When is a New Language Learner Ready for Standardized Testing?

photo: greatschools.org

It’s spring and while most of us anticipate the awakening of plant and animal life that the warmer weather brings, students all over the country also wait in anticipation for the challenge of standardized testing.  But just how prepared are new language learners when it comes to taking standardized tests?

I often refer back to this 12 minute short film when reflecting upon the abilities of bilingual students.  It serves as a reminder of how capable these students are, yet how often their abilities are overshadowed by language barriers. (Side note: This film is also really well done, in my humble opinion, which is also why I watch it so much)

Multiple factors must be considered to determine if a child’s language abilities in the new language are adequate for testing, but one researcher of language development helps to measure language ability in a simple way.  Dr. Jim Cummins developed the BICS and CALP language development theories in 1979 to describe an individual’s level of knowledge in two different stages when acquiring a new language.  This is a simple and helpful theory that can be shared when speaking with parents, students and colleagues to explain the process of language acquisition.

Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) refers to an intermediate level of language development that an individual arrives at, where communication in the new language is successful in an informal environment.  The language that is understood and spoken is in context to what is occurring around the person and it is somewhat undemanding.  Think of it as the level of language where you could go on vacation to a country that spoke this language, easily get around, talk casually with the locals, order food items at a restaurant, all sans problème.  On a more serious note, students who arrive to the US and experience sufficient exposure to the English language require approximately 1-3 years to reach the level where BICS are fully developed, according to Cummins.

Why is there a range of 1-3 years?  Other factors, like age, may play a role.  The development of BICS provides an important base, where the individual begins to develop appropriate syntax and semantics, but it is just the beginning.  These students, who may present as confident in their social abilities with their newly acquired language skills, are often seen by others as fluent when holding their own in many settings.  But are they?  They may appear to be until report cards come back and poor grades reveal struggling second language learners.  These students may have BICS, but they are missing the Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) that is needed to complete complex academic coursework.

CALP is the ability to use language as a learning tool, using vocabulary appropriate for specific subjects areas that may not so commonly be used in our daily vocabulary.  While research has shown us that acquiring a second language at a young age has resulted in improved pronunciation and intonation, there are some benefits to acquiring a new language at an older age.  For example, cognates in academic language may become useful. Cognates, or words with common etymological origins in both languages, often exist in academic language and may improve a student’s performance on a standardized test. In Spanish, for example, evidence and evidencia are cognates.  The word evidence, while not often spoken in informal conversation, would most certainly be found in a science textbook.  See here for additional cognates in Spanish and English found in the academic language of science.  CALP takes approximately 7-10 years to acquire in the new language.  Therefore, according to Cummins, a child who speaks another language than English and arrives to the US at the age of nine, may not become fluent in English as a second language (that is, knowing both BICS and CALP) until the age of 19.

Cummins, J. (1979) Cognitive/academic language proficiency, linguistic interdependence, the optimum age question and some other matters.  Working Papers on Bilingualism, No. 19, 121-129.

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