The debate of what exactly content-based instruction is and how it should be used has been an issue for the past three decades. Some consider the instruction to be based solely on the subject area content that is being taught in educational facilities. Others widen that scope and broaden it to include topics, whether they are academic or not, regardless as to whether or not they are based on language, as long as the issue or interest is important to the individual learner.
Focusing on the subject content area instruction, educators focus on the student learning the content. The fact that English is a second language is not as important an issue in this type of class as the subject matter of the course. The content outlined in the curriculum is the main focus in this type of classroom. The students’ lack of English skills is a secondary matter. The teacher can decide on selecting some language objectives, but the overall grade is derived mainly from the students’ mastery of the subject matter that has been taught. In short, the student is treated like all of the other students in the class, with perhaps a little leniency due to the language barrier that exists.
A classroom that is language driven is much different than a content-based classroom. The content of the course is used to help develop the English language skills. The main focus is not the course content, but rather is the learning of the English language. The course material that is learned is of secondary concern. The course goals or curriculum are different that those of the English speaking students. Grading of the English language learning students is evaluated on their ability to integrate language into the content area, but the main focus is their increased knowledge and proficiency of the English language.
Often, the content-based programs that are used are labeled as immersion programs. Through these programs, students learn English speaking skills through their interactions with peers and instructors. They often fall short in helping students with their written skills and also impede the students’ ability to grasp and remember content in an effective manner. When using the language-driven programs as the main source of an English language learner’s educational program, the mastery of content is viewed as a grateful secondary aspect to the practice of the English language. Neither teachers nor students are being held accountable that the students master the subject matter curriculum in any way. What subject matter the students do learn is taught by a teacher who is not certified in that content area most of the time, and therefore there is no accountability on the English as a second language instructor either.
At the post-secondary level, there has been some success using a model which incorporates three styles of instruction: sheltered courses, adjunct courses, and theme-based courses. The sheltered courses are based on the content-based premise of the elementary and secondary systems. Adjunct courses combine language-driven and content-based models together for the learner. While increasing language proficiency, students are still held accountable for the course material and curriculum. They are an immersion-style course with language support offered to the student. The theme-based courses follow the language-driven model of the elementary and secondary education system. These courses are co-taught, with the primary focus being on language mastery through the use of course content material.
Integrating different models can work well for learners of all levels. It is difficult to offer this alternative, however, in a public school setting, due to the expense and availability of teachers that are fluent in all of the languages that might be needed. The author did do an excellent job of exploring the different options that are available and the feasibility of each while remaining as unbiased as possible (Met, 1999).
Met, M. (1999). Content-based instruction: Defining terms, making decisions. NFLC Reports.
Washington, DC: The National Foreign Language Center.