BTR-TESOL Unit 6F - Content Based Classes

by Mandi Malaman



objectives of this unit

the least you should know

balancing your objectives

making your teaching understandable

scaffolding instruction

providing background information

using strategies

using interaction

comprehensive questions

video examples

reflection and responses

where to go to learn more

connections to other units in this program

online and other electronic resources

print and paper based resources

additional references



Some language classes focus on aspects of language itself—grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc. All activities in such classes provide instruction or practice related to the particular language point that is the focus. The subject matter may change from one exercise (or even one sentence) to the next. This unit will explain a different approach to language instruction that emphasizes content-learning along with language development.

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Next month Amanda is going to China to teach at a university. She has been asked to teach a course in Business Writing. She doesn’t speak Chinese, and her students will be business majors who expect to improve their intermediate level English language skills while learning about business also. She wonders how she will teach this course in order to teach both the content (business writing) and language at the same time.

  • If you were in with this situation what would you do?
  • How much attention should you pay to language instruction (vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, etc.)?
  • How would you teach about Business Writing (in English) to these students whose English skills are limited?
  • How would you make your language and the language of the content easier to understand for your students?

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Objectives of this unit

After you have worked through this unit, you will be able to

  • Distinguish between language teaching and content-based language teaching
  • Explain instructional methods typically used in content-based language teaching
  • Use scaffolding to make a content lesson more comprehensible to English language learners
  • Plan how you might apply the principles presented in this unit in your own content class with ESL/EFL learners in the future.

If you are able understand the ideas presented in this unit, you will be better able to help your students learn content in English while improving their English language skills.

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The least you should know

Content-based instruction (CBI) is a very effective way to teach English to your students. It naturally mixes realistic and meaningful content with language teaching. It has been shown that if you teach English by using it in meaningful ways your students will be more interested and successful in their learning. CBI can be used at any level and for any age. However, CBI is not without its challenges. One of the most important things to remember when teaching content and language, at the same time, is that content-based teaching requires a balance between teaching content and developing students’ language skills. It is helpful to look at the following scale.

Focus on Content                                                                                            Focus on Language

(adapted from Met, 1999)

There are different types of CBI that fall on different sides of this line. Some Programs focus 100 % on content and others focus 100 % on language, while others lie somewhere in between. Generally, it is not up to the teacher to decide where ones class might fall on the line, but it is still important to understand that CBI can be used in a number of different settings, skill levels and ages. If you are teaching a content course in English, it would be helpful to ask the institution how much importance should be placed on content and on language.  Ask to see if students will be tested on the content for the course, if they are, you probably need to spend a large amount of time on the content. If they are not, maybe you should focus on language.  Most programs will fall somewhere in between, so it is important to understand the difference between content and language.  

To understand the difference between content and language it is helpful to look at some sample content and language topics. Content, means any subject, such as business, building adobe ovens, and traveling. Anything that you are teaching that is a type of subject matter is considered content.  Language, on the other hand, is teaching how to use language in context, vocabulary, writing conventions, grammar, and listening strategies etc.

Here are some more examples of each:
Content: traveling, family, marketing, biology, building methods, culture.
Language: vocabulary, grammar, note-taking skills, summarizing.

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1. Balancing Your Objectives

Once you have the idea of content and language, it is time to move on to planning your objectives or goals. For more information on planning objectives see Unit 2C: Planning effective and efficient lessons. Every lesson that you teach needs to have some type of learning outcome or goal that you would like your students to achieve or experience. When mixing content and language, balance is required in order to have both content and language objectives. Each lesson should have both types of objectives present. One important thing to remember is that your content should be choosing your objectives; you shouldn’t try to force a language objective that does not work well with the content. To better understand this let’s look at some objectives for a business English class that is studying phone etiquette.

Students will be able to speak using the correct phrases in business telephone conversations.
Students will be able to remember cultural facts about business phone conversations.
Students will listen to a sample business phone conversation.
Students will write, practice and record their own business phone conversation.

What other objectives do you think would work well with a lesson on Business Telephone Skills? When thinking of these objectives try to think of content and language objectives. In the above objectives could you tell which ones were language objectives, content objectives? Remember that content objectives mean subject matter (in this example business), and language objectives mean using language or learning how to use language (write, record, practice, listen, vocabulary).  Here are some more examples:

Students will read a passage on business phone manners.
Students will answer comprehension questions on phone manners in the USA.

Students will ask present tense questions using WH-words (what, where, when, why).
Students will make guesses about the reading using phrases like “I guess that … will happen.”
Students will use and understand the following words in a phone conversation: on hold, transfer, take a

In addition to being able to use both types of objectives, there is an important thing to remember in regards to
language objectives and that is that they should be clear. If there are no clear language objectives it is like leaving the English learning up to chance. We hope that our students will pick up the language through the content but cannot be sure it is happening if we do not create explicit objectives. In this case, the word explicit means direct, clear and easily understood objectives. Here are some tips to make language objectives.
Language objectives should …

  • Come from content
  • Focus on objectives that will serve students in multiple situations
  • Focus on items necessary to understand content
  • Use active verbs
  • Name specific language students will use (such as present tense)

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2. Making Your Teaching Understandable

scaffoldingOften when teaching content to our ESL learners, it is hard for them to understand the concepts that we are teaching due to their limited English skills. It is important to try our hardest to make the content understandable to our students. There are two main ways to make the content more understandable.

