BICS and CALP in the EFL Classroom

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In any classroom, regardless of what is being taught, you will find students who differ in many respects. Even if they are the same age, nationality, gender and language level, each student will have their own strengths, weaknesses, learning styles and preferences. In the EFL classroom, one way our students differ is in the type of language skills they lean towards: BICS or CALP. This blog explains BICS and CALP in the EFL classroom.

What are BICS and CALP?

BICS and CALP refer to Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. Learners of a language tend to be more proficient in one of these skills than the other. As you can probably guess, students who are stronger at BICS are more communicative, especially in everyday situations, while those who are stronger at CALP are better in academic contexts.

BICS and CALP in the EFL classroom

How does this affect the EFL classroom? Well generally BICS students are more outspoken and chatty in the EFL classroom. They might respond quicker to prompts by the teacher and they may seem more eager to participate in classroom discussions. CALP students, on the other hand, may seem more reserved as they can take longer to come up with appropriate responses in real-time. However, they work well with classroom materials, especially written work.

Where this may pose a problem is for assessment. If we are assessing our students based on their participation in class our BICS students will fare very well. On the other hand, if we are assessing students based on academic tests, our CALP students will do very well. Consequently, our assessment may be skewed depending on the type of assessment being carried out.

It can also be easy to overestimate or underestimate your students’ English ability. It’s natural to make a judgement based on our students’ interactions with us and their classmates. If we see a student chatting away before and after the lesson we may assume their English is, say Intermediate, but when we take a closer look at their writing we may need to adjust our assessment of their overall level. At the same time our quieter students who are able to show a range of vocabulary in their writing may be identified as lower than they are based on their conversation skills.

The moral of the story re BICS and CALP?

Don’t judge a book by its cover, of course. Try not make snap judgements of students and their abilities based on what you see or hear. At the same time, understand that your students have different strengths and weaknesses which means they have different needs. When dealing with students, bear BICS and CALP in mind. Consider the abilities of your students and think about how they can improve their BICS or CALP skills where necessary. In order to be well-rounded English speakers, your students need to have a handle on both BICS and CALP.

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