Learning theories in practice/Content-Based Instruction

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Content-Based Instruction in Language Learning

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Let’s think about the following conversation. The conversation is fictional but plausible.

Teacher: Why were you absent yesterday, Jeffery?

Jeffery: Cause I had to take my little sister to the hospital, cause she had a fever and was crying. My parents were not at home, so I call my aunt, then I wait for her to come and get my sister. We took her to the hospital.

Jeffery’s oral English competence is excellent. Meaning is clearly delivered to the teacher regarding why he was absent with minimal hindrance to communication. However, Jeffery’s speech indicates that he does not consistently mark the verbs for the past tense. This kind of speech is typical among English Language Learners (ELLs).

When ELLs’ basic conversational English skills are as high as Jeffery’s, what language teachers could do to help learners have an even higher level of English? Should language teachers drill more to assist learners express themselves more concisely or conduct additional grammar practice for mastery of verb tenses? The answer to these questions is definitely no; not for learners who have this level of fluent communicative competence. Learners who could produce this level of high oral language can survive in social settings but surviving in academic areas is another matter (Echevarria, & Graves, 2000).

What these ELLs need is strong academic English proficiency that helps them perform successfully in content areas because a strong proficiency in oral English does not necessarily translate into ELLs’ academic success (Cummins, 1980).

Traditionally, language instruction focuses on language forms; that is, learners know what to say and how to say it in various situations along with basic reading and writing skills. Nevertheless, language teachers could achieve those goals as well by moving beyond the functional language syllabus and by adopting Content-Based Instruction (CBI) in their syllabus which targets content-rich and high-standard curriculum with critical thinking skills(Kasper, 2000).

What is Content-Based Instruction?[edit | edit source]

Content-Based Instruction (CBI) is “an approach to second language teaching in which teaching is organized around the content or information that students will acquire, rather than around a linguistic or other type of syllabus” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.204). In other words, CBI involves integrating the learning of language with the learning of content simultaneously; here, content typically means academic subject matter such as math, science, or social studies. In CBI, the language is utilized as the medium for teaching subject content (Mohan, 1986). The language learning objectives are achieved through content learning. The syllabi in most CBI courses are derived from content areas, and vary widely in detail and format. In a word, CBI is a method of teaching language and content in tandem.

CBI requires better language teachers. Language teachers must be knowledgeable in content areas and be able to elicit knowledge from students. In addition, language teachers have such responsibility as to keep context and comprehensibility foremost in their instruction, to select and adapt authentic materials for use in class, to provide scaffolding for students’ linguistic content learning, and to create learner-centered classrooms (Stryker & Leaver, 1993).

CBI requires better learners as well. Students are hypothesized to become autonomous and independent in CBI, so that they are conscious of their own learning process and can take charge of their learning. Furthermore, students are expected to support each other in collaborative modes of learning. Finally, students need to make commitment to this new approach to language learning (Stryker & Leaver, 1993). Typically, the materials in CBI are used with the subject matter of the content course. It is recommended that “authentic” materials are identified and utilized. There are two implications of authenticity. One implication is that the materials are similar to those used in native-language instruction; the other relates to the use of newspaper and magazine articles and any other media materials “that were not originally produced for language teaching purposes” (Brinton et al., 1989). Some realia such as tourist guidebooks, technical journals, railway timetables, newspaper ads, or TV broadcasts are also recommended by many CBI practitioners (Richards & Rodgers, 2001).

CBI in language teaching has been widely used in a variety of different settings since 1980s such as English as Specific Purpose (ESP) Programs for Students with limited English Proficiency (SLEP), Language for Specific Purposes (LSP), immersion programs, and ESL/EFL Language Programs. Since CBI refers to an approach rather than a method, no specific techniques or activities are associated with it. At the level of procedure, teaching materials and activities are selected according to the extent to which they match the type of program. Finally, CBI provides the opportunity for teachers to match students’ interests and needs with interesting, comprehensible, and meaningful content (Brinton et al., 1989).

