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  • Writer's pictureGPI US

Content-Based Instruction (CBI): A win-win for English-language learners

Whether physically attending college or university in an English-speaking country, or taking classes online with learners from all over the planet, international students often see English as an obstacle to getting the education they want and deserve. While they may like to pursue engineering, chemistry, or art—and not necessarily the study of Emily Dickinson’s poems in their original language version—mastering English, the world’s new lingua franca, can seem like a daunting prerequisite for success in the world of global education. Some are overwhelmed by big words and fast-speaking professors, others get discouraged early on—while sitting through lengthy ESL classes that prioritize learning grammar rules native speakers don’t even adhere to anymore.

What many of these students don’t realize, however, is that the unique position they are in can be turned into an unparalleled learning opportunity. Their need for the English language as a medium through which to learn about the subjects of their academic interest can act as a motivator and a tool: a strategic way to not only explore their chosen fields more thoroughly but also to improve their language ability quickly. This opportunity comes with the approach of content-based Instruction.

Developed by second language acquisition specialists in the late 1980s, content-based instruction (CBI) is “an approach to language teaching that focuses not on the language itself, but rather on what is being taught through the language Brinton (Snow, & Wesche, 1989).” In a broader sense, CBI has also come to refer to content classes (such as math, history, or political science) taught specifically to groups of English-language learners, with great consideration given to their unique needs, abilities, and learning styles. In integrated content-and-English, CBI-based classes, students can broaden their understanding of interesting and relevant academic subjects in a way that tremendously benefits their English-language skills.

To achieve these goals, CBI classes follow clearly-specified guidelines and methodology. While authentic content textbooks and materials are used, students’ understanding is scaffolded with supplementary resources that make the language of instruction within reach: just above the students’ current level, but comprehensible with deliberate teacher assistance. Visuals, such as graphic organizers, posters, and storybooks, are used extensively to tap into learners’ multiple intelligences, and all classroom learning happens collaboratively in pairs and small groups. CBI lends itself very well to active-learning principles, too: content-based classes make heavy use of inquiry, task, and project-based learning.

And the best thing is: it works! Research shows that “we learn a second language more successfully when we use it as a means of acquiring information, rather than as an end in itself (Richards and Rogers, 2005).” Engaging with language closely also promotes deeper comprehension of the content itself, and using supportive active-learning strategies ensures plenty of opportunities to practice—both English and the concepts we’re learning about. Taking a fun, level-appropriate content class can motivate students to learn English better, and eventually see the necessity of mastering it as a chance to broaden their understanding of any kind of topic or idea, benefiting from access to resources that might not be available in their own first language.

The philosophy and methods used in all of GPI US’ educational sessions, whether focused on self-development, leadership, or STEM, are deeply rooted in the content-based approach. While learning valuable, empowering life skills, as well as concepts from all around the academic spectrum, our students get to practice and improve their English skills in an entertaining, collaborative, and efficient way.


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