Teaching Speaking Skills to ELL Students: Methods & Resources

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  • 0:00 Teaching Speaking
  • 0:46 BICS and CALP
  • 2:46 Teaching ELL Students
  • 4:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Do you remember learning to speak English? Most native speakers don't, and this can make it hard to teach someone else speaking skills. In this lesson, we'll look at various forms of spoken language acquisition as well as guidelines for instruction.

Teaching Speaking

You learned how to speak when you were pretty young, so chances are you don't remember how you did it. We don't remember learning to speak English, so how are we supposed to teach it? When working with English language learners, or ELL students, this can be a challenge. Speaking is a pretty important part of learning, but it's not something we're often trained on how to teach. We learn to teach children to read and write with the assumption they can already speak. With ELL students, we have to teach all of these skills simultaneously. So, how do we teach students speaking skills? Well, let's talk about it.


When we are talking about spoken language proficiency, we're actually talking about two different forms of language acquisition and use. For a long time, people treated speaking simply as speaking and couldn't understand why students seemed to be fine in some situations, while struggling in others. Then, in 1979, Canadian researcher Jim Cummins coined a few terms that helped educators understand the different ways that students acquire and use language.

Let's start with basic interpersonal communicative skills, or BICS. BICS are skills required for basic fluent communication in social settings. Basically, when students engage on the playground, cafeteria, or a coffee shop after school, they are using BICS. Another term for this is conversational language. Researchers estimate that fully acquiring BICS takes roughly one to three years.

So, BICS are the language skills used in social contexts. The other aspect of language acquisition needed by students is cognitive academic language proficiency, or CALP. CALP skills are those needed to use language abstractly and as a tool for learning. Now, at first, your question may be whether or not social language and academic language are really that different. You're using the same language, right?

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