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.)


Scope and Sequence: to protect children

The phrase “Scope and Sequence” has been used inappropriately by many educators for some time, however it is used by most academics to mean a delineation of abilities, performances, or behaviors that represent a healthy, normal range for a given developmental stage.
Physicians and psychologists also use this definition to describe developmentally-appropriate stages of learning cognitively, affectively, and physically. A research-based understanding of appropriate Scope and Sequence is needed to inform teachers and parents of how best to help monitor children’s growth. Misinformation about Scope and Sequence can put traumatic, growth-stunting pressure on children.

When my son Luke turned two, my parents at his playdates bragged about how their precocious children were starting to use the potty. Not wanting to let my child be left behind, I raced off buy the most adorable tiny tighy-whities and itty-bitty potty. Sadly, I was taking advice from those wanting to one-up people, not really help my child, and I skipped research-based books that would have advised me against forcing my child to use the potty too soon.

A truly healthy Scope and Sequence simply informs us of what range is healthy and normal: 2-4 for potty training. A healthy range for acquiring Basic Interpersonal Speech for English as a Second Language Learners is 2-3 years enrolled full-time in US schools, but the timeframe is many years longer for foreign language students who receive less input in L2. 5-7 years is a normal range for Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. These ranges are normal and healthy.

Scope and Sequence that show scaled ranges of proficiency can help inform us about what programming is working. It can also and act as red flags when we don’t see appropriate growth, or set limits so children are not pushed past what they can reasonably be expected to do. Scope and Sequences are not chapters to go through. Not checklists of vocabulary to use. What grammar do I need kids to learn next? Forcing children to address proficiencies of language they aren’t ready for represents poor curricular planning.
When I forced my child on the potty before he was ready so that I could feel like a good mommy, I was doing something unhealthy: refusing to honor where he was at developmentally and plan for growth using appropriate assessments of his ability. Instead of making decisions based on what my child could really do, I was listening to uninformed grown-ups tell me to align myself with what their kids were doing so I could validate them.

If I had informed myself and read the books and done the research, I would have known to reject this “vertical alignment” rhetoric and focus on my child instead. Experts tells us there are serious consequences for holding children to standards they aren’t ready for. Feelings of shame for two-year-olds anxious about the potty is real. The same is true for forced language production or teaching through inappropriate, incomprehensible input. Outright rejection of the thing they are supposed to be working towards, anxiety, or diminished self-image are serious problems in education.

Those same teachers tell us that if we don’t align to their curriculum and use the same textbook as them, we don’t have high standards. We do. We are not letting our kids off the hook, and we are constantly assessing or noticing how they grow. We are just not punishing kids for not doing things they can’t do yet, but we do make sure they don’t regress and are constantly growing.
So when Luke went camping a few weeks ago as a fully potty-trained 4 year old, I failed to maintain high potty standards. I left the little potty at home. While camping, he figured out he could “go potty anywhere.” This made things awkward when we were visiting the park the next day. And playing in the backyard. And at tense playdates with those “vertical alignment” mommies who judged me because my child tried dropping his tiny little pants (can you blame them though?).

I had to re-direct him back to what I know he’s capable of, using a potty, because I know my child. But I’m not going to shame other mommies whose children can’t, because I’m not going to compromise the mental health of any child, teacher, or parent. I chose not to use my children’s accomplishments to make someone else feel lesser. I chose not to shame them if they don’t learn what I want them to learn when I want them to learn it…without playing the one-upping vertical alignment game.

I will collect qualitative data on my children, but in a compassionate way, and use a Scope and Sequence to keep my focus on my kids and make sure they are growing in a developmentally-appropriate way.

A More Compassionate Calling

Next week I start my 10th year teaching English as a Second Language.  I’ve had highs and lows; wins and fails.  There is no more wholesome profession or lofty calling than trying to give a voice to language minority students who struggle to achieve bilingualism and understand what it is to be bicultural.

As an ESL teacher, I seek to raise up little ambassadors for their heritage languages and cultures.  English Language Learners are often underestimated but they are mighty.  I have a room full of little Mexican-Americans, Honduran-Americans, Iraqi-Americans, and others who make our world more diverse and lovely just by being themselves.  These little ones will go out in the community and build bridges between countries and ethnic groups.  How could one not seek compassion for children tasked with something this important and burdensome?

Burdensome also describes prejudicial English-only laws in my home state of Tennessee. ESOL or ESL is a beast sometimes, and I seek to tame it.  Bilingual education is off the table for me, so here I seek solutions to offer comprehensible input in my pull-out immersion ESL classroom.

Here I will being writing out and thinking aloud about how best to serve English Language Learners.  Comment below or just sit and stew.  I’m just digitally thinking aloud as I work toward being a more compassionate teacher.