Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Language and Education

pp 1163-1174

Content‐Based Instruction

  • Fredricka L. StollerAffiliated withNorthern Arizona University


Content‐based instruction (CBI) is an umbrella term referring to instructional approaches that make a dual, though not necessarily equal, commitment to language and content‐learning objectives. CBI has been translated into practice in diverse ways in response to student needs at primary, secondary, tertiary, and adult education levels, in foreign, second, and multiple language contexts. Unlike other language instruction approaches that define primary content in terms of grammatical structures, communicative language functions, or language skills, in CBI, content refers to the use of nonlanguage subject matter that is closely aligned with traditional school subjects, themes of interest to students, or vocational and occupational areas. Most content‐based settings have strong academic orientations, emphasizing the linguistic, cognitive, and metacognitive skills as well as subject matter that students need to succeed in future educational endeavors. In highly diversified linguistic contexts, CBI can be used to promote plurilingualism as a social and political necessity (Wolff, 2002). Despite differences in emphases, what most content‐based approaches share is the assumption that content and language create a symbiotic relationship; that is, the learning of content contributes to the learning of language and a mastery of language gives learners easier access to content (Stoller, 2004).

Early Developments

Integrated language and content instruction, historically restricted to upper social classes, now reaches across social strata and educational levels. The more widespread use of CBI is partially a response to increased global communication, the need for competencies in languages of wider communication, efforts to maintain and revive minority languages (Cenoz and Genesse, 1998), attempts to preserve linguistic and cultural diversity (Wolff, 2002), and changes in student demographics.

CBI has been implemented in various ways, revealing different degrees of emphasis placed on language and content. These varied configurations lie on a continuum, bounded by content‐driven curricula at one end and language‐driven curricula at the other (Met, 1998). In immersion programs, at the content‐driven end of the continuum, school subject matter is taught primarily through the medium of the target language. The term immersion, oftentimes referred to as the prototypical content‐based approach, was adopted in the 1960s to refer to Canadian programs in which children were taught traditional school subjects in their second language (Swain and Lapkin, 1982; see also Genesee and Lindholm‐Leary, Dual Language Education in Canada and the USA, Volume 5). Since that time, the Canadian immersion model has been adapted worldwide to include full immersion, partial immersion, late immersion, and delayed immersion (Johnson and Swain, 1997).

At the other end of the continuum are theme‐based courses and language programs with stronger commitments to language‐learning objectives. Theme‐based courses are typically designed around themes that provide the content for language‐learning activities; in language programs with a weak content focus, subject matter is integrated into individual lessons as a means for assisting students in developing their language abilities.

In between the two end points on the continuum are other content‐based prototypes. Two models in particular grant more equal weighting to content and language objectives. In sheltered instruction (Echevarria and Graves, 2007), nonnative speakers of the target language are deliberately separated from native speakers for the purpose of “sheltered” content instruction, characterized by the use of comprehensible language, the contextualization of subject matter, visual aids, modified texts and assignments, and explicit attention to students’ linguistic needs. In adjunct or linked courses, students are concurrently enrolled in a language class and a content class, the former designed to assist students with the content‐learning demands of the latter.

A major source of early support for CBI, in its various forms, stemmed from second language acquisition research, in particular studies on the role of comprehensible input, output, and explicit attention to relevant and contextually appropriate language forms. Further support was provided by sociocultural approaches to second language acquisition that demonstrated that the Vygotskian‐based concepts of negotiation in the Zone of Proximal Development, private speech, and student appropriation of learning tasks are important components in language learning and readily compatible with CBI. Moreover, the idea that students need Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) to succeed in academic second language‐learning contexts provided an additional impetus for CBI (see Cummins, 2000).

Research in educational and cognitive psychology also provided compelling support for CBI. Of particular relevance was research on cognitive processes of learning, depth of processing, discourse comprehension processing, optimal experiences, expertise, motivation, attribution, and learner interest. Additional support for CBI stemmed from classroom training studies on cooperative learning, metacognitive and learning strategy instruction, and extensive reading, all readily incorporated within CBI. The outcomes of actual CBI programs in foreign and second language settings (Brinton, Snow, and Wesche, 1989; Krueger and Ryan, 1993) offered support for CBI as well (see Grabe and Stoller, 1997, for a review of this early support).

