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    Presentation Notes: Content-based vs. Language-based (Discrete-Skills) 1English Teaching in Japanese Universities: Is There Really a Difference?

    Melvin R. Andrade

    Sophia Junior College &

    Aoyama Gakuin University


    Many EFL programs at the university level in Japan are beginning to shift from language-based to content-based curriculums. Accordingly, courses in these programs require an integrated rather that a discrete skill approach. That is, learners use English to learn about a topic, make presentations, write

    reports, and debate related issues rather than learn reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. The

    rationale is that the students will learn English through content as a result of leaning content through

    English. The distinction is similar to the contrast between project-based language learning, in which

    language is learned incidentally as students engage in projects such as producing a play or radio program, on the one hand, and task-based language learning, in which fun and interesting activities are designed as vehicles to achieve specific language leaning goals. This presentation will explore the distinction between learning English through content versus learning content through English, and in doing so will address

    questions such as these: Isnt a reading course really a content course?‖ Arent content-based courses

    and theme-based courses really the same thing? Is a content course taught by a language teacher the

    same as a content course taught by a content specialist? How can I teach language through content? To

    answer these questions, the presenter will briefly review the key research on content-based learning teaching and illustrate them with examples from case studies of several colleges and universities in Japan. Both the advantages and the disadvantages of content-based language teaching will be considered.

Definitions (From CARLA-CoBaLTT)

    1. CBI is "...the integration of particular content with language teaching aims...the concurrent teaching of

    academic subject matter and second language skills" (Brinton et al., 1989, p. 2).

    2. CBI approaches "...view the target language largely as the vehicle through which subject matter

    content is learned rather than as the immediate object of study" (Brinton et al., 1989, p. 5).

    3. CBI is aimed at 'the development of use-oriented second and foreign language skills' and is

    'distinguished by the concurrent learning of a specific content and related language use skills' (Wesche,


    4. CBI is " approach to language instruction that integrates the presentation of topics or tasks from

    subject matter classes (e.g., math, social studies) within the context of teaching a second or foreign

    language" (Crandall & Tucker, 1990, p. 187).

What qualifies as “content” in CBI? (From CARLA-CoBaLTT)

    1. Curtain and Pesola (1994) limit the definition of CBI to those "...curriculum concepts being taught

    through the foreign language ... appropriate to the grade level of the students..." (p. 35).

    2. Genesee (1994) suggests that content '...need not be academic; it can include any topic, theme, or

     1 Paper presented at JALT 2007: The Japan Association for Language Teaching 33rd International Conference. National Olympics Memorial Youth Center, November 22 25, 2007, Tokyo, Japan. Minor

    revisions to handout Dec. 8, 2007.


    non-language issue of interest or importance to the learners' (p. 3).

    3. Met (1991) proposes that "... 'content' in content-based programs represents material that is cognitively

    engaging and demanding for the learner, and is material that extends beyond the target language or

    target culture" (p. 150).

    4. "...what we teach in any kind of content-based course is not the content itself but some form of the

    discourse of that contentnot, for example, 'literature' itself (which can only be experienced) but how

    to analyze literature...for every body of content that we recognize as suchlike the physical world or

    human cultural behaviorthere is a discourse communitylike physics or anthropologywhich

    provides us with the means to analyze, talk about, and write about that content...Thus, for teachers the

    problem is how to acculturate students to the relevant discourse communities, and for students the

    problem is how to become acculturated to those communities" (Eskey, 1997, pp. 139-140).


    Learning Language Skills in CBLT: Explicit or Non-explicit?

    One of the great advantages of a content-based syllabus is that it frees the teacher from

    having to follow any one method of language instruction. Explicit language teaching can be

    done on an ad hoc basis in the most appropriate way whether it is communicative language

    teaching or some structural approach. Students can be given tips for learning that may

    include habit formation such as memorizing lists of words and phrases to more cognitive

    methods such as contextualizing language items. (Messerklinger, 2003, p. 124)

    Lessons with a focus on meaning are purely communicative (in theory, at least). Learners are

    presented with gestalt, comprehensible samples of communicative L2 use, e.g., in the form of

    content-based lessons in sheltered subject-matter or immersion classrooms, lessons that are

    often interesting, relevant, and relatively successful . . . Grammar is considered to be best learned

    incidentally and implicitly . . . (Long, 1997, Option 2, paragraph 2)

    It has been our experience as teacher educators that the more specific teachers can be

    about the objectives they have for a lesson, the better able they are to integrate language

    and content instruction in the lesson in meaningful ways . . . Language objectives refer

    to linguistic concepts, including vocabulary, communicative functions, and grammatical

    structures. In CBI, language objectives should be divided into two categories

    content-obligatory language objectives and content- compatible language objectives . . .

