Many language educators have come to view content-based language classes as
the ideal environment for language learning and teaching. Content-based language
classes differ from ordinary language classes and ordinary content classes
in that they involve both language and content objectives for students, and they
gear instruction to the needs of language learners.
SIOP Model specifically addresses the
integration of content, language, and cognitive development.
content courses focus on the teaching of a specific
subject matter, they can provide large amounts of contextualized comprehensible
input and the opportunity for authentic conversations and negotiation of meaning
learners will not
develop particular language abilities if they do not receive comprehensible input,
practice, and communicative experiences in that variety of the language.
in these classes are familiar with content being learned and with what students
may want to communicate, they are able to scaffold learners’ conversational
attempts by supplying needed vocabulary or structures.
ELs who appear to be very “fluent” in oral
varieties of English can still have difficulty with school assignments that require
abstract reasoning and formal writing. (EFL and other foreign language learners
can have the opposite problem of being exposed to formal but not conversational
language, resulting in difficulties establishing social relationships.)
Helping Learners Develop Academic Language in Content Classes
Assess your learners’
degree of language and
■ What kinds of educational experiences has the
student had previously?
■ What kinds of language experiences has the
student had outside of school, such as at home
or in church?
■ Does the student’s level of cognitive development
seem to be appropriate for the age and grade
■ Does the student’s knowledge of the world
(animals, geography, life skills, etc.) seem to be
appropriate for the age and grade level?
■ Does the student seem to speak English well but
still have difficulty learning content?
■ Does the student seem to learn more successfully
when the content is presented orally rather than
■ Is the student able to participate in class discussions
on abstract topics but unable to express similar ideas
adequately in writing?
Generation 1.5 and Transnational Students
The distinction between BICS and CALP is especially critical in understanding a
group of learners who have come to be called Generation 1.5. Generation 1.5 learners
are longtime immigrants to the United States who are not literate in their first language
and who also have language problems in English. They are called Generation
1.5 because they have characteristics of both first- and second-generation immigrants.
Like second-generation immigrants, they can seem thoroughly acculturated into
American society, but, like first-generation immigrants, they may not be literate in
English. Like other students with good BICS but little CALP proficiency, Generation
1.5 students tend to do fine in oral activities in school; however, their English difficulties
become more apparent in content classes, especially when they must do academic
writing. In fact, teachers may not even realize that these students are still language
learners until they see their written work. Unfortunately, Generation 1.5 students
are typically exited from ESL or bilingual classes because of their good oral proficiency
and therefore receive little if any help to improve their English proficiency. For
this reason, often the only chance they have to improve their English proficiency is
through the intervention of alert teachers in their content classes.
Some Generation 1.5 English learners may simultaneously be heritage
learners of their family’s native language. Heritage learners typically can understand
and speak their family language much better than they can read or write it.
Thus, it is unfortunately possible that some Generation 1.5 English learners will
not have a good CALP foundation in either English or their heritage language.
In addition to Generation 1.5 students, many ELs and their families are
transnationals who move back and forth between the United States and their
countries of origin. These learners may have gaps in their literacy development in
both their native language and in English due to interruptions in their schooling
in both countries. They may also have especially complicated feelings about their
true cultural identities.
When children learn their first language, they are exposed to large amounts of
contextualized language input. Language input is contextualized when it refers
to objects and actions in the learner’s immediate environment.
oral interactions in content language classes approximate authentic
communication because everyone involved has a stake in understanding what
the other participants are saying.
the contextualization of language in content classes facilitates scaffolding
by helping teachers understand and respond helpfully to learners’ oral
comments. Teachers are better able to anticipate the kinds of things students will
want to say and to help them articulate their ideas through feedback and scaffolding.
content-based language classes are careful to develop specific language objectives for
their students, while content teachers often concentrate on their specific content area,
expecting the ESL or bilingual teacher to take care of language development.
One important difference between content-based language classes and regular
content classes is the explicit emphasis on both language and content learning. By
examining information and concepts in their subject area, content-based language
teachers develop language objectives for their students and coordinate those objectives
with the content to be taught.
There are generally two ways to organize language objectives: around grammar
and around the kinds of things learners will need to communicate.
