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Content-Based Second Language Instruction

Abstract and Keywords

Content-based second language instruction is the essence of this article. Content-based instruction is a form of communicative language teaching in which language instruction is integrated with school or academic content instruction. Content-based approaches to second and foreign language teaching have in recent decades become increasingly prominent at all levels of schooling and in postsecondary education. In content-based instruction as in other experiential communicative language teaching approaches, the traditional second language instructional focus on raising learners' awareness of linguistic form is secondary to a focus on their learning and sharing of information through the medium of the second language, in a curriculum based on the language needed for learning the particular content. As content-based instruction evolves, there is, as well, increasing recognition of the need to draw learners' attention to formal properties of the language within communicative situations. Content-based is likely to continue to flourish, particularly in developing advanced second language proficiency.

Keywords: content-based instruction, second language, academic content instruction, foreign language, linguistic form, communicative situations

Content-based instruction (CBI) is a form of communicative language teaching (CLT) in which language instruction is integrated with school or academic content instruction. Content-based approaches to second and foreign language (L2) teaching have in recent decades become increasingly prominent at all levels of schooling and in postsecondary education (Brinton, Snow, and Wesche, 2003; Richards and Rodgers, 2001; M. A. Snow, 1998). In CBI, as in other experiential CLT approaches, the traditional L2 instructional focus on raising learners' awareness of linguistic form is secondary to a focus on their learning and sharing of information through the medium of the L2, in a curriculum based on the language needed for learning the particular content. As CBI evolves, there is, as well, increasing recognition of the need to draw learners' attention to formal properties of the language within communicative situations.


“Weaker” forms of CLT (Howatt, 1984) tend to view spontaneous communication as an end rather than a means and to incorporate practice based on description of communicative language features (e.g., of appropriate forms for expressing given language functions). Such descriptions stem from early research in systemic or functional linguistics (see Halliday, 1978), dealing with patterns in language use well beyond the sentence level, and in sociolinguistics (see Hymes 1972a, 1972b), on the (p. 276) nature of communicative competence, in other words, not only characteristics of the language code but also appropriate language behavior for given communicative goals. (For a review of the history of CLT, see Wesche and Skehan, 2002.)

In “stronger” forms of CLT, such as CBI, communicative language ability is considered to be largely acquired through purposeful language use, according to the acquisition hypothesis that emerged from early research on second language acquisition, perhaps best articulated by Krashen 1985; also see Hatch, 1978; Larsen-Freeman and Long, 1991, among others). The premise is that L2 development proceeds through intensive language use for comprehension and expression in communicative situations. As in L1 development, a “natural” syllabus for core grammatical and certain other language features will emerge through multiple, richly contextualized interactions in the language. Furthermore, lexical items relevant to the context at hand will be learned. Experiential CLT is for these reasons organized around situations, oral and written texts, skill or knowledge domains, or tasks requiring communicative language use of various kinds. Although quite diverse content may assure acquisition of underlying phonological and syntactic systems, content that is highly relevant to learners' interests and postlanguage needs will be most effective. This is so not only because it will be more motivating to learners, but also because much of what is learned is context specific (e.g., content vocabulary including lexical phrases; usage that respects given discourse communities) and of evident utility to them. Educational contexts provide a ready-made setting for such instruction, as is shown through CBI approaches.

The history of CBI, like that of CLT in general, has been closely tied to insights from SLA studies, themselves inspired by empirical research on first language acquisition in children, cross-Atlantic developments in linguistics in the 1960s and 1970s and demographic shifts that gave social and political importance to L2 learning. The emerging field of SLA was served with living laboratories by the bilingual education movement for non-English speaking children in the United States, the massive influx of immigrants and guest workers to North America and to western Europe—particularly Germany and France, and by Canada's national effort to find more effective ways of teaching French to English-speaking children through immersion; in other words, using the L2 as the medium of school instruction for majority language children. SLA researchers in the 1970s and 1980s increasingly directed their attention to the nature of the linguistic environment available to learners and its possible role in acquisition. They focused particularly on features of language directed to learners by different types of interlocutors, as modified from native speaker norms to accommodate their limited language proficiency. Systematic modifications to such linguistic input, as well as to accompanying interactional moves, were observed at all levels of language, with differences depending on the type of interlocutor, social relations among speakers, and the purpose of communication (see Hatch, 1983; Krashen, 1981; Long, 1983; Wesche, 1994; Wesche and Ready 1985). Research on input and acquisition has since highlighted the importance of purposeful interaction for learners' interlanguage restructuring, especially that involving negotiation, recasts, and other feedback, and related this to CLT and CBI (p. 277) practice (see reviews in Lightbown and Spada, 2006; Pica, 1994, 2002). When learners are involved in communication, their motivation to understand and express meanings is high; furthermore, such interaction may provide appropriate models, specific feedback, and other pertinent information at the very moment when the learner is attentive to language form or meaning and aware of a knowledge gap. The large body of research on input and interaction has provided empirical support for teaching language through communication as well as information on optimal conditions regarding the kinds of language exposure needed to support L2 acquisition. Later research has supplemented and refined this information in terms of pedagogical interventions that can help ensure the development of accurate and contextually appropriate language use.

CBI, or concurrent teaching of school or academic subject matter and a second language, is similar to other CLT approaches in that it generally

  • requires frequent interaction among learners or with others to exchange information and solve problems.

