Have you ever gone grocery shopping without a list?
It might seem like a good idea at first.
But then you wander aimlessly.
You have some vague idea of what you need and why you need it… but that idea isn’t concrete or detailed.
In the end, it’s amazing that you end up getting the things you really wanted or needed. If you do manage to remember them, it’s only by chance.
That’s kind of how it is to learn vocabulary out of context. You can present your students with vocabulary lists and grammar exercises, but without any knowledge of why they’re learning what they’re learning, these activities feel aimless to them. If your students do acquire knowledge without any context, it’s probably by chance.
But setting context in a language lesson can be tricky. A foreign language classroom, more than almost any other kind of classroom, can feel disconnected from the real-life contexts in which the material being taught will be used. Setting context in a way that feels natural rather than forced can be very challenging.
So how can you bring context into your language lesson? What concrete steps can you take to make vocabulary lists and grammar concepts come to life in an environment which often feels so artificial?
Why Is Context Important?
First, in case you need any more persuading, here’s a brief explanation of exactly what context is and why it’s so foundational to a great language lesson.
- Context is, simply put, the entire reason for learning a language. Without context, the tasks of language learning are nothing more than meaningless rituals. Your students are memorizing lists of words they’ll never use. They’re acquiring grammar rules for situations that exist only within the covers of a textbook. Essentially, without context, your entire curriculum takes place within an imaginary universe that no one cares about.
- Context provides the real-life situations in which language is used. Setting context allows your students to get at least a simulation of real-life practice. It may not be practical to take them on a trip to experience the target language in person, but you can give them a context that prepares them for the day when they might do just that.
- Context is the most authentic motivator in the language classroom. Sure, you can try giving out prizes or motivate your students with good grades and compliments. But the best motivation is intrinsic. Your students want the satisfaction of knowing they can accomplish a challenging and useful task. When language is put in context, it gives students that intrinsic motivation they need.
So now that you know teaching language in context is important, how exactly do you do it?
How to Set Context in a Language Lesson
It’s not easy to give a language lesson a meaningful context in the classroom. In this post, we’ll cover some concrete ideas for creating context-based lessons. But first, here are some tricks you can use to introduce context in any lesson.
It’s one of the five Cs of language learning for a reason! Connections are critical to the process of language learning, precisely because they make it easier to set a context. One way to do this is by connecting the subject of the lesson to something in the lives of your students.
- Who watched the royal wedding?
- Can anyone describe a wedding they’ve been to?
- Let’s brainstorm some words we use to talk about weddings.
You might also make a connection to a TV show or a celebrity that your students enjoy.
Another helpful way to build connections is by starting with something they already know about their own language:
- Give me some words to describe this picture.
- What do these words have in common?
- They’re all adjectives… let’s talk about adjectives in [the target language].
Provide examples of the real-life situations in which the vocabulary would be used
If food vocabulary is on the agenda, begin by talking about what it’s like to go to a restaurant in the target country culture. If you’re teaching vocabulary about travel, talk about situations your students might encounter at an airport, train station or hotel.
For example, you could show your intermediate French class the FluentU video “Working at a Hotel in Paris.” FluentU takes real-world videos—like movie trailers, music videos, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons. All of the videos for each language are categorized by level, format and topic, so it’s easy to find a video that’s appropriate for demonstrating real-life context on virtually any subject to any student.
Keep the same context throughout the lesson
It’s important to keep your goals in view for the entire duration of the lesson. Switching from one context to another can be confusing. Provide a variety of activities to practice speaking, reading, writing and listening to texts and conversations that fit within the same context.
For example, if you’re teaching vocabulary for visiting the doctor’s office, you might have students listen to a recorded conversation between a doctor and a patient, read an informational article about health care in the target culture and create a skit or a dialogue on the topic to act out for the class.
Here are some more ideas to bring context to life in your classroom.
Ready, Set, Context! 3 Context Settings for Language Lessons
Here are some specific examples of lessons in which the context is clearly set and remains clear throughout the lesson.
Visit to a Restaurant
Begin by talking to the students about a recent visit to a popular restaurant, preferably one that they consider a favorite. Talk about the foods they serve, the menu and your interactions with the servers.
Then move on to describing what a restaurant is like in the target culture:
- What are some different kinds of restaurants that are popular (cafes, pubs, fast-food, etc.)?
- What kinds of foods would they be likely to serve?
- What are the menus like?
If you have access to any sort of realia (such as menus or photos), these can bring life to the discussion.
Allow the discussion to move to the kind of language you use in a restaurant:
- What do you say to a server when you order something?
- How do you ask for more information about an item on the menu?
- How might you talk about the meal with those at the table with you?
Next, model some of the vocabulary that might be used in these conversations, asking the class to repeat the words after you. When they’ve heard the words a few times, try giving them a passage to listen to with relevant vocabulary. For example, this transcript and exercises from Audiria are ideal for advanced Spanish students.
When they’ve had some practice with these words and phrases, ask them to compose and enact their own creative skits taking place in a restaurant in the target culture. If you have plastic food and an authentic table setting, it can add to the sense of overall context.
Slang Words and Idioms
Begin by asking students to brainstorm words and expressions that mean something different from their literal translation (i.e., “raining cats and dogs,” “costs an arm and a leg”). Ponder the difficulties of trying to translate such expressions to someone who doesn’t know the language.
Next, go over a list of common expressions in the target language. The nice thing about this is that many of such idioms are actually quite funny! For example, the French have the wonderful expression occupe-toi de tes oignons (take care of your onions) for telling someone to mind his own business. You can find other funny idioms in various languages on this TED blog list as well as all over the FluentU Learner blogs. Here are just a few examples:
Then, you can read a passage or act out a funny scene employing as many of these idioms as possible. Be as dramatic as possible with gestures, voice, and even props and costume for maximum effect.
Next, give the students a “fill in the blank” activity in which they must choose the slang word or expression that makes the most sense as a completion.
Finally, have students write their own silly stories using as many of the slang words and expressions as possible, and then share them.
This is best done in the context of a holiday you’re presently celebrating. For example, if it’s close to Easter, you might make a connection to the Chinese Qingming Festival which, like Easter, is a spring holiday with themes of death and rebirth.
Present information about the target culture holiday, and then ask students to create a Venn diagram revealing similarities and differences to the holiday they celebrate in their own culture. In the process, home in on vocabulary words for talking about the celebrations (“balloons,” “ghosts,” “decorations,” etc.).
Next, give students a simple reading in the target language about the holiday.
Finally, ask students to record videos in which they recreate that particular holiday celebration using relevant vocabulary.
More than anything else, context will bring language to life for your students.
So if nothing else seems to be working… try putting your lessons in their proper context, and see what a difference it can make.
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