Eight: Content is King
It was just before the final test. Nervous students sat waiting for their history teacher to arrive. When she came, a student approached her. He said, “I have a question about my grade. What score do I need on the test to pass the class?” The teacher said, “Let me see… The test is worth 100 points. And you need 112 points to get a D.” “I see…” said the student. “… And how many points do I need to get a C?”
In this story, besides the silly joke, we see a common problem. Students can easily care more about their grade than learning. If teachers put too much emphasis on grades and tests, they also can make this problem worse. After all, the goal of education is not to pass tests — but to learn!
In the above class, students learn the content of history. In contrast, language teachers generally make language the content of the class. However, language teachers can also make history, science, or art the content of their classes. We call this Content-based Instruction or CBI.
Defining Content-Based Instruction
With Content-based Instruction, language learners study any subject, like history, art, science, business, etc. And they acquire language in the process. Richards and Rodgers (2001) say that teachers plan these classes about content information, not around linguistic information. For instance, in a content-based course, a teacher organizes the language class around topics related to business and economics. And students learn information related to these areas. This differs from a language class where the teacher organizes the class around grammar, vocabulary, and other language skills.
Of course, we can see a problem here. For one, language is content. In a linguistics class, the teacher makes language the content of the course. And even in a grammar class, grammar is the content. Moreover, in business and economics classes, students need to learn the language and vocabulary of business and economics. Thus, language stands as one kind of content. But in content-based courses, students use language as a means to learn content, the facts, details, or principles of history, economics, business, science, etc.
Thus, as students learn this content, they also acquire language. We all naturally use language this way. For example, let’s say that language works like a tool. Generally, with a tool like a hammer, we don’t usually study the hammer. We don’t talk about the rules for using it. We just use it. In the same way, in content-based classes, students can use language in this natural way. And they will probably find it more interesting than studying about language. That is, if students study topics they like, they will find this more motivating than just studying grammar and vocabulary.
Challenges with Content-Based Instruction
With Content-based Instruction, learners may find language classes more interesting, but this brings up a problem. They may also find the content very difficult. In fact, many teachers use content that students find way too difficult. Fortunately, we have a great solution. We can use graded content. For example, we can use the World History Readers published by Seed Learning, which come in 6 levels. Or we can use stories from sites like ReadOasis.com, which presents interesting short stories in 5 different levels about many topics. (Full disclosure: the writer of this chapter is also the Editor of ReadOasis.com).
When we use graded content, we need to know if the texts are the right level for our students. Here are some general guidelines. If students are doing speed reading activities, they need to know 100% of the words in a text. Speed reading is a fluency activity, and for fluency, we practice language we already know. If students are doing extensive reading in a content area, then they need to know about 98% of the words in a text. We call this 98% coverage. Let’s say that 95% coverage is readable, and 98% coverage is enjoyable. If students are doing intensive reading, then 90% coverage is the limit. Teachers should not use texts where learners know less than 90% of the words.
How can a student know their vocabulary coverage of a text? For graded readers, if a student finds only 2-3 unknown words on a page, they probably have 98% coverage. And this is good for extensive reading. For shorter texts used in class, the teacher can tell the class the word count of the text. Students can calculate their coverage. If they know 95% of the words, then the text will be readable for easier in-class activities and discussion. And if they know 90% of the words, they are still safe for intensive reading where learners focus on grammar, vocabulary, and discourse in a text. But here is a key point. We must choose the right level of texts for content-based classes. If we do not, students will find the content boring, too difficult, and demotivating.
Content is King
After all, we need to find content at the right level for our students. We can survey them and find out their interests and needs, or our schools may require us to teach certain content areas. As we prepare, we can set two kinds of objectives. (1) Students will learn the facts, information, and ideas of the content area. (2) Students will learn grammar, vocabulary, and language skills to understand and communicate about the content area.
For these objectives, teachers can vary what they want to emphasize, more on language, or more on content. But as a final point, content will reign as king if we present it through the power of stories. That is, with fiction or non-fiction, we can use “story grammar.” We can put the facts of history, economics, or art in stories. Stories have characters who face trouble. And students will find content in stories as the most interesting and appealing way to learn content through language.