  • uses authentic (nonpedagogic) texts and communication activities linked to real-world contexts, and frequently emphasizes links across written and spoken modes and channels.

  • is learner-centered, taking into account learners' backgrounds, language needs and goals, often allowing them some creativity and role in instructional decisions.

  • may involve cooperative learning activities such as group or pair work and opportunities for learners to focus on the language learning process itself.

  • provides opportunities for form-focused language activities, feedback, and practice within meaning oriented communication.

A major advantage of CBI over other CLT approaches is that the use of school or postsecondary subject matter as the content for language learning maximizes learners' exposure to the second language because they study both language and content at the same time. Furthermore, this exposure is to a highly contextualized and particularly relevant subset of the language, that builds on their previous knowledge in educational settings and in the subject area, and for those preparing for further study through the L2 incorporates the eventual uses they will make of it in terms of academic language and, as well, management and interpersonal discourse of the classroom community.

When the necessary conditions for successful CBI are met, learners are able to master both language and content through a reciprocal process as they understand and convey varied concepts through their second language. Language development progresses through repeated communicative encounters with language forms and patterns whose meanings and functions are related to a given topic, as learners comprehend the content being communicated and use the L2 productively in discussions and reformulations of it, generally through both oral and written modes. Repeated understanding and production of recently learned linguistic forms or of known ones in new contexts ensures their ongoing mental elaboration and practice, (p. 278) increasing their availability for new encounters and longer term retention. For these reasons, CBI can be very effective for both language development and content learning. However, this outcome depends on learners having adequate previous language knowledge and their receiving any needed instructional support to allow them to understand the content being conveyed through their L2. Although these conditions might be relatively easy to fulfill in a tailored one-on-one tutorial situation, there is considerable challenge in ensuring them for groups of students within institutional settings.

Shared Features of CBI Approaches

Successful content-based L2 instruction allows students to master new concepts and learning skills through a language in which they have limited proficiency. All its forms share certain features, including:

  • Dual learning objectives, for both content and language

  • Enhanced motives for L2 learning

  • Adaptation of language input for L2 learners

  • Orientation into a new “discourse community (Kramsch, 1993)

  • Expository discourse as the basis for a content-driven language curriculum

  • Focus on developing academic L2 proficiency

Dual learning objectives: CBI links two different kinds of learner objectives: gains in both content knowledge and language proficiency. It implies that both kinds of learning will benefit from the link; in other words, learners will to some extent receive “two for one.” This can happen under conditions that enable learners successfully to access and learn subject matter concepts through their L2.

Motivation for L2 learning: Learners' desire to understand and learn new subject matter—as promoted through the social environment of the school or academic institution—will generally enhance their motivation to master the L2 in which it is being taught—particularly if they are given the support they need to achieve this. Content-based instruction also solves the perennial L2 instructional problem of how to involve L2 users in meaningful communication with interlocutors and engage them with significant texts.

Adaptation of language input: As noted above, fluent speakers, when addressing less proficient speakers such as L2 learners and children, normally adapt their language and accompanying interactional moves to facilitate comprehension and use gestures and the immediate context to demonstrate or emphasize their intended meanings. In written language, principles such as simplification, redundancy, graphics, and illustrations are similarly used to accommodate readers' limited language proficiency. The conceptual and linguistic complexity of texts and learning activities in a given CBI context and their novelty for learners will largely determine the difficulty they experience in understanding the (p. 279) information conveyed and therefore the amount and kinds of support they will need for successful content comprehension and learning.

Aside from greater use of contextual illustration and adaptation of the oral and written language addressed directly to L2 speakers through lectures, interactions, and instructions, modification of the language load implied in assignments and evaluation of content learning is critical. It is essential that course designers and instructors keep in mind that L2 users are faced with learning new content through a language they have not fully mastered. Thus, for example, adaptations such as greater redundancy in instructions for assignments will facilitate learners' understanding of what is expected; in evaluation, adaptations such as the use of short-answer test formats instead of essay questions to evaluate content knowledge will allow learners to better demonstrate their subject matter mastery—rather than their poor mastery of L2 writing. Increased time for lessons, assignments, and evaluation will generally be needed for optimum results for students learning through their L2. As well, it may be necessary to lessen the amount, form, or complexity of a given unit of content presentation in comparison with L1 norms so that, for example, more time may be spent on explaining basic concepts and less on optional information in the curriculum. Ongoing support for L2 learners through explicit language instruction related to the content being learned is generally also needed, and is an excellent way to increase the redundancy of content presentation (see ensuing discussion).

A new discourse community: A new instructional situation may require considerable socialization even for first language (L1) students who have no experience in that discourse community, whether it be the appropriation of new understandings, roles, routines, and language use conventions in kindergarten or in postsecondary academic life. This gap will be strongly compounded for L2 speakers faced with a learning context and discourse that—in addition to the linguistic demands—may represent very different assumptions, roles, and customs from those they know. It is important that course designers and instructors take this factor into account, as well.

Centrality of expository discourse: In CBI language curricula, expository discourse and texts, mostly about nonlanguage phenomena, are the basis of the language curriculum. For younger learners, school discourse is largely oral; for older learners, authentic texts written for native speakers tend to drive the curriculum. Increasingly also, in both cases the ever-increasing instructional role of multimedia and Internet uses of language must be noted. In CBI, instructor explanations, texts, presentations through other media, and related activities and assignments are the main source not only of content knowledge but also of new language forms, patterns, functions, and meanings to be understood and internalized, thus providing opportunities for language-focused activities and feedback. These determine the sequencing and emphases in language study and practice; it is in this way that the language curriculum is content-driven.

