BICS and CALP explained              J. Cummins  Bilingual Education Web

Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency  



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Jim Cummins

University of Toronto


 The acronyms BICS and CALP refer to a distinction introduced by Cummins (1979) between basic interpersonal communicative skills and cognitive academic language proficiency. The distinction was intended to draw attention to the very different time periods typically required by immigrant children to acquire conversational fluency in their second language as compared to grade-appropriate academic proficiency in that language.  Conversational fluency is often acquired to a functional level within about two years of initial exposure to the second language  whereas at least five years is usually required to catch up to native speakers in academic aspects of the second language (Collier, 1987; Klesmer, 1994; Cummins, 1981a). Failure to take account of the BICS/CALP (conversational/academic) distinction has resulted in discriminatory psychological assessment of bilingual students and premature exit from language support programs (e.g. bilingual education in the United States) into mainstream classes (Cummins, 1984).

 Origins of the BICS/CALP Distinction

Skutnabb-Kangas and Toukomaa (1976) brought attention to the fact that Finnish immigrant children in Sweden often appeared to educators to be fluent in both Finnish and Swedish but still showed levels of verbal academic performance in both languages considerably below grade/age expectations. Similarly, analysis of psychological assessments administered to minority students showed that teachers and psychologists often assumed that children who had attained fluency in English had overcome all difficulties with English (Cummins, 1984). Yet these children frequently performed poorly on English academic tasks as well as in psychological assessment situations. Cummins (1981a) provided further evidence for the BICS/CALP distinction in a reanalysis of data from the Toronto Board of Education. Despite teacher observation that peer-appropriate conversational fluency in English  developed rapidly,  a period of 5-7 years was required, on average, for immigrant students to approach grade norms in academic aspects of English.

The distinction was elaborated into two intersecting continua (Cummins, 1981b) which highlighted the range of cognitive demands and contextual support involved in particular language tasks or activities (context-embedded/context-reduced, cognitively undemanding/cognitively demanding). The BICS/CALP distinction was maintained within this elaboration and related to the theoretical distinctions of several other theorists (e.g. Bruner’s [1975] communicative and analytic competence, Donaldson’s [1978] embedded and disembedded language, and Olson’s [1977] utterance and text).  The terms used by different investigators have varied but the essential distinction refers to the extent to which the meaning being communicated is supported by contextual or interpersonal cues (such as gestures, facial expressions, and intonation present in face-to-face interaction) or dependent on linguistic cues that are largely independent of the immediate communicative context.

The BICS/CALP distinction also served to qualify John Oller's (1979) claim that all individual differences in language proficiency could be accounted for by just one underlying factor, which he termed global language proficiency. Oller synthesized a considerable amount of data showing strong correlations between performance on cloze tests of reading, standardized reading tests, and measures of oral verbal ability (e.g. vocabulary measures). Cummins (1979, 1981b) pointed out that not all aspects of language use or performance could be incorporated into one dimension of global language proficiency.  For example, if we take two monolingual English-speaking siblings, a 12-year old child and a six-year old, there are enormous differences in these children's ability to read and write English and in their knowledge of vocabulary, but minimal differences in their phonology or basic fluency.  The six-year old can understand virtually everything that is likely to be said to her in everyday social contexts and she can use language very effectively in these contexts, just as the 12-year old can.  Similarly, as noted above, in second language acquisition contexts, immigrant children typically manifest very different time periods required to catch up to their peers in everyday face-to-face aspects of proficiency as compared to academic aspects.


Early critiques of the conversational/academic distinction were advanced by  Carole Edelsky and her colleagues (Edelsky et al., 1983) and in a volume edited by Charlene Rivera (1984). Edelsky (1990) later reiterated and reformulated her critique and other critiques were advanced by Martin-Jones and Romaine (1986) and Wiley (1996).

The major criticisms are as follows:

·         The conversational/academic language distinction reflects an autonomous perspective on language that ignores its location in social practices and power relations (Edelsky et al., 1983; Wiley, 1996).

·         CALP or academic language proficiency represents little more than “test-wiseness” - it is an artifact of the inappropriate way in which it has been measured (Edelsky et al., 1983).

·         The notion of CALP promotes a “deficit theory” insofar as it attributes the academic failure of bilingual/minority students to low cognitive/academic proficiency rather than to inappropriate schooling (Edelsky, 1990; Edelsky et al., 1983; Martin-Jones & Romaine, 1986).

