In the last decade the question of ‘what to do with foreign language departments?’ by Xu Liejiong (2004) aroused another round of heated discussion among language teachers and researchers in China (Cai, 2018; Cheng, 2013; Liu & Wu, 2011; Wang, 2015; Yang, 2018; Zhang et al., 2018; Zhou & Shi, 2018). These well-known researchers pointed out various problems associated with the prevalent language-skill-focused curricula for language majors: the existing curricula place too much emphasis on the development of language skills and the education of language majors is more like vocational training than academic training; language majors lack subject-matter knowledge, critical thinking ability, and motivation of learning; language graduates are not satisfactory in their language proficiency and not competitive on the job market. In the USA, Dupuy (2000) reported dramatic drops in foreign language enrolments beyond intermediate courses, a problem rooted in the foreign language curriculum itself. The researchers also put forward suggestions on reforms of talent cultivation and curriculum design, such as training language majors with good liberal education, training multilingual and inter-disciplinary language majors, strengthening humanistic education, improving critical thinking ability, and reforming the existing curriculum. Based on a review of the historical changes of curricula for undergraduate English majors in China and drawing on language teaching approaches of English-speaking countries, a few universities in China, such as Beijing International Studies University, Dalian International Studies University, and Shantou University (Jin, 2010; Zhao et al., 2014; Zhu, 2008) began to reform their traditional language-skill-focused curricula, and to implement, to various degrees, content-based curricula for English majors with content-based instruction (CBI) as the focus.
In 2014 the School of Foreign Studies of Nanjing University of Science and Technology (NJUST) replaced the old language-skill-focused curriculum for undergraduate English majors with a new content-based curriculum in order to avoid the shortcomings of the former, to meet the demands of new circumstances on English major graduates and to cultivate high-quality language talent with humanistic literacy and professional knowledge. Specific reform measures included cancelling language skill courses, increasing the number of general education language courses, specialized language courses, and other-discipline-related courses. However, concerns about this kind of curriculum reform were expressed by some language teachers. They held that in China there are too many average language graduates and too few talented graduates. The majority of Chinese language graduates possess the basic ability of listening, speaking, reading, writing, and translating, but only a few have a very good command of the language (Cha, 2019). Empirical studies also demonstrated that the focus on meaning in CBI has a negative effect on the development of target language accuracy (Dupuy, 2000). Therefore, will cancelling most of the language skill courses further impair the students’ already unsatisfactory language ability?
The study compared the language performance in the national Test for English Majors Grade 4 and Grade 8 (TEM-4 and TEM-8) of students in the old language-skill-focused curriculum (enrolled from 2010 to 2013) and students in the new content-based curriculum (enrolled from 2014 to 2017) from NJUST in order to investigate the effects of content-based curriculum on the development of students’ language ability.
Content-based instruction can be traced back to the French immersion programs in Canada in the mid-1960s, and has been widely implemented in the language field since the early 1980s. The umbrella term CBI is commonly used to describe various programmes and approaches which integrate language and content instruction (Met, 1999; Stryker & Leaver, 1997). Similarly, Stoller & Fitzsimmons-Doolan (2017, p. 79) defined CBI as an overarching term ‘that refers to instructional approaches that make a dual, though not necessarily equal, commitment to language- and content-learning objectives’. CBI is also referred to as learning through the medium of a second or an additional language or as content and language integrated learning (Cenoz & Ruiz de Zarobe, 2015; Van Deusen-Scholl & May, 2017). In CBI, content refers to nonlanguage subject matter that is closely related to traditional subjects in schools or themes of interest to students (Stoller & Fitzsimmons-Doolan, 2017). Content-based instruction ‘represents a significant departure from traditional foreign language teaching methods in that language proficiency is achieved by shifting the focus of instruction from the learning of language per se to the learning of language through the study of subject matter’ (Stryker & Leaver, 1997, p. 5). Stryker and Leaver also pointed out three characteristics of CBI: 1) it is based on a subject-matter core; 2) it uses authentic teaching materials; and 3) it caters to the needs of specific student groups.