Academic language proficiency: The second language abilities emphasized in CBI—again in contrast to most other CLT—are primarily those needed for dealing with instructional discourse. Much of this discourse conforms to (p. 280) Cummins' (1984) characterization of context reduced and cognitively demanding dimensions of language use, such as listening to a lecture or reading an academic article. These contrast with context-embedded, cognitively undemanding dimensions of language use, in which familiar contexts and previous knowledge (such as conversations or e-mail exchanges with intimates about familiar events) support meaning comprehension. Because academic language proficiency is crucial to school success, CBI may be seen as particularly relevant to learners who are preparing for full-time study through their second (or weaker) language—at any level of education. Reading, writing, listening, speaking, and various kinds of interpersonal interaction all have an important place in school language.

Mohan and his colleagues (Mohan, 1986; Mohan, Leung, and Davison, 2001; Tang, 1992) have further characterized academic discourse in terms of the forms and patterns found in expository prose that correspond to basic human knowledge structures common in school curricula. These tend to evoke certain discourse markers to show relationships among phenomena; for example, the sequence of propositions may be flagged (“first … second … last”) or their relative specificity (“in general … for example). These relationships can furthermore be represented through key graphics reflecting the different ways in which information is organized in discourse that can aid learners in their mastery of both new content and the language through which it is presented (Early, Mohan, and Hooper, 1989; Tang, 1992). Certain language forms are typically used to describe hierarchical classification systems—for example, categories of biological phenomena or historical events can be represented through classification trees. Likewise, sequencing patterns of such events as seasonal phenomena or natural processes can be represented in cyclical or linear diagrams or flow charts. In her broader characterization of academic literacy, a primary goal of CBI, M. A. Snow (2005) builds on these ideas. She distinguishes knowledge components:

  • Linguistic characteristics (lexis, syntax and discourse, and academic language functions)

  • Background knowledge (subject content, cultural understandings and scripts)

  • Cognitive knowledge (knowledge structures, critical thinking patterns)

  • Knowledge of the discourse community

Prototype CBI Models

Three prototype CBI models used at the postsecondary level: theme-based, sheltered and adjunct were described in a feature analysis and exemplified by Brinton, Snow, and Wesche 1989, 2003). All three models remain prominent in current CBI analysis and practice in college and university programs, and the first two have counterparts in school language programs. Theme-based CBI is frequently used with English as a second language (ESL) populations at all proficiency levels and may include academic (p. 281) content as preparation for mainstreaming students into regular school programs. Foreign language programs often include thematic CBI to present geographical and cultural information, as well as language instruction, in preparation for literature-based instruction. A now familiar form of sheltered L2 instruction at the school level is immersion, in which part or all of the regular school program is offered through a second or foreign language over a number of years. Such instruction has also been important in school-based efforts to revive or support declining indigenous languages; modern examples including Hawai'ian (Slaughter, 1997), Welsh (Dodson and Thomas, 1988), Cataln (Artigal, 1997), and Inuktitut (Fettes, 1998).

A number of CBI models that diverge from the three prototypes have been described that incorporate different sets of features to better serve particular contexts. The three models are presented here in greater detail, because they illustrate both the shared features of CBI approaches and important features that distinguish them. The most important differences among them are in their administrative arrangements, the relative L2 proficiency required of learners, the course format, instructor expertise and responsibility, and their relative focus of instruction and evaluation on language or content learning objectives.

In theme-based CBI, often found in host-country language programs for immigrants (such as English, Dutch, or German as a second language) or in foreign language school or postsecondary programs (such as Spanish, Arabic, or Chinese in English-speaking countries or English as a foreign language [EFL] in non-English speaking countries), the language curriculum is organized around specific topics of interest to the students, each of which may typically extend over several weeks. Although content learning is of both apparent and real importance, the primary objective is to promote learners' communicative L2 proficiency; thus the instructor—although familiar with the content—is generally a specialist in the language rather than in content instruction. Language learning is also the main focus of evaluation. Theme-based instruction is the most flexible type of CBI. It is administratively more flexible than other types, because it can be used in any type of language program and with any age or proficiency level; also, thematic units can be of different lengths and can form part or all of a course. It is generally the most feasible type of CBI, because administrative decisions are under the control of language departments.

Sheltered CBI, including school immersion programs and secondary or postsecondary courses in nonlanguage disciplines, groups second language speakers in a content program or course taught in the learners' L2; thus they are in a “sheltered” environment separate from L1 speakers in which instructional language can be tailored to their needs. The L2 is often a foreign or second language, but the format is also useful for immigrant students learning the language of their host country. The curriculum, schedule, and academic credit given are the same as for the corresponding regular (L1) course. Sheltered courses can provide excellent preparation for student mainstreaming into school or postsecondary courses for L1 speakers. Their primary objective is to promote learners' mastery of the subject matter, while at the same time improving learners' proficiency in the instructional language. The extra time and instructional attention devoted to course related language objectives varies, so (p. 282) that sheltered CBI may range from language-sensitive content instruction to systematic participation of language instructors and supplementary language learning activities. A major impediment to sheltered instruction (in the absence of a full-scale immersion program) administratively to justify a separate L2 section is assembling a sufficient number of L2 students at the appropriate proficiency level who wish to take a particular subject matter course.

