How to Set a Context for Language Teaching

And why it’s absolutely necessary.

David Weller

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‘How to set a context’ — it’s the one main ingredient that is missing from most coursebook based lessons. This 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?

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 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:

No Context:

“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.”

Context:

“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…

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David Weller

Lessons, stories and visuals to develop your language teaching and learning. 20 years in education, 3 books, and a twice-monthly newsletter.