The various programmes and approaches under CBI may be placed on a continuum between content-driven programmes and language-driven programmes (
Content-based language teaching: a continuum of content and language integration
Language immersion, or simply immersion, is a form of bilingual language education in which a non-native language of the students is used for instruction in a variety of subjects, including maths, science, or social studies. In total immersion, the students spent 100% of the school day in their non-native language. In partial immersion, class time is shared between the students’ native language and non-native language. In most cases, the students spend at least half of their school day learning in a non-native language. Between the extremes of the continuum are other forms of content/language integration such as sheltered courses, adjunct courses, and theme-based courses (Brinton et al., 1989). In sheltered instruction, which is content-driven, content courses are taught by content teachers to non-native speakers of the target language and language learning is incidental. The content specialists use various special methods and techniques, such as using comprehensible language, contextualizing the subject matter, making use of visual aids, etc. (Echevarría et al., 2017), to ‘shelter subject matter’, i.e., to make the content more accessible to second language learners (Stoller & Fitzsimmons-Doolan, 2017).
Adjunct courses lie at the centre of the continuum. In adjunct courses, both content learning and language learning receive somewhat equal emphasis. Students are concurrently enrolled in content courses taught by content instructors and related language support courses taught by language instructors, and the latter is designed to help students with the language difficulties of the former. To the right of the adjunct courses are theme-based courses which are language-driven. Unlike sheltered courses taught by content instructors and adjunct courses co-taught by content instructors and language instructors, theme-based courses are taught by language instructors around selected topics such as a country’s geography, political system, religion, or education. Language acquisition is of top priority and content learning is incidental.
Empirical studies in foreign language classrooms have demonstrated that content-based approaches have the potential to enhance students’ motivation and interest, to accelerate students’ language acquisition, to broaden students’ content knowledge, to make language learning more enjoyable and fulfilling, to achieve long-term academic success, to improve students’ autonomous learning ability, and to increase students’ chances of employment (Amiri & Fatemi, 2014; Douglas, 2017; Dupuy, 2000; Kasper et al., 2000; Snow & Brinton, 1997; Song, 2006; Stryker & Leaver, 1997; Vanichvasin, 2019; Wesche & Skehan, 2002).
After a review of twenty-nine empirical studies on the effects of four variations of CBI (second language medium courses, theme-based courses, adjunct/linked courses, and foreign language across the curriculum courses) in foreign language education at the post-secondary level, Dupuy (2000) found that CBI enhanced the students’ foreign language competence, their subject matter knowledge, their self-confidence in using the target language, and their motivation to continue foreign language study. Vanichvasin (2019) investigated the effects of CBI on the English language performance of nineteen Thai undergraduate students in a semester-long communication skills course and the students’ perceptions of the effectiveness of content-based instruction. Language tests indicated that the students achieved significant language gains over the semester. Questionnaire data revealed that the students perceived the CBI as an effective methodology and they gained more courage to express themselves in English.
Research on CBI in China began in the 1990s. Early research focused on the introduction to CBI theories and its applicability in the Chinese foreign language teaching context (Dai & Lv, 2004). Since 2000 a few researchers began to conduct empirical studies to investigate the effects of CBI on students’ language performance in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. The empirical studies demonstrated no negative effects of CBI on the language development of Chinese tertiary-level English learners. For example, Zhu’s (2008) study indicated that content-based curriculum for undergraduate English majors of Shantou University significantly improved students’ pass rates in TEM-8. Li & Chang (2011) and Zhao et al. (2014) found that, compared to traditional language-skill-focused curriculum, content-based curriculum for undergraduate English majors exerted positive effects on the students’ language performance in listening dictation, listening comprehension, cloze tests, vocabulary and grammar, reading comprehension, and writing. Yuan & Yu (2008) investigated the efficacy of a CBI course in facilitating the college non-English majors’ acquisition of English over a semester. The comparative study included a control group taught with regular English teaching methods and an experimental group taught with the Six T’s approach which includes themes, topics, texts, tasks, threads, and transitions (Stoller & Grabe, 1997). The results revealed that the students in the experimental group were more highly motivated and more active in using English to communicate. They also gained higher language test scores, especially in reading. It was also found that content-based courses did not have noticeable effects on the language performance of low-proficiency students.
