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Supporting Student Engagement in Academic Literacy in Content Areas

Are you interested in finding an approach to enhance language learners’ motivation by engaging them with authentic materials and content? Have you ever considered adopting content-based instruction (CBI) to boost students’ motivation and improve their language and content knowledge?

What is content-based instruction?

CBI is an approach that teachers use the target language to help students acquire both content area knowledge and language at the same time (Peregoy & Boyle, 2013). Since learning the language with authentic content-area subjects, students would be more interested and motivated with learning a language. CBI is widely applied in both English as a Second Language and English as a Foreign Language contexts, ranging from kindergarten to university levels (Peregoy & Boyle, 2013).

Ways to plan a content-area reading lesson with CBI

To achieve better learning outcomes, teachers are suggested to design a content-area lesson with appropriate learning sequences, including assessing and building on learners’ prior knowledge, explaining purposes of activities, teaching learning strategies, and offering students sufficient opportunities to apply their learning (Peregoy & Boyle, 2013). Hence, the learning sequences could be incorporated in before, during and after reading activities to enhance students’ reading comprehension while planning a reading lesson. Here are some examples of before, during and after reading activities which are aligned with the learning sequence with Reach Higher.

Before reading

A concept map is an activity to help teachers assess and build on learners’ prior knowledge about a topic. After teachers write down a key word or phrase relevant to the topic in the middle of a board or on a large piece of paper, students start to contribute what they know about the topic by extending words connected with the topic. Teachers can then ask students to group related items together from the concept map and then demonstrate target academic language which students struggle with. The concept map can later serve as a visual summary of key concepts as students add more ideas throughout the unit (Gibbons, 2009). Sequencing illustrations is another activity to help students activate prior knowledge especially when they have little or no understanding of a topic. Teachers can provide students with illustrations of a text and ask them to rearrange the illustrations in sequence (Figure 1). While suggesting the possible sequence of the illustrations, students could gain a general idea of the text (Gibbons, 2009).

Figure1. Sequencing illustrations
Pictures from Reach Higher 2A

Teachers can explain purposes of different activities by introducing content and language objectives of a lesson. Language objectives should be directly correlated to content objectives. Thus, teachers can equip students with academic language functions and skills which are needed to support language learners to achieve content objectives. Teachers can also teach reading strategies to enhance students’ reading comprehension with four steps: instructing what the reading strategy is, breaking the reading strategy into steps to help students apply the strategy, providing language support, and modeling using the reading strategy.

During reading

After learning the content objectives, language objectives and reading strategies during the before-reading stage, students can apply these skills to their readings to practice what fluent readers do.

After reading

Graphic outlines can help students gain a deeper understanding of a text by practicing identifying the development of concepts and the relationship between ideas (Gibbons, 2009). For example, students can list the sequence of key events with a timeline, or identify similarities or differences with a Venn diagram.

For more in-depth examples of designing a content-area reading lesson with CBI, please check out the recording of my webinar: Supporting Student Engagement in Academic Literacy in Content Areas.


Gibbons, P. (2009). English learners, academic literacy, and thinking: Learning in the challenge zone. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Peregoy, S. F., & Boyle, O. (2013). Reading, writing, and learning in ESL: A resource book for K-12 teachers. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Author: Hsu-Ping Tuan

Hsu-Ping Tuan received her M.A. in TESOL through the PK-12 program at Teachers College, Columbia University. She also holds an M.S. in Brain Science from National Yang-Ming University, Taiwan. She was awarded the Teachers College, Columbia University John F. Fanselow Award for developing outstanding ESL materials. She is a certified ESL/ENL teacher in New York State, and has extensive teaching experience in the US and Taiwan. She dedicates herself to adapting ESL curriculum for students in EFL contexts so that students can achieve better learning outcomes. She is also interested in integrating the latest research findings of neuroscience and English teaching to facilitate students’ learning. Currently, she trains teachers for publishers and delivers talks on flipped learning for universities in Asia.


  1. In Bulgaria we established the Forum for Across Curricular Training – FACT. Now we call it CLIL!

    Here in Nara, Japan we start with basic phonics, then simple structures, and as soon as possible move onto content that is of interest to our learners.

    Most of our learners study Math & Science through English, others enjoy Geography.

    We really appreciate your framework for developing CBI, and will implement it soon.

    Thank you Hsu-Ping Tuan.

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