Chapter 5 - Content in university language classes
Content or skills
At university level, a student’s needs are best served by material that provides interest through the presentation of ideas. Language skills are developed naturally and efficiently through a content approach.
Acquiring a language
The form of language ‘internalisation’ which most closely follows the principles underlying efficient first language acquisition is the ‘concomitant language development’ that occurs when our mind is consciously concerned with interesting content matter.
Content for relevance
By introducing content into the language classroom, the students can feel they are involved in an activity which is of immediate relevance to them.
Types of content
Content-based teaching at university tends to be faculty specific, a study of the society and culture of the language, or materials that increase a student’s global awareness. It can also be aimed at developing a consciousness of the limitations of our ‘world-views’.
Methodology for content
Plain PGT can meet the needs of a wide variety of content-based teaching situations, as well as professional or informal interaction. It produces communicative interaction and leads the participants toward mutual respect for difference and a search for creative insight.
Content or skills
The language student at a university needs to be confronted with material which gives a sense of immediate importance to the language class, and thereby takes the process of language learning into the world of real concerns. Language is rarely studied for its own sake, it is a means to ‘something else’, such as communication The content class is one way of giving the student the feeling that the class is about ‘something’. A resulting higher level of interest and curiosity, which are essential elements in efficient learning, can then lead to enhanced learning. Where interest and curiosity are lacking, it often appears that no amount of ‘good teaching’ will produce an equivalent amount of ‘good learning’.
Teaching at university is generally concerned with content. The lecturer in most discipline areas is primarily concerned with the question of what he teaches, the subject matter, and whether a sufficient range of information is passed to the student. The question of how one teaches is generally relegated to the back of the mind, and extending the lecturer’s own knowledge is seen as the most conscientious way of confronting this duty.
In language teaching a slightly different emphasis is often noted, in that content as such is often seen as less relevant. In language learning we tend to be concerned with proficiency, with acquiring a skill, and knowledge obtained in the language is often relegated to a level of lesser importance. Languages are generally taught through teaching, learning and then practising the different elements of language communication, in each of the four skills areas. The ‘content’, especially when referring to published language teaching materials, is often heterogeneous and ad hoc. One situation follows another, disconnected texts or passages are chosen to illustrate or practise language structures, at the most a minimal story line to infuse a bit of interest, but nothing that can really be called ‘content’ in the sense of discipline-based teaching.
I would like to look at this practice and see whether, for language teaching, what could be called ‘integration into the discipline-based practice of university teaching’ might not present certain advantages, not only for the increase of knowledge, but also for the development of language skills themselves.
Acquiring a language
To understand the role of content classes in language development, we need first to look at the different ways in which a language can be learned.
The most efficient form of language learning is undoubtedly the learning of our first language. Here, the success rate is virtually 100%, in all cultures, and probably also beyond the human species. This occurs largely without teacher or guide, and is eminently a form of ‘natural learning’. This is often referred to as ‘language acquisition’, although I have proposed the word ‘language internalisation’ to indicate the holistic participatory aspect of the early language learning experience.
At later stages, two types of language learning typically occur. Firstly, there is ‘language study’, which is either the teaching/learning process of study of a 2nd language or the deliberate continued language study of the 1st language. Secondly, there is another form of language development which occurs while we are studying other subjects, which we might call ‘concomitant language development’.
What is perhaps not widely understood, is that ‘language study’ (1st or 2nd language) is not a continuation of ‘initial language internalisation’. The continuation of the natural language learning of the 1st language is to be found in ‘concomitant language development’, the natural development of language capacity which occurs when we are consciously involved in studying another subject — or living our daily lives. (Arguably, the language development that occurs in classroom study of the 1st language is less due to the study of the language than to the concomitant development that occurs while studying a subject, in this case language.) Second language study, which is the way most (classroom!) foreign language learning occurs, does not allow us to learn a 2nd language with the natural ease with which we learned our 1st language. In fact it follows quite different rules .
So the successor of natural 1st language internalisation is not generally to be found in 1st language study, but rather in the 1st language development that occurs in studying some other subject. The important question is, “What is the successor of 1st language internalisation in 2nd language learning?” The answer is the same as for 1st language development, namely the natural learning that occurs while the mind is consciously occupied with studying a subject other than language. Some form of initial language study may be useful, although even at the elementary language level some 2nd language methods are closer to natural internalisation than to ‘study’ . However, ultimately, the most efficient means of 2nd language development is the use of ‘content’ classes as a means of ‘concomitant language development’, or the introduction of a significant content element into language learning methodologies carefully chosen to comply with the principles of natural language learning .