Although there is a large number of empirical studies on the effects of CBI, most studies investigated the short-term impact of a content-based course (e.g., Amiri & Fatemi, 2014; Douglas, 2017; Dupuy, 2000; Yuan & Yu, 2008) and few studies examined the long-term effects of a content-based curriculum for language majors. Besides, the content-based curricula in the studies of Zhu’s (2008), Li & Chang (2011) and Zhao et al. (2014) are not real sense content-based curricula in that while a few content-driven courses were added, all or most of the language courses, like English Listening and English Writing, were maintained. For instance, one university just reduced the credits of the intensive English reading course and cancelled the two-credit extensive English reading course for the freshman and sophomore years while adding two or three culture courses. Another university maintained all the language skill courses for the freshmen and sophomores and added several content-driven optional courses in culture and literature. The two curricula in these studies do not have very considerable differences, and it is predictable that the new curriculum did not have negative effects on the students’ language performance. Therefore, it is worthwhile to explore the long-term effects of a real sense content-based curriculum, in which most courses are content-driven.
Content-based curriculum for English majors of NJUST
In 2014 the English department of NJUST carried out a curriculum reform for undergraduate English majors, and replaced the old language-skill-focused curriculum with a new content-based curriculum. In the curriculum reform, all the language skill courses, including English listening, speaking, reading, and writing, for the freshman, sophomore, and junior years from the old curriculum were cancelled. A few language courses, such as English Viewing, Listening and Speaking, English Reciting, were added. All the other courses in the new curriculum are content-driven, including general education language courses, specialized language courses, and other-discipline-related courses. Considering the language proficiency of first-year students, course instructors were required to pay equal emphasis on content teaching and language teaching and therefore the teaching approach was similar to the adjunct approach on Met’s (1998; 1999) continuum. For the second-year students, course instructors were required to reduce the proportion of language teaching. For the third- and fourth-year students, course instruction attached top priority to content, and the teaching approach was similar to the sheltered model on Met’s continuum. One major difference between our teaching approach and the approaches on Met’s continuum was that all the courses in our content-based curriculum were taught by language instructors.
Content-based curriculum and language-skill-focused curriculum
|Term||2014 Content-based curriculum (credits)||2009 language-skill-focused curriculum (credits)|
|1||Viewing, listening & speaking I (2)
||Intensive reading I (4)
|2||Viewing, listening & speaking II (2)
||Intensive reading II (4)
|3||Reciting (1) Public speaking (1)
||Oral English practice I (1)
|4||Viewing, listening & speaking IV (1)
||Intensive reading IV(4)
|5||Viewing, listening & speaking V (1)
||Oral English practice II (1)
|6||Viewing, listening & speaking VI (1)
||Advanced reading II (4)
|7||Advanced testing (1)
||Oral English practice III (1)
Note. Only compulsory courses included; content-driven courses in bold.
The study intended to explore the effects of content-based curriculum on the language performance of undergraduate English majors in the national Test for English Majors. Two specific research questions were proposed.
What are the effects of content-based curriculum on the language performance of Chinese English majors in TEM-4?
What are the effects of content-based curriculum on the language performance of Chinese English majors in TEM-8?
The Test for English Majors is a mandatory test with two levels and only English majors and double majors are qualified for the tests. TEM-4 is taken in April of the second academic year and TEM-8 in March of the fourth academic year. The total score for both TEM-4 and TEM-8 is 100 and the pass score is 60. TEM-4 includes six parts: listening dictation, listening comprehension, language usage, cloze, reading comprehension, and a reading-to-write task, and the test time is 130 minutes. TEM-8 consists of five parts: listening comprehension, reading comprehension, passage error correction, translation, and a reading-to-write task, and the test time is 150 minutes. TEM-8 is regarded as the highest English proficiency test in China.
