Using Context in Language Teaching: 10 Approaches

What exactly is “context”?

In language teaching, the word “context” is actually used in different ways, including:

  • Where you are teaching language.
  • The social demand for the language you are teaching.
  • The students likely to be found in your class.

I’ve been teaching ESL for more than 30 years, and I’ve consistently seen how using context in language teaching helps students pick up the language faster and apply it in real-life situations. 

In this post, I’ll explain what meaningful context is and how you can build upon it in your language classroom, with activities and tips for classroom management. 


Two Types of Basic Contexts in Language

Cultural Context

Think of this as the “big picture,” including:

  • The personal backgrounds / life experiences of the people using the language.
  • The history of the language itself.
  • The cultural roots of the people who natively use the language / the country or culture in which the language is used.

Situational Context

This is the context of language usage, including:

  • Who is involved in the conversation.
  • The background each participant brings into the conversation.
  • The theme of the conversation itself.
  • Where the conversation is taking place.

The combination of these two types of context markers, cultural and situational, is what I will refer to below as “Universe of Discourse.”

You can use both of these types of context in your language classroom to advance language learning. Let’s see how.

How to Weave Context into Your Language Teaching

1. Use Universe of Discourse with video to identify situational context

What you will need:

  • Several one-minute dialogue videos. You can find plenty of these on FluentU, and they are doubly useful for the additional cultural context they offer.
  • Worksheet handouts with columns headed “who/experience/what/where” and a line for each video.

How to proceed:

  • Show the video without images (tape a card over the screen) and have students fill in columns with what they can.
  • Show the video without sound and have them continue filling in.
  • Show the video normally and have them finish the filling-in.
  • Share results of this exercise out loud.
  • Move on to the next video.

Later on, when doing role play activities, remind your students of the four aspects of Universe of Discourse as they prepare and practice their scenes together.

2. Use Universe of Discourse in any activity

The Universe of Discourse is around us all the time. We will always be someone talking (who), we will bring our experience to the conversation (background), we will be talking about something (theme) and we will be in some physical environment when speaking (where).

You can identify Universe of Discourse in all the activities you do in your language classroom. Here are a few examples.

Classroom management

  • Who: Teacher as manager / students.
  • Experience: Teacher authority / student motivation to learn.
  • What: Basic classroom rules and behavior expectations.
  • Where: The classroom.


  • Who: Teacher as instructor / students as learners.
  • Experience: Teacher’s knowledge / students’ practice.
  • What: The grammar or pronunciation theme of the day.
  • Where: The classroom.

Communicative exercise

  • Who: Teacher as informant / students as participants.
  • Experience: Teacher’s cultural knowledge / students’ desire to communicate.
  • What: The question-and-answer drill / the role play / the video or listening activity.
  • Where: Wherever imagination takes you in creating the situational context.

If you first outline this concept to your students, then mention and apply it throughout the class, you will be giving meaning to all language they are learning, from basic classroom stuff to useful language outside of the class environment.

3. Define the types of context

international students holding their own flags

Before delving further into applying context with your students, make sure they grasp the differences and similarities between the two basic types.

What you will need:

  • Family pictures from your own experience.
  • Pictures of places you have lived or studied.
  • The same type of pictures from your students.
  • Materials for making posters (magazines for cut-outs, glue, scissors, etc.).

How to proceed with cultural context:

  • Explain with visual aids your own cultural heritage and how it brought you to speak your native language.
  • Explain what other native speakers feel about the language: Are they proud of it? Do they respect it? Is it spoken by so many that dialects abound?
  • Ask your students about their own native language: How does it represent their native culture? What are the roots/origins of their language? Do speakers of their native language actively protect its use and well-being?

How to proceed with situational context:

  • Share with your students all the different situations in which you use your language: in class, in the supermarket, at home with family, on public transportation.
  • Brainstorm with your students all the different situations in which they will want to be able to use the language they are studying with you.

You can turn either of these discussions into a “make-a-poster” project, in which students create posters that illustrate their own cultural heritage, or situations in which they want to be able to use their new language.

Allow your students to present their own language and culture in their native language. Some may understand them, some may not; however, this will be an excellent opportunity for each student to comfortably express their own experiences. Gradually tease this exercise into the target language little by little by repeating it throughout the course.

4. Set the scene for contextual learning with classroom language

language teacher explaining in classroom

The classroom is the first situational context you and your students will share. Within this teaching context, you will use language appropriate explicitly to the classroom.

For example:

  • Teacher-talk lecture language.
  • Teacher-talk question language.
  • Teacher instructions to students.
  • Student questions to teacher.
  • Student responses to teacher-talk questions.

