When Language Teachers Don’t Teach Language: A Narrative Inquiry of Language-Focused ESL Instruction in Content-Based Settings

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When Language Teachers Don’t Teach Language: A Narrative Inquiry of Language-Focused ESL Instruction in Content-Based Settings

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Content-based instruction (CBI) is an approach to language teaching in which academic content is taught through the target language. To be an effective language teaching methodology, CBI must balance the teaching of both language and content. Cammarata, Tedick, and Osborn (2016) described this balance as an integrated “focus on meaning and form in the classroom” (p. 12). Despite such calls to balance language-focused and content-focused instruction, a well-known and well-documented problem in CBI is the tendency of the teacher to focus predominately on content and neglect language teaching (Cammarata & Tedick, 2012; Fortune, Tedick & Walker, 2008; Lyster, 1998, 2007; Salomone, 1992; Short, 2002; Walker & Tedick, 2000). Over the past twenty years, schools in the United States have seen an increase in sheltered instruction, “push-in” instruction, and co-teaching models which are based, at least in part, on the tenets of CBI. Often such courses replace other ESL courses, leaving ESL teachers opportunities to teach English limited to courses that have heavy content requirements. This study used narrative inquiry (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000) and autobiographical narrative inquiry (Barkhuizen, Benson, & Chik, 2014; Clandinin, 2013) to investigate the experiences of six early-career ESL teachers as they tried to apply the learning from their pre-service coursework and bring purposeful language-focused instruction to their sheltered and co-taught content classes. Interviews with the six teachers were conducted and 14 weeks of participant observation with one focal teacher was completed. The study also explores the experiences of a teacher educator (the researcher) who worked with all six of these teachers in their pre-service program, as she tries to make sense of the impact her own teaching has or has not had on their subsequent classroom actions and decision-making surrounding language-focused instruction. Narrative reconstruction (Barone, 2007) was used to present the findings. Findings confirm that bringing a language-focus to content-based courses is difficult for teachers. The study identifies numerous barriers to the successful blending of content and language, organizing these barriers into three main categories: 1.) Barriers arising from the teaching schedule and workload; 2.) Barriers related to the beliefs of school and district personnel; and 3.) Barriers related to the beliefs and identity of the ESL teachers themselves surrounding language-focused instruction. The study also suggests that language alertness, a habit of mind in which a teacher constantly and purposefully shifts between thinking about content and thinking about language during instruction, is necessary for the successful balance of focus on content and focus on language in CBI.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. January 2018. Major: Education, Curriculum and Instruction. Advisor: Diane Tedick. 1 computer file (PDF); ix, 251 pages.

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Maguire, Caroline. (2018). When Language Teachers Don’t Teach Language: A Narrative Inquiry of Language-Focused ESL Instruction in Content-Based Settings. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy, https://hdl.handle.net/11299/194575.

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