Academic Exchange Quarterly         Summer  2004: Volume 8, Issue 2


Literature Facilitates Content-Based Instruction

Gail August, Hostos Community College, City University of New York

August, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor in the Department of Language and Cognition.


Besides teaching language skills, the community college ESL curriculum must also prepare students for further academic studies. Content-Based ESL is a methodology which teaches academic vocabulary, domain knowledge, and critical thinking in an ESL context. When students do not have sufficient reading skill to achieve the objectives of this curriculum, it can be supplemented with relevant young adult fiction. The combination of Content-Based Instruction and children’s literature, written for an adolescent audience, is an effective strategy for improving the academic skills of adult ESL students.



Sometimes there is a gap between the goals which have been established for our students and their ability to meet the demands of these goals. In these situations, we must look for creative solutions to accomplish our curricular objectives.


A current methodology for academic ESL, Content-Based Instruction (henceforth CBI), is considered a very effective curriculum to promote authentic and meaningful use of language, develop critical thinking skills, and prepare ESL students to participate in college level studies. However, in spite of the promise of CBI, students who have poor reading skills, weak vocabularies, and inadequate background knowledge may find it difficult to participate in the activities of CBI and may not be able to experience CBI as an opportunity for learning and thinking.


When ESL students do not have well-developed academic and linguistic skills, literature is an excellent way to bridge the language/knowledge gap. Literature that is related to the content topic and is easily readable can provide essential facts, ideas, and vocabulary. With the information they get from the literary work, students can acquire necessary factual and language background, making it possible to competently read and understand the materials included in the content topic. A curriculum which combines accessible literature with CBI helps students with poor reading and language skills to become active participants in the important linguistic and cognitive activities of CBI.


A particularly successful strategy has been the use of children’s literature, specifically young adult historical fiction, to supplement an ESL content unit on history. When adult ESL students read novels written for adolescents, they are able to acquire academic vocabulary and important domain knowledge. Moreover, this curriculum, which includes carefully chosen examples of authentic, well-written young adult literature, can facilitate the development of reading skill, critical thinking, and a high level of communicative interaction.


This discussion will present a summary of the arguments for incorporating CBI into the ESL curriculum, an analysis the academic deficiencies that make it difficult for certain students to achieve the objectives of CBI, and a description of a specific innovation, the use of young adult literature, which was developed to overcome these problems.


ESL and Academic Objectives

The traditional objectives of ESL—reading, writing, listening, and speaking—have been transformed by changes in the community colleges and the aspirations of the student body. The current population of students needs considerably more than the ability to speak and understand English. They now need the skills to pass various exit exams, qualify for certification or career programs, or continue their academic study. To help students to achieve these goals, ESL methodology has expanded from the domain of language instruction to a multi-faceted discipline which incorporates language, academic skills, critical thinking, and other activities designed to prepare students to participate successfully in college content classes. This new ESL is frequently referred to as academic ESL.


However, academic ESL is still ESL, and any kind of curriculum modification would be ill-considered if it did not incorporate past insights about what contributes to effective language teaching. Krashen (1982, 1985) exemplifies the attitude of many educators, claiming that the best language instruction results from situations in which authentic communication is possible. Methodologies which allow for ESL instruction in a communicative environment have been developed around many different models, such as cooperative learning and task-based, theme-based, and content-based instruction (Richards & Rodgers, 2001; Brinton, Snow, & Wesche, 1989). For each of these models, it is possible to construct an ESL lesson in a variety of ways, as it can focus upon grammatical acquisition, problem solving, literature, a content subject, or various combinations of these methods. It is wonderful that ESL lends itself to such a wide range of possibilities for building curriculum, but, nevertheless, it can still be difficult to find the most appropriate methodology for a particular situation and even more challenging to put together an effective curriculum for the demands of academic ESL