As in the case of 1st language development in the classroom, the study of a wide range of essential 2nd language skills can also significantly increase overall language proficiency. With appropriate ‘natural learning’ methodology, skills development classes will give a conscious awareness of useful elements of language. In addition, they will naturally be accompanied by a significant degree of ‘concomitant language development’.
Content for relevance
The introduction of a content element into language classes can be seen as presenting certain advantages. The study of a language as such, especially when this takes place outside the country where the language is spoken, is often seen as lacking in relevance to the needs or interests of the student. Some students may see knowledge of language itself to be highly relevant, but this is probably rather rare, and generally limited to those majoring in linguistics related disciplines. Learning a language can often be seen more in terms of satisfying school or university requirements than in acquiring something of personal value.
It would seem then that for the majority of students, skill based language acquisition, without a content base, will often be seen as irrelevant, unless the student is capable of perceiving a future or present usefulness in acquiring language proficiency — for study, making friends, travel, etc. Even so, such goals are often unrelated to immediate daily experience, and many students, especially those who are less proficient, would, I believe, find even these goals somewhat remote. If such students can be presented with material which, while developing their language skills, can also provide an entry into certain areas of knowledge of immediate interest, they will be more involved and will feel that language study takes on a greater sense of relevance.
Learning does not easily take place in a vacuum, rather the learner requires a sense of reality, the feeling that he is learning something that is related to himself, to his world. This feeling is often missing in language-oriented tasks, and quite often the student is left in a somewhat artificial situation. The use of content material can bring this reality back to the language classroom while in no way limiting the possibility of conducting a communication-based class. In fact, learning within a certain context of ideas can even allow greater scope for communication and can be especially useful when some form of integrated skills approach is called for.
There are, however, many approaches to use of content in language related classes. There is then a wide range of lecturers involved in ‘language teaching’ within a university, ranging from those who teach content courses with a primarily translation based methodology, through those who use communication within a content course, to those “TEFL’ers” who use content as an adjunct to communication activities. Then there are those with a linguistics background will often interpret content as an exploration of the language itself and an understanding of how the language functions. Those who belong to specific faculties which offer a continuing language education to their students will be more concerned with the subject matter of their particular discipline and with the need for the student to relate to that discipline in a foreign language.
A general difficulty is that of adapting the choice of content to the needs and interests of the students. Faculty specific material is one approach to this but others will be mentioned, some of which invite the lecturer to go outside of his specific area of specialisation.
The perspective from the student’s point of view however can be quite different. The student has a range of needs which vary from short term, such as matters that can be seen as relevant to his life and the world he can perceive, to long term needs like preparation for career and adaptation to future social circumstances.
Unless the student wants to become a language specialist, learning the mechanics of the language, structure and grammar, tend not seen as important. The real needs of the student are much more fundamental. He needs to find a vital interest in the class, not only through an occasional consciousness of career goals, but a ‘here and now’ interest in what he is doing in the classroom. He needs to be enticed into the subject through a natural curiosity which draws him into an active relationship with the material he is studying. The class has to become real for him, it has to become worthwhile spending this hour here and not somewhere else. Carefully chosen content is one of the best ways of assuring such a sense of immediate interest and curiosity.
Types of content
Much of the teaching in a university context that is based on content matter will tend to be faculty specific, especially where this is done by lecturers within a certain faculty. Here the concern is to advance the knowledge within a certain subject area while at the same time allowing the student to become acquainted with material available in that subject in other languages. The aim is not primarily to advance the knowledge of that language, though that can be part of the overall aims of the particular faculty or department.
Within the language oriented department or centre, a number of approaches to content can be taken. One approach is by considering the needs of the student in relation to university study. Within English this is known as EAP (English for Academic Purposes), although each language will have its own material of this kind. Such teaching looks at the specific skills required for studying within a university and aims at preparing the student appropriately. This can be in relation, not only to those requirements common to all faculties, but also to those of one specific faculty, and learning specific skills and language. At this point EAP approaches ESP (English for Specific Purposes), more often evoked in non-university settings such as business, vocational, etc.
A traditional extension of language studies into content is the study of society and culture, generally concerned with the country or countries of the language we are studying. Often such study is considered as parallel to language studies, and may often be done in the first language. This can, however, be offered in the second language, either integrated into language teaching materials themselves, or as study materials in their own right, combining content and language.
