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Authors: Ángel Herrera Peña
Esther Phillips Mejía

Coauthor: MSc. Janet Mora Zapater
Universidad Laica Vicente Rocafuerte


The present article analyses the effectiveness of the Content Base Instruction Approach

(CBI) as a valid strategy applied in an English as Foreign Language (EFL) class of Middle

School students with A1 level. Initially, the theoretical foundations of CBI are reviewed.

Then, two CBI models widely used in schools with an EFL program of two daily hours will

be outlined and compared. Additionally, advice on how to implement a CBI program in a

middle school of countries where English is a foreign language is provided. The last section

highlights some future research requirements.


It is well known that the amount of language that can be learnt in the first year of study is

limited. Courses for beginners usually focus on the development of language in a social

context, that is, basic interpersonal communicative skills used in an informal environment.

However, in countries where English is taught as a foreign language for future academic and

professional purposes, it is a need that students make the transition from traditional language

courses implemented in primary schools to content courses in formal environments and with

much more cognitively demanding academic language the most natural and fastest possible.

Of course, there are some questions that researchers try solve. For example, how to introduce
the lexis needed to understand and communicate not only ideas and thoughts but also a great

amount of information in a variety of fields such as Anatomy, History, Geography, etc.? How

to introduce literacy skills to communicate orally or in writing the most fluently possible in

such early stage of learning?

Since the middle eighties, a lot of information has been written about the CBI approach.

Some of the theoretical foundations will be analyzed. Specially, how EFL acquisition is

performed, the way the native language interfere with the learning process and language

production. And how the way academic language is structure can be beneficial for Spanish

speakers at the moment of learning English. Furthermore, different strategies based on the

CBI approach have been proposed as viable ways to improve the language acquisition in EFL

classrooms. In the present paper, two different models will be analyzed. The first is based on

the teaching of content areas in the target language as well as in the native language. The

second is based on topics that link a variety of fields such as anatomy, history, geography,

management, etc. presented in the way of real reading, listening or watching material such

as magazine articles and documentary videos.

With the purpose of being more than a theoretical review of what has been found in the

educational field related to the CBI approach, the article includes some advice on how to

implement a CBI program in a middle school of Spanish speakers countries. The last section

of the work identifies some factors that must be studied in future researches.

Basic Principles of English as Foreign Language learning

There are about 300 million native English speakers all around the world. A similar

number of people use English as a second language. There are not less than a dozen of

different kinds of English. British, American, Caribbean, West African, East African, Indian,

South-east Asian, Australasian among others. Each one with a wide variety of characteristic
dialects, set of local words, pronunciation and usage. There is a third group of people that

learn and use English for tourism, or entertainment. However, in this third group of countries

with no historical or direct cultural link to native speaker countries, there is a growing number

of people who study and learn English for academic and professional purposes. So, what kind

of English should the last group of people learn? Well, because of they have to speak on the

cellphone or write e-mails literally to people of every countries, they should learn and use a

universal form of English. At this point, it is necessary to identify two main motivations to

learn English or any other foreign language, for instrumental and integrative reasons. People

who needs the new language to acquire academic or professional knowledge and skills or for

tourism are motivated to learn English in an instrumental way. However, if a person wants

to integrate or be identified with a particular speech community, it may say that there is an

integrative motivation.

Otherwise, although there are countries where English is widely taught, it does not play

an indispensable role in social life. English as a foreign language can be understood as an

instrumental tool to reach new technologies, university careers, or the dreamed tourist travel.

In Ecuador, for example, it is the official policy that from fourth grade of basic education to

the end of the higher education, English should be taught along the school life of students.

Inevitably, all the factors previously mentioned affect the way English should be taught in a

particular society. And, of course, it will also affect the life and growth of people.

Therefore, why is it English taught in Ecuador or any other nonnative English speaker

country? The same way students learn about universal history, arts, architecture, or the

geography of faraway countries and continents, the teaching of all these areas connect people

each other and help mankind to understand the way others think and live. In fact, English is

the language that let people to get access to the largest library has ever been known, Internet.
And in the social context, English is the language that close people from tens of different

countries in an international convention, for example, or permit a tourist guide to provide the

safe awareness or cultural information to a multinational group of tourists.

Oxford Dictionary defines language as “the method of human communication, either

spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.”

Obviously, the method used to learn English by native speakers and those who are not will

be different. There are several factors that can affect the way EFL is taught. For example,

although a language makes relationship between the reality and thoughts, sometimes, the

meaning conveyed by the language is not complete, it is partial. The word or words and the

structural grammar may not be enough to get a full understanding of what is pretended to be

transmitted. Students should familiarized with the context of a word or phrase. What the

volume (stress), or the variation of pitch (intonation) really mean. Another factor that has to

be studied is the way a language treats the different segments of a sentence, that is, the

communication purpose or function. They vary through the context (the situation) and setting

(time, place); activities the speaker or the listener are involved in (action, assertion,

commitment, etc.) and the speaker’s or writer’s moods, emotions and attitudes (belief, anger,

concession, etc.)

