Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Incorporating Content

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland
jonestamara@hotmail.com

The Content / Grammar Divide

After a lifetime of teaching English to adults in an IEP (or similar) context, when I first started teaching at to secondary school students in Belgium I found myself scrambling to find (and often create) materials that would meet two needs: (1) help students improve their English and (2) prepare them for the academic content they would encounter as they matriculated to their mainstream classes.

Every day that my students spent in EAL (English as an Additional Language) Immersion was one less day they had to learn the stuff the rest of their peers were learning in secondary school. Therefore, our goal was to get them proficient enough to join their regular classes as soon as possible, and I found the irregular past tense taking a back seat to physics and chemistry vocabulary.

But, this survivalist approach didn’t always serve the students well because when it came to writing essays for History or English literature, the inaccuracies in their grammar often came back to haunt them. As a result, I had to come up with some way to kill two birds with one stone. Although this involved a major shift in mind-set and a ton of extra work for me, I learned some valuable lessons about content-based instruction (CBI) along the way.

Why Bother with Content?

There are lots of reasons to go the extra mile and incorporate content into our grammar lessons. First, it prepares students to post-ESL academia. “Integrated language and content instruction offers a means by which English as a second language (ESL) students can continue their academic or cognitive development while they are also acquiring academic language proficiency.” (Crandall, 1994) This isn’t the case just for my Secondary EAL students; this is also true for parents who want to help their children with homework in English, for students who are preparing for the TOEFL, which contains a great deal of content-based materials, and for learners who may have gaps in their own school attendance. Second, CBI helps students to learn English more quickly and more happily.

Content-based courses make language gains equal or superior to those of students in traditional language classrooms, and at a much faster pace. They also learn large amounts of subject matter. Moreover, students in content-based courses develop more positive attitudes toward the target language, show increased self-confidence in their ability to use the target language, and express an interest in pursuing its study. Finally, CBI empowers students so that they can become autonomous learners.
Dupuy, 2000, page 219

Faster? More? Happier? Sign me up! In fact, it was quotes such as these that convinced me of the importance of integrating content into my lessons even after I left my job in Secondary education and returned to teaching adults in the USA.

Integrating Content without (too much) Stress

Clearly, publishers have finally gotten on the content bandwagon because there are several new series that incorporate content and language for us. However, if you are not in the position to introduce a new textbook into your lessons, there are other, easy ways to make sure your students are getting their daily dose of content.

First, content can provide students with valuable opportunities for noticing, an essential element of language acquisition (Schmidt, 1990). Simply provide students with an excerpt from a text or a clip from YouTube and ask questions designed to prompt them to notice the target grammar. One example of how this can work is described in an earlier posting, Kneading your Way into the Passive Voice.

Second, content can provide stimulating practice activities. Listenings can be used as a basis for note-taking practice and dictations. Readings can be used as gap fills for extra grammar practice, as in my post, A Howling Good Cause and Effect Lesson.

In addition, readings can help students see how specific structures can be used to organize a text, for instance how old information is usually given in dependent clauses, while new information is presented in independent clauses. Videos can also provide students with supplemental grammar practice when accompanied by an activity, such as having students write questions for the answers provided in the video (practice forming questions) or putting events in order (practicing the various past tenses) in addition to the go-to gap fills.

Finally, content based materials offer an excellent starting point for writing or conversation practice. Often students have much less trouble when they are asked to report on something or respond to something than when they have to come up with content on their own.

So, where is an ESL/EFL teacher to find all these great content-rich resources? If you are like me, you never see, read or hear anything without one part of your brain assessing it for use in the classroom. Whenever I come across anything on the internet, I save the link in my diigo (https://www.diigo.com/) account. It allows me to store a ton of links and (even better) organize them by key word and/or topic so they are easy to find.

Now, I’d love to hear how you use content in your language classes!


Crandall, J. (1994). Content-centered Language Learning, Retrieved from: http://www.ericdigests.org/1994/content.htm.
Dupuy, B. (2000). Content-based instruction: Can it help ease the transition from beginning to advanced foreign language classes.  Foreign Language Annals, 33(2), pages 205-223.
Schmidt, R. (1990). The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 11, pages 129-158.

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