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Why language teachers love Content Based Language Instruction

September 4, 2019

Most of us teach language within four classroom walls, and yet the physical space of our room neither defines nor constrains us: our language classes are boundless. The connections that we help our students to make span time periods, political borders, races, and interests. If we are lucky, they might even span that uncomfortable space in the air between two students that entered our room thinking that they had nothing in common ;-)

Because our brains are designed to acquire language in context, the content of our classes can be anything that we decide for it to be. Language acquisition is incidental. When we shift our instruction from Language Based to Content Based, the limits of our classes become the limits of all time, space, and history: for all intents and purposes, there are no limits.

Knowing what Content Based Instruction is and how to do it effectively will help you to know what daily instruction can look like within this new mindset.

Learn content, acquire language

As our profession shifts its focus from language learning to language acquisition via Acquisition Driven Instruction, knowing what Content Based Instruction is and how to do it effectively will help you to know what daily instruction can look like within this new mindset.

In this two post mini-series, I'll give you the tools you need to make the shift with confidence.

What is Content Based Instruction?

Content Based Instruction (CBI) or Content Based Language Teaching (CBLT) is an integrated approach to language teaching in which language is the vehicle for instruction, not the immediate goal. In a Content Based lesson, language is acquired within the context of the content.

In other words, your students are simply learning about something by reading about it, listening to the teacher or someone else present it, or investigating it through discussion and research. All of the INPUT happens in the target language, so students are interpreting target language discourse in order to learn more about the topic. As your students are exposed to linguistic input, their brains process it and intake what they can make sense of; in a nutshell, what they understand. That processed input is applied to students' mental representation of language, and poof! The seemingly magic work of language acquisition happens unconsciously as students' conscious focus is on the content.

Input and Intake

Content Based Instruction is not new. Dual-language and immersion programs have been using it since... well... since the dawn of immersion programs. Any student that has been classified as an ESL or ELL students in the United States will affirm that it is quite possible to learn content and language simultaneously. If the student is fortunate, their teacher uses caretaker speech to support their understanding of the content at hand. If the student is less fortunate, their brain receives all the language and intakes whatever small bit it can understand.

To learn more about input and intake, look into VanPatten's Input Processing Theory!

What counts as 'content'?

If the main purpose of a lesson is not to teach students about a specific linguistic feature or to have students complete an activity in order to internalize a set of vocabulary or a grammatical pattern, it's likely a Content Based lesson. This might look like...

Content Based Instruction is storytelling

If you are someone who has bought into TPRS or other forms of storytelling in the classroom, but you're not so sure about CBI... think of it this way! Content Based Instruction is still a form of storytelling. You are telling the story of products, practices, perspectes, and people-- sometimes, those that are in the room! Content Based Storytelling is just another way to use the skills you already have with new subject matter.

Why is Content Based Instruction Beneficial?

Unfortunately, the rich history and strong theoretical support for Content Based Language Instruction has been largely lost on traditional 6-12 language programs in the US. Most of us learned a language–and likely even learned to teach a language–in a contentless void. Our course content was broken down into topics like "conjugating present tense -ar verbs", "knowing when to use ser vs. estar", and "the rooms of the home". We never experienced the benefits of Content Based Instruction for ourselves! Here are just a few:

Content Based Instruction creates connections

One of the big Mindset shifts that I advocate for is Creating Connections, not Teaching Curriculum. If your curriculum is structured around language targets, the number of connections that arise from it are very limited and often forced. I mean, can you imagine?:

"Today we are going to learn how conjugate verbs in the present tense! Tell me... have you ever used the present tense before? What's an experience you have that's related to the present tense?..."

Come on, now... it just.doesn'

When we look for interesting or important content to share with our students, however, there are many opportunities for relevant connections. Content drives the connections, and the connections enhance student learning (Anderson, 1980). Enjoying the movie Coco together opens up connections to learn about El Santo, Frida Kahlo, La Llorona, Guanajuato, la chancla, mariachi, papel picado, alebrijes, and more! All that students need is a teacher that listens to their Voice and helps guide them through the connections in a way that they understand.

Content Based Instruction is Student Centered

As you may remember from this post on Proficiency Oriented Language Instruction, the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) offers my favorite understanding of the term "Student Centered": instruction that is focused on what students need, know, and can do.

Content Based Language Instruction is able to be Student Centered much more than traditional methods because it allows us to explore those things that are students are interested in and what their cognitive needs are.

Content Based Instruction provides Input

We know that input is indispensable to language acquisition– and this is one of the reasons that ACTFL launched the 90% plus target language use initiative! While some may disagree on the interplay between input and output and on the extent to which a learner must understand input in order to intake it, no one disagrees that input is vital to language acquisition.

It's very difficult to teach grammar in the target language to beginning learners and to find compelling ways to work long lists of thematic vocabulary into meaningful contexts. For this reason, many of us give up on teaching in L2 within the first few months of the year. We resort to L1 instruction because what we were trying to do wasn't working for all of our students. In doing so, we take away the input that is critical to language acquisition!

Content Based instruction gives us the platform we need to teach in the target language. It gives us permission to talk about the things that interest us and that interest our students. It gives us permission to find things to talk about that we can present to our students in a way that they understand, in the target language.

“Optimal input focuses the acquirer on the message and not on form. The best input is so interesting and relevant that the acquirer may even ‘forget’ that the message is encoded in a foreign language...”

-Stephen Krashen, Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition

Comprehension Based instruction is Content Based instruction

If you have been using Comprehension Based methods like TPRS or MovieTalk for any amount of time, you have probably been scoffing and harrumphing through this whole post. "Martina– I don't know what planet you've been living on, but this is NOT new to me, this is what I already do!" EXACTLY, my friend, exactly.

Comprehension Based language instruction IS Content Based Language Instruction. When you and your students learned about Selena as you read her biography, you were doing Content Based storytelling. This morning when you read the article about the Amazon fires and watched the video, you were doing Content Based storytelling. When you co-created a TPRS story with your students, you were doing Content Based language teaching. When you played Loup-garou en français, you were doing Content Based storytelling!

Comprehension Based instruction IS Content Based instruction, but the reverse is not necessarily true: Content Based Instruction is not always Comprehension Based.

"Chinese" or "In Chinese": final thoughts

Perhaps because our courses are titled with a language ("French", "German", "Spanish"), we came to believe that the course content was supposed to be the language. That never should have been the case; the language never should have been the focus. There is no language to teach; there are only connections to be made.

When I ever get back to the classroom full-time, the first order of business for me will be negotiating my position title. I'm not going to be the Spanish teacher, I'm going to be the "In Spanish" teacher.

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