Content-Based Language Instruction

Content-Based language instruction (CBIL) is the use of subject matter to teach English. For example, using a history course to teach students English rather than using specifically design English curriculum. In this post, we will examine more closely this approach to language teaching.


CBIL has the following assumptions about language learning

  • People learn a language much more efficiently when they use it for understanding content
  • People learn a language better through interaction with others and content.
  • Language requires the use of integrated skills
  • Feedback is needed when using a language
  • Prior knowledge influences language acquisition
  • Subject specific vocabulary is critical
  • Students need to take control of their learning by doing

To summarize, CBIL focuses on using specific subject matter to deliver not only knowledge of the subject but also the acquisition of the target language. As a student develops vocabulary of the content they are developing a more general vocabulary that can be used in interacting with others via the four language skills (speaking, listening, writing, and reading).

Course Development

How a course is developed when using the CBIL approach depends on whether the course is content driven or language driven. If the course is content driven the priority is the content with the language acquisition being secondary. In addition, the teacher determines the objectives and the students are assessed on their mastery of the content  and not the language

If the course is language driven everything is the opposite of a content driven course. In a language driven course language is the priority and content is secondary. The objectives are derived from L2 goals. Lastly, the students are evaluated primarily on the developed of language skills rather than knowledge of the content.

In addition to the two forms of language and course driven courses, there are also several models that a CBIL class can take and these are theme-based, sheltered, adjunct, and skill-based models.

A theme-based model is one in which the content is organized around themes. For example themes in a content-driven history course may include Rome, Greece, Medieval Europe, etc.

A sheltered model is a group of ESL learners who are grouped together to learn content from a content specialist. For example, a group of ESL students taking a history course together. The class only includes ESL students. This forces the teacher to adjust the teaching to accommodate the language needs of the students.

The adjunct model involves the use of two courses simultaneously. One course is a content course and the other is a language course. The two courses support each other by having complementary content.

A skill-based course on specific skills such as academic writing or reading comprehension. Students hone the skill in preparation of more complex content courses.


CBIL is another approach to language teaching that is commonly used. Many schools that have a large ESL population may be using this approach without being aware of it.

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