What should language teaching be about?

Vivian Cook 
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ELT Journal Volume 37/3 July 1983

While there has been much discussion of syllabuses, there has been little discussion of the content—the actual subject matter—of language lessons. Typical content has been imaginary characters and information. 'Real' content, based on the world outside the classroom, has been comparatively rare. Some possible types of real content are another academic subject, content contributed by the students, language itself, literature, the culture of the country where the language is spoken, and interesting facts about the world at large. If the message—the information that is communicated—is important to language learning, then we need to investigate the range of content types that may suit our students and our educational goals.


Over the past ten years in the field of English language teaching there has been extensive discussion of the syllabus. There has also been a growth in so-called 'communicative' methods which involve students actively communicating with each other in the classroom. What has been comparatively seldom discussed, however, is the actual subject matter, the content, of the language lesson: what should the students communicate about? Suppose a syllabus specifies that we should teach the passive: this leaves us free to use a recipe for cooking beans, a scientific account of earthquakes, a report of a football match, or any other content into which passives fit naturally. Or suppose we are to teach 'identifying': this still leaves a choice between exercises in which the students label parts of a bicycle, identify types of music from a tape, point to photos of famous people, or many other possibilities. On the one hand we have the target the students are aiming at, i.e. the syllabus items; on the other we have the content of the language used in the classroom. Specifying a particular item on the syllabus does not usually specify the lesson content. One exception may be topic-based syllabuses (see Cook 1970:65—73), though even here the emphasis has usually been on the target, the topics the students will need to discuss outside the classroom, rather than on the content of the lesson itself. This article tries to work through some of the issues involved in choosing content.

Imaginary versus real content

One reason why content is not discussed more frequently is that the choice is taken for granted. A typical general course is about the lives and adventures of imaginary characters. The main advantage of this type of content is that it motivates and entertains the students, rather like a television soap opera such as 'Dallas'. The fictional story-line arouses universal interest and sweetens the pill of language learning. 'Communicative' courses often take a similar line: a typical communicative activity is about asking the way'  in an imaginary town, or acting out a situation with imaginary characters. Both types of course opt for essentially 'imaginary' content, invented by the teacher or course-writer specially for teaching language, rather than 'real' content drawn from the real world. An analysis of three beginners' course-books, for example, shows that an average of nine pages out of ten made use of imaginary content. Three equivalent intermediate courses had a similar proportion—seven pages out often.

'Real' content, on the other hand, consists of information about the real world outside the classroom, its events, problems, and places. Some examples are a map of Stratford-on-Avon, used as a basis for an activity, a text that describes Stonehenge, or instructions on how to deal with a nosebleed. Apart from student-contributed content, which is discussed below, the coursebooks that were analysed had real content on two pages out of ten at beginners' level, and three out often at intermediate.

This opposition between imaginary and real content must be distinguished from that between authentic and non-authentic language, if by 'authentic language' we mean language produced naturally by native speakers, rather than language specially designed for teaching (Cook 1981). It is, for instance, possible to have 'real' content treated in non-authentic language—for example, a text about Stonehenge specially written for the classroom. Authentic language seems to imply 'real' content, but the converse is not true. It should also be pointed out that most authentic materials represent only a narrow selection from the types of real content described below, often excluding literature, for example.

The importance of content

As we have seen, many courses use imaginary stories and imaginary information. What is wrong with this? After all, it has been the traditional subject matter for a long time and has been successful. It is worthwhile bringing this preference out into the open in order to see what it entails, for content may be crucially important to the learner. Krashen (1981) claims that the single most important pedagogical principle is to maximize 'comprehensible' input; we learn, he believes, when we are trying to understand and when what we are hearing does not stretch our powers of comprehension too far. In broad terms, content can be important in two ways: one is related to the goals of language teaching, and the other to psychological factors in the learner's mind.

Like content, the overall goals of language teaching have not been discussed at great length of late. What is language teaching for? At one level it is 'functional' or 'communicative': the students are acquiring a skill they can use outside the classroom. At another level it can be called 'educational': we teach people a foreign language to broaden their horizons. From a different perspective, language teaching encourages the development of the students' personalities and potentials. Or the goal may be 'cognitive': learning a second language helps the students to acquire more diverse ways of thinking, greater cognitive flexibility. Any language course reflects one or more of these goals; different goals demand different content.