EFL teachers have the difficult task of finding access to and providing English models for

their students. Especially because many different types of learning theories have been tested

and implemented in the EFL context. So far, Behaviorism based on B.F. Skinner’s

philosophy of psychology (1938); Cognitivism based on Jean Piaget’s (1896–1980) and Lev

Vygotsky’s (1896–1934) studies of how people think, understand, and know;

Constructivism based on Jean Piaget’s (1896-1980) theory about how people learn;

Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956) an attempt (within the behavioral paradigm) to classify forms
and levels of learning; Cooperative learning based on Kurt Koffka’s (early 1900s) theory

about social interdependence; Multiple intelligences based on Howard Gardner’s (1999)

theory which list a series of skills usually associated with the ability to learn languages, the

capacity to analyze problems logically, the skills for the appreciation and performance of

arts, and the capacity to understand the intentions, motivations and desires of oneself and

other people, are some of the proposals to be applied in the classroom.

At the same time, there are new series of strategies that have gain acceptance in the

academic field, particularly, those related to cooperative and communicative centered

methods that have replaced traditional strategies that promote students’ cognition in

mechanical and passive learning styles. Studies indicate that learners' motivation and

performance are influenced directly by the learning approach. For this reason, schools tent to

measure outputs in terms of academic achievement. Curriculum is concerned with objectives

and methods as well as content. Schools’ English Language Departments elaborate their

English programs identifying son factors which directly or indirectly affect the

teaching/learning process. Some of the questions to be answers are: What is the existing

curriculum? How the school rules, formal procedures and value sets affect learning

motivation? What is the students’ experience of, performance in and perception of the


As it is difficult to obtain a students’ opinion of what is happening to them during the

learning process, teachers probably give little attention to students’ perception of the

curriculum. However, there is something teachers and school administrators can do, to pay

attention to what students say to each other and how they react to lessons and materials. Other

items that must concern to teachers and school administrators are:

“What is the curriculum context within the school (i.e. social

climate, patterns of conduct, etc.)? What are the strengths and

capacities of the staff? What are the staff qualifications? What are

they good at? What special skills and abilities do they possess? What

are the available resources for the curriculum? What are some of the

changes, proposals and developments in curriculum practice and

ideas that could be useful for us here? This includes ideas from

outside ELT as well as developments within it.” Roger Bowers


The integration of content and language in EFL

Some theories have been promoted as modern and effective approaches to teach a

language, and it was Noam Chomsky who focused on the importance of competence and

performance in language learning. Since the 1960s to the present linguistics as Michael

Halliday, Dell Hymes (1970s), Christopher Candlin and Henry Widdowson (1990s), have

provided the conceptual basis for Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). Indeed, one of

the most popular approaches implemented in schools all around the world is Content Based

Instruction Approach.

Brinton, Snow, and Wesche (1989, p. vii) define CBI as, ‘the concurrent study of language

and subject matter, with the form and sequence of language presentation dictated by content

material’. Stoller (2008, p. 59) considers that CBI is ‘an umbrella term’ for approaches that

combine language and content learning aims even if there are differences in the emphasis

placed on language and content.

“There are alternative forms of CBI depending on the educational

level, the organization of the curriculum and the relative emphasis

on language or content. CBI can take place at all educational levels:

preschool, primary, secondary or higher education levels. Regarding

its role in the curriculum, it can refer to total immersion

(approximately 90% of the school time in the second language) or it

can just refer to content-based themes in language classes.” Genesee

and Lindholm-Leary (2013)

In this approach, foreign language teachers use academic content from the regular

curriculum of the students’ native language. As Stoller (2014) said, “Language is a medium

for learning content and content is a resource for learning and improving language.” CBI

becomes a strategic factor to strengthen language tasks in the classroom because the school

curriculum provides a context for learning language tasks and contrary the opinion of some

people, the more cognitive demanding tasks motivate students to spend more time in English

language activities. Though, there is a key factor that has been identified as a source of

potential problem, that is, teachers’ role in the classroom. If teacher are not familiar with the

academic contents included in the curriculum, they may excessively focus on language

forms. Although students are able to learn language systems, they might be restricted to

acquire academic contents. When the primary objective is the mastery of grammatical

structures, isolated word meanings and accurate syntax, teachers may fall back on traditional

approaches. See Figure 1.

It is also highlighted the fact that the extensive use of translation into Spanish (or any

other students’ native language) indicates an emphasis on decontextualized vocabulary

recognition rather than contextualized academic content knowledge. The repeated use of oral
translation may perhaps weaken students’ ability to make meaning in context by making the

students to think that language is composed of isolated words and in the long run by avoiding

the co-construction of language.

Figure 1 CBI focus vs Traditional Approach focus

Types of CBI

The implementation of CBI can takes different formulas. School and social aims, and the

sociolinguistic situation can affect the way CBI is implemented. Some programs are more

content-oriented than others. Some schools start their CBI programs from the very beginning

level of education but other prefer to implement the program at the middle of primary

education, and in the case of the Ecuadorian educational system, the CBI and CLIL programs

are suggested for the secondary school. “One way to distinguish between the different CBI
models is to focus on the degree to which each model emphasizes language and content

integration.” Snow & Brinton (2017).

