Content-Based Instruction

From Teflpedia

Content-Based Instruction was brought into the school systems in Europe, as well as in Canada and other countries within the Americas in the 1960s (Finkbeiner & Fehling 2002: 9)[1]. Due to globalization and Europe's involvement in it, many European countries saw the need to be proficient in foreign languages, especially in English (Wildhage & Otten 2003: 19). Over the years, it has become more popular and other countries are increasingly starting to offer equivalent programs.

Theory and characteristics[edit]

Content-Based Instruction refers to an approach to second language acquisition that emphasizes the importance of content in contrast to other approaches or methods which are centred around the language itself, Content-Based Instruction is centred on the subject matter. Nevertheless, the approach aims to develop the students' language and academic skills. These skills are developed unconsciously through the content dealt with (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 204-205).

As Richards and Rodgers point out, if the information delivered through the content is interesting and useful, learners should acquire the language faster (ibid.). In addition, the language acquisition process may be more efficient and the language learners more motivated. Dörnyei supports this thesis by stating “students will not be motivated to learn unless they regard the material they are taught as worth learning” (2001: 63). Therefore, it may be advisable within the Content-Based approach to include learners in the choice of topics and activities.

Another characteristic of Content-Based Instruction is the use of communication (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 204). There are three principles of communication that define Communicative Language Teaching but which may also be applied to the Content-Based approach.

  • First, the communication principle which puts forward that activities involving real communication promote language learning.
  • Secondly, the task principle which refers to the concept that activities in which language is used for carrying out meaningful tasks promote language learning.
  • And, finally, the meaningfulness principle that implies that language that appears to be meaningful to the learner will support the language learning process (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 161).

There is, however, a major difference between Communicative Language Teaching and Content-Based Instruction. Whereas Communicative Language Teaching is a language-driven approach, focusing on the language itself, Content-Based Instruction is content-driven (chart: M. Met). Because Content-Based Instruction puts a strong emphasis on communication, it is quite different from traditional methods.

In contrast to the Content-Based approach, the Grammar Translation Method focuses on written instead of spoken language and communication, as well as on accuracy instead of communicating with possible errors or mistakes (Bach & Timm 2003: 10).

Different educational initiatives[edit]

Since the 1970s, there have been quite a few educational initiatives that emphasized the acquisition of a language through content. These are: Language across the Curriculum, Immersion Education, Immigrant On-Arrival Programs, Programs for Students with Limited English Proficiency, Language for Specific Purposes (LSP), English as a Second Language (ESL), and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classes (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 205).

Language Across the Curriculum is a proposal made for native-language education in Britain in the mid-1970s (ibid.). It is “a practice through which the study and use of the [native] language takes place throughout the curriculum”[2].

Immersion Education is concerned with foreign language instruction in which the curriculum is taught in the foreign language (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 206). A known program is the Canadian Immersion Bilingual Education, in which students with English as their first language learn French as their second language. There is a great chance that those students will acquire great proficiency in French or even native-like command of the language (Baker 1996: 204).

Immigrant On-Arrival Programs focus on the language people who have just immigrated to a country need know and use in everyday life. One of the first countries that offered this program was Australia (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 206). Programs that try to improve the English language skills especially of newly immigrated children are called Programs for Students with Limited English Proficiency (ibid.).

Languages for Specific Purposes (LSP) is a movement that “is concerned with the use of language in a restricted set of social and thematic areas chiefly for the unambiguous transfer of (technical) information” (Gramley 2008: 183). Further subcategories are: English for Specific Purposes (ESP), English for Science and Technology (EST), and English for Occupational Purposes (EOP) (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 207).

As mentioned above, Content-Based Instruction also occurs in the fields of English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL).

To demonstrate the limitations of learning English in classrooms, 'Espoir Smart English' is a software program to enhance English and Communication skills. It uses a combination of Content Based Instruction and Theme based Learning. Students learn English through Cricket, Movies, Success Secrets, Wit-n-Wisdom, Technology and Science, Love-n-Romance, Management Ideas. These are the most effective English language enhancement software and uses copyrighted content. Executives from various field, CEOs, MBA students, Technical students, Parents & Entrepreneurs have adopted this program to increase English language proficiency. It teaches them skills necessary for success in various professions. With Content Based Information & Theme Based Learning together learners gradually acquire greater control on communication, enabling them to participate fully in an increasingly complex academic & social social environment.

