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March 1995 - Issue No. #18

Language Use or Language Usage?

George Jacobs

RELC, Singapore

In the June'93 issue of TESOL Matters, Susan Francis Jones argues that content-based approaches to ESL instruction deny students the language skills they want and need. She states that teachers who are afraid and/or unable to teach grammar use content-based instruction to impose their own social views on their students. Finally, she suggests that such teachers would be better off teaching sociology instead of English.

As an ESL teacher who uses a content-based approach and includes social issues in his class, I would like to respond. I believe that content-based instruction aids language learning because contextualized use of the target language is more conducive to learning than is a focus on decontextualized language usage (Brinton, et al 1989).

This contextualization provides situational and language background necessary to learn a new language. The point is that it is not, as Jones recommends, best to wait until students reach a certain proficiency level before including content areas; instead, they are more likely to reach that proficiency level faster with a focus on content. Further, it should be pointed out that content-based approaches are not incompatible with attention to form. While content is key, form can be taught as it relates to purposes of language use.

The integrated style of teaching, which content-based instruction represents, contrasts with the trend toward compartmentalization of knowledge that has dominated the 20th century. In education, this trend has resulted in subject area teachers seeing themselves as narrow specialists who take pains not to intrude on others' turf and who see anything beyond the classroom walls as "not their department."

Fortunately, we see many countervailing trends. While language across the curricula, language for specific purposes, and thinking skills instruction are examples in education, these movements recognize that our minds store information in connected chunks, not isolated bits.

Additionally, content-based instruction, particularly the use of socially oriented themes, represents an effort to link school with the world in which students live. This is a return to a humanistic view of educationists' role as professionals who seek to educate students to be participative, well-rounded citizens, not specialized cogs.

Recently, a colleague was telling me about part-time work she does as a copy editor, another important profession. She said that the one time she made suggestions about the content of a book she was proofreading, the manager of the company told her emphatically that, as a proofreader, she should leave the content alone and stick to the grammar and mechanics.

Attention to form is fine - in its place. Perhaps, if some English teachers are uncomfortable being educators in the broad sense of the word, if form is their key interest, they should consider changing professions and become copy editors.


Brinton, D. et al. (1989) Content-based Second Language Instruction. New York: Newbury House.


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