Common and Academic Language

When addressing teaching Syrian refugee students, I think a basic understanding of some important language concepts is important. So this week I want to write about BICs and CALP. This are two types of language that is useful to differentiate between for EAL (English as an Additional Language) students, and stand for Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. My main resource for this post will be Focus on Content-Based Language Teaching  by Patsy M. Lightbown. This is an old textbook of mine and also a great resource.

These Syrian students need to learn both of these types of language in order to be successful in Canadian schools and communities. BICs – Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills –  is informal communication language between students, say on the playground or in order to invite someone to a birthday party. Without BICs, students’ social integration would greatly suffer. In order to be successful in Canada, children need to fit in and make friends. BICs is the language that allows them to do so.

On the other hand, children also need to development their competency for CALP – Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency – so that they can avoid major struggles in school and ensure their future academic success. Important about this type of language is that it is cognitively demanding. It is also not as common as BICs, it is typically without as much context and more abstract. Many school tasks demand CALP, when students need to compare, contrast, describe, or evaluate. CALP includes using “academic vocabulary, academic sentence types, academic register and interaction style” (p. 51, Lightbown). This type of language is tricky for EAL students because they typically will not often hear it from their peers and it is academic. Their parents likely are struggling with English themselves and are not able to model a mature use of English CALP, which puts these students at a disadvantage compared to the Canadian students who have CALP input from multiple sources.

Fourth-grade girl writingThe biggest impact that these two types of language have on the education of Syrian refugee students is that while both take time to master, one takes much longer than the other. For teachers who are not familiar with the typical progression of an English Learner, this can pose a problem. For students who enter English-speaking school without substantial school beforehand in their first language, they are typically able to acquire BICs in one or two years. This is a fairly short timeframe. Please note, the majority of Syrian refugee students that are entering in Canadian schools qualify as SLIFE (Student with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education) and most definitely count as students without substantial prior schooling.  Mastering CALP is a completely different story than mastering BICs. SLIFE may take five to seven years to gain the academic language skills (CALP) necessary for their age. This is huge. A teacher who is not used to these particular demands of EAL students may witness a child interacting happily and successfully on the playground with friends (BICs) and assume that the student is successfully proficient in English. Later that morning, the very same child may have huge struggles completing a writing task (CALP), which would be confusing when thought of in conjunction with the earlier playground memory in the teacher’s mind. Language learning is a long term goal; students cannot be expected to know all that they need within a year or two in order to be successful in Canada, especially when they had little or no schooling beforehand. Both the attitude of teachers and the availability of funding should take into account that it will take many years for the Syrian refugee students to have the English ability that they require in Canada.

Photos credit: Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action


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