Major Contributions

In the 1980s, applied linguists exhibited substantial interest in instructional approaches that combined language and content‐learning objectives. Mohan ( 1986) characterized academic discourse in terms of knowledge structures typical of school subject matter: description, sequence, choice, classification, principles, and evaluation. He proposed a model of integrated instruction that explicitly taught knowledge structures and corresponding graphic representations to assist students in mastery of content and academic discourse. Crandall ( 1987) showcased ways in which teachers could integrate instruction to help limited English‐proficient students master mathematics, science, and social studies while at the same time learning academic English. Enright and McCloskey's ( 1988) Integrated Language Teaching Model emphasized the integration of language and subject matter learning, language skills, as well as home and school language and learning experiences. Brinton, Snow, and Wesche ( 1989) provided an oft‐quoted rationale for CBI at postsecondary levels and showcased models of sheltered, adjunct, and theme‐based approaches to CBI. Concurrent with these publications was the emergence of the Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (CALLA) (Chamot and O'Malley, 1987), an alternative to sheltered instruction that is noted for its three‐way commitment to academic content, academic language skills, and strategy training.

Since the 1980s, numerous adaptations of integrated instruction prototypes have emerged. Some North American initiatives include the Language‐Content‐Task (LCT) framework (Short, 2002), which emphasizes the importance of and interactions among knowledge of the target language (L), the content area (C), and the tasks (T) required to succeed in academic settings. The six T's framework (Stoller and Grabe, 1997) endorses the use of themes, topics, texts, tasks, threads, and transitions as design criteria for more coherent content‐based curricula. Sustained CBI and sustained content language teaching (Murphy and Stoller, 2001; Pally, 2000) promote the exploration of a single‐carrier topic in the language classroom, with a complementary focus on language learning. The Content‐based Language Teaching Through Technology initiative, launched by the University of Minnesota's Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, assists foreign language teachers, in kindergarten to tertiary level classes, in creating curricula that utilize technology to support CBI ( http://​carla.​acad.​umn.​edu/​COBALTT.​html).

Models for foreign language education in North American contexts include content‐enriched Foreign Language in the Elementary School (FLES) programs, in which content matter from other classes (e.g., math, science, geography) is integrated into foreign language classes; the foreign language serves as reinforcement for subject matter classes and the content serves as a stimulus for contextualized language learning. In tertiary level Foreign Language Across the Curriculum (FLAC) and Languages Across the Curriculum (LAC or LxC), institutions extend the reach of foreign languages by providing students with opportunities to use foreign languages in areas of academic interest (Krueger and Ryan, 1993; Stryker and Leaver, 1997). In FLAC programs, foreign languages are taught through the content of academic disciplines (e.g., history, social sciences, engineering) and the learning of various disciplines is augmented with foreign language content resources. Foreign Language Immersion Programs (FLIP) provide university level foreign language and content‐area majors the opportunity to enroll in a full set of language and content courses taught in the target language. The Monterey Model (Jourdenais and Springer, 2005) integrates advanced foreign language study into programs such as International Business and International Policy Studies, thereby making a dual commitment to content and language learning.

In Europe, Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) has been formalized in response to the European Union's plurilingual education agenda, its commitment to the preservation of linguistic and cultural diversity, and its recognition of the political and economic necessity to increase multilingualism (Grenfell, 2002; see also Coyle, CLIL—A Pedagogical Approach from the European Perspective, Volume 4; Marsh, Language Awareness and CLIL, Volume 6). CLIL is typically adopted in contexts in which an additional language (i.e., not the most widely used language of the setting) is used for the teaching and learning of subject matter other than the language itself (Marsh and Langé, 1999), with the goal of “European competence” (Wolff, 2002). CLIL, sometimes referred to as Modern Languages Across the Curriculum (MLAC), has been translated into diverse configurations, within and across countries, reflected by differences in curricula, targeted content areas, designated languages, selection of students, methodology, materials, assessment, and teacher development. Despite these differences, five overarching dimensions are combined, though in different ways and to different degrees, in CLIL classrooms (Marsh, Maljers, and Hartiala, 2001); they include cultural, environmental (focused on internationalization and European Union integration), language, content, and learning (focused on learning strategies and learner motivation) dimensions. Related to CLIL are the European Network for Content and Language Integrated Classrooms (EuroCLIC) ( www.​euroclic.​net), which promotes the exchange of information, experience, and materials among those involved in integrated instruction, and Translanguage in Europe‐CLIL (TIE‐CLIL) ( www.​tieclil.​org), a multinational effort to write CLIL teacher‐education materials.