What you will need:

  • Poster making materials.
  • Flashcards with examples of teacher instructions.

How to proceed:

  • Pair your students up.
  • Hand each pair a language card.
  • Ask each pair to try to do the instruction on the card.
  • When the instruction is unknown or new, teach the instruction, graphically, to the class.
  • Ask the pair to create a graphic mini-poster with an illustration and the actual instruction.
  • Hang the posters about the classroom and use them as reference each time you give one of those instructions in the class.
  • When everyone knows a particular classroom language item, ceremoniously take that poster down, making clear that the goal is to take down all of the posters.

Using songs

Another way to reinforce this classroom language is to invent simple songs to well-known tunes. When a student has difficulty in either understanding or using particular classroom language, stop the class and have everyone sing along with “Can I borrow a pencil please” (sung to “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush”). Make sure you use tunes that are familiar in the target language.

“Simon Says”

While some of these language bits may be more “advanced” than the proficiency level of your class, no harm is done if students learn basic language units by heart and use them from the very first class.

Try turning instructions into a kind of TPR “Simon Says” game:

  • Point to a simple instructions poster and have students perform it.
  • Alternate with oral instructions like “walk to the door,” “stand up,” “turn around” and the like.

5. Illustrate situational context

At some point, you will expand from the classroom context to outside contexts. You can effectively use a simple role play warm-up activity to establish these contexts.

What you will need:

  • “Situation cards” that contain different situations where language is used—shopping, traveling, getting information, etc.
  • “Basic social language cards” that contain greetings, farewells, polite questions and answers, small talk, etc.

How to proceed:

  • Call two students to the front.
  • Hand the pair one situation card at random.
  • Hand each student a social language card at random.
  • Ask them where they are.
  • Have one read their card to the other.
  • Have the other student reply with their social language card.
  • Ask the group if the exchange was appropriate in the situation.


Situation: grocery store

First social language card: “What do you do?”

Response: “My name is Mary.”

  • Ask: “Was the language appropriate to the situation?”
  • Answer: “No!”
  • Ask: “What kind of language would have been more appropriate?”
  • Allow students to offer you examples, or take the opportunity to teach appropriate language for the situation.
  • Move on to the next two students.

Don’t worry about this stuff sticking right now. The objective here is to help students connect language with situations.

This is also a great warm-up activity to use before any role play session you do. Once students are familiar with the situations and language, try this:

  • Give each pair a situation card.
  • Hand out all the language cards.
  • Have students mill about, looking to exchange language cards with someone else with an appropriate utterance for their situation.
  • Wind an egg timer to three or five minutes, drop the warm-up at the bell and move on to the role plays.

6. Demonstrate the context found in grammar

students in spanish class

Now that you have let your students know that language will exist both within a culture and within a situation (in that culture), you can help them to see how context grows out of the “cellular level” of language.

Look at the grammar in the target language and find a phenomena that represents dependent grammatical structure, like subject/verb agreement. Here, we will use the Spanish subjunctive as an example.

What you will need:

  • Spanish verb cards (one side with the infinitive, the other side with the different forms of the verb).
  • Spanish time marker cards: ayer, mañana, hace tres días, ahora mismo (yesterday, tomorrow, three days ago, right now).
  • Spanish subjunctive trigger cards: ojalá, espero que, quiero que, sería mejor que, etc. (I hope that, I wish that, I want, it would be better if, etc.).

How to proceed:

  • Hand each student a verb card and a time marker card.
  • Have them find the correct verb form based upon the time frame in the time marker. For example, fui (I went) + ayer (yesterday).
  • Now hand a subjunctive trigger to each student.
  • Have them find the correct verb form used in the subjunctive. For example: vaya (it goes) + espero que (I hope that).
  • Ask them to make a sentence for the subjunctive trigger. For example: Espero que vaya bien. (I hope it goes well.)
  • Highlight the relationship between a time marker or a subjunctive trigger and the verb form they need to use.

7. Unearth the context in pronunciation

tutor teaching student pronunciation

In most languages, the pronunciation is ruled by a series of comfortable movements within the vocal apparatus. For this activity, we will use the English simple past tense as an example.

What you will need:

  • A voiced/unvoiced consonant chart.
  • Regular verb flashcards.
  • A bell and a clicker.

How to proceed:

  • Hand out all the verb cards to your students so each has several.
  • Have one student read the first verb card he/she has.
  • If the verb ends in a voiced consonant sound, ring the bell. If unvoiced, use the clicker.
  • Point out the appropriate column in your voiced/unvoiced consonant chart on the board.
  • Have the student pronounce the last consonant sound of the verb combined with the voiced “d” or the unvoiced “t” sound of the simple regular past.
  • The student passes this card to the student to the left, who then must pronounce the entire past tense of the verb correctly.
  • That student then reads his/her first verb and you continue in this way around the class.

