Content-Based Instruction Gets ELI Students Out of the Classroom

Instructor, ELI program coordinator, and student posing for a picture on a hike

You may know that the English Language Institute (ELI) teaches English to non-native speakers. Perhaps you imagine ELI students spending hours learning grammar rules and memorizing new vocabulary. However, ELI’s approach to English-teaching is much more fun than that! ELI delivers what is known as content-based language instruction. Content-based language instruction uses a target language (English, in the case of ELI) to study other topics. Students read articles, listen to podcasts, watch lectures, and deliver presentations on a variety of academic topics in their second language. Common academic themes at ELI include Health & Medicine, Technology & Society, and Language & Communication, among others. This semester at ELI, students are studying Wildlife & Forestry, and, of course, Missoula, Montana is the perfect place to study this academic topic.

When ELI students study Wildlife & Forestry, they study everything from forest animal and plant names, to conservation policies, to the complex effects of wildfires. ELI instructors use Yellowstone’s Telemetry podcast to help students learn about the lives of wolves and cougars, while also practicing their listening skills in English; ELI students read articles about the history of forest management policies in the U.S. and how those policies have affected the forest fires we experience here in Montana almost every summer; students research conservation topics and give presentations to share solutions for environmental crises - all in their second language! One of the most interesting things we get to do when we study this academic theme, though, is to go outside and see old burn areas and animal habitat for ourselves.

The first “field trip” we took this fall was to the ethnobotany garden at the Native American Center on campus - just next door to the International Center, where ELI is housed. We were fortunate enough to receive a tour from a very knowledgeable graduate student who explained the various traditional uses of the native plants surrounding the Native American Center building. The next field trip took us a little further away from campus. We set out one perfect September morning to hike to the old fire lookout at Skookum Butte. This hike took us through an old burn area where we could observe new growth as well as large trees that managed to survive the fire - it gave us a firsthand look at the potential benefits of forest fires. As we hiked the extremely steep trail, we were able to find many types of scat, showing us the variety of animals that inhabit the area. When we reached our destination - the fire lookout - we discussed how it was used to spot smoke in the surrounding forest and communicate with the forest service to get crews out to fight flames. As a bonus, the fire lookout, which sits directly on the border between Idaho and Montana in the Bitterroot Mountains, has a spectacular view in every direction. From atop Skookum Butte, we could see forests stretching into the horizon, alpine lakes below us, and we were even able to identify Mount Sentinel from afar! 

We’re planning a field trip this month to explore the Rattlesnake Greenways, which can act as safety corridors for wildlife. We’ll also take advantage of that trip to do sensory writing, which will allow students to practice using figurative language. Moving into winter, we’ll probably venture out one more time to look for animal tracks in the snow. As you can now understand, ELI students don’t only study grammar and vocabulary - although we do that too! The ELI experience is one that uses audio/visual and tactile learning to connect students not only to the language they are studying, but to the place they are studying in as well. Many language educators agree that the content-based approach makes language-learning more interesting, motivating, and memorable for our students, and when ELI receives our student evaluations each semester, our students are always happy to have had this well-rounded experience in their English classes.


Article written by Sara Schroeder (English Language Institute Director)