BICS and CALP for Teachers: What it means for ESL

BICS and CALP are two types of language skills that are used in two different contexts. While BICS, or basic interpersonal communication skills, refers to language as used in everyday tasks, CALP, or cognitive academic language proficiency, describes language as used in specialized or classroom environments.

One of the main questions about BICS and CALP that ESL teachers should understand is why CALP takes so much longer to acquire for learners than BICS. This might surprise some, but longer and more complicated words are not the main reason that CALP is so cognitively tasking.

Rather, environment makes all the difference.

Context is Key to BICS


Research has shown that it takes English Language Learners (ELLs) six months to two years to acquire BICS. This refers to the ability to communicate socially with others. This includes talking with a cashier at a check-out counter, yelling to teammates at a soccer practice, or, for children, playing with friends on a playground.

BICS develops conversational fluency for most situations. The category is considered, by linguists, as cognitively unchallenging.

But why?

Besides using shorter, more common words, an ELL using basic interpersonal communication skills gets assistance from the world around them.

For example, the environment and its objects provide context clues. We’ve previously covered context clues and their importance here.

Then, gestures from people you’re speaking with aid recollection and comprehension.

And finally, we can’t ignore the fact that interpersonal communication is dynamic. That means you can ask for help when you don’t understand something, or – when you’re lost for words – find alternate vocabulary or grammar.

All this means one thing: Getting past the BICS stage of language acquisition requires more enjoyment and passive absorption than rigorous intellectual study.

Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that a BICS-using ELL student would say “Kill that spider!” not “Eradicate that arachnid!” The relative complexity of CALP vocabulary, of course, plays a role in the time required to learn it.

CALP is Context-Reduced, More Complex

In an academic environment, like a lecture, students invariably hear terms they’ve never heard before.

Let’s say… maieutics.

Now, not only would a student have to figure out what maieutics means. They must also, if they ever hope to recall this word, actively memorize it. That’s because they are unlikely to hear the term anytime soon, if ever. Furthermore, they would also have to understand the cultural nuance of the word. In this case, they need to know that this word can almost never be used, except in reference to Socrates.

While maieutics might be an extreme example of a word that falls within Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency, it’s not far off what ELLs have to deal with to get past the CALPS stage. Just take a look at the vocabulary in any high school science textbook, and try looking at it from a non-English speaker’s perspective. The crucial point is that the words you’ll find are specialized, and not used socially in an everyday context.

What Does All This Mean for ESL Teachers?

What research in BICS and CALP shows is this: There is a qualitative break, when it comes to language acquisition, somewhere between Intro to English 101 and advanced-level language learning. This goes against the common understanding of language learning as an increasing, but steady, slope.

In other words, attaining full fluency isn’t just about learning more and more vocabulary, more and more grammar patterns. After an inflection point, it will require another, more cognitively difficult, type of study to get attain CALP.

The difference between BICS and CALP also lends scientific grounding to a phenomenon that every language learner has felt at some point: the learning plateau.

Sometime, usually around the intermediate level, language learners will feel their progress slow down. This can be frustrating if you haven’t changed the amount of time you’re putting into learning, and requires you to re-asses your learning strategy.

The reality is, learning a language to the CALP level is hard. Many programs advertise “natural” or “fun” ways to learn languages – e.g. “Our program helps you learn a new language like a child!”. 

However, regular conversation with a language partner, passively listening to podcasts, and doing easy reading can only get you so far. To speak a language at a specialized level, like an educated native speaker, your post-intermediate study will have to include comparing, classifying, synthesizing, evaluating, and inferring linguistic input.

BICS and CALP for Beginner ELLs

cummins quadrant

The distinction between BICS and CALP also brings up an important point when it comes to new learners.

Namely, it highlights the important of physicality and environment in teaching ESL. That’s because visual aids are one of the main reasons that BICS is acquired so much faster than CALP.

Effective ESL teachers understand this, and therefore try to mimic this during lessons.

Here are some ways to incorporate visual aids in your classroom.

TPR, or Total Physical Response, is Crucial.

Basically, TPR requires language teacher to act out words using gestures. In one variation, the teacher asks students to mirror the gestures. In another, this is not necessary.

TPR was developed by Dr. James J. Asher after he studied the way that children learn their mother tongue. He recognized that parents host what is called “language-body” conversations where they verbalize something and the child reacts to it physically.

Make it Real with Realia Exercises

Realia are actual, real-life objects you can bring to the classroom to liven up the learning environment. They are a great way to enhance the learning experience, and help students comprehend and absorb new info.

We’ve outlined 40 Realia exercises for ESL teachers here.

Mimic Social Interaction with Role-Playing Games

Role-playing games can replicate the social situations that develop BICS. They also make lessons much more fun for young learners. You can find 13 examples of ESL role playing games in this article on our blog.