Content-Based Instruction in ESL

The overriding consideration in selecting a teaching methodology must inevitably be the educational objectives for that particular situation (Celcia-Murcia & McIntosh, 1979). CBI is a methodology which stimulates a high level of communicative interaction and also meets many of the important objectives of academic ESL, which are to teach English and, at the same time, to impart the kinds of linguistic, critical thinking, and study skills that are necessary for a successful college experience. CBI includes the traditional ESL objectives of reading, writing, listening, speaking, critical thinking, grammar practice, and vocabulary acquisition, but in this methodology, language instruction is organized around content themes, topics selected from various academic disciplines. The topics for the content unit can be drawn from almost any subject area, including the social and natural sciences, cultural themes, or historical events. The information for the content can be derived from various kinds of materials, such as textbooks, novels, newspaper articles, the internet, lectures, movies, photographs, poems, etc. We might best describe this methodology by saying that ESL is contextualized within a particular topic. However, because of its ESL objectives, ESL CBI does not explore a wide range of subjects. The approach is narrow rather than broad and is characterized by the use of many source materials related to a single topic.


CBI can be a powerful method of ESL instruction because language is used as a medium for content, while content provides the raw material for linguistic development. This reciprocal relationship between language and content creates an environment in which students can achieve the objectives of academic ESL. Because students are working with the same topics that are found in college courses, they gain important academic skills while they are learning English. Students also acquire important vocabulary, facts, and background knowledge. In addition, the ESL CBI classroom gives students the opportunity to use language as a means for learning new information. Finally, when students confront various interpretations and descriptions of a single topic, they gain skill in analyzing facts and ideas and in formulating personal opinions. In this way, the use of language becomes essential for critical thinking.



Theoretical Objectives of Content-Based Instruction in ESL

There are many advantages in a CBI ESL curriculum, where language is the medium for transmitting content and content is the vehicle for learning language (Stoller & Grabe, 1997). Educators argue that this format of teaching results in more effective language acquisition, better linguistic preparation for academic studies, and the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills. Krashen’s (1982, 1985) claims about language instruction provide theoretical support for this curriculum. He proposes that ESL instruction is most effective when it is based upon meaning rather than form, implying that the most effective way to acquire the vocabulary and grammar of a language is when it is integrated into the communication of understandable and meaningful information. His concept of Narrow Reading (Krashen, 1986) also supports the objectives of CBI, as it recommends the reading of several different texts on the same subject so that students receive exposure to new vocabulary in several different contexts.


CBI prepares ESL students for higher education, as it uses the language of academic study and simulates the demands of college courses in a sheltered environment. The importance of using an academic framework for language instruction stems from Cummins’ Two-Tiered Skill Model (1981), which makes a distinction between social and academic language. The language used in social communication, basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS), is different from, and not sufficient for, the demands of college study, which require a more academic form of language, labeled cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP). Although many people can acquire BICS in a relatively short time, CALP can take as long as 5-7 years to attain (Collier & Thomas, 1989). The language of CBI is the language of CALP, which is the language students must have in order to function in college courses. CBI is an efficient way to increase CALP vocabulary because when student read multiple sources related to a single topic, they are exposed to a recycling of relevant academic vocabulary.


CBI is also an effective way to promote critical thinking skills. Chamot and O’Mally’s (1987, 1994) Cognitive Academic Learning Approach (CALLA), which is based on the cognitive principle of scaffolding, describes learning as a dynamic recursive process in which the learner integrates new information with prior knowledge. Under this framework, learning is not about the absorption of information, but is rather a process in which individuals create systems of knowledge by using background knowledge, or schemas, to create a cognitive map (May-Landy, 2000). CBI enhances this process, as it provides materials to build and modify schemata, resulting in richer cognitive maps, which, in turn, contribute to an ongoing process of learning (Kasper 1984, 1996, 1997; Anderson & Pearson, 1984). CBI also promotes critical thinking because, when students confront several kinds of sources related to the subject of study, they are compelled to go beyond the superficial processes of memorizing, storing, and retrieving information. By virtue of having materials which  present a topic from different points of view, students learn the critical thinking skills of applying previous knowledge, analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, and ultimately formulating personal ideas about the information (Bloom, Englehart, Furst, Hill, & Krathwohl, 1956). CBI also promotes divergent thinking, in which each student develops a unique interpretation of events (Bloom, Madaus, & Hastings, 1981), as well as an interactive classroom atmosphere, where each student’s contribution to the construction of knowledge becomes as important as the teacher’s and the materials presented in the course (Freire, 1968).


