Content-Based Second Language
What is it?
Origins and Definitions
- Although it is most often associated with the genesis of
language immersion education in Canada in 1965, content-based
instruction is hardly a new phenomenon. We know that "until
the rise of nationalism, few languages other than those of
the great empires, religions, and civilizations were considered
competent or worthy to carry the content of a formal curriculum" (Swain & Johnson,
1997, p. 1).
- CBI is "...the integration of particular content with
language teaching aims...the concurrent teaching of academic
subject matter and second language skills" (Brinton et
al., 1989, p. 2).
- CBI approaches "...view the target language largely
as the vehicle through which subject matter content is learned
rather than as the immediate object of study" (Brinton
et al., 1989, p. 5).
- CBI is aimed at 'the development of use-oriented second
and foreign language skills' and is 'distinguished by the concurrent
learning of a specific content and related language use skills'
- CBI is "...an approach to language instruction that
integrates the presentation of topics or tasks from subject
matter classes (e.g., math, social studies) within the context
of teaching a second or foreign language" (Crandall & Tucker,
1990, p. 187).
What qualifies as 'content' in CBI?
- Curtain and Pesola (1994) limit the definition of CBI to
those "...curriculum concepts being taught through the
foreign language ... appropriate to the grade level of the
- Genesee (1994) suggests that content '...need not be academic;
it can include any topic, theme, or non-language issue of interest
or importance to the learners' (p. 3).
- Met (1991) proposes that "... 'content' in content-based
programs represents material that is cognitively engaging and
demanding for the learner, and is material that extends beyond
the target language or target culture" (p. 150).
- "...what we teach in any kind of content-based course
is not the content itself but some form of the discourse of
that content—not, for example, 'literature' itself (which
can only be experienced) but how to analyze literature...for
every body of content that we recognize as such—like
the physical world or human cultural behavior—there is
a discourse community—like physics or anthropology—which
provides us with the means to analyze, talk about, and write
about that content...Thus, for teachers the problem is how
to acculturate students to the relevant discourse communities,
and for students the problem is how to become acculturated
to those communities" (Eskey, 1997, pp. 139-140).
- "...it is not so much the content itself, in terms
of factual knowledge, but some form of the discourse of that
content as it is constructed in the German-speaking world that
is being taught...that means that it is critical that we explicitly
teach on the basis of the assumptions, conventions, and procedures
of their own L1 discourse communities (usually U.S.—American
and English language) and toward the assumptions, conventions,
and procedures of the L2=German language discourse communities" (Georgetown
German Dept. website).
Content-Based Second Language Instruction: Rationale
Grabe & Stoller (1997) provide a detailed analysis of research
to support content-based second language instruction. The key points
of their analysis are summarized below in the categories they used
to organize the
findings. Additional research not cited in Grabe & Stoller is also
Support from SLA research:
- Natural language acquisition occurs in context; natural
language is never learned divorced from meaning, and content-based
instruction provides a context for meaningful communication
to occur (Curtain, 1995; Met, 1991); second language acquisition
increases with content-based language instruction, because
students learn language best when there is an emphasis on relevant,
meaningful content rather than on the language itself; "People
do not learn languages and then use them, but learn languages by
using them" (GUGD website) [see Georgetown stats];
however, both form and meaning are important and are not readily
separable in language learning (e.g., Lightbown & Spada,
1993; Met, 1991; Wells, 1994).
- CBI promotes negotiation of meaning, which is known to enhance
language acquisition (students should negotiate both form and
content) (Lightbown & Spada, 1993).
- Second language acquisition is enhanced by comprehensible
input (Krashen, 1982; 1985), which is a key pedagogical technique
in content-based instruction; however, comprehensible input
alone does not suffice—students need form-focused content instruction
(an explicit focus on relevant and contextually appropriate
language forms to support content learning) (Lyster, 1987;
Met, 1991; Swain, 1985).
- Cummins' (1981) notion of Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency
(CALP) as contrasted with Basic Interpersonal Communication
Skills (BICS) shows that students need to be learning content
while they are developing CALP; there is not enough time to
separate language and content learning; postponing content
instruction while students develop more advanced (academic)
language is not only impractical, but it also ignores students'
needs, interests, and cognitive levels (consider severe time
constraints on language study prescribed by U.S. higher education,
- CBI provides opportunities for Vygotskian-based concepts
thought to contribute to second language acquisition—negotiation
in the Zone of Proximal Development, the use of "private
speech" (internally directed speech for problem-solving
and rehearsal), and student appropriation of learning tasks
(e.g., Lantolf, 1994; Lantolf & Appel, 1994).
