Philippine Journal for Language Teaching, Volume XL, May 2001, pp. 50-62.

Assessing the Content in Content-based Instruction
Robert J. Dickey
Kyongju University
S. Korea

* pagination here is as in the print version.  Note that there was a page order error in the journal, such error is retained here.


Content-based instruction (CBI) has become a popular teaching model in the Asian secondary and tertiary school English classroom, yet discussions on the topic do not agree on a definition or pedagogical orientation for this approach to language learning. Various perspectives on CBI are overviewed, and "content" is defined with special attention to current course offerings in Asia..  The length of time to be spent on a topic is considered as well.  A new learner-based classification system for summarizing the orientation of CBI courses is proposed to replace current pedagogically-based classification systems.  The three proposed categories, topical, academic-skills, and substantive, are compared to pedagogical systems.  The future of CBI in Asia is considered.


    Perusing the numerous "history of ELT" articles available, one might think that English language teaching has made no significant advances since the 1960s, or that concepts for teaching have increased exponentially since that time.  Perhaps both may be true.  What is clear is that the professional literature has made an increasing number of options available to classroom instructors and program administrators alike.

    Without undermining teaching options, one may clearly state that "intelligent eclecticism' must have limits.  Various teaching approaches, methods, techniques, and systems would appear to be incompatible, and some are workable only if firmly established as the foundation of course design.  Content-based instruction (CBI) would likely be included in this group, as would Suggestopedia, The Silent Way, and others (this is not to suggest that ideas from these cannot be utilized in the eclectic classroom, see Dickey, 2000, for more on this issue).  Unlike these other innovations in ELT, however, content-based instruction has yet to have established a clear definition of what it is, and what it is not.  This investigator has often wondered whether such lack of clarity is not to the benefit of some: granting considerable freedom to those who wish not to be constrained by rigid boundaries, yet profiting from the use of a term well-treated in the professional and scholarly literature.

     This investigation is focused on Asian secondary/tertiary school EFL learners and their local classrooms, as the elementary English topic is currently under

- end Page 50 -

intense scrutiny in many Asian nations and thus merits individual attention.  The conventions ES/FL (English as a second or foreign language) and ELT (English Language Teaching) are used throughout.

Literature Survey

    The scholarly and professional literature is filled with accounts of CBI.  Throughout Asia, "teaching English" conference proceedings indicate frequent classroom-based successes.  However, it quickly becomes apparent that many of these reports are not discussing the same things.

Defining CBI
    As Snow (1991) observes, "[t]hroughout the history of second language teaching, the word 'content' has had many different interpretations" (p. 315).

    Kasper offers a very generalized definition, a useful starting point:

Content-based ESL courses present students with content-based materials in a meaningful, contextualized form in which the primary focus is on the acquisition of information (1997, [p. 2]).
Unfortunately, such a description offers little guidance.  Which types of information are to be acquired--language learning information, or the content presented?  What types of content are acceptable?  Are the traditional "language-related" courses, those subjects frequently taught through foreign language departments, such as literature, drama, culture, and speech, appropriate content?  If so, how are these CBI classes different from what has been done for decades in English-medium classrooms throughout the "EFL world"?  How, if at all, does English for Special Purposes (ESP) and English for Academic Purposes (EAP) related to CBI?

    Hutchinson and Waters (1984) contrast CBI with more traditional forms of instruction:

[i]n a content-based approach, the focus is on exploiting the information conveyed by a text.  In a language-based approach, the text is used as a source for language exercises" (p. 113).
- end page 51 -

