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Focus On Basics

Volume 1, Issue D :: December 1997

The Theory Behind Content-Based Instruction

by Thomas G. Sticht
In adult basic education, including the learning of English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), content-based instruction is instruction that focuses upon the substance or meaning of the content that is being taught. This is in contrast to "general literacy" or "general language" instruction, which use topics or subject matter simply as a vehicle for teaching reading and writing, or the grammar or other "mechanics" of English language, as general processes (Brinton, Snow, & Wesche, 1989). Various "general literacy" programs may also emphasize the learning of general processes such as "learning to learn," "critical thinking," or "problem solving" skills. In such instruction, the emphasis is upon developing the general processes, and the content that is used is generally treated as of only incidental interest.

In this paper, I will first provide a perspective from cognitive science that emphasizes the importance of both content and processes in human cognitive activity, including literacy. Then I will discuss a program of research on content-based instruction which has been considered influential for workplace, health, and family literacy programs that integrate content with basic skills instruction (Shanahan & Neuman, 1997). This research was the first to apply concepts from both behavioral and cognitive science to the development and evaluation of an entire, operational adult literacy program.

The new content-based program was demonstrated to be more effective in achieving both content-related and general literacy outcomes than the general literacy education programs that professional adult literacy providers had already put into operation. Its effectiveness was replicated when it repeatedly replaced existing general literacy programs at sites in six different states from the west to the east coasts. No other research has been found in the field of adult basic education that provides this type of evidence for a content-based program's effectiveness. To be sure, many projects demonstrate that basic skills instruction can be integrated with theme- or content-based instruction in numerous job-related, "life skills," and other "functional" basic skills programs (see, for example, Gedal, 1989, for an example of a job-related adult literacy program; Sissel, 1996, for health-related and other types of content-based adult literacy programs). But to my knowledge, except for the research reviewed, no research compares content-based programs to process-oriented programs that are already in place. For this reason the present paper cannot provide an extensive review of research on the effectiveness of content-based instruction.

I am also unaware of any research in adult literacy education in which the researchers were able to take an existing program and replace it with one that reflected their theoretical positions and consistently produce better outcomes than the one replaced, and that this could be replicated by various teachers and administrators among different adult literacy student populations from across the nation. These are tough criteria for evaluating research-based programs, but they are the criteria that we need to apply when evaluating the claims of advocates of different approaches to adult literacy education.

Content and Process in Cognition

One of the achievements of cognitive science is the confirmation of the dual nature of cognition given in the dictionary definition: all human intellectual activities, such as thinking, communicating, problem solving, and learning, require both processes and content (knowledge). This implies that attempting to raise people's cognitive abilities to high levels simply by improving processes such as "reading," "writing," "critical thinking" is nearly futile. To perform these processes well requires high levels of content knowledge on which the processes can operate.

Cognitive psychologists have studied information processing in reading. They have found that what people know about what they are reading greatly influences their ability to comprehend and learn from texts. In one study, young adults in a remedial reading program required 11th grade "general reading" ability to comprehend with 70% accuracy if they lacked much knowledge relevant to what they were reading. On the other hand, those with high amounts of knowledge about what they were reading were able to comprehend with 70% accuracy with only sixth grade "general reading" ability (Sticht, et al., 1986).

The "Architecture" of Cognition

The influence of computer scientists who strive to develop artificial intelligence has focused more attention on the role of knowledge in human cognition (Sticht & McDonald, 1989). It has also lead to the concept of a human cognitive system that is based on the metaphor of the mind as a computer. In this approach, the mind is considered to have a long term memory that stores knowledge. This long term memory is essentially infinite in capacity.

In addition, the human cognitive system contains a working - or short term - memory that contains our thoughts of the moment. The working memory calls on knowledge in our long term memory, or what is sometimes called our knowledge or data base. It uses that information in the comprehending, learning, communicating, and reasoning that it is involved in at the moment. But, unlike the long term memory, the capacity of the working memory is severely limited. We cannot keep too many things in mind at one time because of the limited capacity of our working memories.

Among the important findings from studies of the limited capacity of working memory is that the capacity can be expanded if some of the mental processes involved are automated. For instance, in reading, it has been found that students who must occupy their limited working memory in decoding print to speech, as in phonics, cannot comprehend well what they are reading. Comprehension requires additional processing "space" in working memory, particularly in regard to addressing knowledge in long term memory and merging it with the new information gleaned from the book (see Sticht, Beck, Hauke, Kleiman, & James, 1974, for an early discussion of the concept of automaticity and its role in decoding and comprehension during reading; Adams, 1996, brings the discussion up to date).

