College of Education & Human Services

Lesson 2: A Little Theory Your Should Know


Many educators who have little experience with ELL students may think that once they ”start talking” there is little need for ELL classes. Actually nothing could be further from the truth. True bilingualism generally takes between five and seven years. (Cummins 1984)

We’ve all heard people state that they studied Spanish in high school and college and still can’t speak…or read…or write! Many of these people actually could survive in Spanish, but it would be difficult. They could probably buy products at the store, drive, read most of their mail and pay their bills. They probably couldn’t work in their profession, speak to their children about morals and ethics, comprehend what is being discussed at a special education IEP, or read complicated materials.


Jim Cummin’s Theory of Second Language Proficiency...

“Jorge doesn’t need ESL, he talks to his friends on the playground…Lee’s English is great when there are boys in the hallway…I don’t know why Goundo is doing so poorly, it’s not her English. She loves to stay after school and talk."

The difference between basic conversational language and cognitively demanding language is Jim Cummins (1984) theory of language proficiency. Basically, Cummins believes that there are two types of language.

BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills): BICS is often referred to as “playground English” or “social English.” It is the basic language ability required for face-to-face communication where linguistic interactions are embedded in a situational context. This language relies on context to aid understanding and generally is cognitively undemanding.

CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency): CALP is the language ability required for academic achievement in a context-reduced environment. Examples are classroom lectures, textbook reading and essay writing. BICS is more quickly and easily acquired than CALP, but is not sufficient to meet the linguistic and cognitive demands of the academic classroom.

Become An English Language Learner

Here is an exercise to experience what it would like to be an English Language Learner.

Simulation 1: Briefly explain to a friend what you did last night without using the letter “N”.

  • Is this an academic task (CALP) or conversational language (BICS)?
  • With clever use of language, were you able to use English to express a personal social anecdote?
  • Could you survive on a basic, social level without the letter “l”? Of course you could, but you would be limited… or should we say… restricted.

video clip Click HERE to view a video of this Being an English Language Learner simulation.

Try another exercise to experience what it would like to be an English Language Learner.

Simulation 2: Now explain the structure of an atom (a common task for a fifth-grade science student) without using the letter “l”. Use the graphic support for assistance.)

  • Impossible…or should we say…super-hard. (Notice the use of “l”.)
  • Academic language (CALP) is specific, technical and must be taught in a meaning way.
  • Do you have students in your classroom who may know the right answer, but are unable to express it?
  • What must this do to the academic self-confidence and self-esteem of ELL students?

video clipClick  HERE  to view a video of this Being an English Language Learner simulation.