In recent years, however, language educators are more likely to use
syllabi organized around communication tasks and the kinds of ideas that people
need to communicate. Topics on this type of syllabus might include narration in
the present and the past, hypothesizing about the future, making requests, supporting
an opinion, and apologizing.
it is helpful to think of recycling language objectives and concentrating on the
same objective or objectives at different points during the year.
Listening input can be made
comprehensible to more learners by using foreigner talk. Teachers should articulate
clearly and use high-frequency vocabulary words (“kick the ball hard” rather
than “kick the ball firmly”) and simple sentence structures (“stand there” rather
than “I would like you to stand over there”). Narrow listening is another useful
way to make listening input more comprehensible and can be easily incorporated
into thematic units.
Since it is likely that many language learners will have difficulty learning content
through class discussions, teachers should summarize each discussion or elicit a
summary from students. This approach has the advantage of reinforcing the content
of the discussion for all students.
text may define an abstract concept such as
“population” or “urban area” and then go on to use the newly defined terms in
increasingly complex ways. If a student does not understand the concept of population
when first introduced,
Helping Learners Read to Learn in Content Classes
Help students understand
that the language used in
class materials is different
from the oral language they
use in social situations.
■ Point out specific common examples of the
way BICS and CALP language express the
■ Have students identify instances of BICS
and CALP language in various texts.
Make certain that students
have the background
knowledge they need to
read a particular text.
■ Preview reading materials to determine the
background knowledge that students need
■ Use advance organizers and other prereading
strategies to activate background knowledge.
■ When necessary, teach students the necessary
background information before asking
them to read.
Teach specific content
■ Tell students how to skim text to get the
general idea of the material and activate
background knowledge before reading.
■ Encourage students to scan text in order
to identify specific information, especially
when reviewing content reading materials.
■ Teach students to take notes and keep a
record of important information. Reviewing
notes and then rereading the text is a very
helpful reading strategy.
Help students develop good
■ Help students identify important words
and distinguish between important and less
■ Encourage students to finish reading a paragraph
before they jump to the dictionary.
When ELs in content courses have reading difficulties, it can be difficult to
determine the source of their difficulties. A student may simply be at an early stage
of English development, but it is also possible that the student does not know how
to read in his or her first language, has a reading disability, or does not have sufficient
academic background. Students from immigrant or refugee families may
have had little formal schooling due to frequent family moves or the political situations
in their home countries.
teachers often have difficulty determining whether a student’s writing difficulties
are due to an inability to write in English, lack of CALP language, difficulties understanding
the content material, difficulties organizing concepts, or a combination of
Coherence refers both to the logical sequence of a text and to the way ideas are
related to each other. Good writing is not a simple listing of ideas: the writer must
show readers how the ideas are connected, and the ideas must follow each other
logically. The sentences in a paragraph must connect to each other and advance the
central idea of the paragraph, and all the paragraphs in a paper must relate to each
other and to the overall unity of the written text.
an importance source of coherence in English. In the sentences “Phil ran into a
friend while he was at the store. As the two were talking, the friend realized he
was late and quickly said good-bye,” the switch from the indefinite to the definite
article signals to the reader that the sentence is now talking about a specific friend.
There are, of course, many ways to achieve coherence in writing such as repeating
phrases from one sentence to the next or using synonyms and pronouns to avoid
repeating the same phrase over and over.
Most tasks require the use of several second language skills as well as learners’
other cognitive abilities, and students generally work in groups. The listening
and reading components give students targeted input that they can later incorporate
in speaking and writing. Conversation theories maintain that reusing the same
vocabulary, language structures, and ideas reinforces learners’ second language
development, and from the perspective of the cognitive learning theories of SLA,
language becomes more automatic each time the learner uses it. Students might
first do a lot of listening and speaking to decide how to approach the task and what
Some Guidelines for Teaching Language
Activities in content classes should focus on both language and content objectives
for ELs. ESL teachers in stand-alone or pull-out classes should identify the kinds of
tasks students will have to accomplish in their content classes and include similar
assignments in their language curriculum.
1. Assess students’ existing knowledge in the content area. It is essential that classroom
tasks be at the appropriate level of content difficulty. If a student is having
difficulty learning content or accomplishing tasks, it is important to know
whether the difficulty is due to limited second language development or to
insufficient content background.
2. Assess students’ CALP language development. It is especially important to be
sure that students are progressing in their CALP language development. Be
sure to look for differences in ease of expression when students are talking
about concrete “here and now” social topics (BICS) and more abstract academic
topics (CALP). Look for opportunities to have “CALP” conversations
with individual students.
