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Kasper, L.F. (1995). Theory and practice in content-based ESL reading instruction. English for Specific Purposes, 14, 223-230.

      Most ESL students entering American colleges and universities find themselves in developmental reading programs.  To experience success in the academic mainstream, they must attain an adequate level of English language reading proficiency.  How can ESL instructors facilitate this process?  Studies suggest that academic content-based ESL reading instruction results in improved language and content performance (Kasper, 1994b), and eases ESL students' transition from the sheltered language program to the academic mainstream (Benesch, 1988; Brinton, Snow, & Wesche, 1989; CUNY Language Forum and CUNY ESL Council, 1992; Guyer & Peterson, 1988; Kasper, 1994a; Snow & Brinton, 1988). 

      Nevertheless, despite the evidence that academic content-based ESL reading instruction enhances students' performance, many ESL professionals are still reluctant to adopt this instructional approach.  Critics of the academic content-based approach cite two main objections.  First, they maintain that the large amount of complex academic reading required in these courses leads to content overload and thus frustrates students whose English language proficiency is limited.  Second, they fear that when the ESL course is structured around academic content areas, it becomes mainly a service course for these areas rather than a language course.

      In spite of these criticisms, studies show that teaching ESL students English alone is insufficient to meet their needs as college students.  Moreover, ESL students themselves say they want language programs that give them all of the tools they will need for subsequent academic success.  In her study of students' perceptions of their language learning experiences, Smoke (1988) found that, while 97% of students surveyed believed that courses in the ESL program had improved their English, only 18% believed that these courses had prepared them for college work.  Further, students indicated that they wanted ESL courses that would teach them the skills they needed to succeed in college.  An overwhelming 92% wanted ESL courses that would teach them how to read and study from academic textbooks.

      Keeping in mind the concerns of both the critics of content-based ESL instruction and the ESL students themselves, this paper offers a rationale and describes a method for structuring ESL reading courses around academic content-based material.  The method described uses specific activities that develop students' English language skills, and at the same time increase their content-area knowledge bases.  So ESL students learn the English language as they learn the academic content, simultaneously becoming more proficient in each. 

      The rationale for the content-based approach is based on both theoretical and practical considerations.  Theoretically, the argument for academic content focuses on its linguistic and cognitive benefits to the ESL reader.  Practically, it offers student achievement, feedback, and retention data from studies of three different types of academic content-based ESL reading courses to support the effectiveness of this instructional approach.  The three types of courses studied were the multiple content course, the single content course, and the paired content course, 

      In the multiple content course, the readings covered five different subject areas.  In the single content course, all readings focused on one specific subject area, psychology.  In the paired content course, students were enrolled in a mainstream introductory psychology course that was paired with a single content ESL reading course, in which all the readings paralleled topics as they were covered in the psychology course.

The Linguistic Benefits of Academic Content

      When ESL courses are structured around academic content-based readings, students experience several important linguistic benefits.  From a linguistic perspective, the rationale for using academic readings is based on the principle that successful language development occurs when students are presented with material in a meaningful, contextualized form in which the primary focus is on the acquisition of information.

      Brinton et al. (1989) state that, as students acquire information through sophisticated linguistic input, they move to more advanced levels of language processing.  When ESL students read academic material, they are forced to grapple with complex ideas presented in the second language.  The academic content-based ESL reading course facilitates the development of English language skills through activities that help students acquire background information in the content area and subsequently provide them with the opportunity to discuss, analyze, extend, and apply concepts presented in the readings.

      To provide optimum linguistic benefits to students, academic content-based ESL reading courses must utilize a rich array of language items and activities. These courses should use materials that reflect the types of academic demands placed on ESL students by the mainstream college curriculum (Smoke, 1988).  Thus, students should read a variety of texts, take notes on the material, and write expository pieces in which they apply contentarea principles.  To clarify textual material and maximize comprehension, each lesson should contain four-stages as outlined by Gajdusek (1988).  The four stages of the content-based reading lesson are: (1) prereading activities, (2) factual work, (3) discussion and analysis, and (4) extending activities.