Students will begin to associate a pronunciation phenomena with a particular context—in this example, the role of voiced vs. unvoiced consonants in properly pronouncing the “-ed” suffix on regular past tense constructions in English.

Look for similar pronunciation norms in the target language you are teaching.

8. Show how words don’t stand alone

Words just don’t stand by themselves. Walk into the classroom and simply say “table” and you will find all your students looking at you with that familiar “What!?” look they use when they are totally lost.

Word combinations exist that may have their origin in cultural norms or may just be how things have always been expressed in the language.

In English, a woman is usually “beautiful” while a man is “handsome.” Both can be ugly! However, if we switch those around and make the man beautiful and the woman handsome, the basic meaning of both the nouns and the adjectives will be affected.

Look for such word combinations in the target language you teach and try this exercise (illustrated with an English adjective/noun combination exercise) with your students.

What you will need:

  • A list of adjective/noun combinations that are commonly used (“beautiful woman, handsome man; fat man, thick book; thin wall, skinny boy,” etc.)
  • Flashcards of both the nouns and the adjectives on the list.
  • Chips or play money for scorekeeping.

How to proceed:

  • Randomly hand out all the noun cards.
  • Pick an adjective card and read it out.
  • Students who have a noun card that goes well with that adjective raise their hands.
  • Call on those students to combine your adjective with their noun aloud.
  • If they make a traditional combination, give them one chip.
  • If they make an unusual but acceptable combination, explain how it is unusual and award two chips.
  • Continue with the next adjective.

You can switch in the next round, giving the students the adjectives while you read out the nouns.

9. Play “Who/what are they talking about?!”

hand holding multiple language flashcards

Try this fun activity to establish who is speaking and what they’re speaking about to build situational context strength.

What you will need:

  • Noun flashcards.
  • Number flashcards.
  • Adjective flashcards.
  • Verb flashcards.

How to proceed:

  • Mix all the flashcards together and hand them all out to your students so that they have a nice bunch of cards. (Tip: If you make your own flashcards, make each type a different color so they are easy to sort out after the activity!)
  • Pair students up.
  • Tell them that they need to combine one of each type of card to create a situation.


Noun: “fish”

Number: “21”

Adjective: “fresh” 

Verb: “buy”

Let the students know that they will not be making sentences but rather imagining who would use these four words in a conversation and where that conversation would be taking place.

For example:

  • Who: A fishmonger and a chef.
  • Where: At the city market.

Once students have created a couple of these, have them present their word combinations to the rest of the students in pairs and have the group try to guess the who and where behind the combination. You can later have your students expand these situations into role plays.

10. Teach guessing word meaning from textual context

students reading together in a language class

Most of us have our first contact with the entire concept of context in some kind of literature class. In school, our teachers make an effort to have us understand the importance of the context of the reading material we study.

Your students will be using reading context in a slightly different way: While reading, they will sometimes need to “guess” the specific meaning of a word, familiar or not, based upon its use within a sentence, a paragraph or the entire story.

Try this guessing exercise to help your students focus on this contextual tool.

What you will need to do beforehand:

  • Prepare a text for each student in the target language, around two hundred words long.
  • Change at least one noun and one verb throughout the text to a nonsense word that does not exist in the target language. Make sure they can be “understood” thanks to the surrounding context.
  • If a word appears more than once (which is best!), make sure to use the same word, applying basic rules like making plural or conjugating verb forms to make it seem like a “real” word.

How to proceed:

  • Have students read their text aloud.
  • Have students read their text a second time, but this time, anyone in the class can yell “stop” and ask for the meaning of any word they have not understood.
  • Sometimes that word will actually exist and the reader will explain its meaning.
  • Other times it will be a nonsense word and students will have to figure out a meaning based upon the context.
  • Now pair up students and ask them to work together on their two texts, identifying all the nonsense words that they think there are.
  • Review each text and ask students if they can imagine what the “correct” word would be to replace each nonsense word you have planted in the text.


Context is the weaving together of the many pieces that make up language, the braiding together of sounds, words, expressions, utterances, situations, people and their personal experiences, the environment and the many themes we love to talk about.

By making teaching context evident to your students, you help them situate their new language in that larger Universe of Discourse where what is said, heard, listened to and replied to begins to take shape and make sense.

You give life to language, lift it from the verb lists and structural exercises and make it the gift of communication we created it to be.


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