This paper will give a short biography of Dr. Jim Cummins, a well-known second language educator and a major contributor to the body of research driving TESL techniques. It will cover his more significant contributions to the field of bilingual education, and it will provide a more detailed and deeper look at his theoretical contributions to TESL.
Dr. Jim Cummins: An Author Study
In 1970, Dr. Jim Cummins earned his first college degree, a B.A., from the University of Dublin in Psychology. He then went on to earn a doctorate in Educational Psychology in 1974 from the University of Alberta. In 1997, he was also granted an honorary doctorate from the Bank Street College of Education in New York City. Dr. Cummins is currently a professor in Ontario, Canada at the University of Toronto where he works in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (Canadian Education Association, 2010). Dr. Cummins has an extensive list of published work relating to second language learning and literacy and is a seminar presenter. He is also known for being a prominent researcher in bilingual education as well as the effects of technology on instruction (Race, Culture, Identity, and Achievement Seminar, 2005).
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One of the main contributions to the TESL community which is credited to Dr. Cummins is the concept of Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). BICS is the social aspect of language you would normally find in everyday situations like playgrounds, talking, playing sports, and the like. BICS develops more quickly than CALP, usually taking six months to two years to develop. CALP, by contrast, is harder to learn and takes longer to develop; it actually takes five to seven years to achieve proficiency. CALP is the style of language students need to succeed in academic areas and as students rise through higher and higher grade levels, the language gets harder to comprehend and context gradually reduces (Haynes, 1998).
Although BICS and CALP are widely seen as established theories there have been some criticisms and contrary opinions. In a publication titled “Putting Language Proficiency in its Place: Responding to Critiques of the Conversational/Academic Language Distinction”, Dr. Cummins defends his position on BICS and CALP. He points out several key factors that indicate that second language academic language emerges slowly. First, in North America minority children have been given IQ tests in their secondary language after only two or three years in their new country. As a result, a higher proportion of ELL students ended up in special education services. Dr. Cummins points out that this calls the validity of the IQ test itself into question. Since the IQ test is based on the norms and experiences of the dominant culture, it would follow that the minority, or ELL, population might be at a disadvantage on this standardized test. Therefore, the test itself is probably not doing a good job of discriminating actual special education students from normal students who lack the CALP to pass the thresholds on the standardized test. A second point by Dr. Cummins is that many ELL students are forced out of ELL services after three years. This arbitrary time limit goes against the idea that CALP takes five to seven years to develop, and what has been discovered is that many of these students who are forced out of ELL services end up experiencing academic failure. This seems to support the CALP theory. A third point he makes, answering critics, is that BICS and CALP are not meant to take into account all of the facets of sociolinguistic development; the theories are specifically meant to cover second language learners, not all language development of all learners. So the idea that BICS and CALP do not take into account all the myriad aspects of language is meaningless. A fourth point in Cummins’ rebuttal paper is that BICS, although ‘basic’ in nature, will have some ‘cognitive’ aspects; he makes the analogy of joke-telling. Telling a joke is a BICS activity, but it will have some cognitive elements. Basically his point is that if some BICS interactions have aspects of cognitive functions, then it does not negate the entire BICS/CALP theory. Furthermore, he goes on to clarify that CALP should not be seen as superior, just different. Finally, Cummins calls on the support of two fellow researchers, Biber and Corson, whose research generally supports his theory of BICS and CALP (Cummins, 1999).
Cummins has produced many opinions and given much advice on the development of CALP in ELL students. One that is interesting is the idea that language is always considered to be an ‘intervening variable’ rather than an isolated variable that stands on its own and causes some given outcome. Basically, language develops both in and out of school so it is not entirely under the control of the teacher. Another point Cummins makes is that reading is critical to the development of CALP; he points out that although the home life and home culture of students will, and arguably should, determine much of their language development, it is essential that they read books because this improves and embellishes their understanding of the fundamental parts of language, like syntax, which they otherwise might not encounter. Furthermore, he recommends reading a variety of text materials. The decline of reading proficiencies between fourth and sixth grades is another point Cummins has commented on; he attributes this phenomenon to the simple fact that the reading material changes from familiar topics and text to more abstract or technical words and topics. Cooperative learning is also suggested by Cummins as a means to develop CALP because these interactive activities become more internalized. Writing is also suggested by Cummins not only as a means to develop CALP, but also as a means to expression in the ELL classroom (Grigorenko, 2005).
