Number one for English language teachers

Teaching approaches: content-based teaching

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

An article discussing the benefits of content-based language learning.


I recently bumped into a former student in the street. I recognized him immediately and remembered him as a student who, despite a relatively long stay in the United Kingdom on an intensive language course, had made relatively little progress. I remembered his frustration as his classmates progressed rapidly to higher levels while he remained stuck at a level just above elementary, seemingly making very little progress in extending his vocabulary or using even the most basic structures accurately. While he was always able to communicate with a certain degree of enthusiasm, the feeling persisted that he had reached his personal "plateau" as far as language learning was concerned. 

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when he greeted me fluently in the local accent and enquired after my well-being in language that was entirely appropriate and accurate. In the six months since completing his language course, he informed me, he had been studying vehicle maintenance at a local adult education centre. The course was, naturally enough, entirely conducted in English and his high level of interest in anything to do with cars and car engines meant that he was highly motivated and eager to learn. He had not, on the other hand, spent any time whatsoever learning language during this course. The vast improvement in his use of English was entirely down to the fact that he had been acquiring language at a relatively rapid rate while concentrating on learning something else. 

I congratulated him on the improvement in his English and, only half-jokingly, apologized for my own lack of success when attempting to teach him English by means of a conventional language course. He replied that he had enjoyed the course but simply could not make sense of the way the language worked. In attempting to study it systematically, he found only confusion and frustration. Now, freed from the constraints of having to focus on the language, he found that he was able to improve almost without thinking and was becoming a highly proficient user.

It is true that he was not following a content-based language course and that the aim of the course was to make him a better motor mechanic and not a better language learner but nevertheless he had managed to kill two birds with one stone. This story is by no means unique and many thousands, if not millions, of students have rapidly acquired foreign languages through the study of other subjects. Recognizing the benefits of content-based language teaching is not new either. As early as 1965 language immersion education was introduced in Canada in order to promote the French language at secondary level. Bilingual education projects have also produced good results in a number of countries. Since the fall of communism as the end of the 1980s, there has been a rapid growth in the number of English-language medium secondary schools in the former Eastern-bloc countries, where traditional school subjects are taught through the medium of English and language skills are developed through the study of other subjects with a high degree of success. 

Even in the United Kingdom, a country not noted for its successes in foreign language teaching, there have been successful experiments in a small number of secondary schools in teaching a specific subject or subjects through the medium of a foreign language such as French, and bilingual education has long been the norm in Wales. Given that the benefits of content-based language teaching can include more motivated learners and a rapid growth in foreign-language skills, it is no surprise that many language providers are beginning to turn to content-based language teaching for at least part of their language teaching programmes. Optional programmes such as information technology (including examinations certified by companies such as Microsoft) and business studies are increasingly in evidence. It seems likely that the provision of language courses that run parallel with a content-based element will soon be the norm rather than the exception.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Interesting questions from Anonymous, I will look for more articles about this approach, as it seems to me very logical what he/she says

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  • I've nothing against content-based teaching but this article seems a bit prim. Couldn't it be that the former student benefited from the structures she learned in her intensive language course before she learned about vehicle maintenance, that the language fell unconscioulsy into place while she was struggling with fuel mixtures and valve settings? Where would the language have fallen if there'd been no learned structure?

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