High Interest Content-Based Instruction


honor their perspective

I will never forget the day one of my brightest students, sweet 16-year-old Maria, told me amid tears, “Back in Mexico, I was smart.  I wanted to be a doctor and I made good grades.  Here, I am stupid.”

Far too many ESL students experience shame: heart-breaking, life-changing shame.  All the special knowledge ESL students have is disregarded.  Children live with the weight of unheard ideas, unappreciated interests, and underrated talent.

So how do English Language teachers help students weather an emotional storm while “Immigrating Into English”—the title of a June 6, 2016 article of The New Yorker.   http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/06/06/ocean-vuong-immigrating-into-english?

Ocean Vuong shares an inspiringly personal description of what is is like to be an English Language Learner as a child:

“… poor writing abilities would excuse me from (writing) assignments, and I would instead spend the class mindlessly copying out passages from books … The task allowed me to camouflage myself; as long as I looked as though I were doing something smart, my shame and failure were hidden.”

The answer to Vuong’s feelings of shame came when he found a subject that mattered to him on a deeply personal level: the Civil Rights Movement. “I Have a Dream” resonated with him and inspired him to cast off her shame and take a risk with language to respond to a deeply compelling message: every human being has value.

The solution to shame is simply telling children that what they know and feel and value matters.  The solution is Content-Based Instruction or CBI.

CBI is an approach where teachers borrow from a content area for the purpose of taking the focus off of the language and put it on compelling messages.  (Note to my World Language friends, TPRS has similar goals, but is only appropriate for early language learners.)

But what “content” should teachers borrow from?  In a 2015 article, Dr. Krashen suggested dance or cooking classes, but really whatever kids love is what you need to be using.  Content-based instruction that gives students a voice to speak and write, and hopefully read narrowly and deeply in a high-interest content-area.  High interest is key.

Find what they are interested in, love, or have or want to have special knowledge about and make that the content-area of study.

In “The End of Motivation” by—you guessed it—Stephen Krashen, the word “compelling” and it’s role in SLA is defined.  Krashen states that when students are given compelling comprehensible messages, they temporarily lower the affective filter so messages are more comprehensible.  –Temporarily.

But what if we could keep the “compelling” turned on—even after class when students go home and chose to read a book or not.  What if we ditched our lesson on the Rainforest and planned a unit on dance, football, photography, cars (my kids love cars!), or whatever else students love.  What if Krashen’s “compelling factor” could be not so temporary?  What if students could be intrinsically motivated to learn about something just because it’s a reflection of their values, identify, interests, opinions, or aspirations.

If we want to move up Bloom’s taxonomy, from memorizing and drilling to creating and problem-solving, we have to move up Krathwahl’s taxonomy from boring to deeply personally invested in an area of study.

If we want to get at their brains, we have to go through their hearts.



We need to move away from the dichotomy of teacher as givers and children as recipients of knowledge as in the Little Prince.

Limiting Content-Based Instruction to math, science, or history means limiting our definition of what is valuable knowledge to core subjects like math, science, or social studies.

Content-based instruction with traditionally academic content-area studies forces less traditionally academic students to start from a deficit.

Students do not feel confident in a SIOP lesson on the Rainforest.  They will not feel compelled to read at home.  Promoting Free Voluntary Reading is the goal of every minute of every class I teach.   Research is overwhelming: the more voice students have in what they read, the better readers they become. Telling students the books and subjects they value are worth reading honors them as intellectuals. 


We must move toward honoring children’s perspectives. High interest CBI acknowledges that, as St. Exupery says, “All men have stars…but they are not the same things for different people.”

Using boring, low-interest content areas to teach English is not supported by research, but it also leads them to Maria and Ocean’s conclusion that they are “stupid” because their talents and experiences in subjects outside of the core subjects are not important.

Even if they love drawing (sheep or boa constrictors or whatever) I must show my children that I think their ideas are important enough to listen to.

I am calling for an end to low-interest Content-Based Instruction.


(Thanks to Ben Slavic for the Little Prince Inspiration.)


Published by

Claire Walter

I am an ESL teacher and I promote differentiated, compassionate instruction and assessment for English Language Learners.

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