Content-based instruction

Content-based instruction

Content-Based Instruction (CBI) is a significant approach in second language acquisition (Brinton, Snow, & Wesche, 1989). CBI is designed to provide second-language learners instruction in content and language.

Historically, the word content has changed its meaning in language teaching. Content used to refer to the methods of grammar-translation, audio-lingual methodology and vocabulary or sound patterns in dialog form. Recently, content is interpreted as the use of subject matter as a vehicle for second or foreign language teaching/learning.


Benefits of Content Based Instruction

1. Learners are exposed to a considerable amount of language through stimulating content. Learners explore interesting content & are engaged in appropriate language-dependant activities. Learning language becomes automatic.

2. CBI supports contextualized learning; learners are taught useful language that is embedded within relevant discourse contexts rather than as isolated language fragments. Hence students make greater connections with the language & what they already know.

3. Complex information is delivered through real life context for the students to grasp well & leads to intrinsic motivation.

4. In CBI information is reiterated by strategically delivering information at right time & situation compelling the students to learn out of passion.

5. Greater flexibility & adaptability in the curriculum can be deployed as per the students interest.

Comparison to other approaches

The CBI approach is comparable to English for Specific Purposes (ESP), which usually is for vocational or occupational needs or English for Academic Purposes (EAP). The goal of CBI is to prepare students to acquire the languages while using the context of any subject matter so that students learn the language by using it within the specific context. Rather than learning a language out of context, it is learned within the context of a specific academic subject.

As educators realized that in order to successfully complete an academic task, second language (L2) learners have to master both English as a language form (grammar, vocabulary etc.) and how English is used in core content classes, they started to implement various approaches such as Sheltered instruction and learning to learn in CBI classes. Sheltered instruction is more of a teacher-driven approach that puts the responsibility on the teachers' shoulders. This is the case by stressing several pedagogical needs to help learners achieve their goals, such as teachers having knowledge of the subject matter, knowledge of instructional strategies to comprehensible and accessible content, knowledge of L2 learning processes and the ability to assess cognitive, linguistic and social strategies that students use to assure content comprehension while promoting English academic development. Learning to learn is more of a student-centered approach that stresses the importance of having the learners share this responsibility with their teachers. Learning to learn emphasizes the significant role that learning strategies play in the process of learning.

Motivating students

Keeping students motivated and interested are two important factors underlying content-based instruction. Motivation and interest are crucial in supporting student success with challenging, informative activities that support success and which help the student learn complex skills (Grabe & Stoller, 1997). When students are motivated and interested in the material they are learning, they make greater connections between topics, elaborations with learning material and can recall information better (Alexander, Kulikowich, & Jetton, 1994: Krapp, Hidi, & Renninger, 1992). In short, when a student is intrinsically motivated the student achieves more. This in turn leads to a perception of success, of gaining positive attributes which will continue a circular learning pattern of success and interest. Krapp, Hidi and Renninger (1992) state that, "situational interest, triggered by environmental factors, may evoke or contribute to the development of long-lasting individual interests" (p. 18). Because CBI is student centered, one of its goals is to keep students interested and motivation high by generating stimulating content instruction and materials.

Active Student Involvement

Because it falls under the more general rubric of communicative language teaching (CLT), the CBI classroom is learner rather than teacher centered (Littlewood, 1981). In such classrooms, students learn through doing and are actively engaged in the learning process. They do not depend on the teacher to direct all learning or to be the source of all information. Central to CBI is the belief that learning occurs not only through exposure to the teacher's input, but also through peer input and interactions. Accordingly, students assume active, social roles in the classroom that involve interactive learning, negotiation, information gathering and the co-construction of meaning (Lee and VanPatten, 1995).


The integration of language & content teaching is perceived by the European Commission as "an excellent way of making progress in a foreign language". CBI effectively increases learners' English language proficiency & teaches them the skills necessary for the success in various professions. With CBI, learners gradually acquire greater control of the English language, enabling them to participate more fully in an increasingly complex academic & social environment.


  • Brinton, D. (2003). Content-based instruction. In D. Nunan (Ed.), Practical English Language Teaching (pp. 199–224). New York: McGraw Hill.
  • Brinton, D. M., Snow, M. A., & Wesche, M. B. (1989). Content-based second language instruction. New York: Newbury House.
  • Grabe, W., & Stoller, F. L. (1997). Content-based instruction: Research foundations. In M. A. Snow, & D. M. Brinton (Eds.), The content-based classroom: Perspectives on integrating language and content (pp. 5–21). NY: Longman.
  • Snow, M.A.(2001). Content-based and immersion models for second and foreign language teaching. In M. Celce-Murcia (Ed.), Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language (3rd ed.) (pp. 303–318). Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

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