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Content-Based Second Language Instruction:
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' (Wesche, 1993).
  • CBI is " 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 students..." (p. 35).
  • 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).
  • " 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 included.

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, Byrnes, 2000).
  • 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 SLA

  • CBI lends itself to cooperative learning, which has been shown to result in improved learning (Slavin, 1995; Crandall, 1993).
  • 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, 1990).
  • 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 program evaluation).


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, concept learning).
  • 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.
  • When 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 content material).


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 departments.



1995 video entitled "Helena Curtain: Integrating Language and Content Instruction," available through the NFLRC Second Language Teaching and Curriculum Center at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.

Anderson, J. R. (1990). Cognitive psychology and its implications (3rd ed.). NY: W. H. Freeman.

Anderson, J. R. (1993). Problem solving and learning. American Psychologist, 48, 35-44.

Brinton, D., Snow, M. A., & Wesche, M. B. (1989). Content-based second language instruction. Boston: Heinle & Heinle Publishers.

Byrnes, H. (2000). Languages across the curriculum—interdepartmental curriculum construction. In M-R. Kecht & K. von Hammerstein (Eds.), Languages across the curriculum: Interdisciplinary structures and internationalized education. National East Asian Languages Resource Center. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University.

Crandall, J. (1993). Content-centered learning in the United States. In W. Grabe, C. Ferguson, R. B. Kaplan, G. R. Tucker, & H. G. Widdowson (Eds.), Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 13. Issues in second language teaching and learning (pp. 111-126). NY: Cambridge University Press.

Crandall, J., & Tucker, G. R. (1990). Content-based instruction in second and foreign languages. In A. Padilla, H. H. Fairchild, & C. Valadez (Eds.), Foreign language education: Issues and strategies. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Curtain, H. A., & Pesola, C. A. (1994). Languages and children: Making the match (2nd ed.). NY: Longman.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Harper Collins. 

Cummins, J. (1981). The role of primary language development in promoting educational success for language minority students. In Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework (pp. 3-49). Los Angeles: California State University, Evaluation, Dissemination, and Assessment Center.

Elley, W. (1991). Acquiring literacy in a second language: The effect of book-based programs. Language Learning, 41, 375-411.

Eskey, D. E. (1997). Syllabus design in content-based instruction. In M. A. Snow & D. A. Brinton (Eds.), The content-based classroom: Perspectives on integrating language and content (pp. 132-141). White Plains, NY: Longman.

Genesee, F. (1994). Integrating language and content: Lessons from immersion. Educational Practice Report 11. National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning.

Grabe, W., & Stoller, F. L. (1997). Content-based instruction: Research foundations. In M. A. Snow, & D. M. Brinton (Eds.), The content-based classroom: Perspectives on integrating language and content (pp. 5-21). NY: Longman.

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practices in second language acquisition. NY: Pergamon Press.

Krashen, S. (1985). The input hypothesis: Issues and implications. NY: Longman.

Lantolf, J. (1994). (Ed.) Sociocultural theory and second language learning. [Special issue of The Modern Language Journal, 78(4).]

Lantolf, J. & Appel, G. (Eds.) Vygotskian approaches to second language research. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Lightbown, P. M. & Spada, N. (1993). How languages are learned. NY: Oxford University Press.

Lyster, R. (1987). Speaking immersion. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 43(4), 701-717.

Met, M. (1991). Learning language through content: Learning content through language. Foreign Language Annals, 24(4), 281-295.

Met. M. (1999, January). Content-based instruction: Defining terms, making decisions. NFLC Reports. Washington, DC: The National Foreign Language Center.

O'Malley, J. M., & Chamot, A. U. (1990). Learning strategies in second language acquisition. NY: Cambridge University Press.

Singer, M. (1990). Psychology of language: An introduction to sentence and discourse processing. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Slavin, R. E. (1995). Cooperative learning (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Stoller, F. (2002, March). Content-Based Instruction: A Shell for Language Teaching or a Framework for Strategic Language and Content Learning? Keynote presented at the annual meeting of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Salt Lake City. (full transcript available at the CoBaLTT website).

Swain, M. (1985). Communicative competence: Some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. In S. Gass & C. Madden (Eds.), Input in second language acquisition (pp. 235-253). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Swain, M. & Johnson, R.K. (1997). Immersion education: A category within bilingual education. In R. K. Johnson & M. Swain (Eds.) Immersion Education: International Perspectives (pp. 1-16). NY: Cambridge University Press.

Wells, G. (1994). The complementary contributions of Halliday and Vygotsky to a "language-based theory of learning." Linguistics and Education, 6, 41-90.

Wesche, M. B. (1993). Discipline-based approaches to language study: Research issues and outcomes. In M. Krueger & F. Ryan (Eds.) Language and content: Discipline- and content-based approaches to language study. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath.

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