Another large contribution that Dr. Cummins has made to the TESL academic community is the concept of Common Underlying Proficiency (CUP). CUP is a set of skills that a child learns while acquiring his or her first, or primary, language. This set of skills applies to the next language he or she learns. Thus, the CUP serves as a basis for learning any and all languages. Any growth of the CUP skill set will enhance learning in all languages. Furthermore, this explains why people find the second language, and subsequent languages, easier to learn than the first language. For this reason, mainstream teachers and ELL teachers must remember to encourage further development of the primary language as the children also learn a second language (Shoebottom, 1996).
One interesting enhancement, or extrapolation, to the concept of CUP can be found in Dr. Cummins’ article “Immersion Education for the Millenium: What We Have Learned from 30 Years of Research on Second Language Immersion”. In this article he describes two principles that I understood to be related to the concept of CUP. First, he mentions the “Additive Bilingual Enrichment Principle” whereby bilingual students have been shown to improve their linguistic processing ability, somewhat due to the fact that the bilingual child has had more practice processing language. In answer to those who would deny students L1 development in conjunction with L2, Dr. Cummins states that “â€¦the development of additive bilingual skills entails no negative consequences for children’s academic, linguistic, or intellectual developmentâ€¦evidence points in the direction of subtle meta-linguistic, academic and intellectual benefits for bilingual children.” (Cummins, 1999). The second principle illustrated in this article is the “Linguistic Interdependence Principle” which means that students will experience no loss of linguistic function in L1 as they study in L2 because the two are connected and interdependent in the learner’s mind (Cummins, 1999).
A third main theoretical contribution made by Dr. Cummins is the concept of task difficulty. “Tasks range in difficulty along one continuum from cognitively undemanding to cognitively demanding; and along another continuum from context-embedded to context-reduced” (Shoebottom, 1999). This is a Cummins concept which is well-known to TESL educators whereby it becomes understood that a low-context, high-cognitive skill, such as conceptual mathematics, is much harder for a second language student to comprehend than a task or skill, like buying popcorn, which is high-context and low-cognitive in nature (Azusa Unified School District, 2007).
On the topic of language as related to concepts like mathematics we may often notice that students will continue to speak in a BICS modality, even when a CALP modality would be more appropriate to the situation. Lloyd notes that "Cummins observes that students are most likely to speak with each other in ‘peer appropriate’ ways regardless of their second language proficiency" this suggests that even when opportunities arise for students to engage in mathematical dialogues with one another, they may do so using primarily natural language or BICS and may not further develop their CALP (Lloyd, et. Al., 2005).
The previous paragraphs of this paper have dealt with Dr. Cummins’ most popular and widely-respected theories in TESL. However, from reading and searching the internet I have found two other main themes in Dr. Cummins’ research that perhaps the novice TESL teacher may have missed or not experienced in the typical TESL course work. First, he seems to be driven to discuss and comment on the educational rights and socio-political atmosphere surrounding ELL populations. Second, he has done some work in educational technology that is not as pervasive in reviews of his body of work.
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In Dr. Cummins’ web publication titled “The Ethics of Doublethink: Language Rights and the Bilingual Education Debate” he makes several points that illuminate his core educational beliefs. First, his use of the Orwellian term ‘doublethink’ points to a situation where two contradictory ideas exist in the thinkers mind at the same time. He uses the term doublethink with regards to three respected academic people whose comments helped to pass California Proposition 227. Using the term from Orwell’s well-known book 1984 paints a dark picture of the people in question, as if they were cold-minded bureaucrats. Proposition 227 was a step backwards for ELL opportunities in that state, and Cummins illuminates the fact that these three academics simultaneously spoke in support of Proposition 227 as well as having a record of supporting bilingual education. Cummins clarifies that bilingual education is heavily rooted in the L1 while also teaching English and was considered a positive idea, until the three researchers came out in support of Proposition 227. In his conclusion section Cummins’ tone is scathing and he calls into question the ethics of these three popular and respected academics. (Cummins, 1999).
