BICS/CALP and Bloom’s Taxonomy

There is, perhaps, no other “flagship” item within the distinct EAL pedagogy as the notion of BICS/CALP, originally proposed by Jim Cummins. I would venture a guess that it is impossible to be an EAL professional without knowing about the distinction between Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. In its essence, BICS would be the language for basic communication (such as in the playground, at lunchtime or in order to follow teachers’ instructions) whilst CALP is the academic language required for higher order academic tasks. Without this academic language, achieving higher grades in GCSE is an impossibility.

Whilst EAL teachers will be aware of this distinction, I would not be so sure of how many mainstream teachers, who will invariably have a number of EAL students in their classes, are aware of Jim Cummins’s research. NALDIC, in their recent audit of EAL training and development provision (October 2014), have found that “relevant CPD and vocational training on EAL issues for 7 mainstream and specialist staff across the school workforce is not yet consistently accessible nationally” (p.6) and call EAL CPD and vocational training “patchy” (p.6). In my own experience, very few mainstream staff have good understanding of the distinct EAL pedagogy tenets, such as described in NALDIC’s Working Paper 5 (The Distinctiveness of EAL).

However, I would venture a guess that the vast majority of mainstream teachers will have heard of Bloom Taxonomy. In this article, I am bringing the Bloom Taxonomy (its new revised version) and Jim Cummins’s BICS/CALP theory together.


Below, we can see Cummins’s famous BICS/CALP quadrant. This has been adapted from the Induction Pack for Schools published by (at Quadrant D represents cognitively undemanding tasks with context reduced – such tasks would result in no learning. Copying or parroting results in no understanding and, thus, no learning. These tasks are unwelcome and should never be used! As teachers, we need to be moving from A through B to C. Whilst more context is required to begin with  to foster greater understanding (with learners new to the UK), that context should be gradually removed so that academic tasks (Quadrant C), more cognitively demanding can be performed by EAL learners.



What we’re going to look at now is what the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives is about. Following this, we’ll look at how this relates to BICS/CALP. The image and the information within it have been adapted from A Model of Learning Objectives (at  – from Iowa State University’s Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching) and Bloom’s Taxonomy “Revised” (at – University of Colorado Boulder).

The revised Bloom’s Taxonomy (by Anderson and Krathwohl in 2001) makes a distinction between concrete knowledge and abstract knowledge and categorises the educational objectives into 6 categories – from Remembering to Creating. It is easy to make a parallel between the taxonomy and Cummins’s BICS/CALP theory in that both move from the application of concrete knowledge (BICS in Cummins’s work) to abstract knowledge (CALP). The Taxonomy can be considered as moving from Concrete Knowledge to Abstract Knowledge (as seen in my image below) and is known as The Knowledge Dimension, but Anderson and Krathwohl also recognise The Cognitive Process Dimension, which would be moving from lower order thinking skills to higher order thinking skills. Verbs (as listed below) are indispensable element of any learning objective in any lesson and refer to the intended cognitive process.




Since the (learning objective) verbs can be considered on the concrete to abstract continuum, and Cummins also proposes that we move learners alongside a similar continuum, I am going to now look at his BICS/CALP quadrant again and categorise them using the Taxonomy’s number (e.g. 1 for Remembering or 6 for Creating). We’re then going to look at what is – too frequently – done to support EAL learners in mainstream classrooms is in violation of Bloom’s Taxonomy, widely taught to mainstream teachers in their pre-service training.

bicstaxonomyWe can see a few things by comparing the Taxonomy and Cummins’s theory this way:

  • The verbs in the D Quadrant are nowhere to be found in the Taxonomy! In other words, no one should teach anyone this way!
  • Following A, B to C, it’s easy to see how the academic, abstract thinking rises. Quadrant A has only the category 1 to 3 verbs; Quadrant B involves a mixture of 2 to 6, but only two 6s; and Quadrant C doesn’t go below 4.
  • Whilst these are different theories and sets of suggestions – it does follow that both aim at moving from the more concrete to the more abstract. We can see how naming, retelling, matching put more basic cognitive demands on students, but this will not be enough if they’re not enabled to Create (as in Bloom’s Taxonomy) through hypothesising, or Evaluate (CALP: Evaluating critically).

Unfortunately, this is not exactly what happens in our classrooms. Too often there is reliance on dictionaries and iPads for translation (whilst they serve their purpose and allow for the use of L1, please have a look where Translate is in the Taxonomy – category 2! – not exactly high cognitive demand!) Too often there is still copying off the board without any understanding on the part of EAL students (trust me, I do my EAL Learning Walks!), who mindlessly, and dutifully, copy from the board, but are not scaffolded for (if they are new or fairly new arrivals, they do need the context embedded) – decontextualised learning results in them remaining in Cummins’s Quadrant D. There might be a high (content-based) cognitive demand placed on other students, but on the EAL learner, who is unable to move on. This cannot be allowed to happen – scaffolding is a must, so that the student can start in the Quadrant A and start working their way to Quadrant B. As Thomas and Collier have written, the cognitive, academic, linguist and social aspects of EAL learners’ experience must be taken care of simultaneously in order for these students to close the attainment gap. We do not have the time to wait until their language gets better. Curriculum doesn’t wait.