Sheltered and Adjunct models

Sheltered and adjunct CBI usually occurs at universities in English L1 contexts. It does

not mean that some secondary schools use these models. The goal of using sheltered and

adjunct CBI is to allow their ESL students to study the same content material as regular

English L1 students. This model is called "sheltered" because learners are given special

assistance to help them understand regular classes. It is usual that two teachers work together

to give instruction in a specific subject. One of the teachers is a content specialist and the

other an ESL specialist. They may teach the class together or the class time may be divided

between the two of them. For example, the content specialist will give a short lecture and

then the English teacher will check that the students have understood the important words by

reviewing them later. This kind of team teaching requires teachers to work closely together

to plan and evaluate classes. The difference of the Adjunct Model is that classes are usually

taught by ESL teachers. In the Adjunct model, the emphasis is placed on acquiring specific

target vocabulary; they may also feature study skills sessions to familiarize the students with

listening, note taking and skimming and scanning texts.

Theme-Based Model

Theme based CBI is usually found in EFL contexts. This model can be applied by an EFL

teacher or team taught with a content specialist. The course of study can be designed to reveal

and build on students' interests. The content is not limited to a specific subject or topic. The

target group for the Theme-Based model are students with TEFL lower scores than the

minimum requirement for students who want to study at universities in English L1 contexts.

Because of their lower proficiency level, a standard course have to be redesigned to fit
students’ level of English. See Figure 2 Content-Based Language Teaching: A spectrum of

Content and Language Integration

Figure 2 Content-Based Language Teaching: A spectrum of Content and Language

Integration (based on Met’s Continuum of Content and Language 1999)

Immersion models

Some of the main features that Immersion models require are: (1) the use of the additional

language for at least 50% of academic instruction in primary school or at least for several

years in the curriculum. (2) The second language is the medium of instruction. (3) The

curriculum is the same as for the students’ native language. (4) Evident support exists for the

native language. (5) The program aims for incremental bilingualism. (6) Exposure to the

second language is mainly in the classroom. (7) Students enter with similar levels of the
second language. (8) The teachers are bilingual, and (9) the classroom culture is that of the

students’ native language. (Genesee & Lindholm-Leary, 2013).

These features are not shared by all forms of CBI models because the second language

does not have to be the language of instruction in what Massler et al.’s (2014) calls type B

language lessons. A typical example of partial immersion (type B language lessons) is a

Spanish L1 students’ classroom with Spanish as languages of instruction (approximately

50% of the subjects in each language) and a foreign language as a school subject.

Finally, it is important to make clear that there are other approaches to Content Based

Instruction that can be implemented in an EFL settings. Some of them are: Whole language

instruction explored by Enright and McCloskey (1988). In this approach, thematic units

integrate language skill instructions and a variety of content areas such as social studies,

natural science, arts, mathematics, etc.; Center for Applied Linguistics Approach focused

on how to integrate the teaching of content and language (Crandall, 1993; Short, 1991, 1994);

English for Academic Purposes (EAP) instruction suggests that CBI may follow one of

three models: sheltered instruction, adjunct instruction, and theme-based instruction. In the

first two models the content is predetermined by a bureau of education or the school English

Department, and in the last model is the language teacher or the students who select the

content to be studied (Snow, Met, and Genesee 1989, 1993).

Use of technology in CBI

There is a large amount of information and authentic materials available for foreign

language teachers on the Internet; however, these materials are not always at an appropriate

language level and comprehensible for the 1st year students. For that reason, it has been

necessary to adequate language level of such authentic materials. One of the strategies

implemented with this purpose has been the creation of educational platforms. Students have
access to a range of “class tools” such as: portfolios, forums, blogs, wiki pages, online

dictionaries, online workbooks, etc. Lots of resources are available in the means of libraries,

audio/video collections, and website links.

Indeed, educational channels, museums, public libraries and many organizations are

adding their resources to a worldwide network that students and teachers can use.

Additionally, some apps as skype are widely used by teachers to reinforce active

communication between non-native English speaker students and their peers in a foreign


The main advantage of these resources is that students can practice English literacy out-

of-the school and increase their opportunities to improve their language skills. Of course,

there must be controlled the correct use of the time spent on the Internet, and the appropriate

websites visited by students.


Based on researchers’ findings and the experience recorded by some primary and

secondary schools in Ecuador where the National EFL Curriculum is built within a CBI/CLIL

framework, the present research finds that Content-Based Instruction, specifically, Massler’s type B

language lessons is an approach applicable in private schools with an EFL program of at least

10 hour weekly schedule. Of, course, the institution must have trained bilingual teachers who

are able to introduce academic content and use new technologies in order to match students’

needs and interests to the school achievement goals. Although the CBI approach has suffered

some evolution along the last 60 years, its validity and relevance in the educational system

is still important.

Furthermore, the benefits of the CBI approach in the initial level of foreign language

programs have been proved satisfactory. Children as well as middle school students have
found challengeable and highly motivating to acquired content in a range of subjects as

natural science, history, geography, culture, arts, etc. Not only because they can understand

the meaning of academic vocabulary but also because they are able to produce

communicative, meaningful oral and writing language.


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