To efficiently read and comprehend, the decoding aspect of reading must become automatic, that is, performed without conscious attention. This can only be accomplished by hours and hours of practice in reading. This is one of the reasons why adults who leave literacy programs having completed just 50 to 100 or so hours of instruction do not make much improvement in general reading comprehension: they have not automated the decoding process. A second reason is that, to markedly improve reading comprehension, one must develop a large body of knowledge in long term memory relevant to what is being read. Like skills, the development of large bodies of knowledge takes a long time.

The 1940's

In World War II, the military services conducted extensive programs aimed at providing new recruits with reading skills of a functional nature. Soldiers and sailors learned to read so they could comprehend material about military life. Because the time for teaching literacy was very limited, usually less than three months, the reading instructional materials had the complexity of materials typically encountered by the end of the fourth grade of public education, but they did not cover the breadth of content that a typical fourth grader would have encountered. Rather, they taught reading by emphasizing a relatively narrow body of content knowledge about the military. Further, the readers were designed to build on the new recruit's experiences and prior knowledge about the world acquired before entering service. For instance, the Private Pete series starts with Pete at home on the farm. Then he goes to a recruiter and signs up to join the Army, rides a train to camp and is assigned to a barracks, and so forth. Because that is the procedure the vast majority of new recruits in literacy programs followed in joining the Army in the 1940's, this was content - prior knowledge - that they could talk about and comprehend, but they could not necessarily read words like "farm," "recruiter," "train," or "barracks."

Given the need to train soldiers quickly, the military programs were designed so that the recruits would only have to learn what they did not know. If a soldier had some basic decoding skills and could already recognize some words in print, emphasis was on providing practice in reading to develop word recognition skills to levels of automaticity, to reduce the processing load in working memory (cognitive process), and to develop new vocabulary and concepts about military life (cognitive content). Evaluation studies showed that literacy program graduates achieved job effectiveness ratings that were 95% as good as those of average ability, non-literacy student personnel (Sticht, Armstrong, Hickey, & Caylor, 1987).

The War on Poverty Era

During the 1960's, the military services recruited personnel with better literacy skills, but they also required higher skill levels due to the increased technological complexity of the military environment (Sticht, Armstrong, Hickey, & Caylor, 1987). During this time, I directed research teams that developed content-based literacy programs that continued the practice of focusing on a relatively narrow body of functional content. This time the literacy programs used materials not about general military life, but about specific job content. In this case, personnel who were going to be trained as cooks -- both native and limited English speakers-- learned word recognition and comprehension skills by reading from cooks materials. Those who were going to be automobile mechanics read mechanics' materials, those becoming medics read medics- materials.

Because most of the new recruits in the military's literacy programs of the late 1960's and the 1970's were not at the very beginning levels of reading -- most had skills at the fourth to sixth grade levels -- emphasis was on reading for comprehension and thinking. For instance, in one curriculum, concepts from the behavioral sciences were used to create a competency-based, individualized, self-paced series of modules on the use of tables of content, indexes, the body of manuals, procedural directions, and filling out forms. This strand emphasized the performance of "reading-to-do" tasks. In these, information was found in job materials, held in working memory until applied, and could then be deleted from working memory without storage in long term memory.

A second strand of activities focused on "reading-to-learn" tasks. In these, new knowledge in long term memory was constructed from information brought into working memory and integrated into old knowledge already in long term memory. This strand of activities drew on cognitive science research on the importance of multiple modes of representing knowledge. Personnel, working alone or in teams, read passages about first aid procedures and were taught to draw pictures about what they read to bring their prior knowledge to bear on providing a context for the first aid knowledge. They also learned to draw flow charts of the first aid procedures to develop analytical, procedural, thinking skills and to acquire the new content at a "deeper" level. By learning to make classification tables from passages of connected prose, they could better compare and contrast various types of materials, equipment, or methods, such as different communications techniques, for example, hand and arm signals, messengers, telephones, radios. General literacy programs geared toward improving the ability of personnel to read their job materials were already in place. The new job content-based programs were compared to these. The studies showed that general literacy programs made only small improvements in participants' abilities to read and comprehend job-related materials in the six weeks of full-time study permitted for literacy training. But in the same amount of time, the job-content literacy programs made about as much improvement in general literacy as the general literacy programs made, but three to five times the amount of improvement in job-related reading that the general literacy programs made (see Figure 1). Sticht et. al. (1987) provide detailed sources for statistical analyses for the more than 12,000 adult students in the general and job-related literacy programs of Figure 1 (see below), along with other studies and data related to content-based literacy instruction in job contexts.