The first is called sheltering. Sheltering is adjusting ones speech to aid your students’ comprehension. This would include changing the speed of your voice, stressing important words and using gestures to help communicate meaning. For more information on sheltering please see unit 3B Modifying Speech.

The second way is called scaffolding. To understand scaffolding it is helpful to think of the construction of a building. As the walls are being put up a temporary structure, called scaffolding, is put up in order to support the walls of the structure. As things progress the scaffolding is slowly taken away. It is the same with language teaching. In CBI, the new information is a lot for students to understand and students need more help or support for their learning. We need to provide support for our students by:

    • Scaffolding instruction
    • Providing background information
    • Using strategies
    • Using interaction

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3. Scaffolding Instruction

Instructional scaffolding is a way of giving structure to your lessons. Students need some type of structure in order to succeed in your classes. There are different ways that you can help structure your lessons to help your students understand better.

Use routines

Using routines is a great way to add continuity to your lessons and it will help your students to know what to expect. In language teaching, routines mean to do activities in a specific order day after day. An example of this would be to always start out with a word of the day, then do a poem reading, then a listening exercise and then a speaking activity. Another example of this would be to dedicate certain days to specific activities; for example, Mondays are for presentations. Another idea would be to always use the same vocabulary exercise or game in your lessons. If you often use the same game, less time will be spent explaining how to play and students will be able to spend more time actually using the new words.

Model before practice

We often think that our students can complete an activity, when sometimes they don’t understand the content and they also don’t understand our directions. For this reason it is important to teach the new idea, show the students how to do the activity, then practice the activity with your students and finally have them complete the activity independently. Modeling an activity is showing an example of what you expect the students to do. Do not assume that they can complete an activity without this structure.

Use visual aids

Use visual aids whenever possible. When discussing new concepts it is important to be able to show what you are talking about. Real objects, pictures, charts, and diagrams can boost your students’ understanding. If you are teaching about American business attire, bring in a suit.  If you are teaching about stocks, bring in a graph of the stock market.


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4. Providing Background Information

It is so important that we organize our lessons so that they are building on each other. We need to remember that it is hard for our students to learn all of the new vocabulary and subject matter. For this reason, we need to make sure that we are sequencing our lessons from easy to hard ideas. Past lessons need to act as a framework to build on for our current lessons. Our schemata –or our background knowledge- can greatly affect how much we are able to understand. If your students have never heard of the topic or know very little about it they will not understand much of your lesson. Context is everything. When introducing new concepts, it is important to make the subject personal for your students. Try to bring the subject to their level and background knowledge.

Build background knowledge

It may be possible that your students have no background knowledge of the new subject. If this is the case, you need to build their background knowledge by giving them examples and information so they can understand the content. An example of this would be teaching children from a tropical island about snow. They may have never seen snow or experienced snow, but your lesson has a reading about snow shoeing. How is this student supposed to understand snow shoeing if they have never seen snow?

Activate prior knowledge

Your students may already know something about the subject you are discussing. In order for them to get the most out of your lesson it is important to warm up their brains, so to speak. Get them talking and discussing what they already know (prior knowledge). If you do this, their level of understanding will increase.  

Vocabulary instruction

In a content course students can feel overwhelmed with new vocabulary. Teachers need to help them understand by teaching words or vocabulary that they will need to understand the lesson. Try to pre-teach words that are specific to that lesson, words that are essential for the students to understand. Vocabulary instruction is a great warm up activity or pre-reading activity. It will be much easier for them to understand if they understand the key vocabulary.


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5. Using Strategies

Students need skills to help them succeed. They will not always have a dictionary handy or their teacher nearby to help them understand new concepts in English. For this reason, as teachers, we need to teach them skills or strategies to use. In CBI, it is important to help our students by teaching them some skills that they will be able to use in other content classes. For more information on strategy instruction please see Unit 5E Learning Language Strategies. The following are some important skills to teach.


This stands for Know, Want to know, Predict and Learn. This is an activity that can be used to activate students’ background knowledge, increase interest, predict outcomes, and summarize. Start by writing the letters KWPL on the board. Each letter should be in its own column with enough space for writing bullet points. Ask students what they know about a topic and write all answers on the board. Then ask them what they would like to learn and write all answers on the board. Next, ask students what they think they will learn or to predict the outcome. After they have learned the subject/content (after a listening, reading, discussion, lecture) ask the students what they have learned and write their answers on the board.

