The Whats, Whys, Hows and Whos of Content-Based Instructionin Second/Foreign Language Education
University of Murcia
"As an instructional practice in second and foreign language education, content-based instruction is not a fully revolutionary paradigm, but a spin-off approach which derives from the evolution of Communicative Language Teaching. Sharing with CLT the same fundamental principles, CBI bases its idiosyncrasy on promoting the use of subject matter for second/foreign language teaching purposes. This article aims at exploring the nature and scope of the content-based methodological framework —the whats—, the theoretical foundations that support it —the whys—, and the different prototype models for application in compliance with parameters such as institutional requirements, educational level, and the particular nature and object of instruction
—the hows. Additionally, it will also undertake a review of a copious number of references selected from the existing literature, mostly contributed by researchers and experienced practitioners in the field —the whos.
The language pedagogy arena can by no means be conceived nowadays without “the very robust contribution of communicative methodology to the language teaching community” (Pica, 2000: 4). Although some other alternative approaches have emerged in recent years —such as the lexical approach (Lewis, 1993) and the context approach (Bax, 2003)—, it is commonly agreed that the fundamentals of communicative language teaching (hereafter CTL) have remained healthily operational for the past three decades. In line with this, Richards (2002: 5) states that CLT “has survived into the new millennium. Because it refers to a diverse set of rather general and uncontroversial principles, Communicative Language Teaching can be interpreted in many different ways and used to support a wide variety of classroom procedures”.
According to communicative principles, attaining communicative competence that would
allow learners to operate effectively in the new language was set as the main goal of instruction. At the same time, using the language to communicate was seen as the best way to learn it. Under this canon, meaningful communication became both the target to reach and the medium to do so: CLT therefore came to refer to both aims and processes in language teaching and learning.
Communicative Language Teaching has spawned a number of off-shoots that share the same basic set of principles, but which spell out philosophical details or envision instructional practices in somewhat diverse ways. These CLT spin-off approaches include The Natural Approach, Cooperative Language Learning, Content-Based Teaching, and Task-Based Teaching. Rodgers (2001: 2)
Content-based approaches suggest that optimal conditions for learning a second/foreign language occur when both the target language and some meaningful content are integrated in the classroom, the language therefore being both an immediate object of study in itself, and a medium for learning a particular subject matter. In content-based language teaching, therefore, teachers use content topics rather than grammar rules, vocabulary spheres, operative functions or contextual situations as the framework for instruction...
Leaver and Stryker (1989: 270) define CBI as an instructional approach in which “language proficiency is achieved by shifting the focus of the course from the learning of language per se to the learning of subject matter”. Short (1993: 629), for her part, states that “In content-based instruction, language teachers use content topics, rather than grammar rules or vocabulary lists, as the scaffolding for instruction”.
As for the question of what qualifies as content in CBI, it is very common for it to be some kind of subject matter related to the students’ own academic curriculum in primary, secondary or tertiary education. The second or foreign language can be consequently used as the medium of instruction for literature, history, mathematics, science, social studies, or any other academic subject at any educational context or level. Nevertheless, this is not the only option available for, as some authors suggest, the content “. . . needs not be academic; it can include any topic, theme, or non-language issue of interest or importance to the learners” (Genesee, 1994: 3).
Regarding second language acquisition research, some authors (among others Krashen,
1984; Savignon, 1983; Snow, 1993; Wesche, 1993) have suggested that (. . .) a second language is most successfully acquired when the conditions mirror those present in first language acquisition, that is, when the focus of instruction is on meaning rather than on form; when the language input is at or just above the competence of the student, and when there is sufficient opportunity for students to engage in meaningful use of that language in a relatively anxiety-free environment. Dupuy (2000: 206) A major source of support for CBI derives from the work of some researchers in the area of SLA, particularly from the postulates of Krashen and Swain.
In extremely abridged terms, the theories of Krashen (1982, 1984, 1895) claim that second language acquisition occurs when the learner receives comprehensible input, not when he or she is forced to memorize vocabulary or manipulate language by means of batteries of grammar exercises.
In addition to receiving comprehensible input, researchers such as Swain (1985, 1993)
support that, in order for learners to develop communicative competence, they must also have the opportunity of using the new language productively, both orally and in writing. In line with this, scope to produce comprehensible and coherent output is constantly offered in CBI, as students are systematically pushed to produce language that is appropriate in terms of both content and language.
The appropriateness of grammar exploitation in CBI is reviewed in detail by Brinton and Holten (2001) by examining the different arguments and counter-arguments regarding its pertinence within the approach. The conclusion reached is that grammar instruction is optimally compatible with CBI methodology...
As extensive reading is an integral part of CBI, some findings in extensive reading
research have also claimed the benefits of this methodological approach. Studies in the area provide evidence that reading of coherent extended materials promotes language development and content learning. Elley (1991) has supplied sound evidence that second and foreign language learners who practice extensive reading across a variety of topics increase their language abilities in the four basic skills, expand their vocabulary, and acquire greater content knowledge and higher motivation.
Cognitive psychology reveals that when students are exposed to coherent and meaningful information, and when they have opportunities to elaborate the information, their linkages are more complex and recall is better (Anderson, 1990). Moreover, research in learning theory (Anderson, 1993) reinforces teaching approaches which combine the development of language and content knowledge, and practice in using that knowledge.
Motivation and interest research has found out that “motivation and interest come, in part, from the recognition that (1) one is actually learning and that (2) one is learning something valuable and challenging that justifies the effort” (Dupuy, 2000: 207). In line with this, CBI attempts to respond to the needs and interests of learners by focusing either on subject matter that is related to their own pedagogical or academic needs, or on content spheres which are associated with the students’ cognitive and affective preferences. Research claims as well that those students who are more motivated, who develop an interest in learning aims and practices, and who see themselves as capable and successful students, learn more and obtain better results (Alexander et al., 1994; Tobias, 1994; Krapp et al., 1992). Furthermore, according to these authors, students with high levels of motivation make more sophisticated elaborations with learning material, increase connections among content information, and are able to recall information more easily and better..."