Trivia as a bridge to content in CBI classes

Page No.: 
Michael J. Crawford, Hokkaido University of Education

The future looks bright for content-based instruction (CBI) in Japan. A common curricular feature at universities in Japan, CBI is now on the Monbukagakusho (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, or MEXT) radar screen. Earlier this year, the ministry announced an ambitious plan to cultivate "Japanese with English Abilities" (MEXT, 2003a). In addition to stressing the importance of teaching English in English, the action plan calls for Japanese university students to enroll in "special courses taught in English that are provided for foreign students" (p. 5).

Research on CBI is also being conducted under the auspices of the ministry. One school in Gifu prefecture is experimenting with CBI at both the elementary and junior high school levels (MEXT, 2003b). In the future, CBI may be as common in non-university settings as it now is at universities.

CBI: The Challenge for the Teacher

Although CBI appeals to many language teachers, it clearly presents a number of challenges. When assigned a subject matter course, teachers may find themselves frantically designing a crash course for themselves, before thinking about how to instruct their learners. If CBI is challenging for teachers, it is safe to say that it is equally, if not more, challenging for students. Learning content can be difficult in one's L1, let alone in L2.

Teachers need to find ways to ease their learners into the CBI experience. Some suggestions have been made in the literature. For example, Sagliano and Greenfield (1998) report about the use of videos in a content-based history course for Japanese university students. Kasper (2002a) argues that visual aids, such as movies, graphic organizers, and hypermedia technology, can make content-based materials more cognitively accessible. Short stories are also useful. Kasper (2002b) describes how short stories can act as a bridge to content for lower level students enrolled in CBI courses. In addition to videos, visual aids and short stories, trivia can also serve to ease the transition from regular language classes to content-based classes. This paper will explain why trivia can be a bridge to content in CBI, and provide some specific examples illustrating the use of trivia in CBI from my own teaching experience.

Using Trivia in CBI

Using trivia in CBI classes can benefit students and teachers by easing the transition from a focus on language to a focus on content. The three main reasons for this are:

1. Trivia can ease learner anxiety about taking CBI classes because it is fun and familiar.

There has been little research into how Japanese learners react when confronted with a subject-matter course taught in English. From my own experiences teaching CBI classes at two Japanese universities, I can report anecdotally that reactions have run the gamut from guarded excitement to serious apprehension, with most students falling somewhere in the middle, feeling some degree of anxiety. Teachers can minimize the potential impact of student anxiety by utilizing materials that make their learners feel at ease (Tomlinson, 1998). Anyone who watches Japanese television knows that trivia is very popular in Japan, and is, therefore, ideal for doing just that.

2. Trivia deals mainly with facts. Although both facts and concepts are necessary components of any CBI class, facts are, generally, easier to grasp.

Any subject matter course, be it astronomy or ethnomusicology, requires students to learn both new facts and new concepts. While the ratio of facts to concepts may vary from subject to subject, both are important in knowledge acquisition. When it comes to the question of which is more cognitively demanding, however, most people would probably agree that concepts are harder to grasp than facts. Because trivia deals mainly with facts, it is ideal for introducing factual background information about a subject, which then serves to lay the groundwork for understanding key concepts, while familiarizing learners with key vocabulary items.

3. Designing trivia-based activities for CBI classes can help teachers hone their knowledge of the subject before teaching it.

Ideally, teachers would only be called on to teach subjects in which they have had training or experience, but unfortunately in the real world, especially in EFL classrooms, this is not the case. Teachers in this situation may find that creating trivia-based activities is an excellent way of gaining critical knowledge of the subject matter before going into the classroom.

Trivia in CBI classes in Japan

The possibilities for using trivia in CBI classes are as numerous as the kinds of CBI classes being taught. Glancing at the Proceedings of the JALT CUE conference 2000 (Mackenzie, 2000) suggests the variety of CBI classes in Japan. Among the subjects taught by teachers contributing to this volume are: intercultural communication; ocean studies; contemporary British society; women's studies; and Ainu issues. Clearly, in these CBI classes, the kind of knowledge necessary for students to acquire differs greatly from subject to subject. Nevertheless, the flexibility of using trivia to introduce a subject means that it could be adapted for use without difficulty in any CBI class.

In the following sections, I will provide some examples of trivia-based activities that I have used in two of my own classes. First, I will give some background information about the classes, and then I will describe the activities. Purposes specific to each activity will also be described.

Example 1: Intercultural Understanding

This was an elective course that serves as an introduction to the field of intercultural understanding offered at a Japanese national university. There were 14 students, all of whom were second-year students in the university's program in Global Education. The class was conducted in a seminar format, primarily in English. Students were expected to participate actively in discussions and do group presentations on issues covered in class. The language level of the students varied. Most students had good general conversation skills, but lacked experience in discussing concepts relevant to the field of intercultural understanding. The syllabus was divided into five units, each of which focused on a different region of the world. Trivia was used mainly to introduce facts about different countries and regions prior to discussing conceptual issues such as globalization, religious tolerance, and conflict resolution. Trivia-based activities used in the class included information gap activities, note-taking activities, and student-produced quizzes.

Information gap activities

Information gap activities were used early in the semester. In addition to introducing factual information, the activities also allowed students to speak in front of, and with, their classmates, giving them an early opportunity to find a voice in the class and build confidence (Nimmannit, 1998). Information exchanged included populations, religious and linguistic groups, and recent news about different countries and regions. The activities were conducted in two ways:

  1. Students sat in a circle and took turns reading the information on their papers to their classmates, who wrote it down.
  2. Serial pair work, in which students stood up and exchanged information in pairs, changing partners until they had obtained all of the required information.