Background Information about Reading

The objectives of CBI-- to increase academic vocabulary, to prepare students for college courses, and to promote critical thinking skills-- are essential goals for academic ESL. However, none of these goals can be realized without a critical level of reading skill, which is really the key to the success of CBI ESL. Reading ability interfaces with the learning/thinking objectives of CBI and determines the extent to which these objectives can be accomplished.


Without reading proficiency, which may very well be the most important skill for ESL learners in academic contexts, the cognitive objectives of critical thinking or divergent thinking are not possible. CBI activities require students to respond to materials that are abstract and relate to subjects and issues far beyond their personal lives and cultural experiences. This is impossible without the necessary vocabulary to understand what is being read, without a reasonable level of reading fluency, and without sufficient domain knowledge to provide a comprehensible context.


Reading and Decoding—Speed and Thinking

A vast range of research literature supports the claim that two essential prerequisites of reading comprehension are fluency (rapid and efficient word decoding) and adequate vocabulary knowledge (Adams, 1990, 1994; Fowler & Scarborough, 1993; Perfetti & Marron, 1995). When readers do not have these skills, the simple act of identifying individual words demands so much attention and absorbs so much working memory that the other cognitive processes necessary for reading comprehension are not possible.


In order to read connected text, an individual needs to be able to decode and lexically retrieve the words. We know a great deal about what is involved in these processes. Decoding entails grapheme/phoneme correspondence, the process of matching the graphic symbol on the page to the sound of the word (Wagner & Torgeson, 1987; Wagner, Torgeson, & Rashotte, 1994). Lexical retrieval is the process in which the decoded word is found to correspond to a word in the reader’s lexicon and thus becomes a meaningful vocabulary item. When readers reach a critical level of proficiency in decoding and vocabulary knowledge, these processes become automatic and reading becomes “fluent.” Readers who have fluency are able to retain textual material in working memory while grammatical processing occurs. This is essential, as it results in the creation of sentence meaning, which then leads to the more advanced cognitive activity of integrating meaning from the words in the text. Reading comprehension, which is frequently defined as constructing meaning from text (Bernhardt, 1991), is not possible without skilled fluent decoding and relevant vocabulary knowledge. Unless the mechanical processes of word decoding and reading fluency are well developed, individuals will read slowly and ineffectively and will not be able to carry out the complex activities necessary for good reading comprehension (Perfetti, 1986, 1988; Segalowitz & Segalowitz, 1993).


Problems of Vocabulary Acquisition

Fluent decoding and good vocabulary knowledge are important for all readers; however, for ESL readers, the development of these skills presents special problems. A major ESL challenge for educational attainment and academic reading proficiency is the acquisition of vocabulary. Many studies have documented the strong connection between reading comprehension and vocabulary (Stanovich, 1986). According to Fowler & Scarborough (1993), a reader must be able to recognize at least 80% of the words in a text in order to comprehend its meaning. Other researchers claim the requisite number to be even higher, suggesting that it is between 90% to 95% of the words (Hirsch, 2003). When readers have a sufficient level of vocabulary knowledge, reading a particular text becomes an opportunity for increased vocabulary acquisition, as the individual is able to use contextual vocabulary and textual information to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words. On the other hand, if readers do not have the critical level of vocabulary knowledge to comprehend a particular text, the reading experience is frustrating and unproductive, and it cannot contribute to vocabulary acquisition (Hirsch, 2003; Fowler & Scarborough, 1993).


Learning new material is dependent upon reading, and reading is dependent upon knowing words. The knowledge of words is, for all students, the key to learning. As expressed by Adams (1990), learning is a language-based activity, fundamentally and profoundly dependent upon vocabulary knowledge. However, for ESL students, the acquisition of a large number of new words presents a formidable challenge. The precise numbers concerning vocabulary acquisition are not entirely agreed upon, as there is considerable debate about methods of counting words and determining the size of a reader’s vocabulary. There are, nonetheless, some generally accepted numbers which graphically illustrate the enormity of the ESL vocabulary problem. According to Nagy and Anderson (1984), as native-speaking students progress from grades 3 to 9, they should acquire about 88,500 words. Hirsch (2003) claims that a well-educated 12th grader knows from 60,000 to 100,000 words. To achieve this level of verbal knowledge, the English-speaking child must learn, at the minimum, an average of seven to fifteen words a day from kindergarten to the beginning of college (Just & Carpenter 1987; Hirsch, 2003). Moreover, these word counts generally refer to “learned” vocabulary, which is based upon several exposures to each word, as research shows that vocabulary acquisition requires multiple experiences with a word in a variety of contexts (Ehri & Roberts, 1979; Ehri & Wilce, 1980; Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985; Stahl, 1983).