Other notable contributions to CBI focus more directly on the language of the content areas. The conceptual framework proposed by Snow, Met, and Genesee ( 1989) introduced the important notions of content‐obligatory language and content‐compatible language, the former referring to the specific language required for students to master and communicate about a particular content area and the latter referring to academic language that can be taught within the context of a given content area but that is not required for content mastery. Equally notable is the work of Short ( 1994), who focused on the characteristics of disciplinary language, specifically social studies and history, and the demands they place on target language learners. Short's work has resulted in teacher guidelines for integrated language and content instruction, with an emphasis on scaffolding, graphic organizers, and language and content‐teacher collaboration. Short's work as well as others at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, DC ( www.​cal.​org) has contributed greatly to an understanding of the intricacies of the language of different disciplines, the tasks commonly associated with those disciplines, and the challenges faced by teachers and students in content‐based classrooms.

In addition to examining the language of the disciplines, attention has been paid to the practices of content teachers. As an example, Project Learning English for Academic Purposes (LEAP; Snow, 1997) has focused on strategies that can be used by university faculty to make their content instruction more accessible to language minority students, while maintaining the academic rigor of their courses. Emphasis has been placed on instructional enhancements to improve lectures, make textbooks accessible, scaffold instruction, prepare students for exams, and involve students actively in learning.

Work in Progress

Approaches to CBI continue to evolve internationally, in locations as distinct as Australia, Europe, Israel and the Middle East, Japan, North America, South Africa, Turkey, and West Africa (e.g., Fruhauf, Coyle, and Christ, 1996; Grenfell, 2002; Jourdenais and Springer, 2005; Kaufman and Crandall, 2005; Snow and Brinton, 1997; Wilkinson, 2004). While many programs have designated English as the language of instruction, other languages are also the target of CBI, including Chinese, Dari and Pashto, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish. CBI is being adapted in these diverse settings for students at beginning, intermediate, and advanced proficiency levels. In an effort to meet the needs of such diverse student populations and educational settings, CBI professionals report efforts at collaborating across the disciplines, experimenting with problem and project‐based learning, and refining mainstreaming efforts (Mohan, Leung, and Davison, 2001). Furthermore, CBI educators are working diligently to promote student autonomy, use technology to enhance content and language learning, and integrate new approaches into CBI that assist students’ academic language development, grasp of content, and ability to engage in meaningful interactions.

Professionals interested in CBI are also exploring the relevance of empirically supported Concept‐Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI) and Collaborative Strategic Reading (CSR) for their classrooms (see Stoller, 2004). CORI emphasizes thematic instruction, students’ personal engagement with themes, wide reading and information gathering across multiple information sources, reading strategy instruction to assist with comprehension, and project work; it has been used and researched extensively in first language settings. CSR is an instructional framework that combines cooperative learning principles and reading comprehension strategy instruction to promote content learning, language mastery, and reading comprehension.

Current research on the effectiveness of integrated content and language learning has confirmed earlier findings and has provided new insights on CBI. Continuing a long‐standing tradition, numerous Canadian studies focus on integrated content and language instruction at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels (Wesche, 2001). Researchers in Canada continue to explore the effects of (a) immersion models, (b) the proportion of instructional time in the target language and the mother tongue, and (c) the language of assessment. Of particular interest are findings that suggest that immersion programs have proven largely successful at helping learners develop fluency and comprehension of a second language, but are unsuccessful in assisting students in developing the accuracy of their native‐speaking counterparts (see Swain, 2000). Ethnographic studies of secondary social studies classes have determined that students not only need to be able to succeed in a variety of speaking, reading, and writing tasks, but they also need (a) knowledge of popular culture, mass media, and newsworthy events, (b) skills to express critical perspectives on social issues, and (c) confidence. Other studies have examined the effectiveness of the adjunct model at university levels; results have revealed that students can make measurable gains in oral fluency and accuracy as a result of paired classes, building upon earlier studies that demonstrated the effectiveness of linking content and language‐support courses.