      The following example provides a rationale for including each of the four stages in the content-based lesson and describes the specific activities used in the studies reported in this paper.  The example illustrates a lesson on the topic of human development in the content area, psychology.  In this lesson students read the article, "Piglet, Pooh, and Piaget" by Dorothy Singer (Goleman & Heller, 1986).   This lesson was included in each of the three types of academic content-based ESL reading courses studied.  When taught in the multiple content course, this lesson constituted the unit on psychology.  When taught in the single or the paired content course, the lesson provided information on one of several topics studied in the overall content area, psychology.

      The Four-Stage Academic Content-Based Lesson

      Stage 1: Prereading

      The prereading stage of the lesson established background knowledge for the topic by introducing topic-related vocabulary and defining topic-related concepts.  The prereading activities helped the ESL readers process content materials by accomodating their needs as learners.  This accomodation resulted from the use of advance organizers and analogies.  Advance organizers are critical to comprehension because they activate background knowledge that the students already have so that incoming information can be integrated into the activated system (Royer, 1986).  Analogies also enhance comprehension of subsequent related material, and in fact may increase it by as much as 40% (Royer and Cable, 1975).

      In the content courses studied, before Singer's article was read, advance organizers provided ESL students with background information on Piaget's theory of cognitive development and with relevant vocabulary.  This background information bridged the gap between the knowledge the student already had and the knowledge he/she needed to comprehend the reading (Ausubel, Novak, & Hanieson, 1978).  In this prereading activity, students were shown an overhead transparency chart illustrating the four stages of Piaget's theory of cognitive development and the developmental milestones characteristic of each stage.  The instructor then provided specific examples or analogies to explain concepts such as egocentrism. After the instructor presented the first example or model for the concept, his/her role changed to that of a facilitator of learning.  ESL students now took over the responsibility for their comprehension as they were asked to provide their own analogies for the various concepts studied in the lesson.

      Stage 2: Factual Work

      The factual work presented the students with actual college textbook readings or with topical articles on specific aspects of the content area.  The stage of factual work in this lesson involved the actual reading of the article, "Piglet, Pooh, and Piaget".  At this stage students acquired detailed information about the concepts and theories that they would use in subsequent stages of the lesson. 

      Stage 3: Discussion and Analysis

      Discussion and analysis activities provided the students with the opportunity to synthesize and apply knowledge gained from the reading by generating written responses to it.  Writing in the academic content-based ESL reading courses took several forms, including summaries, written answers to open-ended comprehension questions, and expository essays.  These writing activities played an integral role in enhancing the comprehension of the academic texts used in the content-based ESL reading courses.  Written discussion of newly acquired information fostered a deeper level of text processing.  This means that as students generated a written response to a text, they needed to focus on its overall meaning, leading them to a more complete understanding of that text.

      Summarizing a reading passage gave students practice in consolidating the main points and identifying and extracting critical information.  Students in the three types of courses studied here were asked to summarize a passage taken from the article. 

      Answering open-ended comprehension questions required students to analyze and draw inferences from information presented in the article.  Examples of open-ended questions used in teaching this article are: (a) what is special about a child's conception of time, according to Piaget?, and (b) how does the story "Winnie the Pooh" illustrate Piaget's stages of cognitive development?  

      Writing expository pieces gave students the opportunity to extend and apply linguistic and academic knowledge gained from the reading.  This lesson required students to write an expository essay in which they used information gained in the article itself and in other lesson activities to compare Piaget's theory of development with the theories of other psychologists, such as Freud and Skinner.  Thus the academic reading stimulated a challenging writing assignment which encouraged ESL students to consider the overall meaning of the article and in the process to apply what they had learned to draw comparisons to other theories discussed during the course of the lesson. 

      After completing each of the writing exercises, students shared their responses, and with the instructor's guidance, they themselves determined what characterized a complete answer.  Thus, in the academic content-based courses studied here, students were provided with practice and feedback, enabling them to modify their cognitive processes and regulate their own learning, an important step to increasing reading proficiency (Weinstein, 1987; Nist & Simpson; 1987).