Diagrams/Graphic Organizers

graphicorganizerIt is helpful for students to be able to organize information visually on paper. This helps them to classify information and to visually see how it all fits together. Diagrams or Graphic organizers are great ways for students to be able to classify information or new words. When talking about two different ideas why not try a venn diagram, this is two overlapping circles. In each individual circle you would place ideas only belonging to that circle and in the overlap you would place ideas that are common to both. For more help with diagrams see the where to go to learn more section.

Text Comprehension Strategies:
Text can be anything that you use to teach your students. Examples would be listening to a news recording, conversation or lecture, reading articles, textbooks, magazines, or even class discussions. There are many strategies that help understanding. Prediction, determining importance and summarizing are helpful ones. Predicting what will happen or what one will learn is helpful. Classifying information by determining the importance of something helps students organize what they are learning. Summarizing is a great tool to see if students understand the content you are giving them. It is also helpful to summarize independently, we can often tell if we are learning by trying to teach ourselves.


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6. Using Interaction

CBI is used because it helps lesson be more like real world activities. In the real world we do not use language skills independently, for example, we do not only listen in conversations we listen and speak. For this reason, it is important to use a Multiple skills approach (See unit 6E Teaching Multiple Skills in One Class). This means that all of the skills (listening, reading, writing and speaking) are used in class. In a class you could use all language skills for example: start with a discussion, do a vocabulary exercise, read an article, point out a grammar concept from the article, write a summary of what was read and then present what you read to the class (speaking and listening).

Using multiple skills will make the lesson more interactive. Another way to do this is to get your students involved in what they are learning. Partner and group work works well with CBI. Students are able to talk about and study the content together. Competition is helpful to increase student motivation. For example, have students work on a project that is related to the real world. Remember to give detailed instructions and explanations, otherwise students may not stay on task or meet your goals for the activity.

We have all been in a class where all the teacher did was talk while the students fell asleep. In content-based instruction, it is important to be constantly checking to see if your students understand. A simple way to do this is to call on students to answer simple comprehension questions.

Comprehension (and reflection) questions

  1. What have teachers done in the past that have really helped you understand your content courses? How could you use these techniques in your teaching?
  2. Think of one of your classes, which one of these strategies would aid your students most? Why? Can you think of any other strategy that would be helpful for them?

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Video examples

Please watch the following video from a business writing content class in China. As you watch try to identify aspects of CBI discussed in this unit.

Click here  

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Reflection and Responses

As you view this video clip of an EFL content class, think about each of the following questions.

  1. What was especially good about this class?  (What did the teachers and students do right?)
  2. What teaching principles/techniques discussed earlier in this unit did you notice in this clip?
  3. What adaptations could you make for the situation you are (will be) teaching in?
  4. What other things might you do differently to make your lessons even better? 

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Where to go to learn more

Connections to other units in this program

Here are some other units in this program that relate to topics we have addressed in this unit.

  1. Unit 3 B Modifying Speech
  2. Unit 6 A-G Teaching Reading, Writing, Listening, Speaking and Integrated Skills
  3. Unit 5E Learning Language Strategies

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Online and other electronic resources

cobaltt website This website was put together by the CoBaLTT professional development program to provide professional development for world language and  immersion  teachers on CBI and the use of technology to support CBI in the classroom. This site has links to professional papers on CBI, gives practical uses and tips for teaching. It also has links for various graphic organizer templates.

siop institute is a website that is the companion to the SIOP Model book. It provides lesson templates to ensure good lesson planning for content-based courses as well as additional training. is a link to Melinda Hardman’s MA Thesis and is available for download from BYU’s library page. This is a very thorough training manual for content teachers at BYU’s ELC. It provides training, resources and tips for content teachers. The title of the thesis is: Developing a Teachers Handbook for Content Based Instruction at Brigham Young University’s English Language Center.

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Print and paper-based resources

Here are some published books that have proven to be helpful resources for teaching content courses.

new ways

This book is a great resource for Content teachers. It is full of activities that can be printed and used immediately in your classroom, or these activities could be modified to fit your teaching situation. It includes activities for incorporating vocabulary, reading and interaction.
Author:  Donna M. Brinton and Peter Masters
Publisher: TESOL
ISBN: 0-939791-67-6
Price: $29.95

making content comprehensibleThis book teaches the theory behind content-based instruction as well as providing step-by-step instructions on how to successfully carry out CBI in a public school setting. Many examples are given as well as resources for your classrooms.
Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners: The SIOP Model (3rd Edition)
Author: Jana Eschevarria, MaryEllen Vogt, Debora Short

ISBN: 978-0205518869
Price: $52.99

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Additional References

Brinton, D.M., Snow, M.A., & Wesche, M.B. (1989). Content-Based Second Language   Instruction. New York: Newbury House Publishers.

Met, M. (1991) Learning language through content: Learning content through language.
            Foreign Language Annals, 24, 4, pp.281.

Met, M. (1999). Content-based instruction: Defining terms, making decisions. The National Foreign Language Center.

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

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