Content-Based Instruction

What kind of Content-Based Instruction Do You Do?

As I read more and more of the literature on content-based language teaching (CBLT), I am becoming increasingly frustrated.
Why you might ask?
Because the field has done an incredibly poor job of defining what CBLT actually is.
I get it! There are many variations of CBLT around the world, but the fact that after a few decades we continue to fail to be consistent with terminology is just disheartening.
Before my teacher-readers stop reading (maybe you already have), I promise this matters a lot to you. (Really?) Really!
By clearly understanding the variations of CBLT, you can identify whether your program fits you and your students.
In this post, I will discuss three types of CBLT and which are appropriate for students and teachers.

The Many Faces of CBLT

In my last post on objectives, I introduced the following graphic:

This graphic shows a spectrum running from all language to all content. But it isn’t perfect (gasp!).
The problem is that within some of these acronyms, there are variations, especially from 3-5.
Rather than use this graphic, it may be easier to think in terms of three broad categories: theme-based language learning, language and content integrated, and immersion education.

Theme-Based Language Learning

For the first category, theme-based language learning, my graphic holds up pretty well.
Language classes that use a modern language book with integrated skills are theme-based learning. A look at the table of contents of a book will reveal themes like “At the Museum” or “Sports and Recreation.”
If your curriculum resembles this, then you are at a 1 on the scale above. Your focus should be exclusively on the many aspects of language such as pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, communicative fluency, etc.
Same goes for English for Specific Purposes (ESP) courses.  The only thing that differentiates ESP from the typical language course is that these are usually adult courses that focus on a specific profession. The range of language to be taught is more limited in scope. However, the focus will again be exclusively on the many aspects of language.
In terms of objectives, these types of classes will only have language objectives.
Students of any language level can generally be successful in this type of system, even true beginners. However, it may become boring for students with higher levels of English
Teachers in these type of settings should have a strong foundation in applied linguistics. Class activities and assessments should be geared toward improving and measuring language ability and should not be concerned with content.

Language and Content Integrated

This category is supposed to represent a setting where language and content get equal attention. The problem is that acronyms that are supposed to represent the balance of language and content very rarely do. What usually happens is content gets the bulk of attention.
This category, more than any other, is the reason it is important to really be clear about what our curriculum and instruction should be. Too often content-based language programs end up losing on language goals. Sure, the students have a broader vocabulary and content knowledge as a result of the program, but they typically fall short in their accuracy of language production when compared to other programs.
If your K-12 program is not in the theme-based category 1 (EFL), then you should be this. Your course should be building language AND content skills simultaneously. I might even go so far as to say with a little more emphasis on language, just to compensate for the imbalance toward content that typically exists.
In terms of objectives, both content and language objectives should be practiced and assessed. Again, as compensation, a bit heavier on language.
This type of system can be successful with all types of language learners, but true beginners may struggle and become frustrated. It may be best for students to reach an A1 beginner level first before entering this type of system in order to avoid the cognitive burden of learning a completely new language and content simultaneously.
Teachers in these type of settings should have a strong foundation in applied linguistics first and foremost, but should also have solid pedagogical and content training for the subject they teach.
Something our field lacks at the moment is language-content specialists. A science teacher with no applied linguistics experience would not be appropriate. Likewise, a language teacher with applied linguistics training that has not received training in science pedagogy would also not work. Unfortunately, teachers with both strong language and content pedagogical skills is a rarity.
My recommendation is that teachers in these types of settings do a self-assessment. If strong in applied linguistics, seek out professional development for content teaching. If strong with content, take courses in applied linguistics.

Immersion Education

The finally category, immersion education, happens all to often when it shouldn’t.
Immersion education, also known as English-Medium instruction (EMI), encompasses courses that focus exclusively on content but are delivered in English.
In terms of objectives, this setting would only have content objectives. Teachers should be content experts trained in pedagogy specific for their field.
Students should have a strong grasp of English, B2 upper-intermediate or higher, and should take these courses to build content knowledge and fluency, not to develop language. Students should seek out other courses to build or refine their language abilities.
This type of setting is rarely, if ever, appropriate for K-12 settings in contexts where English is not widely spoken. Only in circumstances where the student population has a strong grasp of English should this appear in secondary classrooms.
As for universities, this system is often implemented, but again, is usually not appropriate for the students. If students lack the appropriate English skills, they should seek out an ESP course in their field and learn the content in their L1.
When CBLT is implemented, unfortunately it ends up looking like this, much to the detriment of the students. This generally happens because teachers lack skills, usually in applied linguistics. Language learning is often expected to occur as a result of the immersion in content, but this rarely happens in practice.
My recommendation is that schools and teachers approach implementing this type of system very carefully. It must be very clear that immersion education does not produce the “two for one deal” that it is often thought to produce. Unfortunately, what often does happen is a “no gain” situation due to content comprehension issues. Not only is language not learned, but content suffers as well.
If your system looks like immersion instruction, I would be very wary and would urge you to re-assess the student population and program goals to be sure it is the appropriate system.


If nothing else, I hope this post inspires teachers and administrators to critically examine their CBLT system.
Questions that need to be asked include:

  1. What are the program goals?
  2. What is the language level of the students?
  3. What are the strengths of the teachers?

The first question helps you choose one of the systems above. If your only goal is language, then theme-based is the way to go. If you want content-learning to be an outcome, then language and content integrated is probably your choice. Approach immersion education with caution and be very clear why you have chosen it.
The second question helps you assess whether your chosen program is appropriate for your students. If you find out the current level of students is lower than what’s appropriate for the system in place, consider a long-term transition plan which begins with one system and moves to the other. In practice, this may look like beginning with theme-based in the early grades, moving to language and content integrated in upper elementary and middle school, and finally to immersion in high school. If well planned, I believe this could be the most optimal situation for student development.
The final question is about the teachers. A curriculum is only as good as the teachers teaching it. Therefore, it’s really important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the staff. Some will be really strong with language while others may be great with content. Through this understanding, teachers can be allocated into classes that fit their strengths and be provided professional development to build areas of weakness.
Which system best fits your school or classroom? Would another system be more appropriate? Let me know in the comments!

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