iceberg model by Jim Cummins

Much of the theory underpinning EAL practice over the last 40 years comes from the work of the Canadian academic Professor Jim Cummins. This includes:

  • The Iceberg Model (BICS and CALP) 
  • The Dual Iceberg Model (Common Underlying Proficiency) 
  • The Threshold Theory 
  • The Cummins Matrix

Cummins first developed the Iceberg Model in 1981 (Cummins, J. 1981, Bilingualism and minority language children, Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) He adopted the metaphor of an iceberg to distinguish between what he called ‘Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) and Cognitive and Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). He pointed out that learners develop conversational skills first, in face to face highly contextualised situations, but take longer to develop the language which contributes to educational success.

The idea of BICS and CALP is useful, but it is not absolute. For example learners can acquire specific formal academic language that there is a lot of focus on in class. The distinction between the two does not refer to informal spoken language versus formal written language. It is important that EAL learners develop control over different forms according to the context.

Useful articles about BICS and CALP

  • Leung, C., 2014, Language and Communication in School Curriculum, NALDIC Quarterly (14)1, pp 11-17
  • Little, D., 2013, Responding to Linguistic Diversity, NALDIC Quarterly (13)2, pp 3-10

The Dual Iceberg ModelCummins then built on his iceberg metaphor and devised the Dual Iceberg Model. This introduced the idea of Common Underlying Proficiency (CUP), which means that if you have a concept in one language you do not need to re-learn it in another language. For example if you can tell the time in your first language, you do not need to learn to tell the time again to be able to do it in another language, you just need to learn the language to describe it.

Those who have developed CALP in their first language can transfer much of this learning to additional languages. Learners who move into a new language environment at an early age can benefit enormously if they are given opportunities to continue to develop their first language alongside English, using both languages for cognitively demanding tasks.

The Threshold Theory

The next influential theory proposed by Jim Cummins was the Threshold Theory, or Threshold Hypothesis (Cummins, J. (1976) The influence of bilingualism on cognitive growth: A synthesis of research findings and explanatory hypotheses. Working Papers on Bilingualism 9, 1–43 and Cummins, J. (1979) Linguistic interdependence and the educational development of bilingual children. Review of Educational Research 49, 222–51.)This is an explanation of why some bilingual learners don’t seem to access the cognitive benefits of bilingualism. Cummins argues that in order to get the advantages of bilingualism you have to develop both languages fully.

This has major implications for education, because it suggests that for EAL learners to achieve their potential it is important that they are encouraged to develop both, or all, their languages, not just focusing on English because it is the medium of education in the school. This is why we advise parents to talk to their children in their first language about work they are doing at schools, so that academic language continues to be developed in that language as well as in English.

Cummins MatrixThe fourth of Cummins’ key ideas about EAL is known as the Cummins Matrix, or sometimes the Cummins Grid. This is a grid with two axes, one concerned with cognitive challenge and the other with how contextualised the language demand of an activity is. In other words, when teaching EAL learners, we need to take into account not just how cognitively challenging the task we are setting is, but also how ‘context embedded’ it is. So for example in a practical science lesson the EAL learner is in a situation where a lot of the language is context embedded. They can take part in a practical experiment so they know what it is they are being asked to describe. When they hear words and phrases like ‘boiling’, ‘giving off steam’, ‘burning with a green light’, they have a context they can relate it to. An example of a context reduced situation would be an English lesson where a poem is read aloud with no visual support.

The main implication of this idea is that by providing a rich context for EAL learners it is possible to keep the cognitive challenge high. Context can be provided through the use of visuals, graphic organisers, practical activities, use of first language and many of the strategies described in our Great Ideas pages