    Within the confines of an academic institution, "content" has often been construed to be the subject matter of "mainstream" courses, those courses that are required of students regardless of proficiency in the local community's language.  Thus, in Kachru's (1985) English "inner ring" lands, a content-based ESL course might use materials from math or science as content for English instruction.  This is consistent with the definition offered by Brinton, Snow, & Wessche (1989) in their much cited work Content-based second language instruction, in which they define CBI as the "concurrent teaching of academic subject matter and second language skills (p. 2).  An "adjunct" course such as this would appear to have much in common with the ESP approach (Snow, 1991, p. 315), where the special purpose is science, or math, or any other mainstream course content (as opposed to "business English" or other special courses ordinarily taught outside of secondary or tertiary institutions, and sometimes known as VESL--vocational English).  Here in Asia, Stewart (1996) offers a similar focus, based upon the Canadian experience with ES/FL.  It is important to note, however, that there is not agreement on whether such content must accurately reflect current learning requirements in "mainstream" courses or whether it merely is derived from mainstream course areas.  Murphey's 1997 article appears to suggest that content is not linked to current lessons in other courses, as each of the six week modules focus on different topic areas.  On the other hand, McGroarty (1991) indicates that language and the mainstream course are inextricably tied when she states that

[c]ontent-based language instruction aims to promote conceptual mastery of a certain subject along with the language skills necessary to deal effectively with the subject (p. 381).
    It may be observed at language teacher conferences throughout the world as well as in more progressive teacher publications that "content" is often extended far beyond the course topics generally offered in academic institutions.  Some suggest that courses may be "content-based in students' personal values or in areas of current or future concerns" (Bassamo, 1986, p. 18).  Prodromou (1992) and Shih (1992) suggest that culture, personal, and professional interests are all viable areas for "content."  Use of computers and the internet have become an obvious "content" (e.g., Isbell & Reinhardt, 1999), as well as video (e.g., Furmanovsky, 1997).  Short (1991) offers the topic of "littering" in a model lesson (presumably under a theme of environmentalism in either social studies or science classes).  Murphey (1997) includes journalism, TV commercials, and health and fitness awareness.

- end page 52 -

    We thus may conclude, like Stryker and Leaver (1997), that CBI is "more a philosophy than a methodology" (p. 3).  Snow (1991, p. 326) offers that CBI "is not so much a method as a reorientation to what is meant by 'content' in language teaching."
Instructional focus
    It has been stated that in CBI, students "must be aware of the fact that they are studying English and that . . . [the topic] is just a suitable material to be used during the course" (Abramov, 1999).  Such a dogmatic approach does not appear to be supported in the literature.  On the other hand, the general themes of Krashen's Input hypothesis (1992) would appear to suggest that so long as input is not too far beyond the students' ability, their English will improve whether or not it is explicitly a language-learning course.  While in "mainstream" courses do ES/FL students learn no English?

    Short (1994) offers a more moderate approach.  "The language educator maintains a primary focus on language skill development but has a subsidiary goal of preparing students for the mainstream classroom" (p. 582).  However, as will be discussed more extensively below, mainstreaming students is often not an objective of English-medium instruction in Asia.

    Allwright & Bailey (1990, p. 162) voice concern that focusing on current mainstream course content may be detrimental to language learning.  Students may not wish to study the mainstream course further in the English class, and such content learning may not match their learning expectation, both of which may undermine their receptivity to the language learning experience.

Types of CBI
    Much of the focus on content-based instruction has been based on writing instruction, where students are asked to develop composition skills through papers written on topics related to "content subjects."  Shih (1986) provided an early classification of approaches specific to content-based writing courses that provides a helpful outline of the issue:

1. Topic-centered "modules" or minicourses (attention to all four language skills) . . .
2. Content-based academic writing courses . . .
3. Content-centered English-for-special-purposes (ESP) courses, that is, field-specific "sheltered" subject matter courses (multiskill) . . .
- end page 53 -

4. Composition or multiskill English-for-academic-purposes (EAP) courses/tutorials as adjuncts to designated university content courses . . .
5. Individualized help with course-related writing at times of need . . .  (pp. 632-33).
    Snow (1991) provides a different manner of CBI classification with her five models, immersion education, content enriched foreign language in the elementary school, theme-based model, sheltered model, and adjunct model (pp. 316-18).  The first, third, and fifth models merit further discussion here.  The second, pertaining to elementary schools education, is beyond the scope of this paper, the fourth, sheltered classes, is perhaps more relevant to minority language students studying in inner-circle or expanding-circle (ESL) environments.  [Note:  in a forthcoming paper the author will substantially revise this statement concerning sheltered classes.]