3. Choose tasks that require a variety of language skills. The use of various language
modalities (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) enhances language
learning. The input derived from listening and reading gives students
patterns that can be used as building blocks in oral and written language
production, and the repetition and negotiation of ideas through speaking
and writing helps learners clarify their ideas and state them more comprehensibly.
4. Include targeted oral and/or written input as part of the content task so that students
have a model for the kind of language they will have to produce. Complex
final products such as summaries or reports are usually more demanding
for students than the projects that they are doing or did in their ESL or
bilingual classes. For that reason, it is very helpful to include an oral or
written model of the kind of language students will need to accomplish the
task. For example, Task 2 (“Prove It!”) in the next section asks groups of
students to prepare mathematical proofs and has the teacher both explain
and write a sample proof as the first step in the task. Hearing and seeing
the teacher do the proof first gives students an idea of the scope of the task,
the steps involved, as well as specific phrases and vocabulary that can be
used. They can also refer to the teacher’s original proof for relevant language
5. Remind students about language learning and communication strategies that will be
helpful in accomplishing a specific task. Since content assignments are organized
around independent, individual, and group work, strategy use is especially
important. These strategies will also be helpful to students if they find themselves
in a “sink or swim” situation in other content classes where they must
rely on themselves to figure out an assignment.
■ Teach students to take notes and keep a
record of important information. Reviewing
notes and then rereading the text is a very
helpful reading strategy.
7. Apply the SIOP Model and CALLA (see next section).
CHAPTER E I G H T / What Should I Know About Teaching Academic English . . .?
Activity Ideas pg. 195
Like the SIOP Model discussed in Chapter 3, Anna Uhl Chamot’s Cognitive
Academic Language Learning Approach (CALLA) is a widely used
method for teaching language through content and is made up of
1. The instructional topics are chosen from major content subjects.
2. Instruction focuses on the development of academic language and literacy.
3. There is explicit instruction in both content and language learning strategies.
198 PA R T T W O / How Do You Teach a Language?
content-based language learning since students are learning content and language
simultaneously. Without resolving the general question of whether language
learning and content learning are the same or different processes, a hybrid learning
model such as the one underpinning CALLA seems reasonable for language
learning in content settings. The cognitive learning element of Chamot’s approach
is similar to the controlled processing and automatic processing components of
the cognitive learning SLA theory described in Chapter 2. Chamot is concerned
with how learning—either language or content—becomes automatic through
the interaction of declarative knowledge and procedural memory. Declarative
knowledge “consists of facts and information that we know” (Chamot, 2009 p. 18)
and “includes words (forms and meanings), facts, and rules, including our memory
for images and sequences of events” (p. 9). Procedural memory, in contrast,
refers to “things we know to do” (p. 18), and “underlies our ability to understand
and generate language” (p. 9). Thus, Chamot agrees with the cognitive learning
theory of SLA in that language learning is very similar to other types of learning
and that with sufficient practice language becomes automatic.
VOICES FROM THE CALLA CLASSROOM
What teachers do: ■ Conduct class in the target
language ensuring that both
the content and language is
comprehensible to students.
Monitor student comprehension.
■ Identify, teach, and promote the
use of learning strategies for the
specific content and language
objectives. Teach test approach
■ Coordinate instructional
objectives with state and
■ Promote higher-order thinking
■ Use a variety of activity types
such as cooperative learning,
process writing, and inquiry
■ Use alternative assessment
What students do: ■ Participate in content learning
activities that are designed to
develop language literacy.
■ Apply language and content
■ Participate in a variety of
learning activities including
■ Engage in self-assessment.
Although many content-based language
teachers choose to give separate grades for the language and content components
of an assignment, it is never possible to separate the two areas completely
since poor language use might make it seem that the learner does not understand
the content well. The use of group work in content classes can also make it difficult
to detect individual difficulties in either language or content.
All in all, rubrics that combine language and content criteria are a good
assessment choice in the content classroom.
Since task-based activities provide time for planning, opportunities for
revision, and the possibility of negotiation of meaning, students may produce
more polished speech during task-based activities than they do in spontaneous
conversations or class discussions. It is important to remember that the quality
of students’ language will vary according to the demands of each specific task.