Psychological factors are also relevant to the choice of content. We are coming to see more and more that teaching has to fit in with the psychological processes, attitudes, and so on that the student brings to second language learning: however good our teaching exercises or syllabus appear on paper, it is in the minds of the learners that they succeed or fail. One important factor is the student's expectations of the classroom; he or she expects certain kinds of thing to happen and not others. If the content of the lesson does not fit in with these expectations, difficulties are likely to ensue. Another factor is motivation. Gardner and Lambert (1972), for instance, make the now well-known distinction between instrumental motivation, for cases when students are learning a language as a means to an end (such as a job), and integrative motivation for when they are trying to identify with the target culture. Different types of content seem likely to suit different types of motivation. Doubtless there are other psychological factors that should be taken into account when considering content, as well as the two that have been mentioned.

Types of real content

Let us look now at some of the alternatives to imaginary content.

Another academic subject

One possibility is to teach another academic subject through English, as suggested by Widdowson (1978: 15-18 and passim). This solves the problem of content, in that the students are learning a new subject; they are acquiring real information in the classroom about, say, physics or geography. They are carrying out a genuine communicative task that happens to be in another language. However, this type of real content has limitations that preclude its wide use. Many language teachers would deny that their main purpose in teaching English was to enable their students to understand physics or geography in English. While it suits students with a goal clearly defined in terms of English for Specific Purposes (ESP), it has little value for those whose goal is the functional one of speaking to other people in English, the cultural one of learning about British or American life, or the various cognitive or emotional goals. There used to be a complaint that language students could discuss Keats's poetry, but couldn't order a cup of coffee; the new complaint may be that they know how to discuss quarks or continental drift, but can neither order a cup of coffee nor discuss Keats.

Furthermore, with regard to psychological factors, I doubt whether many learners, or teachers for that matter, expect to deal with physics in the English lesson. Indeed, even on ESP courses it has sometimes been found that students are more interested in content outside their own specialized areas. This snag could be overcome by training the students or the teachers to expect physics in the language lesson. It might be more difficult, however, to deal with motivation. Learning physics in English caters only for those students who are instrumentally motivated towards physics, not for those with other aims in mind, and not at all for those who are integratively motivated. If the distinction between these types of motivation is valid, this kind of content appears to suit neither of the two largest groups of successful language learners.

Student-contributed content

A major source of content in the classroom is the students themselves. They have had experiences of life; they have opinions and ideas of their own. These too can be used as content, as suggested by Alexander (1976). To go back to the analysis of coursebooks, at beginners' level student-contributed content was catered for on four pages out of ten, and at intermediate level on five pages out often: it is already fairly popular. If the teaching goal is emotional and social development, it is hard to imagine a more useful type of content, and it is not surprising that it forms the core of 'humanistic' teaching methods such as Community Language Learning.1 It is also clearly compatible with cultural goals if you have multilingual groups who can learn interesting information about each other's lives and back-grounds. With functional goals, too, students need to be able to talk about themselves in whatever communicative situations they are going to encounter. In terms of goals, therefore, student-contributed content seems highly useful, since it can fit in with so many of them. But there may be psychological difficulties. Many students are prepared to talk about themselves up to a point, but are not willing to commit themselves any deeper. Unless our only goal is self-development, we may well not wish to force them to do so. Students may also not expect to have to talk about themselves in the English class; it is as arbitrary for them to discuss themselves there as in the history lesson. Indeed, this type of content has often been seen as the province of the mother-tongue teacher, rather than of the foreign-language teacher (see, for example, Holbrook 1964). Finally, this type of content relies on the students actually having ideas and experiences to share. Many of them may not have anything special to talk about, or, indeed, may already be totally familiar with each other's lives and opinions. Though in many ways student-contributed content can be very stimulating, it cannot be taken for granted that it is appropriate for all situations and all learners.

Language as content

It is worth remembering that language can provide the content of the lesson, not only the target of learning. Unfortunately, language content has often been linked to grammatical or functional explanation, e.g. The present perfect is used to express the relevance to the present of past events', or 'To say "thank you" in a formal situation, use "I'm very grateful to you".' But there are other types of language content. Some sample themes are the differences between British and American English; what is and is not socially acceptable; how speech sounds are made; the reasons why people use 'urn' and 'er' in speech, etc. This factual information about language is only incidentally part of the syllabus. It is the content through which the syllabus is taught, just as physics may be. Has language content advantages that other academic subjects do not share? Its main virtue is that, in a sense, our students are already students of language. On the one hand, a justifiable goal for language teaching is to give people insights into how language works, and this can be done explicitly through language content. On the other hand, language fits in with the personality factors and interests that led the students towards language learning in the first place. Language content is much less arbitrary than many other types of content in terms of goals and of the factors in the learner's mind.