In looking at these numbers, we are forced to confront the vast disparity in vocabulary knowledge between an ESL student and a pre-college native speaker. Fluent English-speaking students begin college with a vocabulary of 60,000 to 100,000 words (Hirsch, 2003); ESL students usually begin their academic studies knowing from 2,000 to 7,000 words (Hadley, 1993). Educators concerned with preparing ESL students for academic studies must inevitably confront the question of how their students can ever learn enough words to function in a college environment. Most research suggests that it is virtually impossible to learn the necessary quantity of words simply through vocabulary instruction (Nagy & Anderson, 1984). Moreover, no ideal method of vocabulary instruction has yet been identified (Beck, Perfetti, & McKeown, 1982). There is really only one solution to this problem, and that solution is reading. Students can only acquire sufficient vocabulary, particularly academic vocabulary, by extensive reading, which provides opportunities to experience words multiple times and in a variety of contexts.


The Interdependence of Reading, Vocabulary, and Domain Knowledge

Reading provides the solution to the problem of vocabulary acquisition; however, we still need to ask what provides the solution to the problem of reading. Reading is impossible without vocabulary, but, as the previous discussion suggests, the best way to acquire vocabulary is through reading. The circular relationship between reading and vocabulary presents a challenging problem for all educators, teachers of native speakers as well as ESL instructors (Stanovich, 1986). Moreover, in addition to the problem of the reciprocal relationship between reading and vocabulary, there is a related reciprocal problem, which is the acquisition of domain knowledge. Like vocabulary, readers must also have some level of domain knowledge before they can understand many kinds of texts. Domain knowledge enables readers to make connections between what they already know and what they are currently reading, thus facilitating the reading process and improving reading comprehension. Some domain knowledge may, of course, result from personal experience, but most domain knowledge which is relevant to academic study comes from reading. Domain knowledge, like vocabulary, comes from reading, and reciprocally, makes reading possible. To add to the circularity, domain knowledge is also related to vocabulary acquisition because a threshold of domain knowledge can cue the meanings of unfamiliar words.


The interdependence of reading achievement, vocabulary knowledge, and domain knowledge is the crucial area where ESL instructors must focus in order to prepare students to function in an academic college environment. Weak readers have major problems with vocabulary because they find reading frustrating and, consequently, do not engage in the volume of reading necessary to promote vocabulary development (Stanovich, 1986). As a result, these infrequent readers also have fewer opportunities to acquire domain knowledge (Hirsch, 2003). ESL readers have limited vocabulary as well as limited grammatical knowledge (a problem that this discussion has barely addressed). Because of these basic knowledge deficiencies, ESL students are readers who will find it difficult to read a large volume of material and, consequently, will have fewer opportunities to increase vocabulary and domain knowledge.


Accessible Literature Promotes the Goals of Content-Based Instruction

Literature which is related to the theme of the CBI unit and which is pitched slightly above the students’ reading level presents a way out of the reading/vocabulary/domain knowledge dilemma. When literature is easily readable, with a vocabulary level just slightly above that of the students’, it can provide a link to the other related source material, helping to build a relevant base of vocabulary and domain knowledge. We know that good comprehension is unlikely unless readers understand 80% to 95% of the words in a text, so these figures can guide instructors in selecting materials. The choice of easily readable texts also fulfills Krashen’s (1982, 1985) Comprehensible Input Hypothesis, which claims that learning is most effective when it is comprehensible and only slightly beyond the students’ current level of attainment.


