21st May 2019

The importance of context for English teaching: experience, situation and surrounding language

By Tom Garside

Whenever we use language, whether we are speaking, listening, reading or writing, we do it in some kind of context. The situation we are in, the tone we want to express and the ways that others respond to us all affect the nature of the language choices that we make. Language without context lacks important reference points for meaning, and so is simply not as effective in communicating what we want to say. This is something that we must bear in mind as teachers, and something that our learners can use to their advantage in their study and use of English.

Good English lessons set situational context early

From a teaching perspective, the value of a strong context cannot be underestimated when presenting new language to students. Contextualising early on in a lesson, through the use of situations, topics, images and talking points, creates a frame of reference for students to refer to when any new content comes at them. Studies in neurolinguistics show us that setting a context effectively activates areas of the brain which relate to learners’ experience in relevant areas, known as schema. If activated before new language is presented, a learner’s schemata does valuable preparation work, acting as a ‘landing pad’ for new language, and allowing it to join other, related forms in both short and long-term memory. As a result, when the target language is taken in, it is more likely to be remembered and used later on.

One good way of exploiting context is to consider the language point you are setting out to teach, and thinking of a situation or event where this language frequently occurs. For example, the present perfect tense is often used to talk about life experience (I’ve eaten kangaroo, but I’ve never eaten alligator’, for example, or ‘I’ve never been to Thailand’). Talking about life experience (more specifically, work experience) is very frequent when we apply for jobs, a fact which is likely to be true in any culture and any language; the schemata related to job interviews is likely to be the same for any learner, so is therefore an effective ‘landing pad’ context for the present perfect tense, whether your learners have had any previous exposure to it or not.

Another way of getting even more from context is to take a ‘structures and functions’ approach to the language you want to teach. In this case, rather than matching a situation and a single language item, start with the communicative ‘job’ that we use the language to do for us when we use it, and think of other forms that we can use to achieve the same communicative result. Taking the present perfect as an example, with ‘life experience’ as its function in communication, think of other ways of saying the same thing, for example the message: ‘I’ve never been to the pyramids, but I’d love to’ can be expressed in many different ways:

‘I’ve always wanted to go to the pyramids’ (S + have/has always wanted + Vinfinitive)

‘I’ve always dreamt of going to the pyramids’ (S + have/has always dreamt of + Ving)

‘I’ve never made it to the pyramids’ (S + have/has never made it to + N)

‘It’s always been my dream to visit the pyramids’ (it’s always been my dream + Vinfinitive)

No one of these forms is better than another; they are just different ways of saying the same basic thing in the same communicative context. This approach can give learners more language options when they want to express a specific message, and increases their flexibility with language. Notice that this approach also requires some grammar work, as the following noun or verb form is decided by the phrase used to introduce the topic (here, going to the pyramids). The remainder of each sentence can be used as a formula to use when making the same statement about any place or activity. Try this yourself, with the following activities: seeing a world cup football match, watching your favourite movie on the big screen, or seeing your favourite singer perform. What changes in grammar do you have to make, and how much do you have to think about this as you build the sentences?

Good English lessons provide substantial linguistic context

Another type of context that we use when we use language is contained in the language which surrounds what we want to say. For example, complete the following sentence:

I ____________ read that book.

Without linguistic context (a preceding or following sentence, a time marker, or some other clues to meaning), it is difficult to be certain how to complete this task – the speaker could mean any number of things about reading the book. Unfortunately, however, this is exactly the type of question that students are asked the world over in exercises and language exams at school.

Now try the same exercise with the following examples:

I ____________ read that book. Is it good?

I ____________ read that book again! It was terrible.

I ____________ read that book. It’s just too long for me to finish!

Although there may be several different ways of completing these sentences, the possibilities are much fewer, as the intended message is clearer from context. Could this range of possible answers lead in to some structures and functions work, as above?

The most effective English teachers teach Vocabulary in context

A final way of exploiting linguistic context for high-engagement work is made possible in reading tasks which contain a lot of new vocabulary. Rather than being put off by this type of challenging text, make this an opportunity to engage your learners in the language as they read. Make two lists of words from the text, that you think your students will have problems with.

One list should contain words which have no clue to meaning, and could mean anything to someone who doesn’t already know the word. These words will be the real challenge to your students, and will need directly teaching before you present them with the text, as there is no text support to help them with understanding. For example:

________________ come from cold countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Norway

Your second list should contain words which can be guessed from the other words and ideas around them in the text. To test this, blank out the word and see if you can quickly complete the gap when you read it through yourself. If only one or two possible words fit in the gap due to other information from the text, your language brain is probably intuiting the meaning based on context, and therefore your students may be able to do the same thing in a simple ‘vocabulary in context’ task. For example:

Guess the meaning of the underlined word:

Reindeer have large horns and live in cold countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

To lead up to a vocabulary in context task, tell students not to use their dictionaries, pre-teach the words from your challenging list, and go through the text for comprehension as usual. Follow the reading task by displaying the words from your second list and asking students to guess what they think they mean. A final checking stage (perhaps using dictionaries) is useful to confirm meaning. This is an effective way of getting students to use linguistic context more flexibly, rather than translating or relying on dictionaries as they read.

To summarise, be careful of decontextualized language, whether that is during your presentation of new forms, in tasks, and during reading activity. Encourage students to use context to deduce meaning, and relate forms to their own experience. All of these techniques can deepen learning and fix more of the content you teach into students’ language toolkit.

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Tom Garside, EfA’s former Director of Teacher Training, has 18 years of teaching and training experience in Europe, New Zealand and China. He holds a degree in Linguistics and French, Cambridge CELTA and DELTA qualifications, a Post-Graduate Diploma in TESOL and an MATESOL. He has trained teachers in Europe, as part of the European Union Comenius teacher development project, provided initial training for the Trinity CertTESOL and provides in-service training for native and non-native-speaker teachers in a wide range of teaching situations.  He is the author of the essential CertTESOL course supplement, Tesol: A Gateway Guide for Teachers of English.