In school immersion, language majority children spend half to most of the school day over a period of years studying the regular school curriculum through a foreign language—in courses generally taught by native speakers of that language. Very young learners generally begin kindergarten or primary school with little or no L2 knowledge but are expected to reach a high level of language mastery within a few years. Research has shown that an initial lag in L1 reading and spelling scores on standardized tests disappears within a year or two once L1 language arts instruction is introduced. In addition to taking some or most of their school subjects through their L2, immersion learners also receive regular L2 language arts instruction focusing on features of the L2 and on correct usage. Older learners entering immersion or sheltered courses at more advanced levels must already have the relatively high level of proficiency needed to cope with complex discourse and subject matter. (See immersion research reviews by, among others, Calvé, 1991; Cummins, 1998; Genesee, 1987; Met and Lorenz, 1997; Swain and Lapkin, 1982; Wesche, 1993a, 2002.)

At the postsecondary level, sheltered courses may provide an option for relatively advanced L2 users as preparation for regular study through their L2, or for advanced foreign-language speakers wishing to improve their L2 proficiency and subject matter knowledge in areas that are nontraditional for language programs. In the first context, the L2 is readily available in educational institutions, where L2 programs generally serve international students trying to perfect their language skills and immediate cultural knowledge for university study and social interaction. The surrounding community provides varied opportunities for them to use the language and further reinforces their motivation. In contrast, sheltered courses in foreign language contexts may have more diverse objectives, including language development, but often emphasizing humanistic and cultural knowledge. The goal—particularly at lower L2 proficiency levels—may be more one of foreign language-enriched content instruction (Anderson, Allen, and Narváez, 1993; Jurasek, 1993, 1996) than content-based language instruction. In situations in which perceived future needs for the language may include functional and culturally sensitive language skills for study abroad or future work in the foreign language, developing intercultural understanding may be an important objective. At advanced levels, the study of literature and culture generally retains its traditional importance.

In both kinds of context, sheltered courses in nonlanguage disciplines require interdisciplinary cooperation between language and relevant nonlanguage departments. In North America, ESL courses may be in any field when the goal is integration of international students into regular programs. The main issue that arises is finding subject matter experts who are excellent teachers or tutors willing to accommodate the needs of L2 speakers. In the case of foreign language programs, (p. 283) interdisciplinary partnerships are likely to include both foreign language departments and departments in humanities or social science disciplines whose subject matter deals with international issues or who are preparing students for international careers. (For North American examples of such programs see Anderson, Allen, and Narváez, 1993; Brinton, Snow, and Wesche, 2003; Grandin, 1993; Jurasek, 1993, 1996; Klee, 2000; Klee and Tedick, 1997; Krueger and Ryan, 1993; Shaw, 1996; Straight, 1994; Stryker and Leaver, 1997; Wesche 1985, 1993b, 2001.) In addition to interdepartmental sponsorship of courses, sheltered CBI in foreign language settings requires instructors who are fluent users of the language, specialists in subject areas with wide appeal and relevance to the needs of potential students, and who are able to assemble and use appropriate academic course materials in the L2. For these reasons, such initiatives are more difficult to undertake and maintain.

Adjunct CBI instruction—mainly found in postsecondary situations—involves a separate language course for advanced L2 speakers linked with a regular school or university course offered for L1 speakers in a nonlanguage discipline, in which the L2 students also enroll. Both courses generally offer equivalent academic credit in their respective subject areas. Adjunct content instruction requires a higher level of L2 proficiency than a sheltered course covering the same material, because L2 students must be able to follow the regular lectures and readings alongside native speakers and also understand the sometimes colloquial language and in-group cultural references of classroom discussions (Duff, 2001). The language course syllabus may be tightly coordinated with the content of a single course in a nonlanguage discipline, providing language support for the L2 enrollees (Burger, Wesche, and Migneron, 1997). As an alternative, it may serve L2 speakers enrolled in several different disciplinary courses, providing more general academic language instruction and some individualized, course-related support (M. A. Snow and Brinton, 1997). The primary goal of both the nonlanguage course and the language course in an adjunct arrangement is students' successful learning of the subject matter, but the adjunct model also offers a context in which higher proficiency students can concentrate on improving their academic L2 skills—particularly in writing and vocabulary building. Furthermore, they offer opportunities for interaction with L1 peers. Adjunct courses are not common because of the complex cross-departmental collaboration and high L2 learner proficiency levels they require. For these reasons they are mainly found in postsecondary programs in which international students are preparing for regular study through the host language or in interdisciplinary programs promoting students' foreign language abilities and international knowledge base.

