Content-Based Instruction – A Cognitive Approach


Content-Based Instruction

Most of us would agree that a second or a foreign language is learned not as much by direct instruction of its rules as by using it in meaningful context, especially when the students’ experience,  interest and knowledge of the world are involved. Content based instruction offers the possibility to use language as a medium of learning. Instead of teaching language in isolation from subject matter, teachers should integrate language development with content learning.

A cognitive approach

According to current development in cognitive psychology, information is stored in memory in two forms:

  • declarative knowledge – what we know about a given topic,
  • procedural knowledge  – knowing how to do.

In the content-based instruction, the content component represents declarative knowledge, while the language component aims at teaching the procedural knowledge students need to use language as a tool for learning. In addition to this a third component comes at play to train learners autonomy through teaching learning strategies.

Thus, the model includes:

  1. Content
    Helping our students use language to learn requires us to go beyond language domain to all subject areas and beyond language learning to education in general. A content based approach is more interesting to our students than language classes that focus on language alone and are not challenging from an academic point of view. This approach helps students use English to solve problems and develop concepts that are appropriate to their grade and achievement level.
  2. Language
    Language instruction provides students with practice in using language as a tool for learning academic subject matter. Content based instruction provides opportunity to contextualize language. It provides learners with contextual cues to solve problems and assist comprehension so that even cognitively demanding tasks become easier.
  3. Learning strategies
    The instruction of learning strategies assist learners  to be autonomous. Instead of simplifying tasks to our students, it would be more authentic to train learners (especially, intermediate and advanced learners) in such skills as inferring meaning from context, relating new material to previous concepts or skills…
    There are three major categories of learning strategies:

    • Metacognitive Strategies: planning for learning, monitoring one’s comprehension and production, evaluating how well learning objectives have been achieved.
    • Cognitive Strategies: interaction with material by physical (grouping, taking notes, making summaries…) and mental (making mental images, relating new information to previous concepts and skills) manipulation .
    • Social-Affective Strategies: interaction with others to assist learning.

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2 Responses

  1. Dr. Natali Smith says:

    Thanks for this article on the cognitive apprach to CBI. From my practical experience as an educational psychologists for over one and a half decades in various Asian countires, I realised that the only way to master English is through a theme, which the learner is interested in. But I find very few serious practical products on this paltform. Only program which is doing very well is Espoir Technologies Smart English programs – like “Smart English through Movies”, “Smart English through Technology and Science”, Smart English through Success Secrets” etc. I think various state goverments should take initiative to devlop such products for each countries.

  2. Rob Dickey says:

    You have defined “content” rather narrowly. Many would include “knowing how to do” as content. VESL (Vocational English as a Second Language) very much fits this consideration – it is not enough to know the technical data, the learner must be able to apply the information in order to “do the job.”

    What you really are suggesting here is that it is not enough to merely “study about” language. And yes, that is part of what CBI/CLIL/ICL and however you wish to label this is all about. However, we still need to be careful, as there is no reason that 19th Century English Literature, 20th Century or post-colonial Indian Literature, or whatever, cannot be studied “about” in the classic literature analysis, yet be combined with “applied” English in the content + language approach that is CBI.

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