Academic journal article Italica

Making the Case for Content-Based Instruction

Academic journal article Italica

Making the Case for Content-Based Instruction

Article excerpt


As dedicated teaching professionals we often ask ourselves if what we do in class is effective. In other words, are our students learning what we want them to learn? This question seems to be particularly true when it comes to the teaching of grammatical structures--or the forms--of the language. Our self-doubt may arise in part due to the sometimes conflicting research results that have been reported over the past several decades with the advent of the Communicative Approach to language teaching or CLT, promoted in large part thanks to Krashen's (1985) well-known monitor model. It is safe to say that while CLT has as its heart the desire to promote communicative competence through meaningful interaction, the instantiation of the approach has taken various forms since its inception in the early 80s. The treatment of grammatical forms within CLT has been particularly varied and has caused rather contentious debates over the years (see Celce-Murcia 1999; Ellis 2006). The argument might simply be summed up in the perennial question of "to teach or not to teach?" Although proponents on both sides of the argument still exist, the general consensus appears to be that a judicious, deliberate, and meaningful study of grammar is needed in the foreign (and indeed second) language classroom (see Doughty & Varela 1998). However, just exactly how we as teachers should effectively approach grammar instruction is still open to question.

Another (related) issue is how much and for how long grammar instruction should continue. There appears to be a tacit assumption among language teaching practitioners--particularly in the university-level context--that we must spend the first year (maybe two) of instruction cramming in all the "basics" of grammar, and then simply concentrate on the seemingly more sophisticated structures at the intermediate and advanced levels. While there is some merit to this approach, research has shown that the acquisition of another language is a slow, developmental process, and not an 'all-or-nothing' affair that happens in a span of one or two years (VanPatten 2003, chapters one and three). For this reason, as some researchers have suggested, it may be more effective to deal with fewer forms at one time. For example, one might introduce only the singular persons of the verb when teaching the present tense indicative (cf. processing instruction, VanPatten 1996). Or one might provide multiple occasions to deal with the same grammatical structures through a process of recycling, as is common in task-based language teaching or TBLT (cf. Nunan 2004, passim). The point is that simply because we have taught a particular structure, can we assume it has been learned? And, if the answer is in fact no, how should we approach our teaching language forms in such a way that our classes do not look like an endless cycle of boring grammar lessons?

In this paper, then, I will provide further evidence that although our intermediate and advanced students may have acquired the concepts of the basic structures we typically address at lower proficiency levels (in this case, the present tense indicative), we must not assume that they are fully capable of using these structures. Consequently, I will argue that we as teachers need to ensure that we provide our learners with opportunities to return to these basic structures--albeit in more sophisticated contexts--in order to promote continued development of their language system. I will present one particular approach to language teaching that allows for a naturally engaging and appropriate context in which to provide such a focus on form: content-based instruction.

Acquisition of verbal inflection in Italian

As previously mentioned, it is widely accepted that language acquisition--both first and second--is generally a slow and laborious process that should be thought of in terms of years (not months). Furthermore, numerous studies over the years have lent support to the claim that language learners--both instructed and naturalistic--have similar patterns of acquisition, and that instruction seems to have little effect on that order of acquisition (see Long 1983; Pica). …

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