Previously, we examined the elements that comprise a best practices-based curriculum, types of curriculum, and methods and approaches for teaching in a best practices-based curriculum.

In this article, we look at content-based instruction, project- and problem-based instruction, and service learning (community-engaged learning) to help teachers and program administrators familiarize themselves with the options available for actively involving students in their learning.

Content-based instruction

What differentiates content-based instruction (CBI) from other forms of instruction is its "dual commitment to language- and content-learning objectives." (Stoller, p. 261). In the 1980s, applied linguists exhibited substantial interest in integrated instruction, "producing five scholarly works addressing the incorporation of language and content." (Stoller, p. 261). Though CBI has undergone a number of transformations over the past 30-plus years, the fundamental purpose has remained:

"In successful CBI, learners master both language and content through a reciprocal process as they understand and convey varied concepts through their second language. ... CBI may be seen as particularly relevant to learners who are preparing for full-time study through their second (or weaker) language, at any level of education." (Wesche and Skehan, as cited in Stoller, p. 262)

There is global interest in CBI. Stoller details a long list of scholarly publications that concentrate on CBI and notes that the European community "formalized Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) and engaged in innovative initiatives integrating language and content as part of its 'Plurilingual Education' agenda."

Further, over a decade ago, the University of Maastricht hosted the international conference, "Integrating content and language: Meeting the challenge of a multilingual higher education." (Stoller p. 263)

Beckett, Gonzalez and Schwartz observe that CBI is necessary for the thousands of international, non-English-speaking students who come to the U.S. each year to study in ESL programs or IEPs in an effort to improve their English, but who struggle mightily — especially in writing courses — with academic writing.

Many of those students have not been trained to write academically in their mother tongue. Likewise, it is not unusual for those who have been trained to have had training significantly different from that expected in American English academic writing. Beckett et al. also point to the great concern that many existing ESL programs and IEPs rely on a curriculum "designed to teach ESL writing as a separate subject. ... They neglect to link writing instruction with authentic content-area writing assignments."

As far back as 1999, the National Research Council promoted integrated language teaching, subject-matter content, and higher-order thinking skills (Beckett et al., p.161).

As mentioned previously, there are many roads leading to Rome. CBI is one of a number of paradigms that can be applied in designing and implementing an integrated curriculum. Those paradigms include theme-based instruction and the adjunct model, the latter of which "links a specific language-learning course with a content course."

Just as there are a number of paradigms for integrating curriculum, there are a number of teaching approaches that are adaptable within the paradigms. These approaches include cooperative learning, task-based or experiential learning, and whole language.

Project- or problem-based learning and service learning (community-engaged learning) are easily adaptable to any of the paradigms (project- and problem-based learning are types of experiential learning). From what we know about MI theory and learning style theory, the more varied the approaches, the better the curriculum will meet students' needs.

Project-based and problem-based learning

Linked not only by their shared acronyms (PBL), project- and problem-based learning are both experiential in nature and are grounded in the eminent roots sown by Dewey, Vygotsky (1978) and Gardner (1983, 1991). The problem-based approach to teaching and learning "is an instructional method in which students learn through facilitated problem solving" whose goals are to assist students in developing "flexible knowledge, effective problem-solving skills, SDL (self-directed learning skills), effective collaboration skills and intrinsic motivation." (Hmelo-Silver, p. 235).

Project-based learning identifies projects as "complex tasks, based on challenging questions or problems that involve students in design, problem-solving, decision-making or investigative activities." (Thomas, p. 1). As Bell explains, project-based learning is a "student-driven, teacher-facilitated approach" in which students explore topics that arouse their "natural curiosity."

Both PBLs encourage learner autonomy, active learning and lifelong learning skills, critical thinking and problem solving, critical reflection, and collaboration (Bell, Thomas, de Graaff and Kolmos, Moss and Van Duzer, Savery and Hmelo-Silver).

Service-learning (Community-engaged learning)

Service-learning is an easy fit with an integrated curriculum that includes project- and problem-based learning and certainly is an essential piece of a culture-based curriculum. Service-learning can be the projects and/or problems through which students learn.

"Service-learning is an approach to teaching and learning that involves having students perform community service as a means for achieving academic goals."(Billig and Furco, p. vii). Billig and Furco note that, because of its "boundary-spanning" characteristic, service-learning "activities can be focused on an assortment of tasks that are integrated at varying degrees across a broad range of content areas."

Unquestionably,service-learning is supported by a long list of educators and pedagogical researchers, including Dewey, Freire, Gardner, Caine and Caine, Armstrong, and Healy. Many resources exist for designing service-learning programs.

In the next article in this series, we will examine the best choices in available materials and what to consider when choosing materials.


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  • Stoller, F. (Spring 1999). Time for a change: A hybrid curriculum for EAP programs. TESOL Journal. 9-13.
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