Foundation[edit | edit source]

The theoretical foundations supporting CBI derive from cognitive learning theory and Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research. Cognitive learning theory posits that in the process of acquiring literacy skills, students progress through a series of three stages, that is, the cognitive, the associative, and the autonomous. In the cognitive stage, learners notice and attend to information in working memory, and they gradually develop a rough mental presentation of task requirements. In the associative stage, learners refine and strengthen this representation but still consciously attend to rules and sometimes need outside support when performing the task. Finally, in the autonomous stage, the task representation is increasingly refined, and learners are now able to perform the task automatically and autonomously. (Anderson, 1983). Progression through these stages is facilitated by scaffolding, which involves providing extensive instructional support during the initial stages of learning and gradually removing this support as students become more proficient at the task (Chamot & O’Malley, 1994; Vygotsky, 1978).

Krashen (1982) states that language structures are most efficiently acquired when presented through comprehensible input that is just beyond the learners’ current proficiency level, thereby forcing them to reach beyond the linguistic input and use previous knowledge and communicative context to gather the meaning of unfamiliar structures. Hence, Krashen’s model provides a theoretical foundation for CBI that provides students contextualized language curricula built around meaningful and comprehensible input through which not only language but information is required. SLA research emphasizes that literacy development can be facilitated by providing multiple opportunities for learners to interact in communicative contexts with authentic, linguistically challenging materials that are relevant to their personal and educational goals (Brinton et al., 1989).

Cummins (1980; 1981; 1996) theorized that there are two kinds of English proficiency that ESL students must learn. The first Basic Interpersonal Conversational Skills (BICS) involves the ability to converse with others and to articulate needs in L2, and can be developed only 2-3 years. The other is Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). CALP involves the acquisition of academic literacy skills, and the use of L2 to understand complex, decontextualized linguistic structures, and to analyze, explore, and deconstruct the concepts presented in academic texts. It takes between 5-7 years to master CALP. Cummins argues that ESL learners cannot acquire cognitive academic language skills from everyday conversation. Developing these cognitive skills requires task-based, experiential learning typified by learners’ interactions with contexts, tasks, and texts that present them with complex interdisciplinary context. Thus, Cummin’s model provides another theoretical foundation for CBI.

In the fictional conversation vignette, Jeffery has high BICS English level; however, he needs strong CALP English to assist him to be academically successful in school performance.

Three Prototypes of CBI[edit | edit source]

According to Brinton, Snow, and Wesche (1989), there are three CBI teaching models that practitioners can apply.

1.Theme-based language instruction In this program, a language curriculum is developed around selected topics or themes drawn from content area such as global warming, women’s rights, pollution, and marketing, or from across the curriculum like Civil War and U.S history. Materials in theme-based language instruction are usually teacher-generated or adapted from outside sources. An attempt is often made to integrate the topic into the teaching of all skills (Brinton et al., 1989). The goal is to assist learners in developing general academic language skills through interesting and relevant content. Theme-based language instruction is the most widespread of the three content-based models because it can be implemented within virtually any existing institutional setting, and the theme or the topic can be selected to match students’ interests.

2.Sheltered content instruction This model uses a content curriculum adapted to accommodate students’ limited proficiency in the language instruction. Consequently, sheltered courses are closely in keeping with the tradition of elementary and secondary immersion education in which L2 learners are separated or “sheltered” from native-speaking students. This sheltered arrangement places all second language learners in “the same linguistic boat,” thereby from the adjustments and simplifications made by native speakers in communicating with L2 learners and from a low-anxiety situation (Krashen, 1981). Sheltered courses usually make certain modifications for the L2 population. Typically, the instructors will select texts of a suitable difficulty level for L2 learners and adjust course requirements to accommodate L2 learners’ language capacities (Brinton et al., 1989). This model was originally developed for elementary foreign language immersion programs in order to allow some portion of the curriculum to be taught through the foreign language (Kasper, 2000).