      Stage 4: Extending Activity

      The final activity in the academic content-based reading lesson was the extending activity.  The extending activity followed the reading and discussion of the text and consisted of topical videos.  These videos were critical to the success of the academic content-based ESL course because they made textual material more comprehensible to the student by providing a graphic illustration of the concepts presented in the reading. 

       The extending activity for the article, "Piglet, Pooh, and Piaget" was the video "The Mind: Development" (Hutton, 1988).  This video presented children at various stages of cognitive development.  It showed what the children did, how they viewed the world, and how they thought about things in their environment.   By watching this video, students could actually see what they had read about in the article, and this visual aid facilitated comprehension.

      The activities used in the four-stage content-based reading lesson provided ESL students with multiple reinforcement of both language and content.  These activities gave students both written and oral opportunities to use the English language to express their thoughts on a wide range of topics.  In so doing, this four-stage approach made difficult academic material more manageable, thereby avoiding the potential problems of content overload and student frustration.  The same four-stage model was followed for all lessons in each of the three types of content-based reading courses studied.

      To sum up, linguistically, academic content-based reading instruction facilitates comprehension because it requires ESL students to become familiar with more sophisticated uses of the language through a variety of printed and audiovisual sources that actively engage students in the content of the readings.  In the process, students increase the overall scope of their knowledge, and thus experience cognitive as well as linguistic benefits.

Cognitive Benefits to the ESL Reader

      From a cognitive point of view, academic content has been shown to be a critical factor in increasing reading comprehension because such content builds and activates domain-related knowledge, or schemata, from which the reader may draw to aid in the comprehension of related text.  In cognitive terms, reading comprehension is a process of checking to confirm that new information matches what is already in memory, so that gaps in the knowledge base will cause comprehension to suffer (Anderson & Pearson, 1984).  Therefore, increasing domain-related knowledge is an important prerequisite to enhancing ESL students' English language reading skill. 

      Readings of academic content increase ESL students' domain-related knowledge of both the academic area and the English language itself.  As students are exposed to academic readings in various content areas, they must acquire new topical information within each area.  At the same time, they are exposed to the vocabulary and linguistic structures necessary to process this information in order to understand the reading.  The students' linguistic and academic knowledge is further increased through the writing and extending activities in the four-stage content-based lesson.  The academic content-based course develops ESL students' overall English language reading proficiency, so that although individual readings may be content-specific, benefits to comprehension skills gained from these academic readings are not (Nelson & Schmid, 1989).

      Increased Metacognition

      The activities in the academic content-based ESL course also promote increased metacognition of the reading process.  The practice and feedback exercises used in the discussion and analysis stage of the lesson outlined in this paper enable ESL students to attain a greater awareness of how to extract critical information from the text to maximize comprehension.  In order for ESL students to become better readers of English, they need to become aware of both how they think as they read, and what the specific learning outcome of the reading process should be. 

      According to Weinstein (1987), we can teach students to become more aware and independent learners by providing them with practice and feedback on different types of material.  In this way, students learn how to monitor their own comprehension and how to select and adjust strategies according to their own ability, the characteristics of the reading material, and the specific task involved.  Moreover, Nist and Simpson (1987) maintain that when students work together to provide each other with feedback, they become involved in monitoring and evaluating, two processes critical to self-regulated learning.  So, as they shared and evaluated their own and their classmates' answers, the ESL students' in this study experienced increased overall metacognition of the reading process.

Practical Applications

      Given the theoretical rationale for using academic content to teach ESL reading, how does one go about putting this theory into practice?  This section will describe the results of separate studies of three types of academic content-based ESL reading courses. The three types of courses studied were multiple content courses, single content courses, and paired content courses.  Each of the three reading courses used the four-stage lesson suggested by Gajdusek (1988).  Thus, lessons in each followed the instructional model described previously for the article, "Piglet, Pooh, and Piaget" (Goleman & Heller, 1986), and included advance organizers and analogies in the prereading stage, academic readings in the factual work stage, writing activities of various types in the discussion and analysis stage, and topical videos in the extending activity stage.


