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Content-Focused Language Instruction

Brent A. Jones

Konan University, Hirao School of Management

Abstract - Content-focused language teaching approaches such as Content-Based Instruction (CBI) and Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) continue to gain both recognition and credibility. In this workshop, participants will be introduced to both the theory and practice of such approaches, with special emphasis on the affective learning domain. After looking at the various benefits and challenges of a content-focuses approach, the presenter will introduce an example of a theme-based CBI program that is currently being used in a tertiary-level English program for management course students in Japan. The aim here is to highlight for participants each step in the instructional design process as well as some of the various considerations at both the macro (curriculum) and micro (task) levels. Participants will then be challenged to consider the motivational merits of implementing a content-focused approach in their own teaching contexts, and be presented with a list of suggested readings for further exploration.

Content-Based Instruction (CBI)

Our decision to adopt a content-focused curriculum for our program was greatly influenced by findings and developments in the fields of language teaching and second-language acquisition related to Content-Based Instruction (CBI) and more recently Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL). Although the practice of learning (and teaching) a new language via authentic subject matter has a long history, it is only the past twenty years or so that empirical studies have been seriously undertaken and that clear examples and viable templates have been published (see, for example, Brinton, Snow & Wesche, 2003). The rationale outlined by Brinton, Snow and Wesche (2003) is that a CBI curriculum:

- offers learners the necessary conditions for second language learning by exposing them to meaningful language;

- builds on the learner’s previous learning experiences in the subject matter, the target language, and in formal educational settings;

- takes into account the interests and needs of the learners through their engagement with the academic subject matter and discourse patterns that they need to master;

- allows a focus on (communicative language) use as well as on (accurate) usage; and

- incorporates the eventual uses the learner will make of the language through engagement with relevant content and L2 discourse with a purpose other than language teaching.

The dominant models of CBI that have appeared are (1) Theme-Based Language Instruction, (2) Sheltered Content Instruction, and (3) Adjunct Language Instruction. These and other CBI models differ from one another in terms of being content or language driven. Table 1 highlights some of the characteristics of each.

Table 1. Characteristics of Content and Language Driven CBI Curriculums



Content is taught in L2.

Content learning is priority.

Language learning is secondary.

Content objectives determined by course goals or curriculum.

Teachers must select language objectives.

Students evaluated on content mastery.

Content is used to learn L2.

Language learning is priority.

Content learning is incidental.

Language objectives determined by L2 course goals or curriculum.

Students evaluated on content to be integrated.

Students evaluated on language skills/proficiency.

Theme or topic-based language courses are used to bring subject matter into the language classroom. The materials chosen provide a springboard for analyzing and studying language. In comparison, sheltered courses are content courses that include help with target language meaning and subtleties. Finally, the adjunct model involves separate but coordinated classes, one with a focus on the content and the other with language support related to that content. In terms of instructional format, the three models differ in the degree of explicit integration of language and content (Brinton, Snow & Wesche, 2003). Figure 1 shows how each of these models fall on a CBI continuum.







Language Class      <<=======================================>>   Mainstream class

Figure 1. A Content-Based Continuum.

Some key characteristics of each model are listed below.

Adjunct Model

- Students are expected to learn content material while simultaneously acquiring academic language proficiency.

- Content instructors and language instructors share responsibility for student learning.

Sheltered Model

- Learners are given special assistance.

- Sometimes two teachers can work together to give instruction in a specific subject.

- The Content Specialist will give a short lecture and then the English Specialist will check that the students have understood the important words by reviewing them later.

Theme-Based Model

- The goal of these courses is to help students develop L2 skills and proficiency.

- Themes are selected based on their potential to contribute to the learner’s language growth in specific topical or functional domains.

- Theme-based courses are taught by language instructors to L2 learners who are evaluated in terms of their language growth.

- Content learning and language learning are pursued in tandem.

The CBI approach is somewhat related to (1) English for Specific Purposes (ESP), which usually is for vocational or occupational needs, and (2) English for Academic Purposes (EAP). The goal of CBI is to help students acquire a new language using the context of specific subject matter. The assumption is that students learn the language by using it within the specific context. Rather than learning a language out of context, it is learned within the context of a specific academic subject. CBI has also been gaining attention in the EU.