3.Adjunct language instruction In this model, students are enrolled in two linked courses, one a content course and one a language course, with both courses sharing the same content base but differ in their focus of instruction. The language teachers emphasize language skills, while content teachers focus on academic concepts. Such a program requires a large amount of coordination between the language and content teachers, and usually language teachers make the extra efforts to become familiar with the content. In order to ensure that the two curricula are interlocking, modifications to both courses may be required. The rationale behind this model is that the linked courses will assist students in developing academic coping strategies and cognitive skills that will transfer from one discipline to another (Brinton et al., 1989). This model integrates the language curriculum with the academic language demands placed on students in their other university courses. As a result, an adjunct program is usually limited to cases where students have language skills that are sufficiently advanced to enable them to participate in content instruction with native speakers.

The three prototype curriculum models offer practitioners and teachers with concrete frameworks to follow and to know how to integrate the learning of language with the learning of content.

Issues of CBI[edit | edit source]

Stryker and Leaver (1993) state that there may be a challenge for learners to participate in CBI courses. CBI is in the “learning by doing” school of pedagogy. Learners are expected to be active in different roles and cooperative with each other. In addition, they need a commitment to learn language in CBI courses. This is an issue for students who are accustomed to whole-class, independent, and traditional learning and teaching models. Additionally, learners need to possess a minimum level of language proficiency so that they can understand the quantity of new information in CBI courses. Stryker and Leaver (1993) suggest that students need to be prepared both psychologically and cognitively for CBI, and if they are not adequately prepared, then teachers should offer the missing schemata needs for students. Or students need to be kept from enrolling in CBI courses until they are ready. In my opinion, I would suggest that teachers need to design a lesson that is intriguing and appealing enough to encourage students to participate in the lesson. Moreover, teachers must know how to shelter the content to make it accessible to students.

Another issue is that language teachers have been trained to teach linguistic knowledge rather than a content subject. Hence, language teachers “may be insufficiently grounded to teach subject matters.” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.220). Indeed, language teachers have not been trained to teach content subjects, and may be questioned about their credibility in CBI courses. From my perspective, I would say that language teachers can ask for assistance from content teachers. Additionally, language teachers can choose a content subject that they are familiar with to instruct. Do not try to teach all subject matters, that is, language teachers should start small. Finally, language teachers can attend professional development workshops to let themselves have second, third, or even fourth profession.

Another problem associated with CBI is that language teachers are too concerned with content area teaching and neglect teaching related language skills. Language teachers seem to forget the main purpose of CBI is to enhance language development though content areas rather than content learning per se. If language components are missing, it can not be called CBI. The language learning aspect should have equal priority with the content learning facet in CBI (Cristopher, 1996).

An example of CBI[edit | edit source]

The following example is based on ideas from Larsen-Freeman (2000). Here a tenth grade class in an international school in Taipei is studying both geography and English through CBI. The teacher asks the students in English what a globe is. Some students call out “world.” Others make a circle with their arms. The teacher then reaches under her desk and takes out a globe. She puts the global on her desk and asks the students what they know about it. Students reply to the teacher’s question enthusiastically as the teacher records their answers on the blackboard. When they have trouble explaining a concept, the teacher provides the missing language. Next, the teacher distributes a handout that she has prepared based on a video, “Understanding Globes.” The top of the handout is entitled “Some Vocabulary Need to Know.” Listed are some key geographical terms used in the video. The teacher asks the students to listen while she reads the ten words: degree, distance, equator, globe, hemisphere, imaginary, latitude, longitude, model, and parallel.

The teacher tells the students to read the passage on the handout. Students also need to fill in the blanks in the passage with the new vocabulary. After students are finished, the teacher shows them the video. As students watch the video, they fill in the remaining blanks with certain of the words that the teacher has read aloud.

