What was the Lesson About?
Imagine you’ve taught a 90-minute lesson where you and your students have focused on the use of the present perfect and past simple to talk about previous experiences. The lesson starts with a discussion about job interviews, uses a text-based approach to isolate and clarify the target language in an interview, and ends with a role play wherein students use the target language in a job interview role play.
Now imagine you are standing in the hallway later that day, and you overhear one of your students describing the lesson to someone who hadn’t attended it.
Would you prefer to hear your student say that the lesson was about the present perfect? Or would you prefer to hear your student say that it was about describing your past experiences at a job interview?
Context, or the Lesson as a Story
If you preferred the latter, then you understand the fundamental importance of context. Context is what the lesson was about—but not the language learned, nor the skill practiced. A close approximation is to talk about the lesson topic, or theme.
What differentiates the topic from the context of the lesson is the role they play in the lesson. A topic can be any non-linguistic element in your classroom, and can apply to any given activity separately. The role of context is to bind these elements together, bring cohesion to the lesson, and facilitate personalization.
Put differently, when a lesson lacks context, it can feel very much like a succession of activities with a linguistic goal. The teacher typically introduces successive activities with phrases like “Now we’ll do exercise 3,” or “Please listen and answer these questions.” Things can feel disjointed, and while each separate stage of the lesson will certainly have a topic, it isn’t necessarily clear how the stages relate to each other. Context links the stages together. When the context is weak, the lesson is experienced as a sequence of events; when it is strong, it is experienced as a story.
The ultimate goal is to remove the “fourth wall” of the classroom, bringing language learning into real life, leading to greater personalization of content, thus enabling “real” communication to take place (within limits, given the presence and the role of the teacher and the teaching institution).
Setting and Maintaining Context—Be Explicit!
Here are a few tips to help set and maintain the context in your classrooms:
Use a personalized lead-in to “set” the context. Personalization makes language relevant to students, thereby bringing the outside world into the classroom, and making communication more real. If your main aim is for students to listen to a people order food in a restaurant, in your lead-in, ask the students to talk about their favorite restaurants.
All texts and activities in the lesson should be thematically related to the context set in your lead-in.
When doing a text-based language lesson (look here for a description of lesson planning frameworks), make sure the practice exercises use the same context. For example, if you are using a text about historical national events to teach narrative tenses, the gap-fill exercises should have sentences about historical national events.
Similarly, if you tell a story in a situational presentation, make sure the practice activities are related to the theme of your story.
Make sure the marker sentences in your language clarifications come from the text (in a text-based lesson) or relate thematically to the context.
Use “contextualized transitions” between your lesson stages. This means referring to the language aim, or the context of your lesson when ending one lesson stage and starting another.
In a language lesson, instead of saying, “Now we’re going to do an exercise on the past perfect,” say “Now we’re going to use the past perfect to complete sentences about national historical events.”
If the practice task doesn’t match the context of your lesson, either adapt it, or say “Now we’re going to practice using the past perfect.”
In a skills lesson, instead of saying “Now we’re going to listen to a recording,” say “Now we’re going to listen to some people order food in a restaurant.”
Perhaps most importantly, plan to set and maintain your context.
Think about (if you have the time, script) how you will transition between stages of your lesson;
Adapt lesson materials so that you have a single, solid context for your lesson.
Context and Classroom Management
So we’ve seen that context can make a huge difference with regards to personalization—making language real—which, in turn, increases linguistic uptake (or so the theory goes). But how is it related to classroom management?
In fact, strong contexts are a means of nipping classroom management issues in the bud. Problems often come about when students aren’t engaged in the lesson. When a lesson is well sign-posted, when students know why they’re doing tasks, feel that the lesson is going in a particular direction, are aware that the teacher planned the lesson in advance to take them there, increased student engagement and participation comes naturally.
And it also makes for more interesting discussions in the hallway between students!