Content-Based Instruction: Definition & Example

Learning a new language can be difficult. Content-based instruction is a powerful tool for language instruction. This lesson will define content-based instruction and provide an example of how to use it in the classroom.

What Is Content-Based Instruction?

Have you ever tried to learn a new language? If so, how did you do it? Most people rely on the traditional method of language instruction, which is based on translation and memorization. For example, a student learning French might translate the English word for bread to ‘pain‘ in French. The idea is that the new words will be memorized over time, thus this method focuses on repetition.

An alternative to this method is content-based instruction. Content-based instruction focuses on content rather than language. However, the goal is language instruction. Simply stated, the language becomes a tool for learning new things instead of the topic.

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For example, students might have a lesson on French cuisine. This would focus on the French diet and would naturally introduce words such as ‘pain‘ (bread), ‘fromage,’ (cheese) and ‘croissant,’ in a meaningful way because the words are presented within the context of the content. This helps students make logical connections between ideas, words and objects. Proponents of content-based learning believe that this approach is the most effective method for language acquisition.

Now that we know what content-based instruction is, let’s take a look at an example of it for language instruction in the classroom.

Examples

Have you ever taught students whose native language was not English? How about teaching a new language to English speaking students? For these types of students, most lessons begin with the alphabet and numerals. For example, an early lesson might look something like this:

one uno
two dos
three tres

This approach requires rote memorization and practice. Content-based learning would teach Spanish in a different way. The lesson might go something like this:

Today we are going to take a virtual field trip to the Madrid zoo. When you reach the website, select the ES or Spanish version, for language. Using the images as a guide, list the types of animals featured. What does each animal eat? Where do they live in the wild? What are the hours at the Madrid zoo? Are they open every day of the week?

This type of lesson immerses students in the content through the use of familiar images, Spanish vocabulary, and perhaps even sounds. The lesson is task-based and students may begin to use Spanish terms in response to the questions as they solve the problems. Engagement with the Spanish language occurs naturally as a by-product of the assignment because students see the familiar image of an animal paired with Spanish text.

In short, comprehension increases with content-based learning because the content is meaningful and task-oriented.

Now, think of other ways you could use content-based learning in the classroom to teach Spanish. How about a unit on the Spanish-American War? This could include in-depth study on the Spanish weapons, uniforms, and significant battles, for example. Again, the Spanish language would be a natural component of this lesson, rather than the overall focus.

The geography of Spanish speaking cultures would be another option. These examples represent two options for content-based learning. Can you come up with any others?

Lesson Summary

Content-based learning is an effective method for language instruction. In contrast to traditional language instruction, content-based learning focuses on topical and conceptual information rather than language. Language comprehension emerges naturally as a byproduct of content-based learning.

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