Context context context

One of the things I remember being drummed into me on my Cert TESOL course back in 1999 was that when teaching grammar, context is all important. It’s all about the context, I now decry shrilly at annual crops of CELTA trainees, context, ho ho ho, Internet geek joke, context is king.

Context is important. It makes new language meaningful to the learners, it gives you a setting for the language to be practised in, and it provides opportunities to integrate skills and vocabulary into a lesson in a meaningful way. The first thing you learn after finishing courses like CELTA is that nobody in the universe teaches for just one hour, and that in any one session you are likely to do more than just teach the past simple, and so you need to have something either before or after, or even both.

Ideally, context should match something of interest to the learners. However, let me make something clear, here. This doesn’t mean fancying around making it useful to the learners. There’s a bit of an obsession amongst some ends of the UK ESOL community that all learning should be applicable to the learners lives, and that this means all language contexts must be contexts of dour functionality: ones where people go to the shops, get stuff done, pay bills, get jobs, zzzzzzzz. Yes, these contexts are important but come on, a group of level 2 learners who have “done” money several times with several teachers are likely to roll their eyes at you when you announce the context of money in order to review first and second conditionals. And, sometimes, these functional contexts are plain boring for one and all, or simply unrealistic, like shoehorning job related contexts into beginner ESOL classes because the learners are all Job Centre Plus referrals. Even worse, of course, is when 40-something teachers try to shoehorn “youth” themes and pop culture into 16-18 ESOL lessons. Even twenty years later I remember teachers doing this and I still cringe, although now it’s probably more sympathetic rather than at the sheer awfulness. Current affairs, events in the local area, nationally, internationally, can all provide good contexts for lessons and learning, and these are some of my favourite contexts, and often interest learners, but so can the totally disconnected contexts. There’s the text in Headway Elementary – the Man with Thirteen Jobs – which is great and often intrigues learners, but the context of a whisky drinking part time undertaker, hotelier, bus driver, shopkeeper, etc. on a remote Scottish Island is a world away from learners in a community centre in Dewsbury. Yet it’s fun, and you don’t need to link it to the learners job aspirations to make it engaging: nor should you feel obliged to. You only have to look at the awful “learner as powerless service user/consumer/Jobseeker/menial employee” contexts of the old ESOL core curriculum materials to see where this approach to context can end.

The answer, of course, is to talk to the learners. What contexts are they interested in, what are their reasons for being there. There will range from the predictable, especially at low levels, where language needs often sit at the lower end of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (health, food, roof over your head) to the more surprising (I want to become a prison officer. I want to write poems in English).

Increasingly, however, with my level 2 group especially, I’ve abandoned context. In my lesson recently on reported speech I used an idea I had developed before, where learners build a dialogue from a sentence, then direct speech from that dialogue which they then have to report to someone else, where the contexts evolved in the lesson based on the language. I did try and shoehorn a bit of context in later on, in order to link it to the previous lessons, mainly because it was likely to be an observed lesson, indeed it was formally observed, and one of the things which gets looked for is links across lessons and schemes. I understand that, and generally try to do it, but the time was right for a lesson on reported speech, the learners had identified it in a recent tutorial session, and this way of doing it is a nice, inductive, discovery led way which is engaging and intriguing for the learners, and in which the language is intrinsically interesting because they own the language being created. The lesson I taught afterwards on the same language, recapping and building on it, was equally decontextualised, where I prepared a series of cards, each pair with a statement in reported speech and direct speech, divided the statements equally between the learners, so that one group had different selections and so could peer check with minimal teacher input.

I used a similar approach this week for conditionals, but this time even barer of context. In order to review form and meaning, I prepared a series of conditional sentences, from the traditional zero-3rd variety and from the more mixed and unusual variations. These were prepared into postcard sized pieces of paper, and then sorted. First into real/unreal piles, then each pile was further sorted into past/present/future piles. (Kinaesthetic, innit!) The sentences were then discussed in terms of form and meaning in groups before a whole class plenary discussion where the learners fed back to me and I typed up their “findings” into a whole class document which I then printed and gave back to them as reference. We closed the lesson then with the more traditional discussion questions (“if you could be an animal, what would you be?” – that sort of thing) which again, wasn’t particularly themed or contextualised, but the themes just grew as the learners talked, and which gave me an opportunity to check that conditionals were being used and being used accurately. (For the record, 2 out of the 15 present were still not producing the more complex conditionals, but I also rather suspected this would be the case. Had there been a plan, the outcomes would have been differentiated therein).

So, yes, context can be important, and I will continue to infuriate trainees with an insistence that the lesson would have been less sucky had they set a clear context. This is because often the lessons would have been better in context, would have made more sense to the learners, all those things. Context can really help, especially when it’s linked to some external interest or need. However, sometimes it’s just as useful and interesting to let the contexts evolve in the classroom as well.

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