Often times when assessing an ELL student’s level, there is a variance between what a student is capable of academically versus socially. We may notice that a student is able to communicate with their peers, but lacks the academic vocabulary for required tasks in class. Problems arise, if the assumption that a student is incapable of cognitively achieving class requirements is made. We may guess that student is unmotivated, lower than previously expected, or a misconception about their intelligence is made. To better understand this disparity between the two language acquisition levels, we will examine the work of Jim Cummins, the creator of BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) and CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency).

Cummins states that BICS refers to a persons’ conversational fluency; this BICS-CALP-triangleincludes their ability to use language in everyday social contexts. A persons’ BICS can typically develop within two years. It is also best known as the ‘survival language’. BICS develops quickly because of these strategies that ELL students may be:

  • observing speakers’ non-verbal behaviour (gestures, facial expressions and eye actions);
  • observing others’ reactions;
  • using voice cues such as phrasing, intonations, and stress;
  • observing pictures, concrete objects, and other contextual cues which are present; and
  • asking for statements to be repeated, and/or clarified

When assessing a student’s grade-level academic proficiency, you are evaluating their CALP. This includes the kind of language needed to understand and discuss content-area topics. Generally, a student may have background knowledge developed in their first language, L1, but is incapable of accessing it in their second language, L2. A persons’ CALP takes longer to develop and may take between five to seven years. CALPS requires a longer duration of time to develop because non-verbal clues are absent;

  • there is less face-to-face interaction;
  • academic language is often abstract;
  • literacy demands are high (narrative and expository text and textbooks are written beyond the language proficiency of the students); and
  • Cultural/linguistic knowledge is often needed to comprehend fully.

According to Baker (2006) “BICS is said to occur when there are contextual supports and props for language delivery. Face-to-face `context embedded´ [boldface in original] situations provide, for example, non-verbal support to secure understanding. Actions with eyes and hands, instant feedback, cues and clues support verbal language. CALP, on the other hand, is said to occur in ‘context reduced’ [boldface in original] academic situations. Where higher order thinking skills (e.g. analysis, synthesis, evaluation) are required in the curriculum, language is `disembedded´ [boldface in original] from a meaningful, supportive context. Where language is `disembedded´ the situation is often referred to as `context reduced´ [boldface in original].” (Baker, 2006, p. 174)


Having determined there are two types of language acquisition, BICS and CALP, we can examine our lesson plans to ensure they are using context-embedded language and context-reduced language. Some examples of context-embedded activities are:

  • drawing and labelling (diagrams)recognizing key vocabulary within a piece of work

whereas context-reduced activities are:

  • grammar worksheets (out of context)
  • spelling lists/vocab lists (our of context)

How can we determine where a lesson will fall in the BICS/CALP spectrum?

Language that is supported by contextual clues in the environment such as objects, props, manipulatives, pictures, graphs, charts and so forth helps the second language learner make meaning from the spoken or written world. Context-embedded language is also a result of students interacting with each other to get interpersonal clues to further construct meaning. A “here and now” context is a necessary ingredient if the input is going to be comprehensible.

In decontextualized language there are few if any clues present to support the spoken or written words to help make the language comprehensible. Context-reduced language is abstract and the context is usually known only to the author. i.e., textbooks, a novel, a lecture, a CTBS test. Quadrant C and Quadrant D are context-reduced according to Jim Cummin’s construct of proficiency.

Information from:

Further Reading:
Baker, C. (2006). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (4th Edition).
Clevedon, England, Buffalo, N.Y.: Multilingual Matters.

BICS & CALP Explained by Jim Cummins