Germany serves as a good example for a school system in which English is taught as a foreign language and in which Content-Based Instruction has been well established. As in a number of other countries, Content-Based Instruction developed in Germany in the late 1960s (Finkbeiner & Fehling 2002: 11). First, mostly social sciences were taught in the foreign language. However, the spectrum of subjects has widened. There are two main Content-Based programs in the German school system: A long term and a short term program (ibid.). However, both programs seek to provide students with a high proficiency of the foreign language, which is usually English. Within the long term program, Content-Based Instruction starts in the seventh grade, after the students have had at least two years of English. The subjects taught within the Content-Based program alternate usually from year to year. Furthermore, the German school system offers the possibility of Content-Based Instruction throughout grades eleven to thirteen.

Learner role[edit]

Students are actively involved in a Content-Based classroom setting. On the one hand, they are in charge of their own learning process and their support of others and, on the other hand, they may partly choose content and activities. Being actively involved and taking responsibility in a classroom environment appears to be motivating for some though rather overwhelming to others. There are quite a few students who might feel that they cannot keep up with the work-load and quantity of new information (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 213).

Teacher role and choice of material[edit]

Teaching the Content-Based approach necessitates a large amount of work and energy. The teacher has to fulfil several roles, such as being a good language teacher and in addition having an appropriate knowledge of the subject matter. In addition, the teacher has to choose material. If the material is not suitable enough, he has to adapt it to the learners' language level. There is, however, quite a variety of material available for teachers to use for Content-Based lessons. First of all, teachers can and should use authentic materials such as newspaper articles and advertisements (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 213-214). These are texts native speakers of the language would read themselves. Authentic material intrinsically interests students and this promotes language learning. As Dörnyei points out, “motivation is one of the key issues in language learning” (2001: 1). Secondly, there are, at least in Germany, textbooks available for Content-Based lessons.

Many suggestions for creating such material can be found in our article Create a topical class.


Although Content-Based Instruction has many advocates, some, however, criticise the approach. Some say that teachers may not be qualified enough (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 220). A solution may be to adapt teacher-training programs, as Germany is doing increasingly. Some universities in Germany offer programs in which ongoing teachers learn how to convey language skills and content together in an effective way (Finkbeiner & Fehling 2002: 18).


(2001) Timeline: The bilingual education controversy. March 15, 2009.

French Immersion in Canada. March 15, 2009. Website.

Principles and Practices. March 15, 2009.

Met, M.: Chart.

Bach, G. & J.-P. Timm. 2003, 3rd ed. “Handlungsorientierung als Ziel und Methode“. In: G. Bach & J.-P. Timm (eds.) Englischunterricht: Grundlagen und Methoden einer handlungsorientieren Unterrichtspraxis. Tübingen: Francke.

Baker, C. 1996. Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Dörnyei, Z. 2001. Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: CUP.

Finkbeiner, C. & S. Fehlin. 2002. “Bilingualer Unterricht: Aktueller Stand und Implementierungsmöglichkeiten im Studium“. In: C. Finkelbeiner(ed.)Bilingualer Unterricht. Hannover: Schroedel.

Gramley, S. 2008. “English for Specific Purposes (ESP)“. In: S. Gramley & V. Gramley (eds.) Bielefeld Introduction to Applied Linguistics: A Course Book. Bielefeld: Aisthesis.

Richards, J.C. & T.S. Rodgers. 2001. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge: CUP.

Wildhage, M. & E. Otten. 2003. “Content and Language Integrated Learning: Eckpunkte einer 'kleinen' Didaktik des bilingualen Sachfachunterrichts“. In: M. Wildhage & E. Otten (eds.) Praxis des bilingualen Unterrichts. Berlin: Cornelsen.

Many parts of this Wikigogy page are based on Richards and Rodgers' book, Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, (2001) Cambridge: CUP.

See also[edit]