‘How to set a context’ – it’s the one main ingredient that is missing from most coursebook based lessons. Which is a shame, as it’s absolutely necessary 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 to just 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 actually use this without sounding like an idiot? Is it too formal/informal for some scenarios?
Four Layers of Teaching Language
For basic teaching purposes, there are four layers to the language that we use in the classroom: topic, context, function and form.
These give your learners the essential ‘what, where, why and how’ of your lesson. A lesson needs all four to make your lesson (and the language used) clear and engaging.
Topic – the ‘what’ of the language. What’s it about, in broad terms? Shopping, health, the internet, poetry? This should be a topic that your learners find interesting and relevant. Bonus points if you find it interesting too!
Context – the where and why of the language situation (and who!). Talking to a friend who’s looking for a job? That’s a context.
Function – the intent (or the why) of the language used. The function is simply the purpose of using the language. Why are we communicating? Every time we communicate, it’s for a reason. The function is that reason. If there were no reasons to communicate, then language would never have developed. 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. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and no language exists independently of meaning.
Form – this is what the language looks or sounds like. In other words, it’s the specific phonology, lexis or grammar you’re using. Are you using a rising or falling tone for question tags? Modals for giving advice?
Every lesson should have all four of these layers, 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 layers of an onion; 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.
The good coursebook or syllabus will pick the topic, function and form out for you (and a great syllabus will have the context too!)
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 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. 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 useful for them.
Context 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.
Believe it or not, it also 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 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 (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 any other model – but the context stays strong throughout the class.
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 curriculum, and this it will usually choose the topic, form and / or function for you. The better ones will choose 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 comes 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 have to 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 learner needs and preferences. S
Set a clear context at the beginning of class.
Run the context throughout the lesson.
Good luck, let me know how you get on in the comments below!