Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency

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 will 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.

Academic Challenges for ESL and ELL 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. The answer may not be dyslexia or ADD, but rather a lack of understanding by their teachers of their students' cognitive academic language proficiency.

Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency: Definition

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, as well as colloquial expressions. Research has shown that ESL learners can take up to seven years to be considered fluent in academic language.

More Information About Bilingual Education Concepts

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 is 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.

The CALP/BICS Matrix
CALP Matrix

Strategies to Improve 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.

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