Make sure you allow your EAL students access to more cognitively demanding content and T&L. If you have a nattainmentew arrival in your class, make sure you put them on  this path. This is visualised in the image of the mountain on the right here. C is obviously the peak here, but do remember that there might be a dip or two on the way – that’s where B is: it’s not necessarily plain sailing all the way up: moving from quadrant B to C could take a considerable amount of time, but if you don’t put your learners on the journey to the peak (with you being their guide), they will never get to the peak, which in GCSE terms should be an A, not a C!

Luckily, there are ways to support EAL learners effectively, and the good news is that doing so support all learners. In the final section of this article, I will provide a few practical ideas and strategies on how to achieve this. However, first we need to consider the Gradual Release of Responsibility.


In this model, as proposed by Dr Douglas Fisher at the San Diego State University (, effective literacy teaching occurs as teachers hand over the responsibility for learning, gradually, to their learners. The lessons or units of learning begin by being teacher-led and the process culminates in students doing independent work. Below, I describe the four stages in more detail – as described by Fisher:


  • Focus lessons – at this stage, the teacher models his/her thinking and understanding of content to the students. Here, the objectives and aims of the lesson are established. Focus lesson, intended to be a brief part of the process, allows teachers to draw on students’ prior knowledge, too.
  • Guided instruction – here, teachers prompt, question and lead students through tasks related to the content, aimed at enhancing the students’ understanding of the content. Fisher suggests that this happens in small groups rather than whole class format: he writes that reading instruction is most effective if it occurs in such small groups. This is an opportunity to address student needs identified in formative assessments and teach specific literacy/language areas.
  • Collaborative learning – now, the students get the opportunity to solve, negotiate and discuss the content with their peers. Fisher writes that this stage is absolutely crucial as students have to use the language to learn it. This is in precise accordance with what NALDIC who say (Working Paper 5 again!) that language needs to be learnt in context. Fisher calls such collaborative learning “productive group work” (p.2). Collaborative tasks presented to students should involve both group and individual accountability elements so that the teacher knows what every one of the students did in each group. I love the fact that even though Fisher does suggest small group work in the previous stage, he certainly makes a distinction between collaborative learning and group work (I’ve written about this distinction before – see my post here)
  • Independent work – the final stage arrives now: now, the students can get down to applying all of their previous learning independently, synthesising information, transforming information. Namely, doing a lot of the things from the right side of the Bloom’s Taxonomy model.


The reason I am considering the Gradual Release of Responsibility is quite simple. Much like our EAL learner needs to move from being able to do more context-embedded and low cognitive demand tasks (Quadrant A) to tasks with less embedded context (more abstract) and characterised by higher cognitive demand (Quadrant C), where they are first more heavily supported (and scaffolded for) by the teacher, so do the learners in the Gradual Release of Responsibility model. See the image below – pictures speak better than words sometimes!




In other words, Quadrant C and the Independent work stage are meant to be the same abstract/decontextualised/academic language stage as Quadrant C. It’s your A-C GCSE grade level stage. But, of course, this will not happen without passing through the focus lesson and guided instruction stages, which will involve a lot of scaffolding, think-alouds and modelling before. These contextualise learning for your (EAL or not) students and because they do provide context, they represent Quadrant A and B.

None of this will happen, either, if you don’t provide learners with collaborative learning – hardly a lesson or a unit goes by in my classes with EAL learners where collaborative learning doesn’t take place. Please look at Collaborative Learning Project website – brilliant for UK-based teachers. Your students, and EAL learners even more so, need the opportunity to use the new (academic) language in context, and the structured, collaborative activities (where everyone has to participate in order to complete the task) are crucial for learning: the language has to be used first before it is applied in writing. Such activities are also inclusive as they make your English-speaking learners include EAL learners in the process – they simply cannot complete their activity without their information. Please examine the Collaborative Learning website for examples of such activities across the curriculum.

All of this means that if your EAL students are to success and reach Quadrant C / Independent work stage, you need to gradually release that responsibility – from you to them. This, of course, also means that if you have advanced EAL learners in your class, who have BICS and are starting to move towards CALP, you should not scaffold everything for them – by doing so, you might limit their creativity by locking them into (your) predefined language choices! Once you have seen that your learner is able to follow the structure and has mastered that structure, take it away! After all, Vygotsky’s idea for ZPM (Zone of Proximal Development) is that students are helped/supported to understand what’s within their grasp so that they can do it themselves! Interestingly, Vygotsky never used the term “scaffolding”, now almost synonymous with his name in educational circles (although his thinking was similar); it was actually Wood et al. (1976), who first used the term. 

