The Crucial Concepts of BICS and CALP

If your district is blessed with a lot of English Learners, then you are probably more than familiar with BICS and CALP, but if not, I encourage you to keep reading! There are two basic types of language that teachers need to be familiar with – social and academic, or BICS and CALP.

BICS stands for Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills. We call this social language. I like to tell teachers that anything they hear in the hallways of the schools would fall under this category. Questions like, “When is lunch?” and “How are you?” and “Can I go to the bathroom?” all fall under this category. If you were learning a different language to go on a vacation to another country, you would probably just learn the social language needed to get by there. Researchers estimate that it takes students between 1 and 3 years to become fluent in social language. This means that they know the language in all 4 domains: reading, writing, listening and speaking.

There are many factors that can contribute to the rate at which students learn BICS:

  • their exposure to English
  • their need to use social language
  • the age at which they are learning English
  • their personality
  • confidence level
  • the opportunity to use social language
  • their native language
  • the number of cognates between their native language and English

As a newcomer teacher, there were many instances where I would have a student come in to my class as the only person speaking their native language, let’s say Arabic or Mandarin, and a group of students comes in whom all spoke the same native language (in my class, typically this was Spanish). I would often see the student who spoke Mandarin have a longer silent period, and the students who spoke Spanish pick up on the basics of English a little earlier – perhaps this was because there are more cognates (words that look or sound the same or similar in both languages). However, what I observed often was that the student who spoke Mandarin, once they did start speaking English, would often soar past the Spanish speakers. Why? Because the Spanish speakers still had each other to speak Spanish to – so in the cafeteria, hallways, and in other classes, they were using their native language a lot of time. However, the student who spoke Mandarin has to speak English, so his BICS grew rapidly after he moved past the silent period.

It’s important to note that social language is built before academic language, so if you have students who have been in the country for 3 years or less, they need the opportunity to speak, listen, read and write in BICS. Here are few ways to build BICS in class:

  • have students explain their favorite weather/holiday/person/movie/song
  • have students do a think-pair-share to explain their opinion or thoughts on the concept they are learning
  • have students listen to their partner explain their thoughts, and respond with an agreement or disagreement
  • have students share their goals or dreams in writing or verbally
  • have students read articles that are written about relevant topics to teenagers

The more confident and fluent students are in their BICS, the easier it is for students to build their CALP. CALP stands for Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency – or academic language. Academic language is the student’s knowledge of technical and academic vocabulary, and the ability to acquire new academic vocabulary. Researchers have said for years that it takes between 5 and 7 years to develop CALP fluently, but now some researchers are saying it could take as long as 10 years!

How do we help students develop their CALP?

  • Vocabulary! Vocabulary! Vocabulary!
  • Visuals
  • Total Physical Response (putting a hand motion to a meaning)
  • Teaching word parts (prefixes, suffixes, root words)
  • Repetition of new concepts and vocabulary
  • choral reading
  • Word Walls
  • Using all 4 language domains to teach and practice concepts – students need to speak the concepts, read the concepts, write the concepts and hear the concepts.
  • Vocabulary games
  • Sentence frames
  • wait time

There are so many ways to help students build their BICS and CALP! Let me just warn you against some practices that don’t build language:

  • copying notes
  • only listening to a lecture
  • reading grade-level texts with no accommodations or scaffolds
  • all independent work

For English Learners (and any student who is behind in their language), students must build language and content simultaneously – otherwise, they will plateau in their language and miss important concepts. This leads to Long-Term ELS, which I’ll talk about in our next article.

For more information about ELs or to visit about Pressing Onward guiding your campus on their journey to cultural responsiveness, visit!

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