Research on teacher and learner‐modified interactions, form‐focused intervention, and form‐focused instruction has led to recommendations that content‐based teachers modify their responses to student contributions made during classroom discussions in ways that generate more input, feedback, and modified student output (Pica, 2002). The empirically validated Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol model (SIOP) provides school personnel (including teachers and teacher supervisors) with an instrument for observing and quantifying teachers’ implementation of quality sheltered instruction (Echevarria, Vogt, and Short, 2004). Essentially, the SIOP model operationalizes sheltered instruction by offering teachers a model for lesson planning and implementation.

Problems and Difficulties

The integration of content and language‐learning objectives presents challenges for policy makers, program planners, curriculum designers, teachers, materials writers, teacher educators, teacher supervisors, test writers, and learners. A perennial problem is linked to the paucity of content materials in target languages and the time‐consuming nature of creating suitable materials (Fruhauf, Coyle, and Christ, 1996). When faced with selecting from among available materials, CBI teachers struggle with determining levels of sufficient challenge to ensure student motivation and engagement and finding a good match with student ages, cognitive levels, and curricular expectations. Practitioners often report the difficulties associated with (a) the selection and sequencing of language items dictated by content sources rather than predetermined language syllabi and (b) the alignment of content with language structures and functions that emerge from the subject matter.

Another formidable obstacle in some settings concerns the institutionalization of CBI in light of available resources and the needs of faculty and students. In some centralized educational systems, securing official approval of a CBI approach has proven to be problematic. In most content‐based settings, preoccupations about funding, beyond start‐up costs, are pervasive.

Another commonly cited set of challenges concerns CBI teacher recruitment, qualifications (including target language proficiency), certification, training, and assessment. In some settings, debates center around the use of subject or language specialists in CBI. At times, what plague efforts to advance CBI are (a) the lack of expertise among language teachers in content areas and discipline‐specific pedagogy and (b) the lack of experience among content teachers in addressing learners’ language needs. At the most foundational levels, language instructors need assistance in handling unfamiliar subject matter and content‐area instructors need training in handling language issues (Perez‐Vidal, 1999), yet all teachers involved in integrated instruction would benefit from training that prepares them for the language and content‐learning demands of their classrooms (Esbcobar Urmeneta and Perez‐Vidal, 2004). Little research or curriculum development, from within the disciplines, guides teachers in accommodating language learners as they strive to master content knowledge and improve their language skills (Kaufman and Crandall, 2005).

That teachers are not fully prepared for content‐based classrooms has caught the attention of the international Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) association. TESOL has developed standards for teacher education, specifying the need for teacher candidates to have a grasp of linguistics, language acquisition, language pedagogy, content knowledge, and the specialized pedagogy of respective disciplines ( http://​www.​tesol.​org). For these TESOL standards to have a widespread effect, they must be endorsed by teacher‐training institutions and supported by modifications in teacher‐training curricula. What complicates matters is the fact that discipline‐specific discourses, and the tasks commonly associated with them, limit the value of generic teacher training.

Attitudes toward CBI represent another challenge. In CLIL settings, as an example, many teachers view the simple adoption of CLIL as innovative; instead of striving to implement innovative teaching practices to achieve CLIL aims, these teachers typically turn to conventional teaching practices meant for more traditional classrooms (Wolff, 2002). In other settings, language teachers’ knowledge and skills are perceived to have lower status than subject area teachers’ knowledge and skills. In such settings, pedagogical approaches perceived as highly effective among language professionals (e.g., scaffolding, making form–function links, noticing gaps in input, providing opportunities for negotiation) are perceived as less important than the content teachers’ pedagogical practices. The undermining of the language teachers’ contributions to language and content teacher partnerships marginalizes not only the language teacher but also the students who are supposed to benefit from the language teachers’ contributions (Creese, 2002). The attitudes of some learners and their parents regarding the use of CBI undercut the efforts of language and content teachers in some settings.