    Pally (2000) presents another variation: "sustained content" instruction.  She observes that in order to succeed, "students must study content that is complex enough and enduring enough" to develop the full complement of academic skills, as well as to understand the subject matter of the course (p. 9).

    Foreign language immersion is the extreme form of content-based language instruction, a form which is surprisingly left unaddressed by Shih.  As Richard-Amato (1996, p. 300) describes, in immersion programs most if not all students are from the language majority population, and are placed in content-area classes in which a foreign language is the medium for communication.  This is true both in the situation in Canada discussed by Richard-Amato and in EFL environments.  Duff (1995), in her discussion of immersion classrooms in Hungary, points out the purpose of immersion classes:

[u]nlike some task-based discussions in EFL language classes, group discussions or student lectures . . . were not designed to simply provide oral practice in English for its own sake.  That is not the intent of content-based or immersion instruction.  Material had to be mastered . . . (p. 529).
    Richard-Amato observes that "[i]mmersion appears to be an optimal program for foreign-language students" (p. 307).

    Also of interest is the nature and duration of instruction in each content area.  The literature does not identify a typical period of instruction for a particular content area.  One popular concept is topic-centered "modules" or minicourses.  The six week periods offered by Murphey (1997) would not appear

- end page 54 -

to be an insufficient length to cover major language aspects of a "mainstream" course area, but what of others who race through a topic each week (or each hour)?  Short (1993) states that "[i]n content-based language instruction, language teachers use content topics, rather grammar rules or vocabulary lists, as the scaffolding for instruction" (p. 629).  TESOL Inc.'s own teacher resource books New Ways in Content-based Instruction (Brinton & Master, 1997) and New Ways in Teaching English at the Secondary Level (Short, 1999) are "recipe books" of classroom activities, apparently design to assist in the instruction of specific topics or skills, but these do not indicate that the particular issue to be addressed is extensively covered.  Brinton & Master specifically include "theme-based L2 courses" (p. v) in their introductory message.  Snow (1991, p. 318) reports:

selected topics or themes provide the content for the [theme-based] ESL/EFL class.  From these topics, the ESL/EFL teacher extracts language activities which follow naturally from the content area.  Thus, a unit on "advertising" might engage the students in a variety of activities such as designing and administrering a marketing survey . . ..
    Theme-based instruction is particularly vague, with standards left unset: How much time should be invested in a content area?  Are these nothing more than activity classes on scattered topics, much like the infamous "free-talking" conversation courses?  Pally (2000) presents "sustained content" instruction as semester-long study of an academic course, taught entirely by an ES/FL instructor, in contrast to short term topics or adjunct instruction.  The sustained CBI course need not fit in the standard curriculum, as the learning objectives are language and cognitive skills, the content is merely the medium to practice these skills.

    In the adjunct model, there is close coordination between the ES/FL instructor and the linked or "twinned" mainstream content course (taught by the "regular" teacher).  As Snow (1991) observes, "the language class becomes content-based in the sense that the students' needs in the content class dictate the activities in the language class" (p. 319).

A Learning-based Classification for Asian Classrooms

    Under Shih's and Snow's instructional methodology-based classifications for content-based instruction, classifications were based on pedagogical designs that may have little to do with what actually occurs in the classroom, and does

- end page 55 -

[mis-sorted pages begin here, this should be p. 56, but is numbered as p. 57]

not adequately describe the motivations for student learning .  It is valuable to note here Furmanovsky's observation concerning content courses taught via English as a Foreign Language in Asia.  These courses
are necessarily different from so-called content-based courses offered to ESL students in overseas [ESL] universities.  The latter are designed for intermediate and upper intermediate students who hope to enter overseas junior colleges or universities . . . (1997, [1]).

