In recent years content-based instruction has become increasingly popular as a means of developing linguistic ability. 

Content-based instruction - methodology article

It has strong connections to project work, task-based learning and a holistic approach to language instruction and has become particularly popular within the state school secondary (11 - 16 years old) education sector.

  • What is content-based instruction?
  • What does a content-based instruction lesson look like?
  • What are the advantages of content-based instruction?
  • What are the potential problems?
  • Conclusions


What is content-based instruction?
The focus of a CBI lesson is on the topic or subject matter. During the lesson students are focused on learning about something. This could be anything that interests them from a serious science subject to their favourite pop star or even a topical news story or film. They learn about this subject using the language they are trying to learn, rather than their native language, as a tool for developing knowledge and so they develop their linguistic ability in the target language. This is thought to be a more natural way of developing language ability and one that corresponds more to the way we originally learn our first language.

What does a content-based instruction lesson look like?
There are many ways to approach creating a CBI lesson. This is one possible way.

  • Preparation
    • Choose a subject of interest to students.
    • Find three or four suitable sources that deal with different aspects of the subject. These could be websites, reference books, audio or video of lectures or even real people.
  • During the lesson
    • Divide the class into small groups and assign each group a small research task and a source of information to use to help them fulfil the task.
    • Then once they have done their research they form new groups with students that used other information sources and share and compare their information.
    • There should then be some product as the end result of this sharing of information which could take the form of a group report or presentation of some kind.


What are the advantages of content-based instruction?

  • It can make learning a language more interesting and motivating. Students can use the language to fulfil a real purpose, which can make students both more independent and confident.
  • Students can also develop a much wider knowledge of the world through CBI which can feed back into improving and supporting their general educational needs.
  • CBI is very popular among EAP (English for Academic Purposes) teachers as it helps students to develop valuable study skills such as note taking, summarising and extracting key information from texts.
  • Taking information from different sources, re-evaluating and restructuring that information can help students to develop very valuable thinking skills that can then be transferred to other subjects.
  • The inclusion of a group work element within the framework given above can also help students to develop their collaborative skills, which can have great social value.

What are the potential problems?

  • Because CBI isn't explicitly focused on language learning, some students may feel confused or may even feel that they aren't improving their language skills. Deal with this by including some form of language focused follow-up exercises to help draw attention to linguistic features within the materials and consolidate any difficult vocabulary or grammar points.
  • Particularly in monolingual classes, the overuse of the students' native language during parts of the lesson can be a problem. Because the lesson isn't explicitly focused on language practice students find it much easier and quicker to use their mother tongue. Try sharing your rationale with students and explain the benefits of using the target language rather than their mother tongue.
  • It can be hard to find information sources and texts that lower levels can understand. Also the sharing of information in the target language may cause great difficulties. A possible way around this at lower levels is either to use texts in the students' native language and then get them to use the target language for the sharing of information and end product, or to have texts in the target language, but allow the students to present the end product in their native language. These options should reduce the level of challenge.
  • Some students may copy directly from the source texts they use to get their information. Avoid this by designing tasks that demand students evaluate the information in some way, to draw conclusions or actually to put it to some practical use. Having information sources that have conflicting information can also be helpful as students have to decide which information they agree with or most believe.

While CBI can be both challenging and demanding for the teacher and the students, it can also be very stimulating and rewarding. The degree to which you adopt this approach may well depend on the willingness of your students, the institution in which you work and the availability of resources within your environment. It could be something that your school wants to consider introducing across the curriculum or something that you experiment with just for one or two lessons. Whichever you choose to do I would advise that you try to involve other teachers within your school, particularly teachers from other subjects. This could help you both in terms of finding sources of information and in having the support of others in helping you to evaluate your work.

Lastly, try to involve your students. Get them to help you decide what topics and subjects the lessons are based around and find out how they feel this kind of lessons compares to your usual lessons. In the end they will be the measure of your success.

Nik Peachey, teacher, trainer and materials writer, The British Council


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