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Content-Based Instruction: A View From the Content Side

Debra J. Occhi describes an approach to university content-based instruction that differs from what she experienced as a student. See also Mary Jane Curry's References & Resources review of Easy Stuff Library, Essential Teacher, June 2008.

Next semester I'll have a new team teacher, new students, and new materials. I am a linguistic anthropologist whose research focuses on Japanese language and culture, but I am also involved in EFL education. For the past 7 years, I have taught liberal arts and area studies courses in English to Japanese college students of limited English proficiency. These students are typically unable to read native-level texts, which is why teaching materials have to be designed from the bottom up. The range of proficiencies and motivation among the students also makes material design challenging, especially in designing tasks for the beginning of their first semester.

I have found that it's vital to take a different approach with these students than that which I experienced as a student. My professors often showed ethnographic movies or used texts about foreign cultures to illustrate various points about the study of human behavior. With my students, that method takes them a step too far outside their linguistic comfort zone. Making sense of the foreign imagery or ideas in English takes so much class time that the broader issues can hardly be covered. And it is hard to mesh such practices with the task-based learning framework espoused by my college. Engaging students in problem-solving activities is a much more effective strategy for delivering content knowledge and encouraging English language development. Creating these materials is enjoyable, and using them allows students of varying proficiencies to make significant improvements in content and language knowledge.

Anthropology Project

Here is one example from a first-year anthropology class I'll soon be teaching. My immediate goals for the students are (a) to acquaint them with cultural anthropology as the study of human behavior; (b) to successfully integrate them socially into the college, whose norms and expectations differ markedly from those of Japanese precollege education; and (c) to break them out of the "false beginner" mode in which most of them enter college. We’ll learn by doing. Students will design and conduct interviews based on the results of a similar project conducted at a university in an English-speaking country.

We’ll have to break down the word ethnography very carefully at first. In Japanese, the loanword esunikku, meaning ethnic, refers to a style of food and furnishings, usually of Southeast Asian design. Reclaiming the word ethnic in its English sense provides a chance to evoke a few other English loanwords and show that they typically have a narrower or different meaning or usage than the words they derive from. Less problematic are -graph (it can easily be used to generate a word-root exercise about related terms) andanthropology. I'll be team-teaching this course with an EFL specialist who will also be in her first semester at our college, so I plan to engage her strengths and interests in designing ancillary activities to enhance the plan described here.

Interview design will emerge from students' repeated viewings and analysis of the project results depicted in A Vision of Students Today ( This video is the project of an anthropologist and his students in Kansas, in the United States, and it consists of the answers to a set of questions used in his students' survey. My students will watch the video, transcribe its audio portion, and then brainstorm questions. They will have to reverse-engineer the project, first finding the metaquestions (e.g., How many hours do students spend online?) and then the field questions they will use in interviews (e.g., How many hours do youspend online?) to recapture the original survey. We'll also brainstorm some open-ended questions to ask upperclassmen. This activity will generate a list of shared vocabulary terms used in the video and as needed for the questions, along with reinforcing question-and-answer grammatical patterns. In the brainstorming process, the other teacher and I will be able to assess students' capabilities and stretch their abilities.

Students will then conduct the survey, first practicing with each other and then interviewing other students. As a class we will compile their data, giving students practice in quantitative and qualitative data analysis. Finally, I hope to make a video with our local results, similar to the Kansas video. This project (and ancillary activities) is slated to occupy 4 weeks of class time. Best of all, students will have learned a bit about anthropology by doing it.

Metaprocesses of Content-Based Instruction

The following are the metaprocesses I have found useful in content-based instruction design as well as their rationales. First, know what you must teach. Perhaps you have external guidelines or a standardized syllabus to follow, or can be guided by your knowledge of what's vital to know about a subject. In this case, ethnography is the heart of cultural anthropology.

Second, know your students, or figure out how to find out more about them. Test scores aren’t terribly reliable in judging how well students will fare; you must engage them in tasks and observe. In addition, the more you know about their experiences, the better you can meet their needs. Japanese students typically have a strongly objective test-based precollege education, so it is important to design tasks to strengthen their interpretive and critical skills as well as their tolerance for multiple right answers.

Third, explore materials used by proficient English speakers, and think creatively about how to exploit them to meet your students' needs. Children's activities are often more complicated linguistically and less sophisticated intellectually than my students require. Yet they may provide good visual aids. Visual texts, like the video already discussed, can be disarticulated in a number of ways to meet language- and content-related goals. These could include cloze exercises, grammar work that spins off from some frequently occurring pattern in the audio, information retrieval or interpretive questions, or reflective writing on content.

This discussion of content-based instruction and course design is by necessity skewed toward a project-based, active-learning-focused curriculum. As such, it takes the notion of content in the holistic sense, asking not just "What do students need to know about anthropology?" but also "What do students need to know in the broader sense?" With this in mind, we as teachers can consider what students bring to the classroom as well as where they are headed. Giving students the opportunity to work cooperatively toward shared goals meets a variety of objectives. And when students with a common goal of improving their language skills are motivated, they can inspire and support one another.

Debra J. Occhi ( teaches anthropology, linguistics, and area studies at Miyazaki International College, in Japan.