“Create a context for the lesson” is the first requirement you will get during the CELTA practice course and other professional development courses. Coming from different teaching environments, this might sound a bit unnecessary to do all the time, especially when we deal with people having different learning backgrounds, interests and so on. Some context may be interesting for some learners and extremely boring for others. Having this in mind, it was quite challenging for me to come up with an appealing enough context for most of the students, let alone, keep that context throughout the whole session.
However, thanks to my instructors’ consistency, I started to get a grasp of the idea. We create a context so that it is easy for the students to learn and assimilate the presented material. It is much easier to remember something as a whole, rather than having it scattered in your brain. Furthermore, keeping a unified context for the whole session serves as a summary of the session and students have something tangible when they leave the class.
In other words, isn’t context the reason for learning a language and being able to apply it accordingly? It is thanks to the real-life situations and the simulations of those that help the students learn a language in the most effective way.
There are several ways to create a context for the session depending on the skill and the type of activity we want to cover. Here are some of what I am using.
Reading and listening sessions
Students don’t normally feel very motivated to be engaged in a reading or listening slot, as from schools is they mostly are used to a quite boring exercise of reading a text and answering to a list of questions. It is quite the same for the listening exercises. Hence, to raise the motivation of the learners to do more reading and listening tasks without them noticing it, the below-listed activities can come quite handy.
- Post some words and phrases of the script on the board or a word cloud and ask the students to try and guess what the text or the listening will be about. This gives the students a chance to generate quite a lot of ideas, a lot of speaking practice and sets the mood for the activity and so forth. Now students will be more aware of the context, motivated to listen/read the text and check their guesses. More competitive students will enjoy it even more.
- Take out some situations from the text/listening exercise and post them on the walls (people arguing about something, going somewhere, etc., it depends on what is happening in the text). Here also students brainstorm a lot, come up with a possible context, read/listen to check their guesses. This activity can very nicely be combined with the first one. These types of tasks give the students a chance to relate to the situations and be more motivated to go ahead with it.
- Another way is to play the beginning of a listening exercise and let the students take guesses on what will come next. Same can be done with the reading text – distributing a part of the text to the learners and asking them to take guesses on the context.
- Personalizing the reading/listening slot can also be a great way of setting up a context. If the text is about a holiday of two people, you can start the session by asking the students to talk to their pairs and share the best holiday experience they have ever had. Next, you can proceed with the task itself by using one of the activities described above. Finally, to keep the context of the lesson, you can ask the students to come up with alternative endings for the text or the listening activity. This is a great exercise to boost fluency, as students will already have had enough exposure to the language they need to talk about a specific context.
Grammar and Vocabulary sessions
We all struggle with students who are quite ‘slow’ in assimilating new grammar patterns and using them appropriately in speech. One of the reasons this phenomenon never goes away is that we take the grammar out of context and expect the learners to remember rules which they can’t associate with anything. Same can be said about presenting a new set of lexis to the learners. Here are some context-setting activities that can be used to spice up grammar and vocabulary sessions.
- Approach the grammar slot through a different slot. This can be done with the help of a reading activity or a listening one. Let’s say, you have just read a text written in past simple. The context of the text was ‘last holiday’. Instead of jumping right on to an example sentence containing the structure of the past simple, just pick a couple of sentences from the text and use those to elicit the grammar. It will keep the students in the context of the lesson, they will build new information based on what they already have read/listened to, and implicitly understand 30% of it.
- Another way is to personalize the grammar slot by creating a context around yourself. You can start the slot by telling a short story about your last holiday, stressing the past simple tense in your speech and then asking the students follow-up questions to elicit the grammar point. For example: “Last year I was in Tbilisi. I was there for 5 days and wanted to see the city. I went to the famous Funicular, I saw very beautiful streets and statues and I also tried tasty Georgian food.” Follow up questions can be like this; “When did I go to Tbilisi?” (LAST YEAR) “How long did I stay there?” (5 DAYS), Am I still in Tbilisi? (NO) “So, was I in Tbilisi in the past?” (YES) “Which information from my story tells you that it was in the past?” (LAST YEAR). This could go on up to the point of eliciting the structure and the formation of the tense.
As for contextualizing vocabulary sessions, it is considered to be easier first of all because creating a context around a list of words doesn’t require a lot of creativity on the part of the teacher, and secondly as there are a lot more resources on this. So, here are some of what I am using.
- Approach through a different skill like in the case of grammar. Use a text, a listening activity as described above. This time though, choose the words you want the students to learn and let them guess the meaning from the context. As a follow-up task, you can ask the students to use those phrases to talk about personal experiences based on the context of the lesson.
- Story cards. Let’s say, the set of words you want to teach are related to transport and travelling. Show a set of cards to the students where people go on holidays, change different types of transport and let students compile the story by taking guesses. After that, go over the story with the students together and elicit the words and phrases related to the topic. Next, ask the students to tell the story to each other again by using the new language this time.
- Brainstorm words that students already know about a topic, e.g. “Sports”, board them and build on the existing knowledge through different games. You can read more about presenting new vocabulary here.
As you could see, all the above-mentioned ways of setting up a context have a speaking component in them. To me, this is how an ideal class should run. If we combine speaking with the rest of the skills to be covered, it will guarantee that the students will be using the target structures and language in real-life production and achieve fluency.
Nowadays, textbooks give us the opportunity to explore and develop nice activities for the classes. They are already rich in exercises, so little is left for the teacher to do if planned carefully. My advice, however, will be not trying to cover more than 2 skills during a session. You can cover reading and grammar or listening and vocabulary, or the other way around. Firstly, it will be easier to create and keep the context of the lesson, secondly, we will not overload students with information and activities.
Now it’s your turn. How do you create a context for the lesson?