How to Set a Language Teaching Context
And why it’s absolutely necessary for learning.
‘How to set a context’ — it’s the one main ingredients missing from most coursebook-based lessons. This is a shame, as it’s essential for an effective lesson.
Every time we use language, it’s in a clearly set situation. The speakers know where they are and why the interaction is taking place.
Unfortunately, when we teach language, we often fall into the trap of getting learners just to practice the language — drilling or repeating sounds, words, patterns or dialogues — without them knowing why.
This leads to confusion for our students. Why is it useful? Where can I use this without sounding like an idiot? Is it too formal/informal for some scenarios?
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How to Set a Context
Where does the language you’re teaching take place? Why is it happening? How is it connected to real life and your students?
Answering these questions will give a 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 discuss choosing a holiday. Tell your partner about how you choose a holiday. Five 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…”
Hear the difference?
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 helpful for them.
Context also builds up connections 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.
Believe it or not, it also establishes a basis for everything that follows — it stimulates learners’ attention and motivation and makes the lesson flow more smoothly.
So set 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 too rapidly can leave learners confused.
In the example in the table above, learners now 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 — you ‘recorded’ your argument with your girlfriend (ask a colleague for two minutes of their time to help you role-play and record).
Lexis — An activity where learners express what they like/don’t like about holidays.
Accuracy — a focus on form, if needed.
Discussion — match learners with opposing likes and dislikes up and roleplay a similar argument you modelled earlier.
This is a basic PPP structure, but you could change it to a task-based learning model or any other model — but the context stays strong throughout the class.
Setting a Context — Real-World Issues
Talking of coursebooks, I’ve not found one that consistently meets your particular learners' needs.
As a teacher, you’re typically required to follow a curriculum, which will usually choose the topic, form and function for you. The better ones will select a context for you as well.
The only problem is that the context is, at best inappropriate for your learners or, at worst, bore them to tears. This is where your ingenuity and knowledge of your students come in.
How to Set a Context in an Ideal World
Choose a context that you know interests your learners.
Imagine yourself in that situation, having a conversation, and see what language comes out.
Focus on that language, and use that in the class.
How to Set a Context in the Real World
Look at the coursebook to see which form (grammar, lexis or phonology) or function you must teach.
Imagine yourself using that language — when would you use it naturally?
Imagine a situation you could be in where that would be natural (and one that is engaging for the students)
Use that situation and language in your class.
Choose a topic, context, function and form for every lesson. Choose based on your learners’ needs and preferences.
Set a clear context at the beginning of class.
Run the context throughout the lesson.
See you again in two weeks.
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