What kind of Content-Based Instruction Do You Do?

As I read more and more of the literature on content-based language teaching (CBLT), I am becoming increasingly frustrated.

Why you might ask?

Because the field has done an incredibly poor job of defining what CBLT actually is.

I get it! There are many variations of CBLT around the world, but the fact that after a few decades we continue to fail to be consistent with terminology is just disheartening.

Before my teacher-readers stop reading (maybe you already have), I promise this matters a lot to you. (Really?) Really!

By clearly understanding the variations of CBLT, you can identify whether your program fits you and your students.

In this post, I will discuss three types of CBLT and which are appropriate for students and teachers.

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How to Write Great Content and Language Objectives

Far too many teachers ask themselves 5 minutes before class, “What am I going to teach today?”

I believe the vast majority of teachers want to be great and know they should have learning objectives.

But the truth is…writing learning objectives are hard.

Although learning objectives are usually the starting point for course reform, Wieman (2017) discovered that faculty often struggled with writing learning objectives and that beginning with teaching strategies was often an easier place to start.

Given its difficulty, it is no wonder teachers often default to “winging it” rather than writing learning objectives.

This difficulty is compounded for teachers who teach in content-based language teaching (CBLT) settings, which requires both content and language objectives.

In this post, I will demystify the writing of learning objectives step by step, giving you an easy to follow list for creating content and language objectives for your classroom.

Where should I start?

As discussed above, CBLT requires two objectives: a content objective and a language objective. Often teachers ask, which one should I write first?

Generally speaking, the content objective should come first.

There are many variations of CBLT ranging from classes that are exclusively focused on language to classes exclusively focused on content.

Regardless of where your class falls on the spectrum, the content will always drive the language taught. The differences along the spectrum mostly lie in the emphasis put on either language or content objectives.

For example, if your class is an “English for Specific Purposes” course for police officers, your focus will almost be exclusively on the language objective that is used on the job. The language taught is informed by the content (i.e. police officer work), but your students would likely already know the content in their L1 and your job would be to teach them the language in English.

An English-medium instruction course at a university would be on the other side of the spectrum. The sole focus would be to teach the content to the students. Any language considerations in this situation would be to facilitate the learning of the content, not necessarily geared toward improving students’ language abilities.

K-12 programs vary along the spectrum. Some are EFL classes that use content as a means to an end, the end being language development. Others may be English for Academic Purposes courses, with the goal to develop both students’ language and content skills for future enrollment in an English-medium instruction program at a university. If your K-12 program is not designated as one of these, you would likely be in the middle, with a balance between both.

Writing Content Objectives

Knowing that we need content to develop the language objective, let’s discuss how to write a content objective.

Luckily, of the two objectives, writing content objectives is easier.

There are two criteria for writing good content objectives:

  1. Have the end in mind
  2. Student-centered

Having the end in mind means you know what the “deliverable” or the measurable outcome will be before you write the objective. Student-centered means the objective is about the students, not the teacher.

To fulfill these two, we can start with a simple sentence stem:

“Students will…”

Next, we need a verb.

Texas A&M University’s Center for Teaching Excellence created a great table based on Bloom’s Taxonomy (revised) to help with verb selection.

Simply find the thinking skill you want to target and pick the verb that best fits the “end in mind.”

For example, let’s say you want students to evaluate the characteristics of characters in a story. You would look at evaluate, see the verbs “compare and contrast” and add it to your sentence stem.

The resulting content objective would be, “Students will compare and contrast the characteristics of the characters in {story name}.”

And there you have it! A content objective that is clear about the end in mind and is student-centered.

That wasn’t so hard, right?

Well hang on…here comes language objectives.

Writing Language Objectives

Language objectives are a bit more complex and will require you to deeply examine the content for its linguistic features (It sounds scarier than it is…).

When creating a language objective, you will want to consider how language will be used (read, write, listen, speak), the grammar associated with the content objective, the vocabulary needed, and the scaffolding, if any.

Also, you will want to consider the criteria for content objectives from above: 1) end in mind and 2) student-centered.

So let’s return to our compare and contrast content objective from above and create an appropriate language objective.

We’ll start with “Students will…”

Next, we need to choose how students will use language. For this particular content objective, I will choose one receptive skill and one productive skill. We know students will need to read, so we have our receptive skill and for the sake of this exercise, let’s say we will have the students write their ideas.

So now we have, “Students will read and write.”

Now let’s ask the questions, “Read what? Write what?”

Students will read a story and compare and contrast characters, or in other words, write about similarities and differences.

That brings our language objective to, “Students will read {story name} and write similarities and differences of the characters.”

Most might stop here and call it a day, but I feel it is helpful to include a bit more information about the language needed so both the teacher and students are clear about the objective at hand.

At this point, we need to think about the language needed. For compare and contrast, comparatives (adjective + er + than) would probably be useful. And for vocabulary, perhaps we have a list of adjectives that we want our students to learn in this unit.

With language in mind, our updated language objective is, “Students will read {story name} and write similarities and differences of the characters with comparatives and three adjectives from our adjective vocabulary list.”

Finally, depending on the language level of the class, you may want to consider scaffolding this task. Scaffolding techniques are beyond the scope of this post, but let’s say students would be assisted by a sentence stem like this one: [Character A] is [adjective + er] than [Character B].

This scaffold would be tagged onto the end of the language objective like this: “Students will read {story name} and write similarities and differences of the characters with comparatives and three adjectives from our adjective vocabulary list using a sentence stem.”

Boom! Language objective complete!

Conclusion

From reading the literature on CBLT, the biggest challenge teachers face is balancing content and language during instruction.

By creating clear content and language objectives, teachers will be able to see clearly what will be achieved for both areas during the class.

While I won’t say that creating objectives are easy, I hope that the steps I took you through above will make the task a little less daunting.

How do you create objectives? Do you have a different strategy that helps you prepare for class? Let me know in the comments!

References

Texas A&M University Center for Teaching Excellence. (n.d.). Taxonomy: Verbs & instructional strategies. For more information, visit http://cte.tamu.edu.

Wieman, C. (2017). Improving how universities teach science- Lessons from the Science Education Initiative. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

The Connection Between Math and Language

This morning I was reading an article titled “How to make math a key part of your ELL curriculum.” In the article the author writes,

It also helps that numbers are numbers, and working with them is natural to speakers of any language.

It is a common assumption that math will be easier for English language learners. It’s just numbers, right?

Wrong!

While it seems on the surface that math would be transferable between languages because of numbers, it is actually a lot more complicated than that.

In this post, I will discuss some of the research that addresses the issue of language and math.

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