The integration of language & content teaching is perceived by the European Commission as "an excellent way of making progress in a foreign language". CBI effectively increases learners' English language proficiency & teaches them the skills necessary for success in various professions. With CBI, learners gradually acquire greater control of the English language, enabling them to participate more fully in an increasingly complex academic & social environment. (Wikipedia)

In CBI, there is a move away from teacher as instructor to teacher as facilitator, with an emphasis on cooperative learning. This results in new arrangements and possibilities for learning, such as in the jigsaw classroom, where students become "experts" on one part of a group project and teach it to the others in their group. For example, in the European Studies course at CUBE, the syllabus is explicit about what is meant by cooperation and student responsibilities:

Student-led research and weekly schedule

Students will conduct ongoing individual research and are required to become experts on one EU and one non-EU European country. They are expected to keep up on its news throughout the term.

Putting learners at the heart of the learning process fits in with the aims of the entire program. The concept of CUBE from its inception has been to mesh instructional strategies such as:

PBL (Problem-based or Project-based Learning)

Learning via complex, multifaceted, and realistic problems

ABL (Activity-based Learning)

Learning through actively exploring and experience

SDL (Self-directed Learning)

Learning through one’s own efforts

CBI is a way of putting these strategies to work and helping students realize their language learning potential. How CBI works in practice is harder to pin down, and some instructors have requested more concrete, step-by-step support. Although CBI is still referenced in second language acquisition literature, some academics have taken to the concept of content and language integrated learning (CLIL).

Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL)

According to the European Commission Languages website, CLIL is an approach to teaching and learning that involves subjects being taught through the medium of a language other than that normally used in class, and in that respect is the heir to a number of successful partial immersion programs. A benefit for the learner is that they can gain new knowledge about subject content while at the same time coming into contact with, learning about, using and improving the L2 or other foreign language. Knowledge of the language in the context of the highly technological societies of the twenty-first century helps students to develop core skills and competencies in their L1 at the same time. The kinds of 21st century skills that are brought to mind are those of critical thinking, problem solving, creativity and innovation, communication, collaboration, information and ICT literacies, self-initiative, social interaction, productivity, and leadership (for a related discussion, see the Partnership for 21st Century Skills website (n.d.).

It is important to note in relation to the CUBE English program that while CLIL emphasizes the need to teach the subject and new language in tandem, it does not represent a top-down methodology welded on to the curriculum. In fact, it allows for a number of methods for language and content teaching.

The benefits of a CLIL approach are numerous, and may form a good match for our program aims moving forward. Increased motivation raises the potential for enhanced performance in and production of both language and content, greater confidence in both English and the L1, and sharper thinking skills. A further advantage in an increasingly competitive job market, and especially given that our students are Management majors, appears to be in developing an intercultural mindset which ought to make them more employable, while serving them well when embarking on their careers.

In sum, the strength of CLIL lies in its attempt to apply principles created through research on varieties of language immersion programs and their efficacy. Students are encouraged to use their language skills now. As such, it differs markedly from learning first in a decontextualized “language for the sake of language” classroom, where students would only be applying or realizing their language skills later, if at all.


The presenter acknowledges the valuable and insightful contributions and feedback from students and fellow teachers at the Hirao School of Management. Deserving special mention is Roger Palmer, who has helped me develop my understanding of content-focused approaches to language instruction and genre writing, and at the same time develop the program at Konan University (Jones & Palmer, 2012).


Brinton, D., Snow, M. A., & Wesche, M. (1989). Content-based second language instruction. New York: Newbury House.

Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Teaching and researching motivation. Harlow, UK: Longman.

European Commission Languages (n.d.). Retrieved October 31, 2013 from

Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Jones, B. & Palmer, R. (2012). The CUBE English program and a content-based approach to instruction. Hirao School of Management Review, 30-52. Nishinomiya: Konan University. 

Partnership for 21st Century Skills (n.d.). Retrieved October 31, 2013 from

Wiggins, G. (1998). Educative assessment: Designing assessments to inform and improve student performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Online Resources

ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines

Compleat Lexical Tutor

EIKEN Comparison Table

Lextutor Vocabulary Profiler

Rutgers - Course Goals (Unified Writing Curriculum)


Tests Document Readability

TOEIC Washback Affect

TOEFL Equivalency Table

P21 Framework Definitions

Biographical Statement: Brent A. Jones has taught ESL/EFL in Hawaii, Japan and throughout Central and Southeast Asia since 1987. He is currently teaching for Konan University, Hirao School of Management and is Director of Language Programs. His major research interests are L2 learning motivation, extensive reading, curriculum development, materials development and instructional design. He can be contacted at

Appendix 1 - Characteristics of Authentic Learning Activities

Adapted from Reeves, T. C., Herrington, J., & Oliver, R. (2002). Authentic activity as a model for web-based learning. 2002 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA, USA.


Real-world relevance: Activities match as nearly as possible the real-world tasks of professionals in practice rather than decontextualized or classroom-based tasks.


Ill-defined: Activities require students to define the tasks and subtasks needed to complete the activity.


