The Rewards and Challenges of Content-Based Language Teaching

“Content-based language teaching” (CBLT) refers to a variety of contexts where students learn both academic content and a second or foreign language.

CBLT characterizes the classroom experience of immigrant and minority-language children who, of necessity, learn a new language and age-appropriate academic content at the same time. It also applies to foreign-language programs such as “immersion” and Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), where the inclusion of academic content increases the amount of time that students spend in learning and using a foreign language.

CBLT can provide greater motivation for student engagement because lessons focus on topics that are more interesting and important than those that are typical of traditional foreign language lessons.

CBLT may be seen as an efficient way to deliver second- or foreign-language instruction. In CBLT, students do not learn a language in order to use it later to talk about new and interesting things. Rather, students are placed in the situation of learning and talking about new and interesting things while they are learning the new language.

Different academic content offers different opportunities and challenges for language learning. For example, science lessons are often rich with demonstrations and hands-on activities that make it possible for students to understand, even when their language skills are limited. Lessons in the social sciences may be enhanced through the use of questionnaires and surveys, creating valuable opportunities for interaction.  Practice in mathematics can involve students in activities where multiple repetitions are natural and effective for developing fluency and confidence. Readings in history and English language arts challenge students to enrich their vocabulary and to learn more complex syntactic patterns, metaphoric expressions, and a variety of language registers.

CBLT has been used successfully in many classrooms. We must acknowledge, however, that it requires considerable effort on the part of both teachers and students.  Contrary to some claims, we cannot expect that students will acquire the new language “automatically” or that all teachers will know how to provide instruction that gives adequate attention to both the academic content and the foreign or second language itself.

One important finding from the many research studies that have looked at CBLT is that students may not acquire the ability to use the new language fluently and accurately, even when they are able to learn the academic content that is delivered in that language. Similarly, some students may give the impression of easy, fluent conversational ability while failing to master the academic content that is appropriate to their age and grade level.

To be successful, CBLT instruction must make complex academic content comprehensible and draw students’ attention to aspects of the language that they may not learn without intentional effort.

Finding the balance between instruction focused on meaning and instruction focused on language itself is a challenge for all second- and foreign-language teachers. It is an especially great challenge for CBLT teachers who bear the responsibility for ensuring that students learn both academic content and a new language.

The rewards and challenges of Content-Based Language Teaching

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