The study involved 624 students of eight grades, four grades from the old curriculum (grades 2010 to 2013) and the new curriculum (grades 2014 to 2017) respectively. The four grades of students from the new content-based curriculum had all taken TEM-4, and only two grades had taken TEM-8. TEM-8 was postponed for grade 2016 students nationwide due to the coronavirus pandemic, and they took the test, together with grade 2017 students, in April 2021.
Results and discussion
Comparison of TEM-4 scores between the two curricula
The table also revealed that compared to the students in the old curriculum, the language performance of students in the new curriculum exhibited a tendency of polarization development. First, the maximum scores of the four grades in the new curriculum greatly increased. Most of the maximum scores exceeded ninety. For the old curriculum most of the maximum scores were around 82. Second, the average standard deviations of TEM-4 scores were 7.04 and 9.78 for the old curriculum and the new curriculum, respectively. The smallest standard deviation for the new curriculum (8.43) was even bigger than the largest standard deviation for the old curriculum (7.57). The average variance of the former was about 1.93 times that of the latter.
In order to further verify the finding of polarization development, we tabulated the frequencies and percentages of students’ TEM-4 scores in five score brackets: 90 or above, 80-89, 70-79, 60-69, and 59 or lower (see
Distribution of TEM-4 scores of the two curricula
Comparison of TEM-8 scores between the two curricula
Distribution of TEM-8 scores of the two curricula
The first finding of the study is content-based curriculum had positive effects on the language performance of lower-grade Chinese English majors, but the language performance of students in the new curriculum exhibited a tendency of polarization development. Both the excellence rate and failure rate of students in TEM-4 greatly increased. Grade 2014 students were the first to receive the new content-based curriculum. When their TEM-4 test results came out, we immediately noticed that their excellence rate and failure rate both increased markedly compared to those in the old curriculum. Department staff meetings were held and it was decided to make minor changes to the curriculum in practice. First, a few optional language courses including a two-credit grammar course, a one-credit listening course and a one-credit writing course would be offered to students enrolled in 2015 and after who had a relatively lower English proficiency. Second, course instructors for the lower-grade students were required to increase the proportion of explicit language teaching in their lectures. The above measures proved effective. While the excellence rate of grades 2015-2017 students stabilized at about 18%-20%, the failure rate of two of the three grades dropped to about 3%. However, grade 2016 still had a much higher failure rate (10.3%) than the four grades in the old curriculum.
The finding of polarization development of students’ language performance echoes the findings of Yuan & Yu’s (2008) and Gu & Shi’s (2009) studies on second-year non-English majors. For example, Gu & Shi applied CBI approach to college oral English teaching by instructing the students in oral presentation. It was found that the CBI approach was an effective means to improving EFL learners’ oral English proficiency. However, it was also found that the variance of the experimental group increased significantly (from 30.36 at pre-test to 61.78 at post-test) compared to that of the control group (from 38.94 at pre-test to 45.97 at post-test). Therefore, they concluded that CBI approach in EFL teaching is not effective for students of lower intermediate English proficiency.