It is ironic that the most effective way for certain students to reach the academic and cognitive goals of CBI may very well be a strategy which incorporates less challenging reading materials into the curriculum. However, we know it is possible for readers to use a text with familiar words to acquire new vocabulary. In the process of reading literature related to the content unit, certain essential vocabulary items are likely to reoccur, and students can experience these words in multiple contexts, developing a rich understanding of their meaning. In addition, when domain knowledge is embedded in the plots of stories, students can painlessly acquire background information, which, in turn, provides scaffolding for important facts in the CBI unit. As domain knowledge is acquired, additional vocabulary acquisition is facilitated. With this increased vocabulary and domain knowledge, students can build a large data base of relevant information, preparing them to participate in CBI activities.


Accessible literature also promotes the objectives of critical thinking. In a CBI unit which integrates literature, students have the opportunity to read two or three novels related to the theme of study. The information from these novels complements the other materials in the content unit. Critical thinking is enhanced by experiencing information from multiple paths, such as textbooks, articles, literature, the internet, lectures, movies, photographs, poems, and classroom discussions (May-Landy, 1997). When students confront the same topic from a range of sources and perspectives, they are able to use the skills of analysis, synthesis, and interpretation, which are essential to critical thinking (Stoller & Grabe, 1997). Student schemas are also improved, because new information from different sources offers opportunities to elaborate or modify their personal background knowledge (Kasper, 1984, 1996, 1997). Moreover, because literature directly concerns events in characters’ lives, it provides natural opportunities for students to contribute their own personal experiences to the schemata that they develop.


Young Adult Literature

In choosing literature to supplement a CBI unit, it is advantageous to select examples which are understandable and meaningful and which present ideas and characters to which students can respond. One excellent source of accessible literature for ESL is Young Adult (henceforth YA) fiction. YA novels are a fabulous untapped resource for adults. The books are short and inexpensive, the vocabulary is not too difficult, and, because they are for adolescents, background information is always clearly explained. Moreover, YA fiction is authentic literature, and many of the books are extraordinarily well written. Good reading has frequently been described as an interactive experience between reader and text, a process of extracting and constructing meaning (Bernhardt, 1991). However, many ESL readers, because of limited vocabulary, linguistic knowledge, and background information, are unable to read in an interactive way. However, with YA literature, adult ESL readers can respond interactively, easily relating to, responding to, and formulating opinions about the events in the stories.


YA fiction provides easy access to many of the objectives of CBI ESL. When students are able to understand and respond to literature, they are able to read interactively, which inevitably produces a sense of engagement. And it is engagement which facilitates authentic linguistic interaction (Krashen, 1982, 1985). With its exciting stories, provocative situations, characters to love or hate, literature is a medium which can engage students and entice them to develop the skills to communicate ideas and feelings. The background information introduced in these readings becomes an excellent vehicle for the painless acquisition of domain knowledge by ESL students. Because YA fiction is generally short, students can read two or three novels in a semester, accumulating relevant vocabulary and domain knowledge. Finally, by reading several books on a common them, students learn how different authors and characters respond to similar events, thus developing critical thinking skills.


Some Comments on a CBI/ESL/Literature Unit with Young Adult Historical Fiction

I am the manager for the intermediate ESL level at Hostos, one of the community colleges in the City University of New York. A large number of students in this program have weak reading skills, small English vocabularies, and limited domain knowledge. Moreover, most of the ESL students come from countries in the Caribbean, Central America, Latin America, or Asia, and some of them have had very little exposure to US or European historical events.


For the past two years, I have been developing a CBI unit on World War II, focusing on events in the US and Europe and using two YA historical novels to supplement the content information. World War II is an important topic for ESL students because many of the issues and historical events of that period have become part of a shared US cultural heritage. Moreover, the end of the 1940s marks a period of enormous cultural and technological change. For example, in this decade the US experienced the entry of large numbers of women into the workplace, a growing uneasiness with the social situation of African Americans, the development of the suburbs, as well as the advent of television, antibiotics, and radar. A basic level of familiarity about this historical period is presumed whenever college students read about current political, international, or social events.