The information gap activities were followed by whole-class discussions and presentations of visual aids.

Note-taking activities

Note-taking activities were introduced around the middle of the semester. These activities were similar to the information gap activities described above. However, the volume of information was greater, and the teacher read the information instead of the students. In addition to introducing factual information, the activities served as a warm-up for short lectures on conceptual issues during which students were expected to take notes on their own. In the activity, the students were provided with a sheet of paper on which to take notes. The paper provided a skeleton outline designed to help students organize their notes. The kind of information provided in these activities included historical, economic, and political facts about different countries and regions. For a bit of fun, also included was "A surprising fact about country X", à la Fuji TV's Trivia no Izumi. In this popular television show, viewers submit trivia for rating by celebrity guests, based on the unusual or surprising nature of the fact.

Student-produced quizzes

Students also produced their own trivia-based activities in the form of "Country quizzes." This allowed students to produce a relatively simple piece of written material in English before completing more advanced writing tasks. The students chose a country from a region covered in class, and wrote a quiz that contained multiple choice and true/false questions about that country. Groups of four to five students collaborated in quiz writing outside class, and submitted them to the teacher for correction. After correcting their errors, they submitted their quizzes to the largest trivia site on the Internet, This site has a huge number of quizzes on almost every topic imaginable. The students submitted their quizzes to the "World (By country)" section of the site. Seeing their quizzes on-line, accessible to people all over the world, increased the students' confidence in their writing abilities, and provided motivation for tackling more advanced writing assignments.

Example 2: Great Cities of the World

This was also an elective course offered at a Japanese national university. It is a survey course designed to introduce students to the world's great cities by studying both the past and the present. There were 23 students in the class, representing a variety of majors, including Global Education, English, and Education. The larger number of students made conducting the class in a seminar format difficult, so a modified lecture format was adopted. Lectures were broken into chunks. Between these chunks, students engaged in a number of different activities, including those based on trivia. Activities not related to trivia primarily involved small-group discussions. As in the first example, trivia was used to introduce factual information before addressing concepts, in this case issues such as overpopulation, the environment, and economic development. Trivia-based activities used in the class included jigsaw readings and cloze listening exercises.

Jigsaw readings

Jigsaw readings were used to provide students with basic factual knowledge about a city's history, people, and places. The readings were drawn from encyclopedias and similar reference materials, and were all less than two pages. In addition to introducing basic factual information, the activities were designed to serve as a warm-up for discussions, and as a stepping-stone to more advanced readings. In the activity, each student received half of a reading, and a list of questions. Working in pairs, students asked the questions on their papers to their partners, who searched their half of the reading, and gave the answers.

Cloze listening exercises

Like the jigsaw readings, cloze listening exercises were used to introduce basic factual information about different cities. The texts were drawn from the same kinds of sources as the jigsaw readings. A number of words and phrases in the text were removed and replaced with lines. In most cases the words and phrases removed represented key factual information about the city, such as the names of important landmarks or dates of important historical events. The activities were completed in two ways:

  1. The teacher read the text and the students filled in the blanks. This served as a warm-up activity for short lectures.
  2. Students sitting in small groups took turns reading a part of a text to each other. This was used as a warm-up for small-group discussions, and was designed to allow less confident students to speak up in their group prior to doing less structured discussion activities (Young, 2000).


I have sought to describe how trivia is a useful resource for designing activities that can ease the transition from classes focused on language to those focused on content. Trivia's flexibility means that it can be used in content classes in almost any area of study, and its popularity in Japan means that it is sure to get a positive reception from students. I understand that the examples of trivia-based activities that I have provided may not relevant for teachers working in different settings, or with learners of different levels. However, I hope that by seeing these examples, readers will begin to understand how to apply trivia-based exercises in their own contexts.


Mackenzie, A. (Ed.). (2000). Content in language education: Looking at the future. Proceedings of the JALT CUE conference 2000 held at Keisen University. Tokyo: JALT CUE-SIG.
Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. (2003a). Regarding the establishment of an action plan to cultivate "Japanese with English abilities." [Online]. Available:
Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. (2003b). Heisei 15 nendo kenkyu kaihatsu gakko shinki shitei ni tsuite – besshi 1: omo na kenkyu bunya to shiteiko no kenkyu gaiyou [Newly designated research development schools for the year 2003 – Document 1: Major research areas and research outlines of designated schools]. [Online]. Available:
Nimmannit, S. (1998). Maximizing students' oral skills: The Asian context. The Language Teacher, 22 (11), 37-39.
Kasper, L.F. (2002a). Content-based college ESL instruction: Theoretical foundations and pedagogical applications. In L.F. Kasper (Ed.). Content-based college ESL instruction (pp. 3-25). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Kasper, L.F. (2002b). The short story as a bridge to content in the lower-level ESL course. In L.F. Kasper (Ed.). Content-based college ESL instruction (pp. 107-121). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Sagliano, M. & Greenfield, K. (1998). A collaborative model of content-based EFL instruction in the liberal arts. TESOL Journal, 7 (3), 23-28.
Tomlinson, B. (1998). Materials development in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Young, M. (2000). Reading aloud: Summary of a TESL-L thread. TESOL Journal, 9 (1), 44.

Michael J. Crawford teaches at the Hokkaido University of Education, Hakodate. He teaches courses in the teacher training division, as well as in the Global Education program. His research interests include materials development, content-based instruction, and teacher training.