Master Teaching

a blog for teachers who follow the Master Teacher

Journeying with Jim Cummins

bilingualismby Alan Seaman

Over the years, my thinking about second language acquisition has been stimulated in fresh ways by the theories of Jim Cummins. As I have grappled with practical issues in the classroom and faced new challenges in my career, I have often found myself in an intricate dance with Cummins’ ideas.

As a high school ESL teacher thirty years ago in a public school district in Virginia, I struggled to understand my students — a mix of refugees, economic immigrants, and the children of international scholars at a nearby university. Most of these teenagers had been suddenly deposited in an alien environment – a suburban American high school – after years of schooling in their native languages and home cultures.

At the time, Jim Cummins’ concepts of BICS and CALP (which he later described as “conversational fluency” and “academic language proficiency”) clarified why many of my students eventually spoke English like their American friends but remained far below grade level in academic vocabulary, reading, and writing. Looking carefully at minority language students in Canada, Cummins had determined that children were capable of acquiring social fluency in a second language through 1-2 years of immersion, while they typically needed 5-8 years to achieve grade-level competency in CALP.[1]

His ideas matched my daily realities so well that he caused me to dramatically change my approach to ESL instruction. Each year, I focused more and more on academic content and vocabulary. And with students from 18 language backgrounds in a 25-person class, I had to teach creatively. Cummins’ ideas about context-embedded instruction challenged me to make language comprehensible through visuals, realia, and concrete experiences.[2]

As a follower of the Master Teacher, I felt called to teach these immigrant students because of the Biblical mandate to care for the “alien in your midst” (Exodus 22:21). I wanted to welcome them and, through excellent English instruction, give them tools to be successful in American life.

But something important was missing from my approach.

During the past 15 years, I have been researching bilingual education programs in the U.S. and bilingual schooling movements throughout Asia and Latin America. Much of my research has been related to the development of a textbook series to teach the English language to young children (ages 4-12) outside of the U.S.[3]

Through my work with bilingual schooling, I have rediscovered the most significant areas of Jim Cummins’ work: his research on bilingualism and his advocacy for multilingual educational programs. His concept of a Common Underlying Proficiency (CUP) and his Threshold Hypothesis (immortalized in his “iceberg diagram”) have influenced a generation of bilingual educators throughout the world.[4]

Many Christian schools outside of the United States seek to give their students a wonderful gift: a high level of bilingualism and biliteracy. While this movement is growing globally, the U.S. seems to be headed in the opposite direction by promoting what Cummins calls “subtractive bilingualism”[5]. My ESL classes in Virginia were (by necessity) subtractive rather than additive, replacing one language with another. One encouraging sign, however, is the rise of dual-language instruction in some American school districts – a program design which is conceptually rooted in the theories of Jim Cummins.[6]

The Gospels hint that our Master Teacher was multilingual. His home language was likely to be Aramaic, but he spoke fluently in Hebrew with the Jewish rabbis and the Samaritan woman (Luke 2:39-52, John 4:4-26) and he conversed in Greek (or possibly Latin) with the Roman Centurion and Pontius Pilate (Matthew 8:5-13, John 18:28-38).[7] Jesus’ communication was in the heart languages of the people he encountered. My reading of Jim Cummins’ theories on bilingualism has pushed me beyond my early years as an ESL instructor to appreciate the power and beauty of bilingualism.


[1]Jim Cummins (1981). See below. Note: BICS stands for Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills, and CALP refers to Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency.
[2] Jim Cummins (1981).
[3] Sara Vroom & Alan Seaman (2014). “Cross-cultural Perspectives on Teaching English as a Foreign Language to Children: A Multinational Survey.” TESOL Journal 5 (3), pp. 465-489.
[4] Jim Cummins. (2000). See below.
[5]Jim Cummins (1979). “Linguistic Interdependence and the Educational Development of Bilingual Children.” Review of Educational Research, 49 (2), pp. 222-251.
[6]Jim Cummins (2001). See below.
[7]John Parsons. “Did Jesus speak Hebrew?” www.hebrew4christians.com

Further exploration

What’s your perspective?

  • How can linguistically-diverse programs (like high school ESL classes) encourage ongoing development of the students’ first languages?
  • Multilingualism is evident in the Gospels as well as in the early church (Acts 2). What are the implications of this for churches today?
  • Many schools have applied Cummins’ ideas to early immersion programs, including English instruction for toddlers and preschoolers. What are the advantages of early immersion? How can foreign languages be taught effectively to children so young?

Post Author

Alan SeamanAlan Seaman (Ph.D., University of Virginia) serves as professor of intercultural studies and director of the MA TESOL program in the Wheaton College Graduate School. Alan worked as a high school ESL teacher, as the director of two university ESL programs, and as an English language teacher in Egypt and China. He has traveled to present teacher training workshops for teachers in over 20 countries and has been the senior editor for two textbook series.


Photo Credit: LSE in Pictures via Compfight cc

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This entry was posted on February 17, 2016 by in Alan Seaman, bilingualism, favorite theories.

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