The two novels in this CBI unit were Lily’s Crossing (1997) by Patricia Reilly Giff and Number the Stars (1989) by Lois Lowry. Lily’s Crossing is the story of an American girl who spends the summer of 1944 in Rockaway. Her father is away, assisting the US army in Europe, and she befriends a young Hungarian refugee whose parents were killed for participating in the resistance. Historical issues in this novel concern the effect of the war on American economic and social life, the changing role of women, and the resistance in Europe. Number the Stars takes place during the Nazi occupation of Denmark and presents a fictionalization of an amazing historical event, the cooperative effort in which the entire Jewish population was smuggled out of the country. Important topics presented in this novel include the experience of families in an occupied country and the risks associated with participating in the resistance movement. Themes which are germane to both novels include the conflicting obligations of parents to their children and to the society at large, the change in family relationships during periods of crisis, and the role of friendship, heroism, nationalism, pacifism, and moral choice. Because both novels are set in the same historical period, students read about many of the same events in different contexts and have an opportunity to experience relevant vocabulary items and conceptual ideas in different frameworks.


There is a wealth of material to develop a CBI unit based on WWII, including many wonderful photos from this period as well as all kinds of poetry. I supplemented the novels with news reports, personal accounts (many from the internet), and excerpts from history books, giving students the opportunity to examine many of the same issues and events from different points of view.  At the end of the semester, we watched the movie Life is Beautiful, and students were able to draw many parallels between the father/son relationship in the movie and the situations in the novels.


For a CBI historical unit, one of the most important classroom activities is to familiarize students with maps, as many of them know virtually nothing about European countries. Also, to assist students with the novels, I generally read a few chapters aloud, pointing out important characters, themes, and vocabulary. I also developed a set of factual questions to guide them through every chapter and gave frequent short quizzes to ascertain that they were keeping up with the reading and following the gist of the stories. To finish two books in one semester, we had to cover three chapters a week. When we began this project, many students were uncomfortable with the quantity of reading and had difficulty completing the weekly assignments. However, by the end of the semester, they were flying through the books, and several students became so involved in the plot that they began reading ahead to discover how events turned out.


These novels provided many opportunities for authentic use of language. I was able to embed all kinds of grammar exercises into the situations of the books. Students gave advice to the characters, telling them what they should or should not do, or what they shouldn’t have done. They gave them suggestions for the future, telling them what things they could do to improve their lives. Good books have many what ifs, and we found various meaningful opportunities to practice the conditional. Students wrote letters to the characters, compared them to each other, debated about the consequences of certain choices, and related situations in the book to events in their own lives.


There were also many activities which stimulated a high level of critical thinking. At the beginning of the unit, many students were totally unfamiliar with the nations of France and England, had never heard of Dwight D. Eisenhower or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and had no knowledge of D Day, Nazism, or the Holocaust. As they became familiar with these places, people, and events, they were able to read the other content materials with understanding and to use the factual information in class discussions and writing assignments. Later on, they used the skills of analysis and synthesis, comparing events and people, and they practiced divergent thinking, formulating well supported opinions about fictional and historical characters and events. As they acquired vocabulary and background data, their schemata became more elaborate, and their oral and written discussions were increasingly complex and substantive. By the end of the semester, they were able to intelligently compare many current issues to those of sixty years ago.


This CBI unit was enthusiastically received by my students as well as by other faculty members who used the materials in their classes. Besides the visible increase in vocabulary and domain knowledge, most students were aware of a noticeable improvement in reading speed and understanding. The biggest change, however, appeared to be an enhanced sense of empowerment, as they added concrete facts to their knowledge base, subsequently using this information in arguments and compositions. Even more important was the feeling of accomplishment gained from reading two novels from beginning to end. Many students thanked me profusely for this experience and a few informed me that this was actually the first time they had ever read an entire book on their own.



CBI ESL is an effective curriculum to develop academic vocabulary and cognitive thinking. However, students who have weak reading skills, limited vocabulary, or insufficient domain knowledge may not be able to respond to content material in ways that fulfill these educational and cognitive goals. Accessible literature can bridge this gap, and YA fiction is a good source of accessible literature. By reading this literature, students acquire vocabulary and domain knowledge, building a background of verbal and factual information that helps them to approach more complex materials related to the same subject. Students can also connect with literature on an emotional level, and it gives them an opportunity to relate their personal experiences to the content topics, thus encouraging authentic linguistic communication. A curriculum that integrates content material with accessible literature is effective for ESL students with varying levels of proficiency and is an excellent methodology for developing the academic and cognitive objectives of CBI.



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