Academic journal article International Journal of Applied Educational Studies

Academic Listening Tests for ESOL Students: Availability, Concerns, and Solutions

Academic journal article International Journal of Applied Educational Studies

Academic Listening Tests for ESOL Students: Availability, Concerns, and Solutions

Article excerpt


During the past two decades, there has been a significant growth in the number of English-to-speakers-of-other-languages (ESOL) students pursuing post-secondary studies at North American universities (IIE, 2001; CBIE, 2002). Research with ESOL students has begun to show that they have much difficulty in understanding academic lectures at North American universities although they have demonstrated adequate English proficiency as measured by English language proficiency tests such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) (Berman & Cheng, 2001; Ferris & Tagg, 1996; Huang, 2005; Huang & Rinaldo, 2009). It is in listening rather than reading and speaking that ESOL students experience a great deal of difficulty in the classrooms (Anderson-Mejias, 1986; Huang, 2004; Huang & Klinger, 2006). TOEFL and IELTS are the most popular English proficiency tests for ESOL students and they are widely accepted by English-speaking universities in the world. These tests should measure ESOL students" ability to communicate in English at English-speaking universities. In other words, the tests are believed to measure ESOL students" proficiency in both basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) for the purpose of studying at English-speaking universities.

CALP in listening (i.e., academic listening) is a very important skill for ESOL students to succeed in English-speaking classrooms (Ferris & Tagg, 1996; Huang, 2005). It has distinct characteristics and demands placed upon ESOL listeners and, therefore, it creates considerable challenges for ESOL students (Ferris & Tagg, 1996; Flowerdew, 1995; Flowerdew & Miller, 1997; Ur, 1988). Current English proficiency tests should be able to measure ESOL students" academic listening skills specifically to make sure that they are proficient and effective academic listeners in English-speaking classrooms. However, these tests are not adequate measures of ESOL students" academic listening skills. It is argued in the paper that authentic and separate testing of ESOL students" academic listening skills should be administered in such widely accepted English proficiency tests as TOEFL and IELTS.

Two Different Levels of Language Skills: BICS and CALP

Cummins (1979) makes a distinction between these two different levels of language skills: BICS and CALP. BICS is defined as the language skills that are needed for social situations. BICS is often referred to as "playground language" because it is the type of language that learners would use in a social or playground type situation (Kinnison, Stephens, Stager, & Rueter, 2007). These types of situations include but are not limited to; the lunch room, parties, sporting events, on the school bus, public transportation, on the playground or at the mall. BICS does not require any specialized language and is less demanding than its counterpart CALP (Kinnison et al., 2007).

CALP is much more cognitively demanding than BICS. CALP refers to academic language that is used in learning or classroom situations. An example of CALP would be listening, speaking, reading or writing about a specific subject area or topic. CALP is a necessary component that students must achieve in order to be successful in school or university contexts (Kinnison et al., 2007). BICS usually develops within six months to two years. However, CALP takes from five to seven years to fully develop. Recent research (Thomas & Collier, 1997) has shown that if a child has no prior schooling or has no support in native language development, it may take seven to ten years for ESOL students to catch up with their peers.


Figure 1 provides an overview of how BICS and CALP are related to the four components of language. The figure also addresses that speaking and writing are considered productive skills, where a speech or a body of writing is produced; while listening and reading are referred to as receptive skills, where information is received. …

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