    Asian students, studying in an English-medium course, are unlikely to enroll in North American or other English-medium universities, and more likely to have lower skills in English.  An alternative and complementary approach to course classification, more likely to match the realities of Asian educational systems, is based on the learning aims of the students (not school administrations) and the events within the classroom.  Three general classifications are offered:

* Academic skills courses,
* Topical courses, and
* Substantive courses.
Specifically excluded from this list are courses that focus on teaching the "content" of English grammar or non-specific vocabulary.  Test-preparation courses are excluded as well.

    Topical CBI courses are perhaps the least "structured" of these models, and in many cases, closest to what is actually occurring in many classrooms labeled "content-based classes."  These are the classrooms where activities, themes, topics of the day/week, tasks and short-term projects, and other events occur alongside or within a more traditional syllabus, whether grammar/lexis-based, functional-notional, or other.  Topical courses would be identified in Shih's first category, and Snow's third.  Content-based courses that are directed towards any of three particular language skills, listening, speaking, or reading, are likely topical.  (The fourth skill, writing, has the highest likelihood of inclusion in academic skills or substantive CBI courses.  It has been suggested (Dickey, 2000) that computer/internet English may be a fifth language skill, any course directed to this skill would also likely be included in language-focused studies.)  Topical CBI courses in Asia generally provide language skills development without any particular ties to the students' major fields of study, or to any "general education" courses.  The content is freestanding, developed within the course without specific reference to other classes the students may be taking simultaneously or in the future; thus topical CBI courses are not adjuncts.  There are few cases of adjunct classes in Asia, other than at the few "International Universities" and bilingual studies programs.  The future does not look bright for adjunct CBI in this region.

- end page 57 -
[out of sequence]

[mis-sorted page here, this should be p. 57, but is numbered as p. 56]

    Substantive courses have been in place in Asia for decades, placed within most every academic institution's foreign language program.  Courses such as literature, drama, public speaking, and culture have often not been taught in the foreign language to a significant extent, but the purpose of studies is nevertheless to improve student comprehension and appreciation of, and skills in, the foreign language.  With increased numbers of "near-native speaker" instructors available throughout Asia and the overall foreign language competency of university-level learners higher than ever before, it is likely that these types of courses will become routinely taught fully in the foreign language (foreign language medium instruction), and increasingly available in other fields as well, though perhaps with in-class supports, such as allowing student questions in the L1, which the instructor answers in a simplified L2.  The in-class supports make such instruction very like the "sheltered classes" found in Shih's third category and Snow's fourth.  An important distinction for sheltered classes is that the learning objectives are modified from that of "mainstream" courses, to incorporate language learning objectives along with lowered "substantive" objectives.  In the Asian environment, the learning objectives of any sheltered class must be compared to a class offered in the students' L1.  Substantive CBI will continue to grow in the overseas environment, in contrast to Raimes' projection of the ESL environment.

It is interesting to note here that the content specific to English courses--language, culture, and literature--is largely rejected in favor of the subject matter of the other fields the ESL students are studying (Raimes, 1991, p. 411).
    Academic skills CBI is the area in which most investigations of content-based ES/FL learning has taken place.  It is in these classes where writing, critical thinking, lecture-listening, test-taking, and various other western-university methodologies are examined, discussed, and practiced.  These also may include conversation, to the extent that faculty members expect oral communication from students within the classroom, in study groups, and in direct meetings with the instructor.  This most resembles Shih's type 2.  On the other hand, with the muddled description of content-based instruction, others have suggested that this academic skills focus be allocated to the EAP (English for Academic Purposes) field (cf: Gaffield-Vile, 1996), and Shih herself identifies English for Academic Purposes within her adjunct classification (type 4).  The increased attention on "critical thinking skills" by Asian governments indicates that these EAP courses will continue to increase in Asia during the next decade.

