Tuesday, August 11, 2009

BICS, CALP, and sex

Today, teacher-friends, grandkids et al, went back to school. Not I.
That set me to remembering my last year in the schools.
It was a new area for me. Instead of teaching Spanish to English speakers, I was helping students from two-language homes become proficient in the English language.
Everything I was dealing with was new: the age group, the academic level, the subject matter, the school system, on and on. By the time I quit, I felt I had figured out what I was doing.
One of the first things that threw me was the unending list of acronyms. I will share the two that most directly explain what we were up against as we worked with bi-cultural kids or TCKs (Third Culture Kids).

Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills is the social dimension of language that demonstrates a student's ability to converse with teachers, peers, and others. It is a very concrete aspect of language and takes less than three years to demonstrate near-native-like proficiency with BICS (Cummins, 1981).

Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency is the more abstract dimension of language that includes being able to read, write, and perform within a content-area classroom at grade level. CALP takes from 5 - 12 years to develop depending on a multitude of variables for each ESL student (Cummins, 1981).

BICS explained how my star pupils could seemingly get by, communicate with their classmates and friends totally in English, appear to be comprehending everything when they had only been in the country three years!

And CALP accounted for test anxiety, low ISTEPs, reading books below grade level and still requiring, even demanding help and tutoring in various content areas.
Being highly motivated overachievers, they managed to attain a 4.0 average!

They were a delight to work with AND drove me crazy at times.
I have many memories of our times together. Here's one that stands out.

One of the brothers showed me the crossword he was working on for science for the chapter on reproduction. He pointed to one word and whispered something about the 'bad word' they were being taught--sperm. Hmmmmm...

"That's not a bad word," I said, "if it weren't for that you would not be here."
Then ensued a series of questions about the reproduction process. Whew!!! I thought I was there to help with their English & cultural gaps! Their curiosity was so genuine. I found it hard to believe their lack of information.
I managed a 'clean' explanation PLUS a very strong exhortation to keep sex sacred--right time, place, person, etc. I cited the sad examples in the same school, very young girls suffering the consequences of careless behavior and ended with, "Don't you ever do that!"

That same day I stopped and talked to their mother, begging her to talk to her boys about these matters. She acknowledged her failure and how difficult it is for her.

I still visit that family. We have a special bond. Last time they wanted to know how to explain the word "snack" among others. Cognitive and cultural gaps are very real, though not always outwardly apparent.

And I wonder...who is there for them this year?


  1. Remind me to tell you about my nephews and how one of them thought "self" was a bad word. (:

  2. Reminds me of when Jon was three or four and a friend from the preschool where I taught said what Jon thought was a bad word. It wasn't a word at all but it must be in the way it was said. LOL

    There are just so many things that are learned growing up in a culture that are hard to grasp by those not raised in it. I think I'll spend the rest of my life learning and never come close to "getting" it all.

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