Content-based Instruction
Explanation of Main Features
Content-based Instruction (CBI) is based on the theory that a language is acquired best when its features are attended to in the study of relevant, meaningful content rather than with decontextualized, grammar-based language texts and curricula. ELD classes, which focus exclusively on language acquisition, are often best for acquiring BICS, but do not keep students current with content knowledge. In fact, Grabe and Stoller (1997) argue that language classes "often trivialize content learning" (p. 15). On the other hand, CBI distinguishes itself from traditional "immersion" because there is "focused language instruction" that is relevant to the content (p. 7). Features of CBI include cooperative learning,the use of graphic organizers, the explicit teaching of learning strategies, and extensive reading. SLA research conducted by Krashen (Comprehensible Input Theory), Swain, and Cummins (BICS and CALP) have all contributed to the development of CBI. CBI is founded in sociocultural approaches to SLA, as is evidenced by the assertion by Schlepegrell, Achugar, and Oteiza (2004) that CBI proponents are not "integrating language and content. Language and content are already integrated" (p. 90). In a nutshell, CBI provides language learners with the tools to have access to grade-appropriate content curriculum.

According to Grabe and Stoller (1997), the most important features of CBI which speak for its continued development and implementation are:
  • Motivation is built in because the curriculum is "relevant and purposeful" (p. 20)
  • CBI taps students' prior knowledge, thus celebrating the funds of knowledge with which they come to our classrooms
  • CBI is conducive to implementing cooperative learning
  • There is more flexibility than is found in traditional ELD curricula; teachers can tailor units to fit students' needs and interests
  • CBI lends itself to thematic learning, where students can have input in the direction of the class, and ultimately their learning

Grabe, W. & Stoller, F. (1997). Content-based instruction: Research foundations. In M. Snow and D. Brinton (Eds.), The content-based classroom: Perspectives on integrating language and content (pp. 5-21). White Plains, New York: Addison Wesley Longman. Retrieved May 9, 2011 from

Schlepegrell, M., Achugar, M., & Oteiza, T. (2004). The grammar of history: Enhancing content-based instruction through a functional focus on language. TESOL Quaterly, 38(1), 67-93.

Implications and Critique

Content based instruction provides language learners with opportunities to practice language in a meaningful way. This strategy is engaging and motivating because tasks fulfill a purpose. Content and language are learned simultaneously.
Students are given opportunities to learn diverse public discourse in both oral and written form. They develop study skills such as summarizing, extracting information and note taking. Learners also develop critical and higher order thinking by locating information from various sources, evaluating, analyzing and restructuring information.
Some cautions are that students might copy and paste directly from the texts. This can be avoided by having the students read conflicting points of view and coming up with their own conclusion. Also, it is sometimes difficult to locate sources and texts at a reading level appropriate for the student.

Explicit instruction may be needed and can be incorporated into content instruction or be provided in a separate class. Explicit instruction can develop needed vocabulary or language skills or provide additional support by scaffolding reading tasks and teaching students to write in the style used in a particular discipline.

It is possible for students to understand the content but not be able to communicate it with language. Students might be able to show their understanding rather than explain it (diagram, body language, objects). Instructors need to decide if content learning is to be assessed independently of language or integrated with language.

Content-based second language instruction. (2011, March 14). Retrieved May 12, 2011, from Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) website:

Dantas-Whitney, M. (2002). Critical reflection in the second language classroom through audiotaped journals. System, 30(4), 543-555.

Peachey, N. (2003, August 13). Teaching english - content-based instruction. Retrieved May 10,
2011, from BBC website: