Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach

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  • 0:01 Description of the CALLA
  • 1:45 CALLA Concepts
  • 2:53 CALLA Strategies
  • 5:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the cognitive academic language learning approach, a method used to help English language learners gain academic fluency in English. Terms are defined, an example is provided, and a short quiz follows.

Description of the CALLA

Students who are not fluent in English as their main language face a multitude of challenges in their education, but one particular challenge was identified by Dr. Jim Cummins in the late 1970s. Dr. Cummins discovered that many English language learners (ELL) were being mainstreamed into classes and greatly struggling despite their apparent fluency in English.

The problem was that these students were developing conversational fluency, what Cummins referred to as basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS), well before they were capable of handling the more rigorous academic language. Cummins called the ability for these students to understand the difficult language used in academia cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP). His research found that ELL students are able to be conversationally fluent in approximately two years, but it took them 5-7 years to be considered fluent in academic language. Just think of the difference in chatting casually with your friends about last night's Real Housewives episode and trying to comprehend cellular mitosis.

Since Cummins' discovery, the idea of integrating ELLs has changed dramatically, with the main methodology now being the cognitive academic language learning approach (CALLA). CALLA is a method of combining cognitive theory with lesson planning and learning strategies to develop content to build the academic fluency of ELL students and is now implemented to help those students who have gained social fluency with English but are struggling with their academic fluency or those who may have academic fluency but are struggling in applying their skills.

CALLA Concepts

CALLA is built on a few key concepts from cognitive psychology and instructional design. The main concept is that of scaffolding, which provides a great deal of instructional support for students handling challenging material and then slowly removes the support as the student becomes proficient and develops necessary skills. Imagine builders working on a skyscraper. All the scaffolding there helps support the building and the workers, but in this case, the scaffolding is instructional support, and the building is knowledge.

CALLA also utilizes the theory that learning is grouped into three different types of knowledge. The first type, declarative knowledge is factual knowledge, such as the boiling point of water at sea level is 212 degrees Fahrenheit. The second type is procedural knowledge, which is the ability to know how to do a task, such as hard boiling an egg in the water. The final type is metacognitive knowledge, or the ability to relate current tasks to previous experiences, such as knowing that when you've boiled eggs in the past you can't cook them too long because then they become hard and rubbery.

CALLA Strategies

Implementing CALLA involves utilizing a few specific strategies to help your students. Let's cover those strategies using an example lesson to help make them clearer:


The first step you will use to help a student is by working with them to plan their approach to the lesson. Students need to set goals, choose strategies to meet those goals, and allocate time and resources. Plan to support your lesson with visual or audio clues, like props or songs.

Let's say for our example lesson that you are teaching your students about the Great Depression. In the planning step, you work with your students to set goals, such as understand the events which led to the Great Depression. Then you help them figure out what resources they need, in this case probably a book or video about the events of the Great Depression, and allocate the necessary time. You have also thought ahead and brought some props to give the lesson context, like a coupon book for food rationing.

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