The University of Ottawa, Canada's oldest and largest bilingual university, with a mandate to promote French/English bilingualism among its students and larger community, offers a historical as well as a current example of sheltered and adjunct CBI in both English and French. In 1982, it offered its first experimental sheltered psychology courses in both English and French with ESL coinstructors (Edwards, Wesche, Krashen, Clment, and Kruidenier, 1984). Given their efficacy, these courses became regular offerings, and other courses in social sciences and humanities (p. 284) disciplines were established. The first adjunct models were undertaken soon afterward for higher proficiency students (Burger, Wesche and Migneron, 1997; Hauptman, Wesche, and Ready, 1988; Wesche, 2000). Some of these courses were offered for over a decade; with one exception they were, however, gradually abandoned in the early 1990s due to financial constraints. (Sheltered and adjunct L2 courses are generally more expensive than advanced ESL courses due to the difficulty of enrolling large numbers of students at the right L2 proficiency level in a given content area at a given point in time). A two-semester sequence of adjunct L2 courses linked to the introductory courses in second language teaching was maintained for nonnative enrollees in the university's ESL Certificate Program for Foreign Trained Teachers for several more years. In 2005, with a new source of financing to promote advanced French L2 mastery among English-speaking students, the university was able to reestablish CBI in the context of a new Rgime ďimmersion, or French Immersion Studies (FIS program, which offers multifaceted content-based opportunities for advanced French learning; Burger and Weinberg, 2009; Ryan, Gobeil, Hope, and Toews-Janzen, 2008; Weinberg, Burger, and Hope, 2008). (Several new English adjunct courses were also established at that time.) The FIS is aimed at graduates of secondary French immersion programs and students who have otherwise reached advanced levels through other school programs, exchanges, or work in bilingual environments, as verified by an online admission test of receptive French skills. Its goal is to equip such students to pursue their postsecondary education partially or entirely in French. Participants take a minimum of 12 credit courses in French from among the advanced French language courses, the adjunct language courses supporting some 50 selected French courses in different disciplines, or the regular courses for francophone students. Further incentives include the option of pass/fail grades for up to eight adjunct courses in the first 2 years of study, access to language monitors and conversation groups, a student resource center, opportunities for one- or two-semester international exchanges, official French Immersion designation on their graduation diploma, and if participants reach high enough levels on the French Language Certification Test by the end of their studies, a French Second Language Certificate.

Other Models

Examples of some other models incorporating different sets of CBI features that have been described for particular contexts in recent literature are subsequently provided.

Sustained-content language teaching/instruction (SCLT/I) is a variant of theme-based instruction that focuses on a single topic or theme content over the length of a course rather than multiple topics. In this way, L2 speakers who are preparing for postsecondary study through their L2 are ensured greater depth of treatment of the subject matter (M. A. Snow, Andrade, and Harper Makaafi, 2001; Murphy and Stoller, 2001; Pally, 1997, 2000). Although SCLT may not have the (p. 285) integrity of a sheltered credit regular-content course taught to L2 students by a subject expert as a bridge to the new discourse community, it allows a primary focus on language instruction and may offer particularly relevant content to learners entering a given discipline. It also has greater potential for adaptation of instruction and evaluation techniques for students at somewhat lower proficiency levels. Finally, SCLT is likely to be more feasible administratively than a sheltered course, because interdisciplinary arrangements are not required.

A simulated adjunct model that combines features of both theme-based and adjunct-content instruction with L1 speakers has been successfully implemented at UCLA, in a context in which true adjunct instruction is not feasible (Brinton and Jensen, 2002; Goodwin, 2001; Weigle and Jensen, 1977). Content-based units, taught by a language instructor, are organized around topics and materials drawn from existing university courses in different disciplines. Each unit consists of authentic video lecture excerpts and readings, supplemented with language activities that aim to develop students' academic language and study skills. With its multiple topics, this model can serve students preparing for different disciplines. A major advantage lies in the use of the oral and written materials from actual courses. Otherwise, the simulated adjunct model shares the curricular flexibility and administrative feasibility of SCLT, as well as the drawback of not being a credit regular-content course.

The practice of mainstreaming advanced second language speakers into classes for native speakers when accompanied by tutoring or other individual or small-group instructional support to help them succeed academically and continue their language development may be viewed as a form of CBI. This practice takes many forms; it is often found in ESL CBI at all school levels. One approach is to begin with partial mainstreaming into subject areas that rely relatively less on language and for which students may have more transferable background knowledge from L1 schooling (for example, music, physical education, or mathematics versus social studies or history) while providing ongoing CBI support.

A related variant of the adjunct model, known as Project LEAP: Learning English for Academic Purposes, was a multiyear project implemented at California State University Los Angeles (CSULA), an institution with a significant language minority student population. Given the impossibility of providing language support for enough students through sheltered or adjunct courses, the project focused on faculty development (M. A. Snow, 1997; M. A. Snow and Kamhi-Stein, 1997, Snow, Kamhi-Stein, and Brinton, 2006). A major activity in LEAP was a semester-long seminar for selected faculty instructors of core general education courses (e.g., history) on how to make their instruction more accessible to L2 speakers. They then applied these principles to the design of language-enhanced sections of their discipline courses for all students, including language minority students who also enrolled in special study group sections linked to these sections that were team taught by a regular study group leader and an ESL teacher. In these they received guidance and practice in academic language use and study skills directly related to the discipline courses.

A conceptually related approach to LEAP is the now common provision of training for preservice K-12 secondary teachers to understand and deal effectively (p. 286) with the needs of language minority students in their classes at different levels and in different subject areas (Crandall, 1994; see Walker, Ranney, and Fortune, 2005, for a recent discussion of considerations in the design of such a course.) Similar initiatives in many teacher education programs are responding to the fact that American schools face an average of almost 10% of children overall for whom English is a second language, with far higher enrollment averages in many urban contexts (Kindler, 2002).