Many lecturers bring the concerns of the wider world into the language classroom through materials aimed at increasing the students’ awareness of global issues. Quite a large range of material is available which helps the students to obtain a greater understand of global politics, ecology, human rights, and a range of issues which are seen as important. What distinguishes global issues from society and culture, apart from the more global aspect of the material presented, is the fact that globally oriented material is generally concerned with social justice, environmental protection and what can be perceived as a better future. Basically it is an awareness raising exercise as well as language development.
Global awareness materials, which are often grouped together to form a specific identifiable approach to teaching, is perhaps part of a still broader and less structured approach to choice of content where the lecturer is consciously choosing materials or ideas which he sees as useful for the development of his students. Here it is the lecturer himself who follows his own judgement as to what will help the students in their own development and in increasing their awareness of the world around them. This will take as many directions as there are people concerned with education, and the only prescription that unites this whole range of approaches is perhaps that of ‘consciousness raising’.
Perhaps most lecturers are in one way or another actively concerned with the development of their students and with widening their consciousness of a chosen aspect of the world, however many are not really aware of this as a ‘method’ in its own right. In my own teaching I have developed a range of materials that I call ‘Alternative Worlds’ which aim at increasing the students’ creativity through a consciousness of paradigms, of the limits of our ‘worldview’ in a wide range of ‘knowledges’. In doing so I make an effort to cover aspects of subject areas from a range of faculties within the university but where the underlying concern is a growing consciousness that the world may not be quite what we have been taught to see it as. Whether alternative views come from traditional cultures, alternative cultures or avant-garde scientific theories is of secondary concern. It is the sense of wonder and ‘otherness’ leading to a capability for creative adaptation to changing circumstances which is aimed at. With appropriate methodology, materials from a number of faculties can be taught, even though much of it can be outside one’s specific area of competence.
Methodology for content
There are a large number of methods available for teaching content-based materials, many of which make a valid contribution to learning. In Part 2 of this paper, I look at the principles governing efficient and communicative learning. The Plain Pair Group Teaching method, which was developed according to these principles, is generally accompanied by some form of content-based presentation by the teacher. It is not necessary, however, that such material be faculty specific. With this particular method, the ‘ideas’ could also be linguistic, grammatical or methods of translation and still serve as ‘content’. The main purpose is that the student interaction concerning the material will be intensely communicative and discussion based.
The Plain Pair Group Teaching method offers an approach to teaching content material while providing the lecturer a means to make his content classes more communicative, even though he may not feel comfortable in using EFL methodology techniques. Plain PGT gives the lecturer a very simple means of combining reading/explanation of a text with student-centred communication in a way that is easy to use and non-threatening for the lecturer unfamiliar with communicative methodology. This method provides a means by which the lecturer can ‘manage’ his class in such a way that there is an easy and automatic shift from lecturer presentation to student discussion in small groups, thus providing a deeper understanding of the text and a greater familiarity with the language and ideas contained in the text or the lecture, as well as calling on and developing the knowledge of the students concerning the area covered.
Another important aspect of this method is that it allows the lecturer to use content material that is specific to the needs of his students but which may not be within his own area of expertise. This is very important especially where a lecturer has to teach students from a wide range of faculties, or where a particular class has a very specific need in terms of content which is outside the principle area of competence of the lecturer. In this way the lecturer is able to take advantage of the knowledge of the students and by doing so gives them a deeper satisfaction in their learning.
The Plain PGT approach can also be employed in areas outside of the teacher/student relation. With a group of peers in a professional development situation, the content can be whatever aspect of professional or institutional development is being considered. In a decision-making situation, the Plain PGT ‘ethos’ can also serve for an intensely interactional sharing and working through of information as a preliminary to a consensus based decision-making. In a less formal situation, e.g. a reading/discussion group or a few colleagues working through certain materials , the key elements of this approach can also be used.
Whether in a structurally hierarchical situation or in a group of peers, the essence of Plain PGT is respect for the knowledge and natural intelligence of each participant, an acceptance of difference, both of opinion and of person, and a search for insightful understanding through seeking out the limits of our knowledge.
This chapter is based on a paper published in 1997, entitled “Content in University Language Classes: future directions in language learning”.
While I don’t enlarge specifically on the ‘rules’ underlying 2nd language ‘study’ in this paper, my theoretical views can be deduced largely from looking at what is not natural language learning. This is discussed through much of Part 2.
See Chapter 2 for two alternative teaching methods. Use of ‘activities’ (à la Pilgrims) can also involve natural learning.