In response to these critiques, Cummins (Cummins & Swain, 1983; Cummins, in press) pointed to the elaborated sociopolitical framework within which the BICS/CALP distinction was placed (Cummins, 1986, 1996) where underachievement among subordinated students was attributed to coercive relations of power operating in the society at large and reflected in schooling practices. He also invoked the work of Biber (1986) and Corson (1995) as evidence of the linguistic reality of the distinction. Corson highlighted the enormous lexical differences between typical conversational interactions in English as compared to academic or literacy-related uses of English. Similarly, Biber’s analysis of more than one million words of English speech and written text revealed underlying dimensions very consistent with the distinction between conversational and academic aspects of language proficiency. Cummins also pointed out that the construct of academic language proficiency does not in any way depend on test scores as support for either its construct validity or relevance to education, as illustrated by the analyses of Corson and Biber.


The distinction between BICS and CALP has exerted a significant impact on a variety of educational policies and practices in both North America and the United Kingdom (e.g. Cline & Frederickson, 1996). Specific ways in which educators' misunderstanding of the nature of language proficiency have contributed to the creation of academic difficulties among bilingual students have been highlighted by the distinction. At a theoretical level, however, the distinction is likely to remain controversial, reflecting the fact that there is no cross-disciplinary consensus regarding the nature of language proficiency and its relationship to academic achievement.


 Biber, D. (1986) Spoken and written textual dimensions in English: Resolving the contradictory findings.  Language, 62, 384-414.

 Bruner, J.S. (1975) Language as an instrument of thought. In A. Davies (ed.), Problems of language and learning. London: Heinemann.

 Cline, T. & Frederickson, N. (eds.) (1996) Curriculum related assessment, Cummins and bilingual children, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

 Collier, V. P. (1987)  Age and rate of acquisition of second language for academic purposes.  TESOL Quarterly, 21, 617-641.

 Corson, D. (1995) Using English words. New York: Kluwer. 

 Cummins, J. (1979) Cognitive/academic language proficiency, linguistic interdependence, the optimum age question and some other matters.  Working Papers on Bilingualism, No. 19, 121-129.

 Cummins, J.  (1981a)  Age on arrival and immigrant second language learning in Canada.  A reassessment.  Applied Linguistics, 2, l32-l49.

 Cummins, J. (1981b) The role of primary language development in promoting educational success for language minority students. In California State Department of Education (Ed.), Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework. Evaluation, Dissemination and Assessment Center, California State University, Los Angeles.

 Cummins, J. (1984) Bilingualism and special education: Issues in assessment and pedagogy. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

 Cummins, J. (1986)  Empowering minority students: A framework for intervention.  Harvard Educational Review, 56, 18-36.

 Cummins, J. (1996)  Negotiating identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society. Los Angeles: California Association for Bilingual Education.

  Cummins, J. (in press) Putting language proficiency in its place: Responding to critiques of the conversational/academic language distinction, in J. Cenoz and U. Jessner (eds.) English in Europe: The acquisition of a third language. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

 Cummins, J. and Swain, M. (1983) Analysis-by rhetoric: reading the text or the reader’s own projections? A reply to Edelsky et al. Applied Linguistics, 4, 22-41.

 Donaldson, M. (1978) Children's minds. Glasgow: Collins.

 Edelsky, C. (1990) With literacy and justice for all: Rethinking the social in language and education. London: The Falmer Press.

 Edelsky, C, Hudelson, S., Altwerger, B., Flores, B., Barkin, F., Jilbert, K.(1983) Semilingualism and language deficit.  Applied Linguistics, 4(1), 1-22.

 Klesmer, H.  (1994) Assessment and teacher perceptions of ESL student achievement. English Quarterly, 26:3, 5-7.

 Martin-Jones, M., and Romaine, S. (1986) Semilingualism: A half-baked theory of communicative competence.  Applied Linguistics, 7:1, 26-38.

 Oller, J. (1979)  Language tests at school: A pragmatic approach. London: Longman.

 Olson, D.R. (1977) From utterance to text: The bias of language in speech and writing. Harvard Educational Review, 47, 257-281. 

 Rivera, C. (Ed.). (1984) Language proficiency and academic achievement. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

 Skutnabb-Kangas, T. and Toukomaa, P. (1976) Teaching migrant children's mother tongue and learning the language of the host country in the context of the sociocultural situation of the migrant family. Helsinki: The Finnish National Commission for UNESCO.

 Wiley, T. G. (1996) Literacy and language diversity in the United States. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems.

Biographical Note:

  Jim Cummins teaches in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of  Toronto.  His research has focused on the education of bilingual students and the possibilities and pitfalls of technology in education.



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