cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP)


CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency refers to the highly abstract, decontextualized communication that takes place in the classroom and is used in conjunction with BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills). Jim Cummins developed the two terms and explains that "BICS refers to conversational fluency in a language while CALP refers to students' ability to understand and express, in oral and written modes, concepts and ideas that are relevant to success in school" (Cummins 2008, p. 108). He has more recently used the terms conversational language (BICS) and academic language (CALP), but interchangeably. In other words, BICS refers to context-bound, face-to-face communication, like the language first learned by toddlers and preschoolers, which is used in everyday social interaction and CALP involves the language of learning which enables children to:

                    • problem solve
                    • hypothesize
                    • imagine
                    • reason
                    • project into situations with which they ahve no personal experience with

CALP is a prerequisite for learning to read and write for overall academic success. It is thought that BICS typically takes 2-3 years to acquire, while CALP takes 5-7 years to develop. BICS and CALP are most frequently used to discuss language proficiency of students who are in the process of acquiring a new language.

"This framework is designed to identify the extent to which students are able to cope successfully with the cognitive and linguistic demands made on them by the social and educational environments in which they are obliged to function in school. These demands are conceptualized within a framework made up of the intersection of two continua, one relating to the range of contextual support available for expressing or receiving meaning and the other relating to the amount of information that must be processed simultaneously or in close succession by the student in order to carry out the activity" (Cummins 2000, p. 66).

Cummins' Quadrant Model:

  • A is the easiest section of the quadrant as there are a lot of clues given and they are embedded in the context
  • B is easier but involves a more difficult task that is still heavily embedded in context
  • C is harder as you do not have visual clues such as facial expressions or gestures to help understand the message
  • D is the hardest as you are learning about an abstract concept that cannot be embedded in context clues

A short video explaining Cummins' Quadrant Model with specific classroom examples regarding ELL students.

This short video takes you through the BICS/CALP quadrant and explains how educators can activate prior knowledge by scaffolding the use of cues that are non-verbal in order for a student to gain meaning in a new language.


Here is a short video explaining the attainment of BICS for an ELL student which will lead into the challenges and concerns of using BICS and CALP as indicators of an immigrant students' ability to develop language proficiency.

A short video that includes classroom strategies for English language learners while explaining the difference between BICS (social language) and CALP (academic language). It expresses the need to understand what our students are accomplishing in the learning process and how that will make a huge difference in how we design our programs.

"A recurring issue for educational policy in many countries has been the extent and nature of support that second language learners require to succeed academically. Students must learn the language of instruction at the same time as they are expected to learn academic content through the language of instruction. An obvious issue that arises is 'How much proficiency in a language is required to follow instruction through that language?'" (Cummins 2000, p. 57) Cummins goes on to say that there have been extensive efforts made to blend research data into policy but there "remains serious gaps and problems of interpretation in the way data have been linked to policy" (2011, p. 1974). He believes that "we are in a position to draw much more definitive conclusions than have been made to this point about the factors that promote (or impede) literacy development among immigrant and minority group students" (Cummins 2011, p.1974).

So students MAY appear fully proficient and fluent (due to a high attainment of BICS), but are still struggling with significant language gaps. An ELL students' language attainment can be deceptive as they can be less proficient than they appear because they are able to converse on some everyday, frequently discussed subjects.

It is tempting for teachers to move a student with a high BICS level to the 'mainstream' class because they SOUND like other kids in the playground.

Carolyn Edelsky, an early critic of the BICS/CALP distinction argued that academic language is measured inaccurately through a reliance on 'test-wisedness' and that academic language proficiency does not rely on test scores as support for its' validity (Wikipedia 2014).

Ana Halbach questions the notions of context-reduced language' and 'decontextualized' language when she points out "that if CALP is the language of 'academic' situations then it pertains to a specific situational context (Firth 1935) and cannot be thought of as being decontextualized or context-reduced as Cummins would have it" (2012 p. 610). She is trying to make the case that "academic context cannot be made accountable for students' difficulties with understanding and producing language necessary 'to function in school' (Halbach 2012, p. 610).

Cummins' Iceberg Model of Language Interdependence:

L1 - the relationship between the development of bilingual students' home language AND

L2 - proficiency and their academic achievement in the school language

"Bilingual instructional strategies that encourage students to use their L1 as a cognitive tool activate students' prior knowledge, affirm their bilingual and bicultural identities, and enable them to express their intelligence at an age-appropriate level...when teachers expand the pedagogical space within the school to acknowledge immigrant students' home languages as a legitimate cognitive tool and as a resource for communication within the family, they not only challenge the discourse of devaluation within the wider society but also increase the opportunities for literacy engagement" (Cummins, 2011, p. 1987).


Cognitive academic language proficiency. (2014, April 2). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20:58, April 2, 2014, from title=Cognitive_academic_language_proficiency&oldid=602471601

Cummins, J. (2000). Language proficiency in academic contexts. Bilingual Education and Bilingualism: Language, Power and Pedagogy: Bilingual Children in the Crossfire. (pp. 57-85). Bristol, GB: Multilingual Matters.

Cummins, J. (2012). The intersection of cognitive and sociocultural factors in the development of reading comprehension among immigrant students. Springer Science+Business Media, 25, 1973-1990. doi 10.1007/s11145-010-9290-7.

Halbach, A. (2012). Questions about basic interpersonal communication skills and cognitive language proficiency. Applied Linguistics. 33 (5), 608-613. doi: 10.1093/applin/arms058

Yates, S. (2015, July 8). Cummins' Quadrant Model. Retrieved from

Colorin Colorado. (2012, Dec. 8). Social vs. Academic Language. Retrieved from