BICS is okay, but CALP? Forget it.

Wait, what?  I uttered this in our office the other day and everyone laughed.

To help you understand why this could remotely be funny while not putting you to sleep instantly, here’s a quick, so-don’t-stop-reading, crash course on learning a language.

BICS, or Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills, is better known as “playground” language skills.  In a high school, it’s the wassup in the hall and speaking with friends in the cafe.  It can seem that a person is understanding everything you say because they can carry on a social conversation with you. Someone hearing a student carry on a conversation sprinkled with slang can assume he/she is a fluent speaker.

CALP, or Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency, is the ability to use the language proficiently in an academic setting.  Like school.  Uh oh.

BICS comes waaaaay before CALP.

Still with me? What drives me crazy is that even in the teaching profession, some educators don’t realize, or forget, that what a kid can say will be very different from their ability to express themselves using critical thinking in the areas of reading and writing that are essential for success in high school and college.

Which brings me to our Spanish/not Spanish speaking students.  We have a number of students…a large number of students…at our high school, for whom Spanish is their second language.  They are from Ecuador and are native Kichwa speakers.  Every once in a while we get new students who don’t speak a word of Spanish.  Usually, though, they learned Spanish in school but were raised in a Kichwa speaking household.  Or their grandparents were Kichwa speakers so they were raised by parents whose Spanish was heavily influenced by Kichwa.  Most have some Spanish skills. Their skills range from understanding a little spoken Spanish to speaking quite well in Spanish.  BICS

Academically they struggle.  CALP

The comment I made in our office was in reference to a student who wanted to be in a different English class but didn’t yet have the academic language necessary for that level.

And now you can understand why it was a completely true, yet nerdy comment and everyone laughed at me.

NYS TESOL conferenceI can’t publish photos of students so you only get to look at me. Photo taken at the 2015 NYS TESOL Conference. ©2016 Barbara H. Knowles

unlawful loiteringI couldn’t resist the urge to loiter unlawfully while chaperoning a bunch of English as a New Language students on college visits.




© 2016 Barbara H. Knowles

And this is why it is so frustrating that we have educators who are Spanish speakers but don’t understand the difference between BICS and CALP.  A Kichwa student may have a conversation in Spanish with another person and that colleague will tell me that I’m wrong.  That this or that student is fluent in Spanish.

No, they are wrong.  The student may have adequate social language skills in Spanish, but sometimes these kids come back to me and tell me that they just talked with so-and-so but they didn’t get everything that was said to them. They may be in Spanish Speaker content area classes such as math and science but not understand everything that is taught in Spanish nor how to read and write in this content area well in Spanish.

Or parents will call me because they had a conversation or a meeting with someone at the school and while the parents kept saying “Sí, sí, entiendo,” they didn’t actually understand and want me to explain what they need to do or know.

My wish is for it not to be such an uphill battle for these kids.  My wish is that all the adults with whom these students and their families have to communicate, understand that Spanish isn’t their first language and to respect that.  And understand that their academic difficulties in high school are in a large part due to not having academic skills in Spanish. Their BICS are okay. Their CALP?

Forget it.


© 2016 Barbara H. Knowles

About Barb Knowles

The things that are important to me are family, friends, teaching, writing, languages and using my sense of humor to navigate this crazy world. Please join me on this blogging adventure...
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11 Responses to BICS is okay, but CALP? Forget it.

  1. annieg421 says:

    Zzzz I could done with reading this when i was awake at 2.30 am. Ha ha

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bea dM says:

    Didn’t know the acronyms, and I had to look up Kichwa so thanks for this informative post 🙂 In my experience, you win the battle against all kinds of language gaps if you manage to get the student interested in reading in the new language … for pleasure. Which I realise is not all that easy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Barb Knowles says:

      Man, is that true. I try to get simple books in English to start out with, that are about high school themes. Like a girl who broke up with her boyfriend because he went out with her best friend. Or a guy who got kicked off of a sports team because he went out to eat pizza with his friends and was late to a game. As to the acronyms, I gave a quick explanation because no one in the world would ever have heard of them (nor cared to know, ha) unless they taught English, or any other language, as second language. Thank you for reading this and commenting. 😃

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Barb Knowles says:

    Thanks! I love languages and love teaching so it’s a great job. Now if only I could only get them to love being students…..ha!


  4. Barb Knowles says:

    I’d like to hear about your language experiences.


  5. Oh language, language and I love talking about it. Languages are so fascinating and a very interesting topic. I’d love to learn Spanish one day. And Italian. One day. I’m taking up Dutch now and it’s killing my brain cells. Other than that, I’ve got to brush up on my Singlish and Tinglish (Thai-English) BICS Level. Lol.

    Liked by 1 person

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