Vol. 4. No. 4 R-11 December 2000
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Content-Based College ESL Instruction
Loretta F. Kasper. With Marcia Babbitt, Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk, Donna M. Brinton, Judith W. Rosenthal, Peter Master, Sharon A. Myers, Joy Egbert, David A. Tillyer, and Louise S. Wood. (2000)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xiv + 227
ISBN 0-8058-3076-6 (paper)
US $24.50

A main objective of many ESL programs is to prepare students to pass the TOEFL exam so that they may enter the academic mainstream. Yet once non-native English speakers succeed in entering college, major problems can arise: Many flounder under the double pressure of rigorous content courses and the demands of academic English. Non-native undergraduates have difficulty performing the basic tasks required of all college students: reading efficiently, speaking, taking notes and exams in class, and completing written assignments. Non-native graduate students face similar difficulties. In addition, as teaching assistants, although competent in the subject matter of their disciplines, they may have trouble communicating effectively in English. In sum, many ESL students are working towards the proficiency in English needed for college-level study, yet in many cases, once in the mainstream, they find that their ESL programs failed to prepare them for survival and that there is little support to be found.

How can ESL programs more adequately prepare students who plan to pursue college-level study in an anglophone environment? What can be done to bridge the gap between the ESL and the mainstream classroom in order to prevent non-native speaking college students from eventually falling through the cracks of the system? Content-Based Language Instruction (CBLI) addresses these issues. CBLI courses have a double focus; they teach language and subject matter simultaneously, with the form and sequence of language presentation guided by course content.

Although CBLI is a growing field in ESL studies, until recently there has been a lack of a good introductory text on the subject. Content-Based College ESL Instruction is a collection of articles that fill a gap in the literature on CBLI. An excellent point of departure for those considering implementing CBLI courses, it contains twelve essays written by ESL professionals whose areas of background and instructional expertise vary. They include Donna M. Brinton and Peter Master, co-authors of the excellent volumes New Ways in Content-Based Instruction (Brinton & Master, 1997) and New Ways in English for Special Purposes (Master & Brinton, 1998).[1] The stated purpose of Content-Based College ESL Instruction is "to inform and train readers . . . in the techniques of content-based instruction" (p. ix). This objective indicates the ambitiously wide scope of this undertaking. Fortunately, the authors have managed to strike a good balance between theory and practice, as well as between range and depth of learner level and audience. ESL faculty and graduate students in MATESL programs with varying experience and training in second language pedagogy will benefit from its content, as will those who have little background in the field: college administrators or mainstream instructors who have ESL students in the classroom. Individually, each article offers an in-depth discussion of a particular area within CBLI. Collectively, they provide an excellent overview of the key issues involved in this growing field.

The text is divided into three main sections: "Laying the Groundwork for a Content-Based Pedagogy," "Building English Language Skills Through Content-Based Instruction," and "Incorporating Technology into Content-Based Instruction." Each of the twelve articles is followed by a comprehensive bibliography suggesting further reading; several contain appendices with sample exercises. [-1-]

The first section addresses fundamental considerations for designing and implementing CBLI courses or programs, in theory and in practice. These include how to choose a model appropriate to student needs and institutional organization, how to train faculty, and how to assess the effectiveness of programs, classes, and classroom activities. The articles also suggest how to anticipate eventual problems associated with CBLI, from organizational concerns on the administrative level to sources of anxiety for instructors and teaching assistants involved in CBLI for the first time.

The second section offers specific pedagogical activities for preparing ESL learners at different levels to enter the mainstream college classroom, based on the authors' and their colleagues' experiences with CBLI. Focusing on materials development and implementation, the chapters address grammatical proficiency, reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. They offer solid advice on integrating film, short stories, and audiotapes into CBLI.

The third section establishes the importance of using computer technology for second language learning, reiterates the benefits of computer instruction for CBLI in particular, and gives examples for integrating technology into the classroom. The articles demonstrate how incorporating e-mail and internet activities enhances classroom learning by providing one-on-one interaction with native speakers and, by extension, enriched cultural experiences. Obviously, for students who will continue their studies in the academic mainstream, computer proficiency is especially important.

Although the book's architecture suggests a split between theory and practical application, the reader who moves beyond the table of contents will quickly discover that each essay is its own microcosm, providing descriptions of theoretical issues as well as pedagogical applications for the classroom. As such, each of these articles stands alone and can be read independently of the others. For example, the chapter by Loretta F. Kaspar entitled "The Short Story as a Bridge to Content in the Lower Level ESL Course" is ideal for use in instructor training programs. Through a theoretical overview, it demonstrates the importance of CBLI for ESL learners who are preparing to make a transition into the college mainstream, then clearly describes methodology and guidelines for such courses. The chapter "ESL Students in the Mainstream: Observations From Content Area Faculty," by Judith W. Rosenthal, is a quick read intended to raise consciousness among mainstream professors. It aims to increase instructor awareness of the day-to-day difficulties non-native speakers may have, and offers very simple suggestions for the classroom. Instead of touting difficult to implement accommodations for mainstreamed students, many simple tips remind readers of what are, quite simply, sound educational practices even for university-level courses not specifically geared toward non-native speakers. Several articles in Content-Based College ESL Instruction highlight biases and attitudes on the part of professionals that are detrimental to non-native students: their failure to see the strengths that non-natives bring to the mainstream classroom, and the associated costs of non-recognition. Another common focus of these articles is an emphasis on two-way assessment: the importance of the on-going evaluation of both instructional design and student performance to the success of a CBLI program. They offer concrete suggestions for how to assess both language performance and content learning. [-2-]

Texts that claim to offer something for everyone and that try to meet many different needs at once often end up missing the mark. Topics may be treated in a superficial manner and therefore fail to adequately meet the needs of any audience. Yet Content-Based College ESL Instruction is one of those rare books that avoids this pitfall. A major strength is its flexibility of use. Because each article can stand alone, there is some repetition of the basic principles of CBLI, which may become a bit tiresome for the informed reader. On the other hand, section headings and good organization facilitate skimming and scanning. Although written by a variety of authors, the essays share a common characteristic: They are executed gracefully, in clear, jargon-free language.

This book thoroughly establishes the importance of CBLI to the field of ESL instruction. It illustrates how easily and effectively language teaching can take place in content courses, despite a lack of CBLI materials currently being marketed for individual courses. In a word, Content-Based College ESL Instruction is essential reading for those in the field of second language teaching. This timely collection of articles makes an excellent case for the reorientation of the ESL program curriculum towards CBLI.

End Note

[1] Master & Brinton (1998) was reviewed in TESL-EJ Vol 4, No. 1, R-11, July, 1999. Brinton & Master (1997) was reviewed in TESL-EJ Vol. 4, No. 3, R-11, May, 2000.


Brinton, D. M., & Master, P. (1997). New Ways in Content-Based Instruction. Alexandria, VA: TESOL.

Master, P., & Brinton, D. M. (1998). New Ways in English for Special Purposes. Alexandria, VA: TESOL.

Beth Droppleman
University of Lyon Lumiere II
<bdroppl@hotmail.com >

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