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Sustained Content Teaching in Academic ESL/EFL: A Practical Approach

Marcia Pally, General Editor
Houghton Mifflin, 2000
pp. xvi +247

Reviewed by :

Robert J. Dickey
Kyongju University, Korea

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Old wine and new bottles
The issue of content-based instruction (CBI) for language instruction has been around since the 1960s, though it didn't get much attention outside of elementary schools and immersion programs prior to the mid 1980s. Pally's collection of original articles, prepared by some of the best known names in CBI as well as some experienced ESLers relatively unknown in CBI, covers a lot of ground. Sustained Content Teaching will open eyes for both teachers currently engaged in CBI courses and newcomers to this field. Not much here is theoretically "new," but it’s a nicely varied collection of current classroom reports.

"Where's the Beef?"
I have argued elsewhere that one of the principal issues in CBI is the lack of a shared definition, or boundaries. Within the covers of Pally’s book the contributors all pretty much agree on a definition of sustained content: "classes in which students practice English language skills… in the process of studying one subject area, usually for a semester." Most of the contributors focus on academic skills more than language per se, such as the so-called "critical thinking skills." As Pally describes, sustained CBI courses simulate a college class but also provide explicit instruction in language and academic skills, hence are not adjunct classes to "mainstream" courses. Clearly this focus on EAP is a far more limited approach than is common in Asia, and a significant distinction from the many writing support courses offered as adjuncts at North American universities.

The roots of the fruit
Without writing an entire thesis on the precepts of CBI, a few concepts from within the text are worthwhile here. Pally points out that, as observed by Widdowson, authenticity in language misses the point without authenticity in context. The sustained content course is sustained on one content area because most authentic (short-term) topic areas courses bring in too little academic/professional language: students need to develop procedural knowledge (how to find info). In Pally's model sustained CBI is a type of EAP course where students have many more projects than most traditional language learning courses, and thereby provides greater opportunities for students helping students (scaffolding). However, there appears to be some evasion in use of the term "sustained content," as when a cartoon book is used in one course (Calvin and Hobbes, analyzing speech) and an assortment of films in another (analyzing society through critical thinking). The distinction between (short-term) topic and sustained content appears not to be that of all lessons under one "major," as these are not traditionally defined "mainstream" courses but academic skills courses.

Nelson and Burns observe in Chapter 8, "content dictates the language items taught." Rather than students' majors dictating content, there are numerous cases displayed where the content was selected by ESL faculty in order to promote the learning of specific language/academic skills. Bailey’s and May-Landy's contributions are two of the few instances in ESL-based CBI where both content and (language) skills goals are identified clearly. It seems that CBI has tangled roots, no matter how nicely the above-ground branches are manicured.

Apples and Oranges
Pally observes that ESL teachers are not masters of content, but rather discourse analysts, helping students "identify and use the assumptions, rhetorical conventions, and argumentation of English." This appears to be the basis for the argument that content may be generic: the "specific details of the discipline [major] are secondary." Kasper, one of more published authors on CBI in tertiary settings, goes so far as to allow students to identify their content in her internet research skills sustained CBI course reported in this text. Camhi takes on another extreme when presenting grammar as content. Bailey also notes that she integrates grammar instruction through the course as mini-lessons: explicit grammar instruction is a concept many CBI advocates would abhor.

Imported foods
The cases included in this text, while illustrative of various concepts of sustained CBI, seem to have little orientation to the needs of EFL. Most reports come out of New York City, with two cases from Georgia State University. Only one comes from an EFL land ­ and Flowerdew's report on academic English for engineering students in Hong Kong hardly matches what most EFL teachers face. Many nice ideas are provided, but I’m not sure how many could be adopted in foreign lands other than at English-medium international schools.

Last Rounds
I enjoyed Sustained Content Teaching because it offers lots of interesting ideas on a subject area of great interest. The fact that each case study (each chapter) provided a solid theoretical argument for its design, with extensive references, made these similar to reader-friendly journal articles. I read this over a few weeks, with breaks for other projects, and felt no discontinuity. Most chapters include appendices to help us see the inside of the classroom and the teacher’s evaluative processes. It would not be difficult to replicate many of these courses in our own schools, they are so clearly documented. The book has a comprehensive index, which will be a useful resource in the future.

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