Brinton 2007 has recently proposed language enhanced instruction (LEI), a variant of sheltered instruction for advanced students following postsecondary professional preparation programs around the world through their L2, typically English or some other language that functions as a lingua franca. Even though all students in such programs are studying through their L2, the content courses are often not organized to support language analysis, practice, and feedback. Such students frequently have significant gaps in their English academic language proficiency, exhibiting high levels of comprehension and fluency but lacking accuracy in their writing and speaking. Brinton sees LEI as having particular relevance to methodology courses in English teacher preparation programs embedded in institutions that function in a national language, she cites both an Outer Circle example in Uzbekistan and the European example of English studies programs in Spanish universities (also see Dueñas, 2004). At the Uzbek State University of World Languages, a Russian-medium institution in Tashkent, the Institute for English Language Teacher Education offers a 4-year English-medium teacher preparation program in which 2 years of intensive English language study are followed by 2 years of methodology courses. Brinton 2007 and Snow, Kahmi-Stein, and Brinton (2006) describe a recent multiyear project to revise the entire curriculum in which one of the main innovations was the introduction of LEI as the underlying approach to methodology course syllabi during years 3 and 4. The goal was to ensure ongoing attention to students' language development in these content courses, emphasizing such elements as integrated language and content goals, more interactive (as opposed to teacher fronted) activities, and systematic feedback on language accuracy. The Uzbek case may be seen as a model for language teacher preparation in a variety of settings—a model that can respond to locally perceived needs and possibilities.

Finally, the increased use of the Internet and other technologies in second/foreign language instruction have led to new kinds of CBI delivery to language learners. To date such initiatives generally supplement more traditional teaching modes; for example, Internet discussion forums and e-mail exchanges linking L1 and L2 speakers (Furstenberg, Levet, English, and Maillet, 2001; Warschauer and Meskill, 2000). These technologies are often focused on participants' perspectives regarding current social and cultural issues as well as on linguistic interaction. A Canadian example of synchronous computer-mediated communication (CMC), linking L1 and L2 Korean students for chat homework assignments from a weekly “heritage language and culture” course, demonstrates how such an approach can enhance the development of both language and cultural knowledge (Chung, 2005;Chung, Graves, Wesche, and Barfurth, 2005). A recent Malaysian example of CMC (p. 287) use in CBI involves an SCLT approach tailored for L2 computer students in a technological university (Shamsudin and Nesi, 2006). Practicum tasks that students worked on to design computerized software for given “clients” led to improved communicative language skills as well as to better performance in subsequent computer science projects. An innovation in concordancing software that can be used in CBI to help students develop specialized vocabulary in different fields is reported by Cobb (2005). His program allows students to access and compare excerpts from a given text exemplifying uses of a given word or phrase of interest and to create specialized dictionaries for literary or other specialized texts.

Language Instruction Issues in CBI

Language and Content Interface

The most important pedagogical issue for CBI at all program levels is the interface between language and content considerations. Learners tend to be highly motivated in CBI contexts, particularly if they are there by choice. However, a serious mismatch between course demands and learners' existing capabilities and knowledge in either the language or subject matter (or both) easily leads to frustration, loss of motivation, and lack of progress (see discussion in Cisar and Suderman, 1992, as well as examples in Johnson, 1997, and Shaw, 1996).Mohan 1986 referred to “the language factor in content” by which learners are handicapped in accessing content through lectures and texts in their L2. Likewise, assessment methods involving high language demands—such as lengthy oral presentations, essay tests, or unstructured research assignments—may furthermore mean that L2 learners are unable to demonstrate the content knowledge they do have (Brinton, Snow, and Wesche, 2003; Klee and Tedick, 1997; Weigle and Jensen, 1997). The “content factor in language” is also at work, so that learners for whom the subject matter is unfamiliar and difficult may be overwhelmed with content learning demands. In such cases they cannot adequately attend to the new language to which they are exposed or are required to produce (Johnson, 1997; Ready and Wesche, 1992). Interface problems are present in all forms of CBI; however, managing them is particularly critical at the postsecondary level due to the sheer quantity of disciplinary content to be learned, the sophisticated language expectations, and the high stakes for students. Even when lectures are modified for L2 users, as in sheltered instruction, heavy reading loads and complex written texts raise difficulties with both content learning and language development. The alternative, noted in the concern of content instructors that adaptations for L2 speakers may “water down” content, is not new. Neither is the solution. In the words of the Moravian bishop, Jan Amos Comenius (1638),

(p. 288) if students do not understand the subject matter, how can they master the various devices for expressing it forcibly? The time is more usefully spent on less ambitious efforts, so devised that knowledge of the language and the general intelligence may advance together step by step (The Great Didactic of Jan Amos Cometius [1638], tr. M. W. Keatinge, 1920/1967: 204–205.).

In other words, adaptation of some kind may be required for successful progress of L2 users in their studies of other subjects, be it courses in somewhat familiar content areas, modifications in presentation, smaller doses of content, more time devoted to fewer courses, and/or content-related language instruction. Confirmation of this wisdom for CBI is found in reports of well-researched programs representing strong forms of CBI. All point to the crucial need for attention to the pedagogical and other conditions that can ensure that learners arrive at an in-depth understanding of the content and are able to reformulate it appropriately for relevant purposes. Through these efforts and those of the students themselves the learning of both will advance together step by step.

