content-based-language-teaching

5 Secrets to Successful Content-based Language Teaching

The sole aim of a math class is to teach students math, right?

Nope, not if you’re using content-based language teaching (CBLT).

Don’t worry if you got that one wrong.

Teachers and con artists have more in common than you think: It’s possible that the students in that class didn’t even realize they were learning something other than math—and that’s the beauty of CBLT.

Sometimes the best teaching is done undercover when students’ overly analytical guards are down.

In content based language teaching the target language is a vehicle through which students learn a given subject. There are two concurrent objectives: (1) to teach the subject and (2) to teach the language.

I know what you’re thinking: What? Two subjects instead of one? Double the work!

In reality the efficiency of this method lets you divide your teaching efforts in half not multiply them by two. Still skeptical? Read on.

Benefits of Content-based Language Teaching

Here are four of the main benefits of CBLT:

  • Easier acquisition. Natural language acquisition occurs in context, making it easier for students.
  • Concrete goals. CBLT is concrete, not abstract.

Ready to see how it can be done?

5 Secrets to Mastering Content-based Language Teaching

1. Know your students 

Most of us teachers do our best to build a student-centric curriculum. Content-based language teaching makes that job easier because it’s a flexible and fluid teaching method.

Whether you’ve been assigned a specific topic to teach—like psychology, social studies or history—or have the freedom to select your own, CBLT allows for the wiggle room needed to achieve both of your objectives.

In any classroom it’s important for students to engage with the content. This is even more so in a CBLT class because if they don’t actively engage, then your second objective—language learning—will not be achieved.

It’s key to present the right content in a context that your students understand. For CBLT to have maximum effect you must know your students. For example, if you know that five of your 10 students love astronomy, then even if you’re teaching a history class you can find a way to incorporate space-related milestones in your history curriculum.

Whether or not you plan to use CBLT, building this habit is something that all teachers can benefit from.

Here are a couple of tips for unearthing your students’ interests:

  • All-about-you handout: In addition to ice breakers at the beginning of the course, have students fill out a worksheet in which they share their interests. Weeshare has some fun ones to choose from.
  • What we share: Have students find fellow students with interests and life details similar to their own. I like using this “Find Someone” handout from Wikispace.
  • Associations: While teaching a topic, take frequent breaks to ask students how they personally feel about a piece of information they’ve just learned, be it a historical event or scientific theory. Learning about students’ associations and opinions helps you uncover their interests.

You’ll never be able to incorporate all of each student’s unique interests, but with these tips you can identify a few broad topics that peak the interest of a large proportion of your class.

2. Stay current

Not all topics are created equal. Sprinkling your coursework with relevant, timely content is a must.

I mentioned earlier that one of the benefits of CBLT is that it makes language a functional tool with concrete, applicable goals rather than an abstract series of grammar rules.

Incorporating current news that’s already the talk of the town supports this benefit. By discussing those topics in a safe classroom environment first, you’re preparing students to transition into having those talks out in the real world.

Try checking out these sites to find the right topics:

  • Sky News‘s “Trending” section at the bottom of the homepage, which lists top news stories.

Don’t be afraid of using controversial articles to get a debate going in class. Try to tie the current events into whatever you’re teaching. If you’re teaching a class on political science or economics, try to find some present-day headlines that relate to that.

Even if you’re straying from the curriculum slightly, the students are still learning relevant vocabulary in their target language.

3. Embrace a theme

Organized lesson plans are your best friend when it comes to CBLT.

Learning a new subject in a new language can be a challenge for students. Choosing a focused theme for each lesson within the broader theme of your course can help lighten the load for overwhelmed learners.

For example, if you were teaching an 18th century British literature course, your syllabus could look something like this:

  • Lesson 1: Satirical plays
  • Lesson 2: Utopian novels
  • Lesson 3: Love sonnets
  • Lesson 4: Epitaphs

Notice how the topics are extremely specific. Students know that in lesson one, the vocabulary will relate to plays and satires. This lets them use association and context as tools to help deduce the meanings of new words.

Using inference in these situations can be a comfort to low-level learners.

Themes automatically create threads between related ideas, which actually boosts retention because it puts the information in context for students.

I mentioned that organized lesson plans are your best friend, but that’s really just code for saying that context is your best friend.

4. Give (gentle) reality checks

As in normal language courses, much of the learning takes place when students are conversing with one another. And as students get to know each other they will be more eager to chat.

A small risk to look out for is that in their excitement to communicate, they’ll be cutting corners and actually developing their own version of the target language.

It’s not uncommon for friends who speak a foreign language with one another to adopt each other’s mistakes.

In order to make sure that students are not doing so, it’s crucial to include aural authentic materials that help them recalibrate and hear how native speakers use the language. This is especially important in a CBLT class where less time is dedicated to grammar.

More and more news sites nowadays include videos alongside articles. Browse any of the major news sites in your desired language to find appropriate videos.

Here’s an example of what the listening activity could look like:

  • Play the video once and have students listen without taking notes.
  • Play it a second time and have them write down any words they don’t recognize.
  • Afterwards ask them to write a summary of what they heard.
  • Students then split up into groups and go over the vocabulary they don’t know.
  • Each group comes up with its own fictional news clip related to the subject being taught in class (Shakespeare, the Berlin Wall, etc.) and presents it to the class.

5. Keep tabs on progress

Even though the CBLT method focuses on content rather than language, this doesn’t mean that you can’t test for grammar and vocabulary. You should do so regularly to make sure that your second objective—language teaching—isn’t falling through the cracks.

Use pair and group speaking exercises as an opportunity to observe and assess students’ language abilities.

I like doing informal assessments once a week. An informal assessment is disguised as a speaking activity or game, but it’s extremely structured and lets us check specific skills.

Here’s an example of an informal assessment:

  • Split students into groups and give them an assignment to work on.
  • During this time, call students up one by one for a five-minute individual assessment.
  • Ask the students strategic questions that prove they understand that week’s topic and have the language skills to express themselves. The questions are of course subject specific, but could include:
    • Please define “fusion.”
    • Why is Thanksgiving celebrated?
    • Tell me about Apollo 13.
  • Ask at least five questions and note the top grammar or vocabulary challenges the student seems to be having.

Once you’ve assessed all of the students, you’ll most likely find patterns in the results, letting you know what areas you need to review with the class.

Remember that whether or not you have an assigned subject for your CBLT course, you can use these tricks to keep coursework student centric and authentic.

With the right strategy your students will leave your class as experts in not one, but two subjects. Have fun incorporating these tips and teaching a first-rate content based language curriculum.


Natalia Hurt is a travel and language enthusiast who enjoys studying the connection between people and places from all corners of the globe. Explore her travel-inspired essays and photos here: www.aFarCorner.com

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