Content-driven courses are more difficult and challenging for students than traditional language-driven courses. In content-based curriculum, the students learn content knowledge not only in culture, literature, linguistics, and translation related to the language but also in other-discipline-related areas, such as Chinese culture, law, and international trade. Besides, content-driven courses contain more difficult and challenging vocabulary and syntactic structures. For example, the course An Introduction to English-Speaking Countries is offered to sophomores or even juniors or seniors in many other universities, but in our department it is taken by students at the second semester of the first academic year and the first semester of the second academic year. Unlike some other universities where the course is taught in Chinese or bilingually, the course in our department is delivered in English. Apart from the content knowledge in geography, history, politics, culture, and religion, the course also involves a large number of special names of places and people. Many students commented at the end of the course that previewing the textbook before the lectures took much of their time, and some students even commented that they could not finish the preview every week because of the reading difficulty of the materials. Therefore, in content-based curriculum, students who have a higher English proficiency, especially in reading, can devote more of their time and efforts to content learning, which may increase their sense of fulfilment and their learning motivation. Having good content knowledge helps students better understand test materials and attain better scores in language tests. Students who have a lower English proficiency may struggle between language learning and content learning. The difficulty in understanding the complex language of course materials affects their learning of content knowledge, and incomplete grasp of content knowledge in turn affects their understanding of the language of course materials, thus forming a vicious circle, increasing their learning anxiety, and reducing their learning motivation.
The second finding of the study is that a content-based curriculum did not have obvious positive or negative effects on the language performance of highergrade Chinese English majors in TEM-8. No statistically significant differences were revealed between the two curricula in either the average test scores or the distribution of scores. This finding is not consistent with Zhu’s (2008) study which found that the content-based curriculum for the undergraduate English majors significantly improved students’ pass rates in TEM-8. This finding might be attributed to several reasons. First, there was no significant difference in the proportion of content-driven courses for the third- and fourth-year students between the old language-skill-focused curriculum and the new content-based curriculum. Content-driven courses constituted about one-third (37%) and two-thirds (67%) for the old and new curricula, respectively. The third and fourth years in the two curricula both included quite a number of content-driven specialized optional courses, which further reduced the above difference in the proportion of content-driven courses. Second, the students in both curricula had quite a few courses in their last academic year. In the fourth year, students are supposed to do internships off campus; therefore, many universities in China offer just a small number of courses for the students. The students in the old curriculum of our department had only three courses (Oral English Practice III, Interpreting II, Thesis Writing), totalling four credits and those in the new curriculum had just two courses (Advanced Testing, Thesis Writing) with a total of two credits. The course arrangement for the fourth year greatly reduced the students’ in-class opportunities for language input and output. Besides, some content-driven courses, such as Linguistics Classics Reading, International Trade Practice and Traditional Chinese Philosophical Masterpiece Reading were too difficult to be offered to the freshmen and sophomores, and many of the courses were crammed in the third academic year. The third-year students in our department took at least six to seven compulsory courses each semester. A heavy study load for a whole year made many students much less motivated in the following year, which was verified in our Thesis Writing class. Therefore, the fourth-year students might enter a period of plateau or fossilization in their language development.
Suggestions for improvement of content-based curriculum
The results of the study indicated that content-based curriculum did not have negative effects on the language performance of undergraduate English majors, thus proving the feasibility of content-based curriculum in the teaching of English majors in China. However, the six-year practice in our department proved that there was still much room for the improvement and optimization of content-based curriculum for English majors. Several suggestions for improvement were put forward below.
Improve course arrangements
One major problem in the content-based curriculum in our department was the uneven distribution of the courses among the four academic years, with relatively fewer courses for the first two years, a heavy study load for the third year, and few courses for the fourth year. In another study, using a questionnaire we investigated students’ perceptions of their study load under content-based curriculum. One of the questionnaire items was ‘Do you think there are too many courses in the third year?’, and the students were asked to rate their response on a five-point scale from 1 (too few) to 5 (too many). The average score for this question was 4.83, approaching the maximum score, and the averages scores were 2.38, 2.72, and 1.60 for the other three years. As to the sense of learning enjoyment, the average score was 2.96 for the third year, and the scores were 3.61, 3.52, and 3.83 for the other three years. There was a significant negative correlation between the number of courses and the sense of learning enjoyment (r = -.403, p = .000).