    Content-obligatory language objectives reflect language that is essential for understanding

    and talking about the content. Content-compatible language objectives emerge directly

    from the foreign language curriculum. (CARLA, 2006)


    Issues and Myths

    1. Course contents vs. teaching methodology ("content-based teaching is student research, summary writing, discussions, debate, and presentations", etc). Is that true?

2. Content-based teaching vs. theme-based teaching (Are they the same?)

    3. Teaching contents (facts, concepts, terminology, etc.) vs. teaching language through contents (accuracy, fluency, complexity). Are these the same or different?


    4. Project-based teaching vs. task-based teaching (Can-Do) vs. content-based teaching. (CBI includes

    these, right? No?)

    5. Content-based teaching vs. integrated skills teaching. (Is content teaching necessarily four skills?)

    6. The strengths of content-based teaching vs. its weaknesses (Yes, there are weaknesses.)

    7. Controlled teaching vs. Coordinated teaching vs. Autonomous teaching.

From: Anthea Tillyer, City University of New York (USA)

    Date: Tue Mar 20 2001, 8:29 AM JST


    Subject: Re: Teaching the skills discretely

1. I teach in a program that has discrete classes for 4 skills. Actually, the daytime session of the

    program (mostly the same teachers, and all the same student body) uses a combined skills approach, while the evening program (in which I teach) uses the discrete skills approach. It

    might interest folks to hear that in our program the evening students (4 skills) always do

    much better on common tests and the TOEFL than the daytime students (integrated program) do. This is not what I expected, I admit, but that's the way it is.

I have always been a whole-language believer and I guess I still am for perfect teaching

    circumstances. However, in the "real" world, I am in favor of teaching skills discretely, at least for our program. Here's why:

    1. Many students find themselves in situations where they are able to make big leaps of progress in one skill - usually in speaking - because they get a job or fall in love with a native speaker or both of these. When a student is way ahead in one skill, I don't think that it makes sense not to promote them to an appropriate level in that skill. In whole language groupings, you can't promote

    students in only one skill.

    2. As John Harbord pointed out, there are many students who seem to feel that language is composed of only ONE skill - grammar. Teaching the skills as independent parts of a whole brings home to them that there is life in language beyond grammar.

3. If a student is really, really weak in one skill - often writing - it is possible to promote the student

    for the other skills classes and repeat them in the skill in which they are weak. This is much more

    humane than having a student repeat all four skills classes at a certain level because he is weak in one or two of those skills.

    4. As a teacher, I find it more interesting and challenging to teach four discrete skills with 4 separate groups. I sort of "revive" at the beginning of each skill class. I would really like to have an integrated reading-writing class, but I find that I get around that lack by having my reading students write and my writing students read!

    All in all, I think that 4-skills programs work really well, at least in the circumstances that I have experienced. As a matter of fact, the reason that I teach at night is because I want to teach the 4-skills program, and our school doesn't offer that option during the day.


From: Thomas Robb, Kyoto Sangyo University, Japan

    Date: Tue Mar 20 2001, 9:30 AM JST


    Subject: Re: Teaching the skills discretely

My school just changed from a discrete approach to an integrated one and are very happy with

    the results of our new curriculum. Our previous program had one time/week 90-minute

    classes in 6 discrete areas: Intensive Reading, Extensive Reading, Grammar, Writing, Speaking and Listening/ Pronunciation. Many people praised our program as being forward-looking, but in fact, each of the skill areas was left to a separate instructor. There was no coordination between them and the students sometimes felt inundated with so many classes to juggle.

We now have two sets of three 90-minute classes per week. The "Skills" module uses New

    Interchange, Book 2 along with the audio & video programs, as well as the CD-ROM. One

    teacher teaches them twice a week and another, one of our full-time staffers, once a week.

    They coordinate closely, one picking up where the other left off.

    The other 3x/week module is a 'Content Course'. There are actually FIVE content areas. Each of our 5 groups of students gets one content area for 5-6 weeks, after which the instructors

    rotate to a different group, so they get 5 content areas during the course of the year. Content

    areas include Global Issues, English through Music, British Culture, Australian Culture and Japanese/Western comparative culture. (The textbooks have so much U.S. culture in

    them that we didn't feel a module on that was necessary!)

    We found that the students' TOEIC scores improved about twice as much as they had in the past, by an average of 100 points instead of 50, and also discovered that the students

    felt much more comfortable and were volunteering to speak much more than before. (No mean

    feat for a class of Japanese students!)

In the Japanese university, where oral English classes normally meet once a week, a thematic

    unit might run for two or three lessons --long enough to explore the topic but brief enough to

    guarantee that interest will not flag. Students' interest, and with it motivation, increases in direct proportion to the relevance of the activities presented. (Wachs, 1994)


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