CBIContent-Based Language Instruction is popular in university and college academic settings for English language instruction.  Content-Based Language Teaching is also used in primary and secondary educational settings in a variety of EFL and ESL settings, including full immersion environments and as supplements to content or foreign language learning in a bilingual setting.  This article defines content-based instruction implemented as the foundation of an intensive English language program and how such a framework possibly helps accelerate language learning.

Look at today’s ESL/EFL textbooks.  Most present English learning within topics, or themes. We could argue that this is content-based instruction.  Many academic ESL  classes use these content-based texts for learning English. Topics range from basic every day situations such as going to the grocery store, to more academic content such as environmental issues or psychology.  So what makes this content-based instruction?  Is it enough just to present language in a topic area or theme?IMGP0532

Content-Based Instruction can be viewed along a continuum, from focusing on the language and language learning itself to a focus on using language to navigate and learn a content (Content-Based Second Language Instruction, Brinton, Snow, and Wesche).  That continuum is often defined by the level of language skill of the students. What is important to note is that at each point on the continuum, it is essential to have support from an instructor with experience in language teaching and CBLI.

To illustrate the continuum of content-based instruction, let’s take a look at what typically happens in an academic university ESL program using content-based instruction from beginning level to advanced:

Beginning to intermediate levels – these courses are typically taught with themes as the content or context for learning English.  In academic settings, these will include the use of textbook series which provide chapters around different themes.  Some popular textbook series which are used in the United States include the following:

These types of textbooks provide relevant every day and academic content themes to promote development of English language skills and grammar through context.  A class will consist of instruction around three to four different theme areas.

Advanced Courses – students who have a strong knowledge of the basics of English can benefit from courses designed as “shelter courses.”  These are courses which focus on one content just as any university or academic course might.  However, they are taught by experienced English teachers, who many times develop the content of the course themselves.  They may use an unabridged college textbook as the core resource for the class.  For example, in our program, Academic English Studies, instructors have designed a number of content-based courses for the intermediate to advanced levels.  Instructors have developed content-based courses in sociology, technology and society, American culture through film, and leadership and organizations, just to name a few.  These courses range from six to fifteen weeks in length.  Students are able to test their English and critical thinking skills while developing language and knowledge of a subject area.  Focus is on developing English skills within the academic content, integrating all aspects of language learning: reading, writing, speaking, listening, and grammar use.  There is a heavy focus on developing English language to be able to express progressively more complex ideas and critical thinking. In sheltered courses there can be an emphasis on  the content while also supporting development of language needed to be productive at an advanced level of English in the subject area.

As a student’s English skills advance toward proficiency, these sheltered English language courses allow for that student to test their ability to succeed in what is virtually a real university course but with the safety net and guidance of an ESL/EFL teacher.

A further supported content-based course would be what is referred to as an “adjunct” or “bridge” course.  This is a structure where a student is actually enrolled in a university course but also is simultaneously enrolled in a support, or “adjunct” course, which provides the student the linguistic, cultural, and academic support to fully engage and benefit from the content course.  At Lewis & Clark,   AES  instructors support advanced English language students who audit a regular undergraduate course in one of the departments at Lewis & Clark through weekly meetings to help students understand the content material from the academic course.  The students and teacher look at the content from readings and lectures.  A teacher works with the students individually or in small groups to help them understand the vocabulary related to the content as well as academic vocabulary and language structure in general.  They also discuss the culture of the American classroom: note-taking, small group discussion etiquette and process, question-asking, interpreting class assignments, and general interactions between students and professors.

In summary, content-based instruction incorporates Krashen’s theory that English learners can develop their language proficiency more quickly when provided with meaningful and comprehensible content and context with support from an experienced language instructor.

4-17-18 For more reading, here is summary of a research article on the long-term effects of content-based instruction for academic purposes for language instruction.

What are your experiences learning or teaching language using content-based instruction?


Baecher, L., Farnsworth, T., & Ediger, A. (2014). The challenges of planning language objectives in content-based ESL instruction. Language Teaching Research, 18 (1), 118-136.

Brinton, D., Snow, M, & Wesche, M. (2003). Content-based second language instruction. Michigan Classics Edition, Michigan Press.

Jalilzadeh, K., & Tahmasebi, A. ( 2014). Content-based syllabus. European Scientific Journal, 1SE, 223-238.

Krashen, S.D. (1985). The input hypothesis.  Longman, 1985.

Rodgers, D. M.  (2014). Making the case for content based instruction. Italica, Spring, 91(1), 16-28.
 Laura Shier  Laura Shier is the director of Academic English Studies at Lewis & Clark in Portland, Oregon