Another problem was the current content-based curriculum in our department included too many compulsory courses and too few optional courses. Research has shown that good universities usually offer a large number of optional courses (Zhu, 2008). The students in our department were supposed to take 141 credits of compulsory courses and 24 credits of optional courses for the four years, the latter accounting for just 15% of the total credits required. Therefore, our department had to offer several compulsory courses in each of the following content areas including linguistics, literature, culture, translation, and economy and trade, which greatly increased the study load of the students. In the questionnaire, students put forward suggestions and comments like ‘There are too many linguistics courses’, and ‘The department should offer just one or two introductory compulsory courses in each content area to the freshmen and sophomores. The juniors and seniors should be allowed to take optional courses according to their area of interest’. Many students also put forward the requirement that a few language skill courses be offered to first- and second-year students, and when asked about what language skill courses they would like to be offered, the most frequent answers included English pronunciation, grammar, and writing.
Creating textbooks or teaching materials to fit students’ language proficiency
As an example, most universities in China offer the course An Introduction to English-Speaking Countries to sophomores, juniors, or even seniors, and accordingly, the majority of the textbooks available are intended for students with an intermediate or advanced English proficiency level. In our department this course was offered to freshmen, most of whom found the textbook too difficult. In our curriculum reform, quite a few specialized courses in the old curriculum were moved to the previous year in the new curriculum; therefore, the textbooks used before might not fit the students’ language proficiency. In language teaching we should follow the ‘threshold principle’ and the ‘comprehensible input principle’, and the choice of teaching materials should take into consideration the students’ current language proficiency level (Zhou & Shi, 2018).
Provide in-service training for the course instructors
Unlike sheltered courses taught by content instructors and adjunct courses co-taught by content instructors and language instructors on Met’s continuum, the content-driven other-discipline-related courses in our content-based curriculum, such as International Trade Practice, Chinese Culture, Quantitative Statistics, Legal English, and Philosophical Reading were all taught by language instructors. Due to the lack of content specialized instructors in the related disciplines, the language instructors took up the teaching of the other-discipline-related courses after they self-studied the textbooks. Some teachers commented that they sometimes feel inadequate when explaining the difficult points to students. Some students also commented in the questionnaire that ‘it seemed that sometimes our teacher did not have a clear understanding of the knowledge points in the textbook’. For specialized language courses the students also hoped to learn in depth. Therefore, our course instructors should keep learning constantly and the university and faculty should provide course instructors with in-service training opportunities.
Establish inter-faculty or intercollegiate cooperation
Another solution to the lack of content instructors in other disciplines is to establish cooperation with other faculties or universities. For International Trade Practice and Chinese Culture for example, the course may be offered to students in English or bilingual languages by the School of Economics and Management or the Chinese department of our university, or they may take high-quality online courses offered by domestic or foreign universities. This solution can also relieve the language instructors from the heavy burden of preparing for the teaching of other-discipline-related courses so that they can devote their time and efforts to the courses they specialize in.
The study was based on the curriculum reform for undergraduate English majors in the School of Foreign Studies of Nanjing University of Science and Technology. The study investigated the effects of content-based curriculum on the students’ language performance by comparing the TEM-4 and TEM-8 scores of students in the old language-skill-focused curriculum (enrolled from 2010 to 2013) and students in the content-based curriculum (enrolled from 2014 to 2017). It was found that content-based curriculum had positive effects on the language performance of lower-grade English majors. However, the students in the new curriculum exhibited a tendency of polarization development, with both the excellence rate and failure rate in TEM-4 greatly increasing. The results of the study also demonstrated that content-based curriculum did not have obvious positive or negative effects on the language performance of higher-grade English majors. No statistically significant differences were revealed between the two curricula in either the average test scores or the distribution of scores in TEM-8.
Students admitted into the same university in different years may have slightly different language proficiency levels. Therefore, caution should be taken in generalizing, and more data are needed to confirm, the results of the study. However, the six-year practice in curriculum reform for undergraduate Chinese English majors has proved the feasibility of content-based curriculum in the teaching of English majors in China and has provided empirical support for the improvement of content-based curriculum for foreign language majors.