    A fourth learning-based type of CBI course, not included in the above list, is survival skills focused.  This type of course is of very little relevance to students not planning to visit or study in an ESL land, and is more frequently offered by private language programs or as part of general language skills

- end page 56 -
[out of sequence]

[the following pages are in proper sequence]

program.  Not surprisingly, this survival skills component makes up a large proportion of the materials within both New Ways books.  Another CBI area, similarly non-academic, is Vocational English (VESL).

Ties to Content

    Each of the learning-based categories proposed in this paper offers its own connection to content.  In substantive studies, such as in a foreign language medium instructed course, the content is the class.  These classes have sometimes been identified as English for Science and Technology classes or as a special subset of English for Special Purposes on the school campus, where "special classes are provided for ESL learners which take into account their level of English" and linguistic and cultural adjustments are made (Graham & Beardsley, 1986, p. 228).  As Duff noted, subject content must be mastered.  In some circumstances, however, subject content requirements may be reduced in consideration of the foreign language instruction medium, an expanding circle variant on sheltered classes (Dickey & Han, forthcoming).  In some courses, such as business writing courses offered through the Business or International Trade departments, it may be unclear whether the class is language-focused or subject-focused.  Perhaps the clearest answer will come from the students themselves, years later, when asked whether the course delivered valuable content that assisted them in their work, or merely provided theoretical knowledge.


    The jumble of conflicting ideas that simultaneously occupy the field of content-based instruction can only injure the long-term viability of the concept, though it may appear to be of short-term benefit to many practitioners.  It would be in the long term interest of the language teaching profession for each variety of CBI to branch off cleanly, to form its own defined protocols, so that the whole of CBI is not weakened when certain branches are challenged.  This is the nature of education, as Applied Linguistics sprung from Linguistics, and Second Language Acquisition grew from Applied Linguistics.  It appears that ESP and EAP have begun this process, though without "the blessing" of the content-based instruction community.  The topical category would likely be perceived as the "weak branch" by many scholars--good reason for those involved in topical CBI to not wish to be distinguished from the other branches.

    It would be impossible to redirect over 30 years of discussions through just one paper, and this investigator has made no attempts to do so.  Instead, a different perspective of how courses could be classified, with particular relevance

- end page 58 -

to the Asian environment, has been offered.  It is suggested that educational administrators and teachers who consider their course offerings through this perspective will better meet the expectations of their students, and better prepare the students for the world outside the classroom.  It is further hoped that this paper will spur further discussions on the future directions of CBI in the Asian classroom.

