Cognitive-Academic Language Proficiency

Separating achievement and language as distinct psychological constructs allows us to contrast the learning situation of majority language (children in the U.S. who already know English) and minority language children in school. While majority language children have the single objective of mastering academic content (math, social studies, science, reading, etc.) in school, language minority children have two objectives they must meet to be academically successful.

Like majority language children, they must master academic content; but unlike children in the majority, they must also learn the language of instruction at school. Bilingual instruction allows these children and youth to keep up academically while they take the time needed to master English.

Also, in the course of developing children's knowledge of school subjects, bilingual education provides background knowledge that serves as a context for children to better understand the presentation of new academic subject matter in the second language and also helps them make inferences about the meaning of new words and grammatical structures they encounter in the new language.

An alternative to the BICS/CALP (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills/Cognitive-Academic Language Proficiency) distinction was introduced by Kellie Rolstad and Jeff MacSwan in an effort to avoid some of these pitfalls. They argued that once children have learned English sufficiently well to understand content through all-English instruction, they have developed second-language instructional competence (SLIC). Unlike CALP, SLIC does not apply to native-language development and does not ascribe any special status to the language of school.

Also, while CALP appears to equate cognitive and academic development, SLIC simply denotes the stage of second-language development in which the learner is able to understand instruction and perform grade-level school activities using the second language alone, in the local educational setting. Children who have not yet developed SLIC are not considered cognitively less developed; they simply have not yet learned enough of the second language to effectively learn through it.

The SLIC concept thus avoids the implication that a child is deficient and still allows us to stress the need for children to continue to receive interesting, cognitively challenging instruction that they can understand during the time needed to achieve second-language competence. There is little doubt that James Cummins's BICS/CALP theory has been a useful tool for practitioners in assessing where their students are in their linguistic development. At base, however, the construct remains a theory with little empirical evidence of its existence.

This does not invalidate the contribution; several other important theories have remained unproven while serving as important bases on which to build additional research. Nonetheless, while critics have applauded the original intent of the BICS/CALP distinction, they have argued that certain refinements are needed to avoid some unintended negative consequences. By distinguishing between academic achievement and language ability and between first- and second-language development in school-aged children, we might be better able to characterize the language situation of linguistic minorities and their achievement in school.

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