- Language learning becomes more concrete rather than abstract
(as in traditional language instruction where the focus is
on the language itself) (Genesee, 1994).
- The integration of language and content in instruction respects
the specificity of functional language use (it recognizes that
meaning changes depending upon context) (Genesee, 1994).
- More sophisticated, complex language is best taught within
a framework that focuses on complex and authentic content.
Research on Instructional Strategies that Support CBI and
- CBI lends itself to cooperative learning, which has been
shown to result in improved learning (Slavin, 1995; Crandall,
- CBI approaches, which promote the importance of learning
strategies, provide the curricular resources for development
of the strategic language and content learner (O'Malley & Chamot,
- CBI lends itself to the incorporation of a variety of thinking
skills, and learning strategies which lead to rich language
development, e.g., information gathering skills—absorbing,
questioning; organizing skills—categorizing, comparing, representing;
analyzing skills—identifying main ideas, identifying attributes
and components, identifying relationships, patterns; generating
skills—inferring, predicting, estimating (ASCD, Dimensions
of Thinking) (Curtain, 1995; Met, 1991).
- Research on extensive reading in a second language shows
that reading coherent extended materials leads to improved
language abilities, greater content-area learning, and higher
motivation (Elley, 1991); the Georgetown German program has
based the curriculum on texts and genre and report exciting
results in students' speaking and writing proficiency (see
Support for CBI from Educational and Cognitive Psychology
- Anderson (1990; 1993) has proposed a cognitive learning
theory for instruction that integrates attention to content
and language. In this theory skills (including language) and
knowledge follow a general sequence of states of learning from the
cognitive stage (students notice and attend to information
in working memory; they engage in solving basic problems with
the language and concepts they're acquiring) to the associative
stage (errors are corrected and connections to related
knowledge are strengthened; knowledge and skills become proceduralized)
to the autonomous stage (performance becomes automatic,
requiring little attentional effort; in this stage cognitive
resources are feed up for the next cycle of problem solving,
- The presentation of coherent and meaningful information
leads to deeper processing, which results in better learning
(Anderson, 1990) and information that is more elaborated is
learned and recalled better.
- Information that has a greater number of connections to
related information promotes better learning (it is more likely
that content will have a greater number of connections to other
information) (Anderson, 1990).
- Facts and skills taught in isolation need much more practice
and rehearsal before they can be internalized or put into long
term memory; coherently presented information (thematically
organized) is easier to remember and leads to improved learning
(Singer, 1990); information that has a greater number of connections
to related information enhances learning, and content acts
as the driving force for the connections to be made.
- Content-based instruction develops a wider range of discourse
skills than does traditional language instruction (because
of the incorporation of higher cognitive skills); Byrnes (2000)
notes the increasing demands for high levels of literacy in
languages other than English.
planned thoughtfully, content-based activities have the possibility
of leading to "flow experiences," i.e., optimal experiences
the emerge when personal skills are matched by high challenge
(Csikszentmihalyi, 1997, in Grabe & Stoller, 1997 and Stoller,
2002) - see graphic.
- Content-based instruction provides for cognitive engagement;
tasks that are intrinsically interesting and cognitively engaging
will lead to more and better opportunities for second language
acquisition; this is particularly important when one considers
the inherent complexity of adult learning (Byrnes, 2000).
- Content-based instruction emphasizes a connection to real
life, real world skills (Curtain, 1995); in content-based classes,
students have more opportunities to use the content knowledge
and expertise they bring to class (they activate their prior
knowledge, which leads to increased learning of language and
Program Outcomes that Support CBI
- Research conducted in a variety of program models (see Grabe
and Stoller, 1997 for details) has shown that content-based
instruction results in language learning, content learning,
increased motivation and interest levels, and greater opportunities
for employment (where language abilities are necessary)—the
research has emerged in ESL K-12 contexts , FL K-12 (immersion
and bilingual programs), post-secondary FL and ESL contexts,
and FLAC programs.
- CBI allows for greater flexibility to be built into the
curriculum and activities; there are more opportunities to
adjust to the needs and interests of students.
- The integration of language and content throughout a sequence
of language levels has the potential to address the challenge
of gaps between basic language study vs. advanced literature
and cultural studies that often exist in university language
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