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In this lesson, you’ll learn about cognitive academic language proficiency, how it affects student learning, and what can be done to improve student outcomes. An example is provided and a short quiz follows.

Challenges for Students

School can be challenging for many students, but imagine the difficulties faced by students for whom English is not their first language. These learners, commonly referred to by the acronym ESL for English as a Second Language or ELL for English Language Learners, face an extra barrier in attempting to learn material that may be challenging even without the added language barrier. Many teachers see students who are able to converse fluently with their friends in English but face difficulties learning in class or understanding the instructions for their homework. Unfortunately, many of these students fall behind or are misdiagnosed with learning disabilities.

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The answer may not be dyslexia or ADD but rather a lack of understanding by their teachers of their students’ cognitive academic language proficiency.

CALP

Cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) is the term used to discuss the formal language used in academia, which is often decontextualized. This language often involves large and uncommon words used with little face-to-face reinforcement and non-verbal communication. Lessons written in academic language require a deep understanding of the writer’s native language, which an ESL student lacks. Examples of this include the usage of metaphors and similes, scientific terminology, and colloquial expressions. Research has shown that ESL learners can take up to seven years to be considered fluent in academic language.CALP is best understood when compared to its opposite – basic interpersonal communication system (BICS).

BICS is the development ESL students have in conversational fluency, which is usually rich in context. A face-to-face conversation, the prime example of BICS, provides the speakers with non-verbal clues, instant feedback, and cues that support the language interplay. Fluency in the social and interpersonal use of language is achieved on average in only two years for most ESL learners.Both CALP and BICS rely greatly on the idea of context and both can be context embedded or context reduced. Context embedded communication is when there is a great degree of feedback and non-verbal communication. Prime examples of this are a face-to-face conversation or one-on-one tutoring with a learner.

The ESL learner is able to read the face of the other person, noticing the little cues we all take for granted when talking to someone, and receive instant feedback on her use of language.Context reduced communication is what’s found often in the academic world, such as reading a textbook, watching a PowerPoint presentation, or even talking on the telephone. This communication relies far more on a deep understanding of the language to be meaningful, something ESL learners struggle to achieve as early as context embedded language.

Improving CALP

Teachers who wish to help ESL students who may be struggling with academic language should try to make sure they are using context embedded methods. Supporting the academic language with visual cues, such as graphs, pictures, and charts will help students to associate the language to the context faster. Integrating objects and props into lessons can also help ESL students to gain context.

Students can also work with one another to provide interpersonal clues and help ESL students construct meaning. These techniques should actually help all students master academic language, even those who speak English as a first language but may struggle in the classroom.

Example of CALP

Let’s say we have a student whose name is Henry.

When Henry was 10, his family moved from Honduras to the United States and he was placed into ESL classes. By the time he was 13, Henry had developed what appeared to be full fluency in English and he could easily converse with friends who were native English speakers. Henry can be said to be have achieved a high level of basic interpersonal communication skills: he can talk with few errors to his friends in English, understands virtually all of what is said to him conversationally, and can be said to be fluent in English.However, when Henry is moved out of the ESL classroom and into a mainstream class, his grades immediately start to suffer.

He is having difficulty in following the assigned reading in the textbooks and performs poorly on standardized tests. Henry is a prime example of a student who has a high degree of BICS but has yet to master CALP. His teacher can aid him by integrating more visual cues into lessons and allowing Henry to work with a native language speaker as a partner. This will give him greater context and improve his understanding of the immediate lesson while building his CALP skills.

Lesson Summary

Cognitive academic language proficiency is the term used to describe a student’s ability to understand the complex and often decontextualized language used in formal academic learning.

In contrast, basic interpersonal communication skills is the term used for the frequently context-rich social communication done in personal contact. ESL students often gain mastery over the complex academic language in five to seven years, whereas their interpersonal skills are frequently mastered in approximately two years. Both CALP and BICS rely frequently on context, with context reduced being communication with few non-verbal clues and requiring a high degree of knowledge about the language, and context embedded providing greater external clues such as facial response and gestures to give indication about meaning.

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