Emphasis on Accuracy

One way in which CBI approaches differ is with regard to their pedagogical focus on aspects of the code, or language analysis (Stern, 1989). Research findings indicate the importance of drawing learners' attention to formal characteristics of the L2 as part of communicative activity for the development of accurate language use (Harley, 1984, 1993; Lightbown and Spada, 2006; Lyster, 2007; Lyster and Ranta, 1997; Spada, 1997). This is particularly important with respect to learner errors that do not impede communication and thus attract little natural feedback. Although CBI in its stronger forms has often proceeded without instructional emphasis on language analysis, its contexts provide rich opportunities for an emphasis on accurate and culturally appropriate language. Accuracy in language use is an important educational goal and, in recent years, realization of the need for more attention to formal properties of language and discourse has brought change to many CBI contexts.

Methods for insuring such a focus within purposeful communicative activities include:

  • Careful curricular formulation of specific language objectives for content units (M. A. Snow, Met, and Genesee, 1989)

  • The systematic incorporation of tasks into the curriculum of tasks that promote interaction (Long and Crookes, 1992; Swain, 2001b; Tulung, 2008) or focus on formal aspects of language (Skehan 2003)

  • An emphasis on accuracy as well as fluency in language production (Swain 1985, 1995) and incorporation of planning, structure, and feedback into the preparation of complex oral and written texts (Brinton, Snow, and Wesche, 2003; Burger and Chrétien, 2001; Skehan, 2003)

  • Explicit content-related language instruction (Burger, Wesche, and Migneron, 1997; Harley, 1993)

(p. 289) Recent research on the topic of form focused activity in a sheltered Italian geography course (given as part of an Italian language program in an American university) found that intentional focusing on form in communicative frames when incidental or preplanned opportunities were present was effective in developing more accurate language use (Rodgers, 2006). It seems likely that in the future, L2 CBI approaches will increasingly incorporate form-focused activities.

Contact with Native Speaker Peers and Out-of-Class L2 Use

With the exception of adjunct courses, most forms of CBI for L2 speakers cannot provide either regular contact with peers who are native speakers of the target language or, in the case of foreign language contexts, broad exposure to out-of-class language use. In classes limited to L2 speakers, even when all instruction is in the instructional language, learners may exhibit L2 use patterns that diverge from accepted target language norms, particularly in grammatical aspects of the language (e.g., Harley, 1984, 1993). In classes where native speaker peers are present, such as the regular courses for L1 speakers in adjunct CBI arrangements and CBI supported mainstreaming, L2 learners observe and interact with L1 speakers in class and may also develop social relations with them. As a result, they are likely to become more aware of their own errors and of appropriate academic language norms and consequently gain greater ease in social situations, higher listening and speaking fluency, and more of what some have called “cultural literacy” regarding the target language community. The following are some other notable examples of CBI situations that involve significant contact with native speaker peers:

  • The innovative Korean/English program, previously noted, designed to bring together Korean-speaking high school age immigrants to Canada and English-speaking second generation Korean peers in an international school Saturday class with a theme-based curriculum (Chung, 2005; Chung, Graves, Wesche, and Barfurth, 2005). Previously, separate instruction was given for the two groups due to differences in Korean proficiency, and cross-group social interaction was rare. In bilingual small-group Internet chat-room homework assignments, they became each other's tutors for themes comparing different phenomena across Korean and Canadian cultures, for example, a selected holiday or sport, with students using their respective L1s. In her ethnographic study Chung 2005 found that over time participants became effective peer tutors across groups for both language and cultural understandings.

  • Two-way immersion, in which peers from two different L1s each separately study the their own language as an L1 and the other as an L2 in language arts classes, and attend together other subject area classes taught in either of the languages (Rhodes, Christian, and Barfield, 1997). Ongoing school programs of this kind are feasible only in areas where there are relatively large numbers of L2 or bilingual households, and where bilingual schooling attracts adequate enrollments from both groups.

  • (p. 290) European schools, established primarily for children whose parents work for European institutions, aim to develop each learner's home language and culture and a “European” identity in at least three languages by graduation. This is accomplished through L2 study of the host country language and several other European languages as well as taking courses (including native-speaker peers) given in other disciplines and taught in those languages in different subject areas by native-speaker teachers (Baetens-Beardsmore, 1993). Fourteen such schools now exist through intergovernmental agreements.

  • A postsecondary, multilingual “Languages across the Curriculum” (LAC) graduate program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS, Monterey, CA), in which mixed classes of American and international students take courses in various disciplines together through different languages including English, so that all students experience study through one or several L2s as well as their L1 (Shaw, 1996)

  • • Organized out-of-class language activities, exchanges, and study abroad programs as a complement to classroom CBI. Freed's (1995) edited volume provides varied cases studies of mainly postsecondary exchange experiences and their outcomes, particularly in terms of language learning. MacFarlane and Wesche 1995, in a study of Ontario French immersion and Quebec Intensive English grade 6 students in a school group exchange, demonstrated the kinds of classroom-complementary language development that can be promoted in different contexts during extended contact experiences

Research Findings

As is clear from the documents previously mentioned, an abundant and continually evolving literature on content-based instruction now exists, including 4 decades of documentation on school immersion. For reviews or edited collections on Canadian immersion, see Calvé (1991), Cummins (1998), Genesee 1987, M. A. Snow (1998), Swain and Lapkin 1982, and Wesche 2001, and in recent years, annual reports on French-language education in Canada, published by the national organization known as Canadian Parents for French (CPF; 2008), that provide a cumulative record of current issues in French immersion and other French programs. For immersion in other countries, see Johnson and Swain 1997 and Wesche (2002), and for CBI elements in a similarly vast literature on bilingual education, see Baker 2006. Excellent reviews and collections also cover school-level CBI for mainstreamed English as a second language (ESL) learners (e.g., Faltis and Hudelson, 1998; Genesee, 1994), and for postsecondary CBI and LAC (Crandall and Kaufman, 2002; Grabe and Stoller, 1997; Krueger and Ryan, 1993; (p. 291) Rosenthal, 2000; M. A. Snow and Brinton, 1997; Stryker and Leaver, 1997; Turlington and Schoenberg, 1996). Discussion of common implementation issues for CBI programs at different levels may be found in program handbooks, manuals, research reports, and university and college websites. The Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) at the University of Minnesota is an important source of such information.

