Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) vs. Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) (Jim Cummins)
Explanation of Main Features
Coined by Jim Cummins (1979, 1980), BICS refers to everyday speech patterns and skills everyone uses in casual or social ways. These include absorbing information from radio and TV programs, movies, newspapers and magazines or other media; relating to peers or others in regards to the normal activities and communication needed to interact. Cummins refers to BICS as context embedded because the environment is familiar and there is verbal interaction from those who understand the setting. They also include interactions in the classroom of a non-academic nature. By distinction, CALP refers to the academic language skills and abilities that are needed to articulate and discuss the unique aspects of content area subjects. CALP is context-reduced due to a lack of contextual relationship. These are often abstract and outside of their contexts. This makes this task very difficult for the English Language Learners (ELLs) (as cited in Diaz-Rico & Weed, 2010, p. 56).

BICS for the ELL can be attained in two years, while the academic language or CALP may take five years to become as proficient as a native speaker. Each of these areas of development requires a separate skill set. Having the ability to communicate equally well with native speakers on a social level does not mean that ones ability to interact on an academic level will also be on equal footing. It is the distinction that we must pay attention to. Cummins likens it to telling jokes. Whether we are good at telling jokes has no relationship to our ability to articulate on an academic level (Cummins, 1999).


Cummins, J. (1999). BICS and CALP: Clarifying the distinction. University of Toronto, Opinion Papers (120). Retrieved from

Díaz-Rico, L. T. & Weed, K. Z. (2010). The cross-cultural, language, and academic development handbook (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson

Wright, W. (2010). Foundation for teaching English language learners research, theory, policy, and practice. Philadelphia, PA: Caslon Publishing

Classroom Implications
In general, the more power one holds, the more proficient one is in academic language. Academic language holds a certain power in society. The people with more access and knowledge of academic language hold the power, and people with little access become powerless. The BICS and CALP model as outlined by Cummins (2009) does not take into account the role power plays in obtaining a proficient level of CALP. BICS is language used for every day, hands-on situations, but CALP is more complicated, it requires words as well as a systematic thought process that uses tools needed to categorize, compare, analyze, and accommodate new experiences. (Diaz-Rico & Weed, 2010, p. 56). BICS can be acquired by anyone who wants to immerse him or herself in society, where as, for the most part, CALP is learned in a school setting. Teachers hold the power in schools, and they have the power to teach students all aspects of language. If teachers are not providing students with the assistance they need to learn the CALP, then students will not hold power. Teachers and other people in power have a responsibility to take language learners through the process of not only learning the words of a language but how to use it and function in all types of situations, context-embedded and context-reduced, because it is not something that can be acquired. This model does not take into account that CALP is accessible to people in power and is hard for language learners to access without the aide of those currently in power. Teachers have a responsibility to their students to use sheltered instruction while teaching content specific and general academic language.
CALP is only necessary for the ability to successfully take tests and does not adequately measure the knowledge of an ELL student (Cummins, 2009). Tests use language that is different than language students encounter on a regular basis, and this is the only reason academic language needs to be learned. Students are able to show their knowledge in a variety of other means rather than taking a test written in academic language. Cummins iceberg model illustrates that language learners can have higher order thinking skills occurring in their native language, but may not be able to express the answer with rich academic language in a second language. A test rich with academic language does not measure a student’s academic knowledge only their means to appropriately express their knowledge according to an answer key. Good classroom practice would suggest that teachers provide other means outside of test taking to assess student knowledge.
Often ELLs are exited from programs too early, and forced to be mainstream before the academic language abilities are proficient. Cummins (1999) cautions us not to exit ELLs too soon and to be careful when assessing their abilities, remembering to account for CALP and not relying heavily on BICS. In general, ELLs are over represented in ‘Special Education’ classes and under represented in the ‘gifted’/AP programs. He believes this may be due to language barriers. A good bilingual program will have three foci: cognitive approach that focuses on higher level thinking, ELD throughout all content areas, and deep understanding of how to use language in both their first and second languages (Cummins, 1999).

Cummins, J. (1999). BICS and CALP: Clarifying the distinction. University of Toronto, Opinion Papers (120). Retrieved from _DARGS=/hww/results/results_common.jhtml.44

Cummins, J. (2005, September). Teaching for cross-language transfer in dual language education: Possibilities and pitfalls. Paper presented at TESOL
Symposium on Dual Language Education: Teaching and Learning Two Languages in the EFL Setting. Text retrieved from

Cummins, J. (2009). Putting Language Proficiency in Its Place: Responding to Critiques of the Conversational - Academic Language Distinction.
Retrieved May 8, 2011, from

Díaz-Rico, L. T. & Weed, K. Z. (2010). The Cross-Cultural, Language, and Academic Development Handbook, Fourth Edition.