The passage: A ____________ is a three-dimensional ____________ of the earth. Points of interest are located on a globe by using a system of ____________ lines. For instance, the equator is an imaginary line that divides the earth in half. Lines that are parallel to the equator are called lines of __________. Latitude is used to measure ___________ on the earth north and south of the equator… After the video is over, students are paired up to check their answers.

Next, the teacher calls attention to a particular verb pattern in the cloze passage: “are located,” “are called,” and “is used.” The teacher tells students that these are examples of the present passive, which they will study in this lesson and the following week. The teacher explains that the passive is used to defocus the agent or doer of an action.

And then, the teacher elucidates how latitude and longitude can be used to locate any place in the world. She gives students several examples. Students then utilize latitude and longitude co-ordinate to locate cities in other countries. By stating “The city is located at latitude 60° north and longitude 11° east,” the teacher integrates the present passive as well as the content focus at the same time. Hands go up. The teacher calls on one boy to come to the front of the classroom to find the city. He correctly points to Oslo, Norway on the globe. The teacher offers other examples.

Later, students are formed in small groups to play a guessing game. In small groups, they think of the names of six cities. They then locate the city on the globe and write down the latitude and longitude co-ordinates. Next, they read the co-ordinates out loud and see whether other students can guess the name of the city. The first group says “ This city is located at latitude 5° north and longitude 74° west.” After several misses by their classmates, group 4 gets the correct answer: “Bogotá.” Group 4 then give new co-ordinates to the class: “This city is located at 34° south latitude and 151° east longitude.” Group 6 raises their hands and call out loudly: “Sydney.”

For homework, students are given a map and a description of Australia. They have to read the description and then label the major cities as well as points of the interest on the map.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Incorporating CBI into the curriculum is a way of providing a meaningful context for language instruction and learning with higher order thinking skills. At the same time, CBI offers a vehicle for reinforcing academic skills. Teaching and learning through content is fun and worthwhile for not only teachers but learners. Although it takes more time to plan and create materials for CBI, and issues such as learner readiness, teacher knowledge, and the balance between language and content should be taken into consideration, the results will be rewarding.

Reference[edit | edit source]

Anderson, J.R. (1983). The architecture of cognition. Cambridge, MA: Haevard University Press.

Brinton, D., Snow, M., & Wesche, M. (1989). Content-based second language instruction. NY: Newbury House.

Brown, C. (2004). Content Based ESL Curriculum and Academic Languag Proficiency. TESL Journal, 10, 1-5.

Chamot, A.U., & O’Malley, J.M. (1994). The CALLA handbook: Implementing the cognitive academic language learning approach. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Cristopher, E. R. (1996). Enriching learners’ language production through content-based instruction. Retrieved October 3, 2007, from Educational Resource Information Center (ERIC) database.

Cummins, J. (1980). Psychological assessment of immigrant children: Logic or institution? Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 1(2), 97-111.

Cummins, J. (1981). Age on arrival and immigrant second language learning in Canada: A reassessment. Applied Linguistics, 11(2), 132-149.

Cummins, J. (1996). Negotiating Identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society. Ontario, CA: California Association for Bilingual Education.

Echevarria, J., & Graves, A. (2000). Making content comprehensible for English language learners: the SIOP model (pp.1-16). Boston: Allyn and Bacon: 2000.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2000). Techniques and principles in language teaching. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kasper, L.F. (2000). Content-based college ESL instruction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Krashen, S. (1981). Second language acquisition and second language learning.Oxford: Pergamon.

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Oxford, UK: Pergamon.

Mohan, B. (1986). Language as a medium of learning. In Language and content (pp.1-22). Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Richards, J. C., & Rodgers, T. S. (2001). Approaches and methods in language teaching (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stryker, S., & Leaver, B. L. (1997). Content-based instruction: Some lessons and implications. In S. B. Stryker & B. L. Leaver (Eds.), Content-based instruction in foreign language education: Models and methods (pp. 285-314). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.