Content-Based ESL: An Introduction

By | March 3, 2021
Content-Based ESL: An Introduction

Language exists in two forms, the spoken and the written. Had we been treating this subject a generation ago, we would probably have put writing ahead of speaking. Two linguistic activities are associated with both speech and writing: an encoding and a decoding process. Speaking and writing themselves are the encoding processes whereby we communicate our ideas, thoughts, or feelings through one or the other form of language: and listening and reading are the parallel decoding processes by which we “understand” either a spoken or a written message.

Although limited attention has long been given to a business or technical writing at the secondary or adult/tertiary level, attention to writing is appropriate in all content courses as a valuable means of learning (just as talking represents a way of learning). Although the language arts or writing teacher has been accorded a special role in helping students to find their own voice and to give form to their thoughts and feelings, teachers of mathematics, science, social studies, and other subjects also have a responsibility to see that writing skills are applied to authentic tasks such as lab reports, explanations of principles and theorems, discussions of historical causes and effects, or comparisons of religious or cultural institutions. Tchudi and Tchudi (1983) list the following benefits of teaching writing in the content areas:

1. Writing about a subject helps students learn.

2. Writing about content has a practical payoff: Students write better when they spend more time writing.

3. Content writing often motivates reluctant writers.

4. Content writing develops all language skills.

5. Teaching writing teaches thinking. Reading in the Content Areas A similar trend has developed in the field of reading: Language arts and reading specialists urge that reading be taught in all content areas, while they, in turn, introduce texts in their reading classes that are relevant to and representative of those that students will read in their content area classes. This change has required reading teachers to teach more than literature and mathematics, science, and other subject-matter teachers to teach more than their subject matter. Since reading is a way of acquiring information and learning, it is a skill to be addressed in all classes. The purposes for reading, the types of texts presented, and the kinds of reading skills required differ by discipline and task; students need to acquire a variety of skills that they can apply to their reading assignments, whether reading for information, for pleasure, or for guidance in performing a task. Content-area teachers must recognize that they, too, are reading teachers; likewise, reading or language arts or English teachers must understand that their content may go beyond literature. CU A great deal of research has been published on the types of texts and the kinds of skills and strategies involved in reading in the content areas; the literature also includes descriptions of program models and curricula that integrate reading with content areas (Dupuis, 1984; Herber, 1978; Vacca, 1981). Dupuis (1984) found that “Over twenty textbooks are currently published to teach teachers how to deal with reading in content classrooms” (p. 2), although some subject-matter areas, such as mathematics, science, and social studies, have received more attention than other areas, such as music, health, and physical education.

Content in Language Instruction

While reading and writing theorists and practitioners have been concerned with using reading and writing to learn (not just helping students to learn to read and write), a similar trend has been evident in language instruction, where the focus is not just on learning the language, but in using it as a medium to learn something else. Although traditional language teaching has focused on grammar or literature, and more recently, on communicative competence or language use in a largely oral and interpersonal sense, a number of different segments of the language teaching profession have recognized the importance of focusing on content as well as language. In English-for-specific purposes (ESP) curricula, the goal of language instruction is to provide access to texts, seminars, lectures, and, broadly, the entire disciplines of such fields as engineering, science or technology, business or economics, medicine, law, or other professions. In teaching the particular vocabulary, discourse styles, and syntax of science texts, written or oral, the ESP course uses materials and activities drawn from the field, focusing on the ways in which the language is used to convey or represent particular thoughts or ideas. Within adult ESL programs, the focus often shifts to skilled or semiskilled jobs, with special-purpose English courses designed to assist adults in becoming welders, electronic assemblers, technicians, clerical workers, and the like. In both adult ESL and ESP, the integration of language and content is accomplished through coordinated efforts of teachers in both fields and the language teacher’s use of texts (sometimes simplified or adapted) and activities drawn from the field of study.

Foreign language (FL) instruction, too, has focused on academic content. In FL immersion programs, in which children receive all or part of their education through the medium of another language, they acquire the language while learning the academic content of mathematics, science, or whatever portion of the curriculum is taught through the language. The desire to develop optimal ways to present this content to keep it understandable to the student who is only beginning to learn the language of instruction parallels the concerns of content-based ESL teachers. Within the field of ESL, models abound for combining language and content instruction. One of these, ESP, was discussed previously. Another model teams ESL teachers in an adjunct relationship with academic subject-matter teachers in a particular field. Public schools offer sheltered immersion programs, in which the subject-matter teacher uses the insights of the FL immersion class and the content-based ESL or ESP class to provide understandable content in English-medium instruction to students with limited English. In both FL immersion and sheltered immersion programs, according to Curtain (1986):

1. There is a focus on meaning rather than on form. There is no overt error correction.

2. Linguistic modifications, such as simplified speech and controlled vocabulary, which are necessary for comprehensible input, are used.

3. Instructional language has contextual clues to help convey meaning

4. Conversational interaction—usually the subject content—is interesting and real to the students.

5. Languages of instruction are kept very carefully separated.

6. Students are allowed a silent period and do not have to speak until they are ready.

We may therefore say that language includes four skills, or complexes of skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. It is perhaps in this order that we originally learned our native language, and it is in that order that foreign languages are now very frequently taught.

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