Note: For background reading and sources, see the bibliography

  • Content-based approaches to language teaching (CBI) are aimed at "the development of use-oriented second and foreign language skills" and are "distinguished ... by the concurrent learning of a specific content and related language use skills." (Wesche, 1993, in Krueger and Ryan)

People do not learn languages and then use them, but learn languages by using them. Acquisition and use are essentially the same phenomenon. (Widdowson, 1981 in Eskey)

  • Formal linguistic competence does not emerge on its own as a result of learners? engaging in communicative activities.

There is a need for principled syllabus design beyond content (themes, topics).

  • Three aspects must be addressed: language form (grammar focus PLUS ... ), language function (functional/notional, communicative PLUS ...) and the factual, conceptual content and discoursal construction of material

Finding the right mix/balance between these aspects is perhaps the single most challenging task for the teacher in CBI.

  • A CBI curriculum operates with stretches of language above the sentence level and with real language in real situations.

Teaching toward such communicative ability may use procedures which are either synthetic or analytic (i.e., learning forms and then practicing how to combine them; and introducing complete interactions of texts and focusing on how these are constructed according to discourse rules pragmatic awareness, and strategic competence).

  • Content is not merely something to practice language with; rather, language is something to explore content with. (Eskey)
  • "Communicative competence is not a matter of knowing rules for the composition of sentences and being able to employ such rules to assemble expressions from scratch as and when occasion requires. It is much more a matter of knowing a stock of partially pre-assembled patterns, formulaic frameworks, and a kit of rules so to speak, and being able to apply the rules to make whatever adjustments are necessary according to contextual standards." (Widdowson, 1989, Applied Linguistics 10).

Communicative competence is not so much rule-governed as it is rule-referenced. Something more than rules is required for learning how to use a new language in the real world

  • A principled communicative approach (Kumaravadivelu) attempts to synthesize direct, knowledge-oriented and indirect, performance-oriented teaching approaches.
  • CBI occurs along a continuum, from "content-driven" to "language-driven". The emphasis shifts across levels, within each level, within themes, topics, and, finally and most noticeably, among specific tasks.

In language-driven curricula/courses key questions are

the fit between content and specified language objectives

the fit between content and students? current language proficiency

the degree of cognitive engagement and demand.

  • Even in a CBI curriculum which, like ours, is "language-acquisition driven", at least through our level III, the curriculum in general and the syllabi in particular do not begin with a list of either forms or functions, but with themes and topics of interest ? a network of issues, concepts, and facts all of which must be brought to life for a particular group of students.

CBI critically depends on presumed subjects of interest. We should be careful to select those for which we can already assume interest and knowledge or for which we can and should responsibly create interest and knowledge in our learners, literate adults. A curriculum and the courses/syllabi within it are always the result of choices. Let us choose wisely!

  • Combining both our interest in students learning content and learning German, our instructional approach ultimately recognizes that it isnot so much the content itself, in terms of factual knowledge, that is being taught, but some form of the discourse of that content as it is constructed in the German-speaking world.

As teachers we are acculturating students to the relevant discourse communities. That means that it is critical that we explicitly teach on the basis of the assumptions, conventions, and procedures of their own L1 discourse communities (usually U.S. - American and English-language) and toward the assumptions, conventions, and procedures of the L2=German language discourse communities.

Thus, "the content-based syllabus, with its stress on our culture's normal use of language to explore issues of real interest to studnts, may turn out to be what we have been looking for all along." (Eskey)

May 17, 1999 (11/6/03); revised July 2011