Context, function and form give your learners the essential ‘where, why and how’ of your lesson. A lesson needs all three to make the language (and lesson) clear and engaging.
To me it’s a mystery why we sometimes start a lesson without giving our learners essential information about the situation that the language occurs in.
- Topic – the ‘what’ of the language. Shopping, health, the internet, jobs; all are topics in this sense.
- Context – the where and why of the language situation. Talking to a friend who’s looking for a job? That’s a context.
- Function – the intent (or the why) of the language used. In the above example, it could be giving advice on the best way to look for a job. Just ask yourself why a person is speaking.
- Form – the structure of the language they’re using. Is it language for giving advice – should, have to, etc?
Every lesson should have all four, and thinking about them before you write your lesson aims in detail can save you a lot of heartache. If it helps to remember, think of it as a pyramid that you drill down into; topic is the overarching concept, the context is next, function is contained within the context, and the form is how the language looks or sounds like.
Choosing a Topic
Often this is chosen for you by a coursebook, but if not, simply pick a subject that will interest your students. How do you know what will interest them? Well, you do get to know your learners, right…?
Setting a Context
Where does the language you’re teaching take place? Why is it happening? How is it connected to real-life, and to your students?
Answering these questions will gives a motivating reason to engage with your lesson.
A lesson without context is like a textbook without an introduction, a film without a trailer or a book without a blurb. Learners end up with no reason to care about what’s going to happen.
Without context, we rob learners of the chance of meaningful interaction.
For example, at the start of class:
|“OK everyone, today we’re going to talk about choosing a holiday. Tell your partner about your how you choose a holiday. 5 minutes. Start.”||“Hi everyone, great to see you all. Today’s the last day before the holiday! Excited? I was, but my boyfriend and I argued last night about where to go on holiday…”|
Even better is a context that you know the learners are either interested in (sports, local events, music, news event, etc), or relevant because they do/will experience it (choosing a university, going to the doctors) so you know it’ll be even more engaging for them.
It also builds up connections that the learner is forming with the language, and shows them how things like register (levels of language formality) fit into the equation, and be noticed.
It allows them to become as close to the language as a classroom setting allows. It shows them where the language happens.
It establishes a basis for everything that follows, it draws the learner motivation, their attention and makes the rest of the lesson flow more smoothly.
So set as a strong context at the beginning of the lesson, and see the difference it makes.
Running a Context Throughout Your Lesson
Almost as important though, is to run the context throughout the whole lesson. Switching contexts can leave learners confused.
In the example above, learners know that we’re talking about planning a holiday, and that the teacher had an argument/discussion with their partner.
So why not run the context throughout the class, and have the learners do the same thing? As a very basic example;
- Listening exercise – where you ‘recorded’ your argument with your girlfriend
- Lexis – An activity where learners express what they like / don’t like about holidays (pairwork, small groups, with eliciting / scaffolding / you helping with unknown lexical items)
- Accuracy – a focus on form, if needed
- Discussion – match learners with opposing likes and dislikes up and roleplay a similar argument that you modelled earlier
This is a basic PPP structure, but you could change to a task-based learning model, or other – but the context stays strong throughout the class.
Function – why is language used?
Nothing exists in a vacuum, as the saying goes, and no language exists independently of meaning.
The function is simply the purpose of using the language. Why are we communicating? To ask a favour, make an excuse, talk about a film you saw yesterday?
Why do we use this language? And what aspect of it are we really trying to give the learners opportunities to use in this lesson?
These questions should be able to be answered fully by your aims, when you come to writing them.
Form – what form/rules does the language use?
The form, as its name suggests, is a focus on accuracy on whatever your target language is, be it lexical, phonological or grammatical.
Your syllabus or coursebook is normally pretty good at telling you what to do with this point.
Setting a Context – Real World Issues
Talking of coursebooks, I’ve not come across one yet that always meets the needs of your particular learners.
As a teacher, you’re normally required to follow a syllabus, and depending on the syllabus it will usually choose the form and / or function for you. The better ones will choose a context for you as well.
The only problem is that the context at best be inappropriate for your learners, or at worst bore them to tears. This is where your ingenuity and knowledge of your students comes in.
Setting the Context in an Ideal World
- Choose a context that you know interests your learners (context / where)
- Imagine yourself in that situation, having a conversation, and see what language comes out (function /why)
- Focus on that language, and use that in the class (form / what)
Setting the Context in the Real World
- Look at the coursebook to see which grammar/lexis you have to teach (form / what)
- Imagine yourself using that language – when would you use it?
- Imagine the situation you could be in where that would be natural (context / why)
- For every lesson, set a strong context at the beginning, use that to draw out the language, and then focus on the form.
- Run the context throughout the lesson
- Choose the topic, context, function and form as best you can, despite your coursebook getting in the learners’ way