Content teachers & CBI/ESP courses:
Problems & implications (1995)

R.J. Preece (EFL)
Creative Business & Entrepreneurship | 20 January 2011
This article first appeared in TESOL Matters, December/January 1995-96, page 8.

Previously articles by Rudolph Troike and Steven Darian in this column in the December 1993/January 1994 and October/November 1994 issues of TESOL Matters have stressed that ESL teachers should make an active attempt to learn the content of the ESP courses they teach. However, if content knowledge is so important, why not simply have the content teacher teach the content-based instruction (CBI)/ESP course?

It’s already happening.

At some overseas English-medium schools that cater exclusively to ESL students, administrators have already chosen this option. These decisions seem to be quite rational: not only do content teachers have an expertise in the content, but most offer teaching experience, knowledge or fluency in a foreign language, and all have certainly acquired the ESP teacher’s content: practical usage of English in the specialized discipline. Various institutional factors, largely because of the educational market, place these students in credit-granting content classes, some with TOEFL scores far below those acceptable for content study in the US. For actual content, studio classes in particular present a great difficulty because they require demonstrations of [artistic expertise; something quite different than teaching an introductory humanities text for example, which most MAs in TESOL have experience working with]. As a result, content teachers are teaching a form of CBI/ESP course, although their experiences are not usually addressed in the CBI/ESP literature.

Meanwhile, in the US, where CBI/ESP is largely restricted to ESL programs, content teachers teaching ESP classes is not very common. Yet, whereas this is largely an overseas phenomenon, the US does not seem to be immune. When ESL teachers make attempts to learn more about a content program for the purpose of establishing a CBI/ESP course, sometimes content professionals see the course as an opportunity for expansion.

However, several problems emerge when content faculty teach these courses, and their problems occur based upon a lack of practical knowledge of ESL methods and experience teaching ESL students.

Difficulties of content teachers teaching CBI/ESP courses
The problems that emerge for content teachers seem comparable to the ones we as ESL teachers experienced in our first classes and/or addressed in our methods classes in teacher-training programs: things we sometimes take for granted. In a workshop at the 1995 TESOL conference entitled Adjunct issues: Training content faculty to teach ESL students, JoShell Coffey and Katherine Isbell presented a framework comparable to an intensive ESL methods course. Various and frequent comprehension checks, interactional adjustments, increasing the use of nonverbal gestures and materials, developing and fine-tuning EAP skills, writing important information on the board and increasing board usage, limiting monologues, controlling syntax, decreasing use of idioms and colloquial phrases, and adjusting voice volume, speed, and articulation are all new issues for the first-time content teacher.

Further, most graduate content programs overly emphasize conducting research and acquiring a personal expertise in the content area. Unfortunately, this expertise is not necessarily required to teach introductory courses for native speakers (as demonstrated by the abundance of teaching assistants teaching these courses), let alone nonnatives dealing with content and language. Unlike in our profession, little is written about teaching content at the university level. As a result, content teachers often rely upon a variety of content teaching models that they experienced as a student. For foreign language learning experiences, their models often come from the audiolingual method— something very difficult to incorporate into contemporary ESL teaching, let alone CBI/ESP.

Part of the role of the CBI/ESP teacher is to create or adapt authentic materials that provide comprehensible input for the students. Modifying syllabi and materials is a daunting task without a previous knowledge of grammatical structures, acquired vocabulary, selecting less demanding authentic materials or creating controlled ones, and techniques for developing or fine-tuning EAP skills (lecture listening and note-taking, reading strategies and note-taking, academic writing). This on-the-job learning experience can be very taxing indeed: In addition to the situational constraints mentioned above, content teacher have to teach the content, often with administrative pressure on student performance in the credit-granting pressure cooker.

As for the students, they must cope with the native speaker-oriented classroom. In an English-medium school composed exclusively of ESL students, one coping strategy seems the most effective for comprehension both outside and inside the classroom: translation.

Departmental spheres of influence and jurisdiction

Despite these shortcomings that may be obvious to ESOL professionals, these concerns may not be fully recognized by content professionals. When resources and cooperation are not available or feasible, determining jurisdiction over the grey area between ESL and content can be problematic, and it often leads to power politics. We both have ideas about our “spheres of influence”: we claim CBI/ESP as essentially our domain because, after all, we’ve developed the materials and second language acquisition issues are usually the basis of the CBI/ESP course. Meanwhile, for the ESL teacher, content knowledge is valued but not necessarily required.

Similarly, content administrators and teachers sometimes see CBI/ESP as fertile ground for expansion, particularly for teaching assistants; after all, the course covers the content, be it a “simplified” or “high-schoolish” version. Given ESL programs’ frequent status as “nonacademic”, “remedial”, or “secondary”, we are often at a disadvantage when a decision upon jurisdiction needs to be reached— most often decided upon by administrators with content backgrounds and biases.


Although CBI/ESP offers ESL departments opportunities for diversifying courses, we should recognize that these are also opportunities for content departments. From my observations, even if content teachers are limited in providing ideal learning experiences, they can, in fact, achieve certain results in the CBI/ESP classroom; however, a comparison of the results has yet to be adequately tested.

We as ESL teachers may lack a certain depth in subject-matter knowledge, but we know the formulas by which knowledge is acquired by our students. Our strength is teaching students, something content teachers in CBI/ESP situations have already learned from a great many of us. When we make serious attempts at learning our students’ content and practical ESP methodological applications, we not only provide a more effective language and content learning environment, but also strengthen the position of ourselves and our field.