The job-content-based approach to literacy development has been applied to content-based adult literacy instruction in civilian contexts, particularly in workplace literacy programs. Adults generally want literacy improvements to pursue some other goals, such as getting their citizenship, improving their parenting abilities, getting into post-secondary education, or getting into a job or into job training. The latter is certainly true for the millions of adults who wish to get off of welfare and into a good, well-paying job.

Many research and demonstration projects show that reading can be taught using the content of job training - or other contents, such as parenting, religious study, health, - right from the beginning levels of learning to read. Adults who want job training and are at the beginning levels of reading can learn and practice decoding skills during a part of the study period; during the rest of the period they can learn job vocabulary and concepts by listening to audio tapes, by "hands-on" experiences with job tools, demonstrations, conversations, and illustrated books. If the adults have difficulty learning decoding by phonics, they may need training in phonemic awareness, so they can hear the different sounds in the oral language, before they proceed with learning phonics knowledge. Those with fairly well-developed decoding skills can engage in practice reading in job-related materials to develop word recognition and comprehension skills. They can learn analytical thinking skills that involve the use of graphics technologies such as lists, matrices, flow charts, and illustrations.

By embedding literacy learning within the content of job training, adults can more rapidly progress from literacy education to job training to work. But to become broadly literate, adults must engage in wide-ranging reading for some years. Research indicates that it may take typical children six to eight years to become as competent in reading and comprehending the written language as they are at understanding oral language (Sticht & James, 1984). It takes the typical reader with high school skills 12 years of reading broadly across a number of content areas - science, literature, history, to become a 12th grade level reader. So becoming highly and broadly literate when starting from a low baseline of both knowledge - vocabulary, concepts - and automaticity of word recognition takes a long time.

Adults, however, typically do not have a long time to learn literacy. For this reason, the content-based approach combines decoding and comprehension education with relevant content learning. This offers the fastest way to get adults from basic literacy to entry level competence in reading in some desired domain. Then, by following a program of lifelong learning, including continuous, well-rounded reading, a person can become literate enough to qualify for higher education or advanced job training to move into better paying careers or to simply enjoy the many personal, social, and cultural benefits of higher knowledge and disciplined thinking skills.


Adams, M J. (1996). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Brinton, D. M., Snow, M. A., & Wesche, M. B. (1989). Content-Based Second Language Instruction. New York: Newbury House Publishers.

Gedal, S. (1989). "Between Paulo Freire and Tom Sticht: Adult education and job training at Boston Technical Center." Connections: A Journal of Adult Literacy, 3, 54-62.

Shanahan, T. & Neuman, S. B. (1997). "Literacy research that makes a difference." Reading Research Quarterly, 32, 202-210.

Sissel, P. A. (Ed.). (1996). A Community-Based Approach to Literacy Programs: Taking Learner's Lives Into Account. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.

Sticht, T. G. & James, J. H. (1984). "Listening and Reading." In R. Barr, M. Kamil, and P. Mosenthal ( eds.) Handbook of Reading Research. New York: Longmans.

Sticht, T. G. & McDonald, B. A. (1989, January). Making the Nation Smarter: The Intergenerational Transfer of Cognitive Ability. El Cajon, CA: Applied Behavioral & Cognitive Sciences, Inc.

Sticht, T. G., Armstrong, W. B., Hickey, D. T. & Caylor, J. S. (1987). Cast-off Youth: Policy and Training Methods from the Military Experience. New York: Praeger.

Sticht, T. G., Beck, L. J., Hauke, R. N., Kleiman, G. M., & James, J. H. (1974). Auding and Reading: A Developmental Model. Alexandria, VA: Human Resources Research Organization.

Sticht, T. G., Armijo, L. A., Koffman, N., Roberson, K., Weitzman, R., Chang, F., & Moracco, J. (1986). Teachers, books, computers, and peers: Integrated communications technologies for adult literacy development. Monterey, CA: U. S. Naval Postgraduate School.

About the Author

Dr. Thomas Sticht is President and Senior Scientist, Applied Behavioral & Cognitive Sciences, Inc. He is a recipient of the International Reading Association's Albert J. Harris Award, and a member of the Reading Hall of Fame and UNESCO's International Literacy Price Jury. In 1991 he chaired the California State Legislature's Workforce Literacy Task Force; from 1992-97 he was Project Coordinator for the San Diego Consortium for Workforce Education and Lifelong Learning.

Figure 1. In a comparison of general and content-based adult literacy programs, both of which aimed at improving job-related reading, the content-based programs of job-related knowledge produced as much gain in general literacy programs did, but three to five times the gain in job-related reading that the general literacy program made.

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