Complex, sustained tasks: Activities are completed in days, weeks, and months rather than minutes or hours. They require significant investment of time and intellectual resources.


Multiple perspectives: Provides the opportunity for students to examine the task from different perspectives using a variety of resources, and separate relevant from irrelevant information.


Collaborative: Collaboration is integral and required for task completion.


Value laden: Provide the opportunity to reflect and involve students’ beliefs and values.


Interdisciplinary: Activities encourage interdisciplinary perspectives and enable learners to play diverse roles and build expertise that is applicable beyond a single well-defined field or domain.


Authentically assessed: Assessment is seamlessly integrated with learning in a manner that reflects how quality is judged in the real world.


Authentic products: Authentic activities create polished products valuable in their own right rather than as preparation for something else.


Multiple possible outcomes: Activities allow a range and diversity of outcomes open to multiple solutions of an original nature, rather than a single correct response obtained by the application of predefined rules and procedures.

Content-Based Instruction – A Short Bibliography

 Atkinson, D. (1997). A critical approach to critical thinking in TESOL. TESOL Quarterly, 31(1), 71-94.


Ballman, T. L. (1997).  Enhancing beginning language courses through content-enriched instruction.  Foreign Language Annals, 30(2), 173-186.


Brinton, D. (2003). Content-based instruction. In D. Nunan (Ed.), Practical English Language Teaching (pp. 199–224). New York: McGraw Hill.


Brinton, D. M. (1997). The challenges of administering content-based programs. In M. A. Snow & D. M. Brinton (Eds.), The content-based classroom: Perspectives on integrating language and content (pp. 340-346).  White Plains, NY: Longman.


Brinton, D. M., & Master, P. (Eds.).  (1997). New ways in content-based instruction. Alexandria, VA: TESOL.


Crandall, J. A. (Ed.) (1987). ESL through content-area instruction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.


Early, M. (2001).  Language and content in social practice: A case study.  The Canadian Modern Language Review/La Revue canadienne des langues vivantes, 58(1), 156-179.


Fried-Booth, D.L. (1986).  Project work.  New York: Oxford University Press.


Gaffield-Vile, N. (1996).  Content-based second language instruction at the tertiary level.  ELT Journal, 50(2), 108-114.


Grabe, W., & Stoller, F. L. (1997). Content-based instruction: Research foundations. In M. A. Snow, & D. M. Brinton (Eds.), The content-based classroom: Perspectives on integrating language and content (pp. 5–21). NY: Longman.


Hauptman, P. C., Wesche, M. B., & Ready, D.  (1988).  Second-language acquisition through subject-matter learning:  A follow-up study at the University of Ottawa.  Language Learning, 38(3), 433-467.


McLaughlin, M., & Vogt, M. E. (Eds.).  (2000).  Creativity and innovation in content area teaching.  Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.


Murphy, J., & Stoller, F. L. (2001).  Sustained-content language teaching: An emerging definition. TESOL Journal, 10(2/3), 3-5.


Pally, M. (Ed.)  (2000).  Sustained content teaching in academic ESL/EFL:  A practical approach.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


Powell, B., & Ponder, R. (2001).  Sourcebooks in a sustained-content curriculum. TESOL Journal, 10(2/3), 18-22.


Raffini, J. P. (1996).  150 ways to increase intrinsic motivation in the classroom. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.


Savoie, J. M., & Hughes, A. S. (1994).  Problem-based learning as classroom solution.  Educational Leadership, 52(3), 54-57.


Snow, M.A.(2001). Content-based and immersion models for second and foreign language teaching. In M. Celce-Murcia (Ed.), Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language (3rd ed.) (pp. 303–318). Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.


Snow, M. A., & Brinton, D. (1997). The content-based classroom: Perspectives on integrating language and content.  White Plains, NY: Longman.


Stryker, S. B., & Leaver, B. L. (Eds.). (1997b).  Content-based instruction in foreign language education: Models and methods.  Washington, D. C.: Georgetown University Press.

Content-Focused Language Instruction - Worksheet

Question 1 - What are some of the names related to content-focused language teaching?


Question 2 - What do you perceive as the benefits of a content-focused approach?


Question 3 - What is the meaning of SLEs? To whom can we attribute this work?


Question 4 - What is the “double whammy” and what does it have to do with CBI?


Question 5 - Outline your understanding of the “genre” approach to reading/writing.


Question 6 - What is one thing we talked about today that you plan on trying in your classes?


Briefly describe the following activities and how you might use them in your classes.

Shadowing -

Dictation & Dictogloss -

Convergent & Divergent Tasks -

Peer-Assessed Interviews -