The Mindset Needed to Balance Language and Content

I’ve discussed in previous posts (this one in particular) that balancing language and content is one of the biggest challenges faced by teachers in a content-based language classroom.
But why?
As I read and reflect more on Content-Based Language Teaching (CBLT), I believe a lot of it has to do with mindset.
Specifically, I will share three mindsets in this post that I believe need to be resolved by a teacher before a proper balance between content and language.

1. Accept That You Are A Language Teacher

The first mindset that a content-based language teacher needs to resolve is that they are a language teacher.
Regardless of what type of school you teach in or what type of CBLT system you run, you are a language teacher. (Yes, even you EMI people!)
While this sounds simple, it’s, admittedly, very difficult.
In my past EFL job, I would look at my teaching schedule, see that it read
“science,” and I would teach science.
Sounds reasonable, but that’s exactly where I went wrong. I kept thinking it was a science class rather than science/language class. I would walk into a class called science with a science textbook, and I would forget that I was a language teacher.
Sure I would teach science vocabulary, but that isn’t enough to constitute language teaching; vocabulary is content teaching. I did great teaching science concepts, but I did very little to teach students the language of science.
I guess I just expected the language part to happen- a terrible teaching approach.
If I were reminded that even in a science class I was still a language teacher, I may have approached my planning and instruction differently.

2. Plan with the (Language) End in Mind

The second mindset is about planning with the end in mind.
I’m sure you have heard this planning strategy, but it is essential that you plan for the LANGUAGE end in mind.
This doesn’t mean that you ignore the content end, but subject textbooks usually do pretty well with guiding you toward this end. What’s usually not as obvious is the language side.
To do this properly, you are going to have to put on your linguist cap and really focus on language.
Let me a give an example of what this might look like. Let’s say our elementary science class is studying the water cycle. What would the language for an early elementary student  look like for describing the water cycle?

First, hot water becomes gas and goes to the sky. This is evaporation. Next, the cold gas becomes liquid and makes a cloud. This is condensation. Then, it rains and the water comes back. This is precipitation. Finally, the water goes to a river or ocean. This is collection.

I did my best to describe the water cycle like a young learner above. (Please don’t judge me!)
Looking at the text. What language needs to be taught?

  1. Sequence Words
  2. Present tense verbs
  3. Cause and Effect sentences

NOTE: I deliberately left  vocabulary off the list to emphasize a point from earlier, vocabulary teaching is usually content, not language, teaching.
For the students to produce the above, either in oral or written form, they would need to have the above language. Depending on your students and your curriculum, you would likely decide which areas to really focus on as objectives and which to mention or scaffold.
How can you come up with a list of the language needed? You have to produce the end product and analyze it.
Yes, that’s right! You actually need to sit down and write out what your ideal final product would be, just like I did above. Without doing so, I think it would be very difficult to really know the (language) end in mind.

3. Balance Language and Content By Days, Not Minutes

You have accepted you are a language teacher and must teach language.
You have actually written out the end language product and planned the language objectives.
Before actually teaching, there is one more mindset that needs to be worked out.
Accept that it is very difficult to properly balance language and content in one class period.
Ever hear the saying, “You are throwing a bunch of sh-t at the wall and hoping something sticks”?
*SPOILER ALERT* Nothing sticks in the above throwing activity.
In some ways, that is what is happening when you try to teach both content and language in one short class period. And this could possibly be the reason why many fail to balance content and language- they think it means in one class period.
But no such rules exist. (Just like no such rules exist that I can’t start my sentence with a coordinating conjunction. source)
Therefore, take your content objectives, take your language objectives, and assign them to different days.
By doing so, you will have more clarity in your planning, and you won’t leave behind your language objectives (unless, of course, you fail to show up to class on language days, in which case I can’t help you).


In this post, I have shared three mindsets that need to be satisfied before you can balance language and content:

  1. Accept That You Are A Language Teacher
  2. Plan with the (Language) End in Mind
  3. Balance Language and Content By Days, Not Minutes

I believe if you can change your mindset to align with these three things, you will find it much easier to balance language and content. (Oh yeah…and your students’ language abilities will improve.)
Do you agree with these? Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments.

One thought on “The Mindset Needed to Balance Language and Content”

  1. Spot on.
    Investing time in the language portion of teaching subject based content is vital in EFL / ESL. Its like telling your students to build a car without any tools. They need the right tools.
    I think preteaching this and setting aside the content based material for later is the right way to do it.
    Great article Keith. Keep them coming!

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