- pages 59-62 includes references -


Abramov, L.  (Apr. 21, 1999).  Subj:  Re: Let's begin a discussion [email discussion list posting].  Available October 21, 2000,
Allwright, D. & Bailey, K.  (1990).  Focus on the language classroom.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bassano, S. (1986).  Helping learners adapt to unfamiliar methods.  ELT Journal 40(1),  13-19.
Brinton, D.M., Snow, M.A., & Wesche, M.B. (1989). Content-based second language instruction. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
Brinton, D.M., & Master, P. (eds.).  (1997).  New ways in content-based instruction.  Alexandria, VA: TESOL, Inc.
Dickey, R.J. (2000).   Rethinking the fundamentals of teaching English in Korea.  International Journal of Language and Literature 2, 197-218.
Dickey, R.J. & Han, S. (forthcoming).  Foreign Language Medium Instruction in Korea.  A paper to be presented at PAC3, the Third Pan Asian Conference, Kitakyushu,  Japan, November 9, 2001.
Duff, P.  (1995).  An ethnography of communication in immersion classrooms in Hungary.  TESOL Quarterly 29(3), 505-37.
Furmanovsky, M. (1997).  Content Video in the EFL Classroom. The Internet TESL Journal (III)1.  Available October 27, 2000 on the World Wide Web,
Gaffield-Vile, N.  (1996).  Content-based second language instruction at the tertiary level.  ELTJournal 50(2), 108-114.
Graham, J.G., & Beardsley, R.S. (1986).  English for special purposes: Content, language, and communication in a pharmacy course model.  TESOL Quarterly 20(2), 227-45.
Hutchinson, T., & Waters, A.  (1984).  How communicative is ESP?  ELT Journal 38(2), 108-113.
Isbell, K., & Reinhardt, J. (1999).  A web-integrated course: A shared perception?  .  The Language Teacher Online [JALT] (23)12.   Available November 1, 2000 from the World Wide Web, http://langue/
Kachru, B. B. (1985). Standards, codification and sociolinguistic realism: The English language in the outer circle. In R. Quirk and H. G. Widdowson (eds.), English in the world: Teaching and learning the language and literatures, pp.11-30. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (with The British Council).
Kasper, L.  (1997).  Assessing long-term effects of content-based ESL instruction.  A paper presented at Discipline-Based ESL Instruction" Benefits and Implementation (a CUNY Development Colloquium).   Available October 21, 2000 from the World Wide Web,
Krashen, S.D.  (1992).  Fundamentals of language education.  Lincolnwood, IL: Laredo Publishing.
McGroarty, M.  (1991).  English instruction for linguistic minority groups: Different structures, different styles.  In M. Celce-Murcia (Ed.), Teaching English as  a second or foreign language, 2nd Ed. (pp. 372-85).  Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
Murphey, T. (1997).  A CBI curriculum innovation: Nanzan's revolving six-week workshops.  The Language Teacher Online [JALT] (21)6.   Available October 21, 2000 from the World Wide Web, http://langue/
Pally, M.  (2000).  Sustaining interest / Advancing learning: Sustaining content-based instruction in ESL/EFL\Theoretical background and rationale. In M. Pally (Ed.), Sustained content teaching in academic ESL/EFL: A practical aproach.  Boston: Houghton Miflin Company.
Prodromou, L.  (1992).  What culture? Which culture?  Cross-cultural factors in language learning.  ELT Journal 46(1), 39-50.
Raimes, A. (1991).  Out of the Woods: Emerging Traditions in the Teaching of Writing.  TESOL Quarterly (25)3, 407-430.
Richard-Amato, P.A.  (1996).  Making it happen: Interaction in the second language classroom (2nd ed.).  White Plains, NY: Longman.
Shih, M. (1986).  Content-based approaches to teaching academic writing.  TESOL Quarterly (20)4, 632-33.
Shih, M. (1992).  Beyond comprehension exercises in the ESL academic reading class.  TESOL Quarterly (26)2, 289-318.
Short, D.J.  (1991).  Integrating language and content instruction: strategies and techniques.  NCBE Program Information Guide Series, No. 7.  Available October 21, 2000 on the World Wide Web,
Short D.J.  (1993).  Assessing integrated language and content instruction.  TESOL Quarterly 27(4), 627-656.  Also available October 21, 2000 on the World Wide Web,
Short, D.J.  (1994).  Expanding middle school horizons: Integrating language, culture, and social studies.  TESOL Quarterly (28)3, 581-608
Short, D.J. (ed.). (1999).  New ways in teaching English at the secondary level.  Alexandria, VA: TESOL, Inc.
Snow, M.A.  (1991).  Teaching Language through Content.  In M. Celce-Murcia (Ed.), Teaching English as  a second or foreign language, 2nd Ed. (pp. 315-27).  Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
Stewart, T.  (1996).  The Canadian base of content-based language instruction.  Canadian Content [Newsletter of the Association of Canadian Teachers in Japan] (6)6.  Available October 21, 2000 from the World Wide Web,
Stryker, S. B., & Leaver, B. L.  (1997).  Content-based instruction in foreign language education.  Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.