spaceCenter for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA)

CoBaLTT Participants

Principles of Content-Based Instruction

In this module, you will be introduced to the principles (that is, the foundations or assumptions) that underlie content-based instruction (CBI) in second or foreign language contexts. These principles include the theoretical and research base that informs the field of CBI.

CBI is fundamentally a curricular approach or framework, not a method. The focus of most foreign language curricula is on learning about language rather than learning to use language for meaningful communication about relevant content. CBI, in contrast, is an approach to curriculum design that seeks to reach a balance between language and content instruction with an emphasis “on using the language rather than on talking about it” (Lightbown & Spada, 1999, p. 92). This is not to say that there is never an emphasis on the language itself in CBI; on the contrary, CBI at its best integrates a focus on language in the context of content instruction. It has a “dual commitment to language- and content-learning objectives” (Stoller, 2004, p. 261).

Thus, the overall aim of CBI is threefold. It is designed to help learners:

  • construct knowledge and develop understandings about a topic and a learning task;
  • use language meaningfully and purposefully; and
  • learn about language in the context of learning through language.

In this module, teachers will be introduced to the key principles that underlie CBI through readings and comprehension activities. In “Content-Based Instruction: Defining Terms, Making Decisions," Mimi Met provides an overview of the principles and introduces the notion that CBI programs reside on a continuum ranging from programs that are content-driven to those that are language-driven. Interactive activities ask teachers to identify the characteristics of language- and content-driven programs and determine where programs fall on the continuum.

The reading by Fred Genesee reviews research from the field of immersion education and identifies important lessons that can be learned from this CBI model. The guided comprehension activity serves as an opportunity for teachers to check on the reading and reflect on what they’ve learned.

The third reading in this module, by Bill Grabe and Fredricka Stoller, provides the research base that underlies CBI. Grabe and Stoller review a vast array of the research literature both within and outside the field of language education to establish the strong support that exists for this curricular approach. This reading is also supported by a guided comprehension activity.



Lightbown, P. M. & Spada, N. (1999). How languages are learned (2nd ed.). NY: Oxford University Press.

Stoller, F. L. (2004). Content-based instruction: Perspectives on curriculum planning. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, 261-283.


Please use the Menu in the column to the left to navigate through the module.

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