Assessment represents another formidable challenge for CBI practitioners. Because it is difficult to isolate language learning from content learning in the assessment process, teachers struggle to determine whether students’ inability to demonstrate knowledge is because of language barriers or a lack of understanding of content material (Gottlieb, 1999; Short, 1993). Dissatisfaction with current assessment practices has led to a call to move beyond standardized tests and toward more systematic assessment that monitors students’ academic progress, language learning, and content learning. Moreover, there is a call for more systematic assessment of CBI program effectiveness in addition to educational and public policies and their influence on students’ content and language learning (see Byrnes, Assessing Content and Language, Volume 7).

Future Directions

As CBI does not lend itself to a fixed method, the future is likely to bring with it a proliferation of content‐based models customized for different instructional settings. Expansions into vocational sectors will likely require considerable adaptations. Case studies, anecdotal accounts, and research on adaptations of current models are likely to contribute to an understanding of the intricacies of the approach and its various configurations in a wide range of contexts. Qualitative and quantitative investigations of numerous aspects of CBI are sorely needed. Particularly fruitful would be research on (a) the selection, sequencing, and weighting of content and language in different CBI models; (b) the relationships among input, output, and feedback to ensure improved student mastery of content and language; (c) student engagement with information gathering, compiling, and reporting and the language demands at each point of the process; (d) strategy training and its influence on student learning; (e) the contextualization of grammar instruction; and (f) the relationship between tasks and texts. Equally valuable would be research on factors critical for academic success and specific career outcomes and on processes involved in, and interactions among, acquiring literacy competence, subject matter learning, and target language learning. Furthermore, investigations into how to sustain student motivation and engagement, by combining learner choice, autonomy, and challenge, could offer insights into more effective CBI frameworks.

The need for systematic research on assessment in CBI has been pointed out by many practitioners as critical (Gottlieb, 1999; Short, 1993). In the past, more emphasis has been placed on the design and implementation of CBI than on the assessment of content and language learning. Teachers, students, and the school systems in which they find themselves would benefit greatly from more attention to assessment of content and language learning for formative and summative purposes.

As in other areas of language teaching, CBI is likely to be influenced by computer technology, particularly in the areas of corpus linguistics and computer‐assisted language learning (see Granger, Learner Corpora in Foreign Language Education, Volume 4). Corpus linguists have the capability to analyze large corpora of authentic texts from different disciplines and genres; their findings have the potential for contributing valuable insights into discipline‐specific language that can assist CBI teachers, curriculum designers, and materials writers. As corpus linguistics tools become more accessible, teachers and students themselves may develop the skills to analyze language and content resources, thereby contributing to their autonomy as teachers and learers. Innovations in computer‐assisted language learning are likely to find a place in content‐based classrooms as well.

Technology may contribute to CBI in other ways. CBI teachers are likely to bring in more interesting combinations of content resources, including the Internet, media, and other forms of content. These varied content resources, accompanied by stimulating tasks, will lead to interesting synthesis activities, thereby obliging students to use critical thinking abilities that are transferable to other learning situations.

Finally, as CBI, in its various configurations, takes on more predominant roles in educational settings, increased attention should be paid to pre and in‐service teacher preparation. Opportunities for dual certification and specializations in CBI will prepare a new generation of teachers to enter the work force well‐prepared for the challenges of CBI. Partnerships between teacher‐training institutions and schools, between researchers and teachers, and across disciplines are likely to result in better prepared, more enthusiastic teachers, and more abundant classroom resources, the end result being students who learn subject matter and language more effectively.

See Also: Do Coyle: CLIL—A Pedagogical Approach from the European Perspective (Volume 4); Sylviane Granger: Learner Corpora in Foreign Language Education (Volume 4); Fred Genesee and Kathryn Lindholm‐Leary: Dual Language Education in Canada and the USA (Volume 5); David Marsh: Language Awareness and CLIL (Volume 6); Heidi Byrnes: Assessing Content and Language (Volume 7)

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