Contemplating Content (Based Instruction)

This term will make the third time I have taught US history as a course theme for advanced students. I have always known the power of learning English though content (variously called content-based instruction [CBI] or content and language integrated learning [CLIL]) but it wasn’t until last week that I was fully convinced of its superiority as an approach.

Last week, my students and I attended a lecture about the Holocaust, including a review of a book I am now reading entitled Why? Explaining the Holocaust by Peter Hayes. The lecture was informative and evocative, and the Q&A was emotional. But it was the experience in toto that I can only describe as a crescendo of instructional wonderment. Concepts and language that I had taught since March had all been brought to bear. There was mention of concepts such as immigration, slavery, and the civil rights movement – all of which we had studied quite extensively. The validity of an approach that includes  academic vocabulary was proven by the sheer amount of words we had encountered and studied that were naturally used within the confines of a semi-formal lecture. Organizational patterns that I had been using and had taught students to use, namely, to first contextualize topics in current events, were evident when the lecturer began with the Trump administration’s omission of the Jews from its Remembrance Day statement, as well as Sean Spicer’s gaff about the Holocaust. Discourse features and other rhetorical signals such as “Let’s begin with” and “Let’s look at” were all naturally employed and helped students focus their attention (evident in their notes). I’m sure there is so much more that I am missing. The point here is that so much of what we had worked with and worked through during the term students actually had to deal with in a real academic environment, with real people, and for real purposes.

The ensuing discussion, including attempts at clarification and lines of further questioning made me realize how positive it is to deal with difficult content in a “sheltered” environment where I can provide language and content help, and where I, not being a subject-matter expert, often have similar questions as students and can therefore work together in an inquiry-based manner.

Cazden (1977) wrote:

We must remember that language is learned, not because we want to talk or read about language, but because we want to talk and read and write about the world. (cited in Fernández, 2009)

A content-based approach helps students (and teachers) do just that. From my experience teaching through content, I assert that learning language through learning is more effective, meaningful, and motivational than typical language instruction. This is not to say that conventional language instruction is not effective, nor is it to say that learning content is everyone’s goal or is suitable for all situations in students. Rather, in an intensive English program or in a program that is geared towards English for academic purposes, it only makes sense to have learning be the goal and language as the means. Not a radical realization, but one that does have pedagogical and curricular implications.

Most courses and coursebooks cover a range of topics that are supposed to be of high interest and applicable to all students. This is what Leki (1993) has called the “shotgun” method, hoping to “hit upon at least one subject of interest to each of our students.” Leki goes on to argue that by having this shotgun approach to reading, rather than one focused on a singular theme of content:

The texts are harder to read because the students must gear up for a new subject with each reading selection. This approach to reading material also denies our students the eye-opening experience readers have when they return to a text read earlier with new knowledge structures born of reading other texts on the same subject…The original text now literally means something new to the reader; the meaning of sections of text previously blurred by misunderstanding is clarified through the lens of new knowledge. But the possibility for such growth is eliminated by asking students to switch their attention from pollution to animal behavior to education with each new chapter. (p. 14)

Leki argues here that development of topical knowledge over time makes reading instruction more effective and more purposeful. She writes elsewhere that other approaches may “infantilize our students, denying them a stance of engagement with serious and compelling subject matter” (Leki & Carson, 1997, p. 63). An appropriate approach to reading and writing needs “to provide for and expect fully serious adult engagement with text ” (p. 63). Once more, from 1993: “allowing students to engage intellectually with the text…fosters a view of reading and writing as an active construction of meaning” (p. 22). While possible with the “shotgun” approach, it is much less conducive.

A content-based approach, then, ensures both the development of subject matter knowledge and serious intellectual engagement with a topic. It sets an environment rich in language and linguistic features to focus on, all of which translate to further reading, vocabulary and grammar development, writing, listening, and discussion.

How would a content-based approach look in an intensive language or EAP program? That is something I am just beginning to conceptualize and imagine as I read deeper into the subject. However, there are a number of real world examples, such as the sheltered academic classes of pathway programs, and various ESP courses. But, outside of those contexts, is it possible? I believe it is. It would certainly be rare to have an EGAP (English for general and academic purposes, such as that of an intensive program) class where everyone is the same major or has the same interests, but there are enough subjects out there that choosing only one can certainly be justified as the course theme. In my own case, US history was chosen not because my students had a keen interest in history, but because it is a required subject for international students once matriculated, and it is quite useful for understanding the real and current issues that surround students on a day-to-day basis. And, as I said at the beginning of this post, through this course, students have learned a wide range of skills that are likely applicable in almost any other academic environment. So, with a little creativity, a content-based approach is certainly possible.

It’s a cliché to say that content is king (and context is god) but, in my experience, it is no less true. In terms of language instruction as outlined above, it looks like a content-based approach could reign supreme.


Cazden, C. (1977). “Language, Literacy and Literature.” The National Elementary Principal, 57(1):40-52.

Fernández, D. J. (2009). CLIL at the university level: Relating language teaching with and through content teaching. Latin American Journal of Content & Language Integrated Learning, 2(2), 10-26.

Leki, I. (1993). Reciprocal themes in ESL reading and writing. In J. G. Carson & I. Leki (Eds.) Reading in the composition classroom: Second language perspectives (9-32). Boston, MA: Heinle.

Leki, I., & Carson, J. (1997). “Completely different worlds”: EAP and the writing experiences of ESL students in university courses. TESOL quarterly,31(1), 39-69.