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Cognitive-Academic Language Proficiency

Separating achievement and language as distinct psychological constructs allows us to compare the learning situation of majority language (children in the United States who already know English) and minority language children in the school. While majority language children have only one goal to master the academic content (math, social studies, science, reading, etc.) at school, minority language children have two goals that they must achieve in order to succeed in the school plan.

Like majority language children, they must master the school content; but unlike majority children, they must also learn the language of instruction at school. Bilingual education allows these children and young people to follow the academic rhythm while taking the time necessary to master English.

In addition, as part of developing children’s knowledge of school subjects, bilingual education provides basic knowledge that serves as a context for children to better understand the presentation of a new school subject in the second language and helps them also to make inferences about the meaning of new words and the 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 order to avoid some of these pitfalls. They argued that once children learned English well enough to understand content through instruction entirely in English, they developed second-language pedagogical competence (SLIC). Unlike the CALP, the SLIC does not apply to the development of the mother tongue and does not attribute any particular status to the language of schooling.

Additionally, while CALP appears to equate cognitive and academic development, SLIC simply refers to the stage of second language development at which the learner is able to understand instruction and perform grade-level academic activities using only the second language, within the local educational framework. Children who have not yet developed SLIC are not considered cognitively less developed; they simply haven’t learned enough of the second language yet to learn it effectively.

The SLIC concept thus avoids the implication that a child is disabled and still allows us to emphasize the need for children to continue to receive an interesting and cognitively stimulating education that they can understand for the time necessary to reach second language proficiency. There is no doubt that James Cummins’ BICS/CALP theory has been a useful tool for practitioners to assess where their students are in their linguistic development. At its core, however, the construct remains a theory with little empirical evidence for its existence.

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

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