I’d like to make the case today that most of us are in the position to endorse one of the most basic premises of content-based instruction (CBI) and that’s making a dual commitment to language and content learning. Whether we teach in settings where we have predominantly content-learning objectives, on one end of the CBI continuum, or predominantly language-learning objectives, on the other end of the continuum, or somewhere in between, I think that we can all use content-based instruction as a framework for language and content learning rather than use content, as some of us do, simply as a shell for language teaching. What’s somewhat surprising, I have to admit, is that as committed as we TESOLers are to our students’ successes, many of us continue to devise our curricula around discrete skills, even though our students have very well-defined integrated-skills needs. And some of us devise our curricula with little attention to subject matter, even though our students have pressing or about-to-be- pressing content-learning needs. So I’m thinking it’s time to make a change. For some of us, the change might be really just a matter of fine-tuning, but for others it might be a larger change. Over the course of the next 35 minutes or so, I’d like you to think about the settings in which you work, the materials that you write, and the ways that you can better meet your students’ needs and move them towards improving both their language and content knowledge simultaneously.
At this point, you might be asking yourselves why I’m taking such a strong stand about content-based instruction. It’s fairly simple: as students master language, they are able to learn more content, and as students learn more content, they’re able to improve their language skills. When we hold our students accountable for both language and content learning, think about what we’re able to accomplish. Think about what our students are able to do when leaving our classrooms. First of all, we send them out as more knowledgeable citizens of the world. I’d prefer to send a student out of the classroom able to talk about rainforests than relative clauses any day of the week! Ok? But besides that, when we send our students out of the classroom with enhanced language abilities, critical thinking skills, and collaboration skills, we send them out with the ability to apply knowledge to real world problems and we send them out with enhanced self-confidence and motivation. Put all those pieces together and what do we have? Essentially we’re preparing our students to be life-long learners, and that’s what we want to do. These are some of the reasons why I’m a strong advocate of CBI.
But I have other reasons for being a supporter of CBI. Equally impressive at the grass-roots level are the students and teachers I’ve seen working within content-based frameworks around the world. Close to home, I think of intensive English program students who become so motivated when studying within a content-based framework even though it’s so different from what they’re accustomed to at home. I think of two students in particular who changed their declared majors to astronomy – not because of this incredible Hubble spacecraft photo that showcases over 118 galaxies. I think they changed majors because of an extended instructional unit on astronomy that we had in our intensive English program. In the same setting, students are consistently coming to my office and asking me for more to read. It’s like a teacher’s dream-come-true! In what other type of instructional setting does this happen on a regular basis? I can’t think of any other setting in which students have the confidence and the motivation to share newly learned knowledge with their classmates and others in poster sessions. I remember two students who actually left class on Tuesday, with straight, black hair and who returned to class the very next day with new outfits and perms. Why? Because they wanted to impress their audience; they were participating in a public debate as part of a culminating event in a thematic unit on civic education. I simply can’t forget that incident because we could hardly recognize those two students when they walked into the . They were motivated to share their new knowledge with others. It was exciting.
Not so close to home, but equally impressive, are students around the world who are engaged in content-based instruction, leaving class with more content knowledge and better language skills. I’m thinking of students and teachers, for example, in Tunisia who are supplementing the national curriculum with an exploration of themes of interest, such as the effects of mining in their region, in student-made videos that they share with other English language students. I also think of vocational EFL students all over Italy, from the southern-most parts of Sicily to the northern-most parts of the country, who are involved in extended content-based projects that involve meaningful language and meaningful content that matters to them. I think in particular of English for marble carvers (I know this seems a little odd; maybe Italy is the only place in the world where can you train students in English to become marble carvers) but I also recall students studying English in other areas as diverse as tourism, dental technology, and electronics. CBI is helping them to understand their vocational areas as well as improve their English language skills. And then I think of a San Francisco classroom, a kindergarten room, that gradually transformed itself into an Amazon rainforest in response to a year-long integrated curriculum on the theme. All of these students (and many more) – in different locations, of different ages, with different motivations for studying English – are thriving while improving their language. And they’re leaving classes as more knowledgeable citizens of the world. I also think of the teachers in CBI contexts who are working so hard to bump up their knowledge, to bump up their knowledge in areas as diverse as photosynthesis, civic education, the history of Egypt, art, architecture, and nursing, stimulated by the challenge – and no one would say that this is easy – but also stimulated by the challenges that their students face in learning both language and content.
Of course, the goal isn’t simply to integrate content and language teaching and learning – I wish it were that simple. As we all know, CBI is founded on important principles, but really its success depends on the details of its implementation. And that’s what I’d like to focus on today. I’d like to focus on select details of its implementation.
* First, I want to focus on sound teaching practices that lend themselves to the natural integration of language and content.
* Second, I’d like to focus on methods for promoting the acquisition of content and, of course, when we promote the acquisition of content, we’re setting up students to improve their language skills as well.
* Third, I’d like to focus on techniques for incorporating levels of complexity into instruction.
* And finally, I’d like to explore approaches for building curricular coherence.
Why have I chosen these four topics? Well, number one, it seems to me that these four areas are points upon which all of us can build to improve our curricula, the materials that we write, and the tasks that we devise for our students. I also think that, as a set of four, they haven’t been explored as extensively as other aspects of CBI in our TESOL literature. And finally, I’m thinking that a commitment to these four areas, in combination, will help us move beyond using content as a shell for language teaching. It seems to me that, in combination, these factors create the conditions where content learning leads to language learning, and the reverse, where language learning leads to more content learning. So let’s start with sound teaching practices as my first major area.