Literature as content

 Like grammar, literature has fallen out of favour recently because of its association with teaching techniques such as translation, and because of the inappropriateness of literary language to the students' needs. Looked at as content rather than as method, however, literature deserves to be reconsidered. If our goals are to widen people's horizons and to increase their awareness, literature has many desirable qualities: it has depth of meaning, of characterization and of emotional involvement, precisely because it is written for that purpose, not to provide or evoke specimens of language for language teaching. Teachers of culturally or educationally orientated courses may find that literature leads as easily into the types of discussion and activities that are needed in their classrooms as the more usual authentic text or role-playing activity do. Indeed, literature also fits in well with the student's expectations that literature will be studied, and may contribute to their 'integrative motivation' to learn more about the target culture. This is not to say that we should necessarily require students to read entire novels by Dickens, for example. Literature treated as stimulating content rather than as method or as syllabus can probably be better represented by a haiku by Ronald Laing or a short story by Roald Dahl. The use of short, modern pieces of literature can minimize the inappropriateness of the language to which students are exposed, while continuing to provide content with depth of meaning and involvement.

Culture as content

Although literature has been treated separately here, it really forms part of a much broader type of content: the culture of the country or countries where the target language is the mother tongue. As well as literature, it includes any information about the life of the people whose language is being studied—what they eat, how they dress, how their political systems work, what sports they take part in, and so on. Through this type of content we can achieve the goal of giving the students insights into different ways of life. However, cultural content is irrelevant to several other goals. For instance, English is needed as an international language by people who are not interested in British or American culture or perhaps even dislike it. Culture is also irrelevant if the goals of teaching focus on self-development or cognitive processes. While cultural content may suit the integratively motivated student to perfection, we should not forget that there are many students in many countries who do not have this motivation but who nevertheless want to learn English for various reasons.

'Interesting facts' as content

The final type of real content I will mention can be called 'interesting facts'. This includes any kind of real-world information that the students might be interested in—in other words, what we normally find in articles and talks addressed to the general reader. Some examples are tourist information about places such as Hong Kong, an account of how television news is made, instructions about how to eat with chopsticks, statistics comparing the number of books read per person per year in several countries. These 'interesting facts' are not taken from any one subject area, but from areas that are presumed to be of interest to the student. Again, students are acquiring real information in the English lesson, but it does not compete with other lessons on the timetable. A measure of success is whether students feel that they have learnt something that is not just 'English' in the lesson, something they might talk about or use for themselves later. The choice of interesting facts can be made partly by considering which topics people actually talk about (cf. Rutherford et al. 1969), and more importantly by considering the overall goals of the course. A cognitive goal probably suggests the use of problems, games, and puzzles; a goal of self-development suggests real-life biographies and human problems. As with other content types, it is important to establish that the interesting facts selected are seen as relevant by the students. This appears a flexible and profitable area for coursewriters and teachers to explore.


I have argued that the choice of content is not restricted to conventional imaginary content, and that far more use could be made of various types of real content, selected according to the overall goals of the course and the psychological make-up of the learners. It may be that a better way of classifying content can be found, and in the space of one article it has not been possible to consider all types of goals and their implications for content. Nor has there been room to develop the relationship between content and the various ways of organizing and grading thematically organized material. But at least I have asked a question that I think needs to be answered: what should language teaching be about


1 In Charles Curran's Community Language Learning approach, students are in charge of the lesson themselves. They conduct a series of mini-conversations on any topic they want, using the teacher simply as a target language 'informant' (see Curran 1976).


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Curran, C. A. 1976. Counselling-Learning in Second Languages. Apple River, Illinois: Apple River Press.

Gardner, R. C. and W. E. Lambert. 1972. Attitudes and Motivation in Second Language Learning. Rowley, Mass: Newbury House.

Holbrook, D. 1964. The Secret Places. London: Methuen.

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