language development refers to students’ abilities to communicate with one another and with you during the school day. Using their English, they can discuss topics with one another, understand and follow classroom rules, and ask and answer basic questions about themselves. Often, it takes students about 2 years, maybe 3, to reach proficiency in this stage (Cummins, 2008).


CALP: Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency

This stage, on the other hand, is when English learners can successfully learn academic content in English and can complete in-depth, critical thinking tasks in English too. This goes well beyond simple conversation. In order for English learners to be socially and economically successful in English in the long term, they need this ability (Scarcella, 2013). It is extremely important to set realistic expectations for achieving this stage; often, parents and school administrators expect it to be achieved more quickly than is possible. It can take 5 to 10 years to become CALP-level English speakers (Cummins, 2008).


Teaching abroad is a big undertaking. One important thing you must to is find out what the goals of your school, students, and families are. Do they want students to be introduced to English and develop BICS? Or, are students expected to learn things in different content areas through English, using CALP?


One mistake a lot of new teachers abroad make is to think, “Oh, my students are doing great with their English! They speak with me easily! They are ready to learn school subjects - math, science, social studies - in English.”


Probably not. BICS and CALP are completely different stages and skill sets. Just because your students can speak to you about their daily lives does NOT mean they are prepared to learn about the scientific method in English. If you are expected to teach academic content in English, be prepared to support your English learners. Otherwise, students will find themselves lost and confused.


If you remember nothing else, remember this:


Armed with this knowledge, you can accurately assess your students, give their families realistic expectations, communicate successfully with other educators, and represent yourself as an informed, knowledgeable teacher!


Cummins, J. (2008). BICS and CALP: Empirical and theoretical status of the distinction. In Encyclopedia of language and education (pp. 487-499). Springer, Boston, MA.

Scarcella, R. (2003). Academic English: A Conceptual Framework. UC Berkeley: University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute. Retrieved from

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