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The 4 Types of Context in Language Teaching
Setting the context is essential, but which one?
Don’t fall into the trap of always choosing a realistic context.
Yes, it’s easier to pick (you simply think about a real-life situation), but it gets boring for you and your students.
I have a friend who describes this as the ‘tyranny of context’, and he’s not wrong.
I would argue that there are four kinds of context. Imaginary, implied, realistic and real.
A Real Context
When someone sets off the fire alarm, or you spill coffee in your lap as you sit down at the front of the class. Or a student brings in a trophy they won yesterday. Something genuine that can be discussed (if you’re not running for the door).
A Realistic Context
Situations you might encounter in real life but aren’t happening right now, e.g. ‘going to the doctor or ordering food in a restaurant. Yes, it’s useful, but if your students have been learning for a while, they’ll have covered those several times.
An Implied Context
Regular topics or threads in your classes. Perhaps all your students watch the same TV series, and you can start talking about the characters.
Or it could be a running joke your class has, a regular activity you all do, or your funny habits as a teacher — these can all be used.
An Imaginary Context
Precisely that — imaginary situations. We do this with our friends all the time. It could be arguing who’d win in a superhero showdown, what you’d do if a zombie apocalypse happened tomorrow, or what you’d change as the leader of the country.
Think of it like this: when children play and create imaginary games, they all know precisely what they’re doing. But if you pull a child aside and ask them to explain the rules, they can’t. They just know.
Make your context as good as that. An absorbing situation that the students immerse themselves in. If everyone is clear about why they’re talking, it’s a good context.
Use a mix of all these contexts to keep your lessons fresh.
It also means you’ll get to know your learners, which helps with many other things.
See you again in two weeks.
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