      Each of the studies investigated the reading skills of ESL students who were enrolled in the same community college and who represented a wide variety of ethnic, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds.  The subjects in the multiple content reading courses were intermediate level students; those in the single content and the paired content reading courses were advanced level students.  All of the students had the goal of earning, at minimum, a two-year college degree, and most intended to pursue more advanced degrees. 

      Multiple Content Reading Courses

      In the multiple content reading course, ESL students read selections from five academic content areas: language acquisition, computers and artificial intelligence, anthropology, genetics, and psychology.  Content areas were chosen on the basis of student interest and course requirements in the college academic mainstream curriculum.  The text used in this multiple content course was Reading for a Reason (Dobbs, 1989).  In addition, multiple content students read the article, "Piglet, Pooh, and Piaget" (Goleman & Heller, 1986).

      Each individual unit required from 10 to 14 hours of class time in a course that met six hours per week for a semester total of 72 class hours.  The study of the muliple content ESL reading course was carried out over four semesters and included two classes of intermediate level students per semester for a total of 160 students. 

      At the end of the semester, students took a reading comprehension examination.  Students needed a score of 65 on this examination to pass the course.  This reading examination required students to read a one and one-half page passage and then answer one three-part multiple choice vocabulary question, seven open-ended questions, which were mainly descriptive, but with one or two requiring inferences to be drawn from the reading, and one summary question. 

      Results revealed that over the four semesters of the study, these intermediate level ESL students achieved an average pass rate of 79% in the multiple content reading course.  In contrast, during the same period, the overall program pass rate for all other ESL students at the intermediate level was only 54%.  This difference in pass rates was significant by a chi-square test (X2=4.7; p  .05).  So, the intermediate level ESL students who studied reading in a multiple content course experienced greatly enhanced reading performance over other intermediate level students in the ESL program.

      Single Content Reading Courses

      In the single content reading course in this study, each reading focused on a different aspect of the subject area, psychology.  The text used in this single content course was The Pleasures of Psychology, a collection of articles on various topics in psychology (Goleman & Heller, 1986).  Students read articles on the following topics: learning and memory, perception, physiology, development, personality, and psychopathology. 

      The study of the single content reading course was carried out over a two semester period and involved two classes of advanced level ESL students for a total of 32 students.  The course met three hours per week for a semester total of 36 hours.  At the end of the semester, these students took a reading comprehension examination.  Students needed a grade of 70 on this examination to pass the reading course.  The advanced level reading comprehension examination followed the same basic format as the intermediate level examination except that all of the seven open-ended questions required inferences to be drawn from the reading.

      The single content course produced enhanced reading performance on the end-of-semester reading comprehension examination and corresponding increased pass rates in the course.  The results of a chi-square test revealed significantly higher pass rates for students in the single content course as compared with the other ESL students at the advanced level (X2=6.23; p  .02).  Specifically, the pass rate for the ESL students in the single content course was 72%, well above the average program pass rate of 45% for students at this level.

      Paired Content Reading Courses

      The paired content course had previously been shown to be a highly effective means of introducing academic content into ESL reading courses and producing impressive gains in students' comprehension skills (Benesch, 1988; CUNY Language Forum and CUNY ESL Council, 1992; Guyer & Peterson, 1988; Kasper, 1994b; Snow & Brinton, 1988).  Pairing takes the academic content-based reading course a step further to an interdisciplinary collaboration between ESL and content-area faculty.  Paired courses have the advantage of offering ESL students the opportunity both to improve English language skills and to earn college credit in a highly supportive situation.

      The ESL reading course may be paired with any mainstream content course, such as psychology, sociology, business, geology, or computer science.  Paired courses work most effectively when there is coordinated instruction, and when the ESL reading teacher has some expertise and interest in the paired content area (Kasper, 1994b).

      The paired content course in this study was identical to the single content course in all aspects of the reading component.  The difference was that the ESL students in the paired content course were simultaneously enrolled in a mainstream introductory psychology course.  The study of the paired content course was carried out over two semesters and involved two classes of advanced level ESL students for a total of 32 students.