As far as I see it, then, there are two choices you might consider:

  • remove the scaffolding or parts of it – if you’re providing sentence frames, either remove them or remove parts of them, e.g. rather than have It suggests that… provide only It _________ that… (allowing the student to fill in the gap with the word of their choice – only if you know that your students know that verbs come after pronouns in affirmative sentences and that verbs following the 3rd singular pronouns take -s suffixes!
  • provide more choices for words – if using substitution tables or sentence starters, provide more choices. Posters such as this Constructive Conversations Skills Poster at–resources.html are useful as is providing several words synonymous with the one your students already know. For instance, if your student already knows the word think, provide them with different alternatives e.g. believe, assume, predict, argue, in my opinion, etc. Rather than lock them into one pre-defined option, give them a choice – they will know what to do. Better yet, before this happens, you can get them (by them , I mean all your learners!) to complete a word map such as the one below – you will notice the first box (top-left corner) ask for similar words (or synonyms):




Finally, but perhaps most importantly, since different teachers teach different subjects, you should consider your academic language requirements, that is the fact that different academic domains come with different linguistic demands placed on students. If you haven’t yet, please read my article on this issue that I’ve written for Innovate My School. Here, I would like to suggest that you take a piece of (independent) writing that EAL learner has done in your lessons – it should be a minimum of one page of unaided writing and analyse it using The Diagnostic Writing Tool from DfE (from back in 2009, please see page 29 here: This is  a fantastic resource to pinpoint what exactly your advanced learners with EAL are struggling with in the area of language. It will also allow you to spot what language demands your subject might place on your bilingual learners.



What else can we do for learners with EAL to get them working towards Quadrant C? Here’s a few ideas and suggestions on top of what I already wrote above:

  • use graphic organisers and add academic substitutiontableslanguage to them. Please see Bernard Mohan’s website for how to do this. They are called key visuals (don’t confuse them with images/pictures – not the same)
  • use substitution tables and language frames – for both speaking and writing (as shown in the image)
  • use directed activities relate to text (DARTs) with your entire classes – activities that focus on language
  • use images, pictures, realia
  • model and use think-alouds with your students – show how language works and how to transform your thinking into language . What tenses do you use? How does the audience of your speaking / writing motivate your language choices?
  • use pre-reading activities – don’t just think that your key words list at the beginning of the lesson is going to help your EAL learners – they need to understand these words in context
  • structure your lessons in a way that talking comes first (for students) and only then does writing come (as per Guided Instruction – Collaborative Learning and Independent work (writing) Gradual Release of Responsibility model. Talking reinforces writing – everyone talks first, then writes (seen any writing babies yet?). In addition, the talking-to-writing approach allows students to hear the words first, which reinforces spelling: we call this phoneme to grapheme transfer; it’s easier to understand how words are written if you hear them first. This is, of course, why collaborative learning is important, too, as students will be working with English-speaking peers of theirs, who will act as language models. That is, beyond the other benefits of collaborative learning already mentioned above!
  • ensure that every part of your lesson – starter, main activities, plenary, is enriched by language – be it images, visual aspects or substitution tables, scrambled sentences, sentence starters, writing activities where students have to write sentences with your keywords using a predefined number of words, for instance, barrier games. Don’t just think, “I am a subject teacher, not a language teacher.” Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. You can’t teach your subject through no language. I don’t quite see pantomiming Science or Geography lessons happening any time soon! You need the language in your lessons. Not as a differentiation for EAL learners only, but available there for everyone. Consider how different learners have different linguistic needs and differentiate for that if needed. Just don’t leave planning for EAL learners for the last “because they can’t access my subject”. Make it an integral part of all of your lessons.

Cummins’s and Bloom’s theories and frameworks can be seen as overlapping – getting students to Quadrant C involves exposing them to activities at the end of Bloom’s Taxonomy continuum. If your EAL learners are not allowed to create or analyse, they will not be enabled to reach their potential. Gradual Release of Responsibility tells us that whilst modelling and scaffolding are essential part of this journey, Collaborative Learning (very much a part of EAL pedagogy) is a must if they are to become independent learners. Some say that collaborative learning is a waste of time: I disagree. It is an essential and integral part of the process that takes students from Quadrant A (never D!) to Quadrant C, or from the concrete (Remembering/Understanding) to the abstract (Analysing/Creating). We neither should nor can do without it.

Bottom line: Bloom’s Taxonomy and Cummins’s theory are about similar journeys. It is a common bridge where we can all meet – for the benefit of our learners. If you understand Bloom’s, you understand what BICS/CALP is all about. Just add the linguistic scaffolding, be cautious with it when teaching advanced bilingual learners – and get them on their way to true academic attainment!





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