Because studies have most often been undertaken to evaluate existing program initiatives, theory development has drawn heavily from research in related fields in the interpretation of patterns of program success and failure (Grabe and Stoller, 1997). Over time, program descriptions and data on learner outcomes have yielded to more detailed analysis of classroom processes (see, e.g., Duff, 2001; Early, 2001; Mohan and Beckett, 2001; Pica, 2002; Swain, 2001a). The development of shared concepts and models has led to comparisons within and across programs. The resulting literature provides guidance for diverse CBI initiatives. Two general points may be noted: (1) To be successful, a CBI program must respect the particularities of its context; each situation is unique; and (2) at the same time, shared issues arise over quite diverse contexts in implementing and maintaining CBI programs, so there is much to be learned from the experience of others. Overall, the research findings on the outcomes of a broad range of CBI programs are highly consistent, showing that successful subject matter learning, second/foreign language development superior to that achieved otherwise in school or academia and positive attitude changes (by both learners and instructional staff) can all be achieved—with willing learners—through CBI approaches. Several recent studies have also shown transfer of learning through greater success of L2 students with CBI preparation than those without it in subsequent L2 and regular subject matter courses for L1 speakers (James, 2006; Song, 2005), while a recent study of French language sheltered course outcomes at the University of Ottawa showed that participants were likely to move to nonsheltered, regular courses for L1 speakers following sheltered instruction (Ryan, Gobeil, Hope, and Toews-Janzen, 2008; Weinberg, Burger, and Hope, 2008). Studies have also shown that content-based second language instruction tends to be greatly appreciated by students for its relevance to their L2 needs and by participating staff for the satisfaction of truly helping students to prepare for “life after language instruction” (Burger and Weinberg, 2009; Grabe and Stoller, 1997; M. A. Snow, 1997, 1998; Wesche, 1993a, 1993b).

Stronger forms of CBI involving credit instruction in sheltered or L1 contexts nonetheless face significant obstacles, and their existence can usually be traced to highly committed individuals and to institutions that place a priority on multilingualism and intercultural education for a global citizenry. CBI initiatives often suffer from inconsistent administrative support and may face daunting obstacles to cross-disciplinary collaboration, in itself an extremely complex issue at secondary and postsecondary levels. The long-term survival of CBI activities depends crucially on continuing administrative commitment and adequate resourcing. Significant issues confronting most CBI programs include (among others) the following:

  • (p. 292) Lack of specific teacher preparation, either of content instructors for L2 learners or language instructors for content-driven instruction (but see Peterson, 1997; Snow and Kamhi-Stein, 2002; Walker, Ranney, and Fortune, 2005)

  • Inadequate or nonexistent curricular definition designed to integrate language and content objectives

  • Related problems such as unrealistic expectations and inappropriate assessment practices

Again, it must be noted that, although CBI is founded upon sound principles, the outcomes depend upon the details of implementation.


CBI involves relatively intensive exposure of L2 speakers in school or academic settings to highly contextualized new language of particular relevance to them. It can provide enhanced motivation for L2 learning, a naturalistic learning context that provides the needed conditions for such learning, including social and other pragmatic dimensions, and offers the possibility of form-focused activity that can enhance accuracy in L2 use. Together these perhaps offer as close to a comprehensive environment for second language development as is possible in the classroom.

CBI may be a particularly evident choice for two clienteles. The first is young school learners (e.g., in kindergarten immersion) who readily accept a foreign instructional language and a native-speaker teacher as a language model to be imitated—thus minimizing the accuracy problem for oral language. Because the learners are preliterate, reading readiness and academic talent are not as decisive to their early language success as they would be for older learners. Thus the basis may be laid for L2 proficiency across a broader spectrum of learners than is likely when language study comes later and is less intensive. CBI also works well with able and motivated older learners who have had adequate L2 abilities and knowledge, often including systematic study of language structures—enabling them to cope, when supported, with high-level academic content when learners are motivated by an interest in the particular content as related to their eventual uses of the language. In such cases, learners can draw upon their preexisting grammatical knowledge and language use ability while focusing on understanding content. CBI for them can play an activating role for language known together with the conditions for ongoing acquisition of an L2.

Content-based instruction is distinguished by its application in school, academic, and similar training contexts that, although they may offer good conditions for language development, also constrain the language syllabus, and generally (p. 293) require tailor-made programs. It is nonetheless attractive because it offers simultaneous development of content knowledge that might have to be addressed anyway, as well as L2 ability, because it emphasizes academic language skills, and, perhaps most crucially, because it is a means of significantly increasing exposure to the L2. CBI is likely to continue to flourish, particularly in contexts in which learners' main opportunity for developing advanced L2 proficiency is a school or postsecondary context and in which they need to develop academic L2 ability.