      The psychology component of the paired content course met three hours per week for a total of 36 hours per semester.  The text used in the psychology course was Psychology: An Introduction, (7th edition) (Morris, 1990).

      Students in the paired content course took the same end-of-semester reading examination as the students in the single content course had.  Like their single content counterparts, students in the paired content course significantly outperformed other ESL students at this level as measured by a chi-square test (X2=10.28; p  .01).  Paired content students achieved an 81% pass rate, again well above the average program pass rate of 45% for advanced level students.  In addition to their excellent performance in reading, ESL students in the paired content course performed at the level of native English speakers in their psychology class.  Thus, the paired content course produced enhanced student performance in both the reading and the academic mainstream course.

      There is an interesting sidenote to the results of the three studies.  When the pass rates for each of the three content-based reading courses were compared with each other, no significant differences were found.  Thus, each of the three variations on academic content-based ESL reading instruction was equally effective in enhancing student performance.  This result is important because it provides flexibility in choosing the best way to implement content-based courses to serve the needs of students and make the most of the talents of instructors in the individual ESL class or program.

Student Feedback

      In each of the three academic content-based courses described in this paper, students were asked to provide feedback via responses to open-ended items on a questionnaire.  The results in each case were extremely positive.  

      Across the board, students said that they had enjoyed the readings, maintained high interest in the class, and learned a great deal about the academic subjects covered.  They expressed increased self-confidence in their English language reading skills saying that these skills had improved because they had been challenged by the complexity of the materials in the course.  They also reported an increase in metacognitive skills, saying that the course had taught them how to absorb, analyze,  and discuss a reading text.  When asked whether they preferred reading courses to use academic material or literature, students expressed a preference for academic material, saying that the skills gained from this type of reading provided them with a better foundation for mainstream college classes. 

      Additional benefits were reported by the students in the single and the paired content courses.  In their responses to feedback questionnaires, single content students said that the ESL reading course not only had improved their reading skills, but also had motivated them to enroll in a mainstream psychology course the following semester.  Paired content students indicated that the ESL course had helped them understand the material in the mainstream psychology course and had enabled them to handle the large amount of course reading more easily.

Increased Retention

      Further evidence of the positive student response to the academic content-based ESL course was found in paired students increased retention rates in the mainstream psychology course.  Data showed that the ESL students enrolled in the paired content course had a ten percent lower drop-out rate from the academic mainstream psychology course than did native English speaking students enrolled in the same level psychology course.  That is, in introductory psychology, the attrition rate for ESL paired students was 18.2%, as compared with an attrition rate of 28.9% for native English speaking students. 

      This increased student retention was most likely the result of the corresponding higher pass rates ESL students experienced as a result of content-based courses. As students themselves revealed in their responses to questionnaire items, they believed that the academic content-based course had enabled them to learn more, to gain confidence in their linguistic skills, and to achieve better grades.  Consequently, they experienced greater satisfaction in school and this resulted in increased retention.


      Each of the studies described revealed enhanced reading performance for students in academic contentbased ESL courses.  The three types of courses described in this paper offer the instructor options for integrating academic content into the ESL reading course. 

      Academic content-based ESL courses improve reading performance by providing students with linguistic and cognitive benefits, thereby giving them the tools they need to become better readers of English and, at the same time, preparing them for the academic demands they will face in the mainstream college curriculum.  The diverse activities aimed at facilitating comprehension of complex academic reading material develop students' metacognitive skills and lead them to increased fluency in expressing their ideas both when speaking and when writing.  They are challenged by the same types of reading and writing tasks that they will face in the mainstream college curriculum, and they meet the challenge quite impressively.  Thus, rather than experiencing the frustration of content overload, ESL students in any type of academic content-based reading course experience a feeling of satisfaction resulting from improved reading skills and academic performance, as well as a corresponding increase in self-confidence that comes with this improvement.

      In conclusion, academic content-based reading courses give ESL students what they themselves say they want: the skills needed for success in college.    To enable ESL students to advance quickly to a level of proficiency that will allow them to enter and to succeed in the academic mainstream, college ESL programs should implement academic content-based reading courses.

Posted to the Web on February 8, 2003