From the tone of his dialog in this article it becomes clear that Cummins is very passionate about the truthfulness in his TESL community, and he clearly has the students’ best interests in mind. He sounds like a very dedicated educator, rather than a pandering politician.
Another publication by Cummins titled “Rights and Responsibilities of Educators of Bilingual-Bicultural Children” illuminates more clearly the beliefs held by this prominent educator. He argues that educators who deal with bilingual-bicultural students have the right and the responsibility to positively impact these children’s lives, and he goes on to illustrate the racism present in both the communities these children live in as well as the legislation that affects their educational experiences. As an example of a community turning against a minority group, he discusses a situation that got very heated in Pittsburgh. The school district, under political pressure from the dominant culture, decided to do away with a very successful bilingual program in favor of a more widely called-for, but less-effective, English immersion program. Cummins comments on how the dominant culture of the geographical region acted in a racially-charged manner to the detriment of the children in question. As an example of legislative bias he again discusses California’s Proposition 227, of 1998, which limited severely the use of L1 in the classroom to assist with instruction. He discusses the xenophobic distortions of the media surrounding this legislative action, and the seemingly ridiculous assertions such as one year of English is adequate to get a child trained so that he can succeed in the regular classroom. After illustrating these two frightening examples of cultural bias, Cummins discusses some successful TESL programs and a concept called the Foyer model. The main aspect of the Foyer model that makes it successful is the idea that educators need to respect and tap into the primary, or former, culture of the ELL students. (Cummins, 2000).
In this article we once again feel the dedication to the research, the decades of learning and the passion for TESL concepts held by Dr. Cummins. His tone in the article is frustrated and indignant at times. Clearly, he has nothing but distaste for the political situations which led to these two examples.
One last contribution made by Dr. Cummins’ to consider in this paper is his work with technology in TESL techniques; this is perhaps a less well-known aspect of his work, and certainly it is much less pervasive on the internet.
In his article titled “e-Lective Language Design of a Computer-Assisted Test-Based ESL/EFL Learning System”, Dr. Cummins elaborates on his use of technology to enhance ELL success. Using his theoretical system, which calls for a multimedia CD-ROM, as well as L1 to L2 dictionaries, students or teachers can import any text in electronic form and use the computer assistant program to help with comprehension. The computer program has several main features. First, it uses text in electronic form, and Cummins makes a point of saying that the name ‘e-Lective’ is a reference to the term ‘e-mail’ and is an appropriate name because the educator using it must realize that it is designed for use with electronic text only. Second, Cummins, in a very clever way, incorporates the root word ‘lect’ into the name of the program. ‘Lect’, as he explains, forms the basis for several cognates that refer to reading. Third, the title has the word elective in it, and this implies that the ELL student will be able to make learning choices as learning progresses. Finally, Cummins explains that his program is different from most of the computer-assisted language learning programs because the learner is able to import the material he or she reads and works with; this is much different from the typical computer language program that has a pre-set, built-in curriculum, and the reading that can be imported is much more valid to the curriculum being taught and, perhaps, more interesting and valid for the learner. Essentially, students import and read any electronic text they want, and can pause as they read to get a definition, pronunciation, L1 equivalent of the unfamiliar L2 word, idiomatic expressions as needed, and cognates if applicable (Cummins, 1999).
To conclude, this paper has reviewed in some depth the main theories of Dr. Cummins: BICS and CALP, CUP, and Task complexity with regards to level of context clues and severity of cognitive demands on the learner. Additionally, Dr. Cummins’ scholarly work as an advocate for equity issues, and educational morality, in TESL was examined. Finally, a description of his more-recent, and less-known, work with computer-assisted TESL education was described. Dr. Cummins has been shown to be a cornerstone of TESL research and techniques as well as a strong voice in political and academic circles who views TESL as a moral obligation of the educational establishment.
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