Teaching English in Contexts

Students often ask teachers what the meanings of certain words are. When they do this, they do not specify the context that help teachers explain these meanings. In many cases, students are asked what the context is and they say that they do not know or remember the context. For example, the word „mean” has more than one meaning according to its usage in a context. Plainly speaking, the context is nothing but the lexical items that surround the word „mean”.  „Mean” can be an adjective in the context „Why are you so mean?” and it means „unkind”. The lexical item (word) „mean” can also be a verb in the context „What do you mean?” and it means „What do you intend to say?”.

Grammarians regard the words or the text around a certain word as the „co-text”. The function of the „co-text” is to give meanings to words as shown above. Like words and phrases, sentences and texts are dependent on context too. There is a second type of context that confer meaning for words, phrases and sentences; this type of context is named the situational context and it consists of factors giving meaning to sentences. The factors are, in fact, the communication forms (written or oral message) and the interaction between senders and receivers of the message if the context is made of more sentences.

Texts are also dependent on context; this context is called the cultural context. If students want to understand a text properly, they need to know the cultural particularities that texts make reference to. For example, if students want to fully understand a text about Ramadan, They should know or should be taught about the Muslim culture. They should also know where and when the description is made or the action of the text takes place.

It is worth mentioning that texts can be classified into oral and written. Oral texts are made up of series of spoken words while written texts are made of series of written words. Texts appear under numerous forms: novels, poems, drama or recipes. Be they oral or written, be they novels or poems, texts together with words and sentences all depend on contexts.

Let us see the way in which the co-text and the situational context work when teaching grammar and vocabulary. Teachers are tempted to isolate sentences from their context or to present sentences without a proper context in order to exemplfy or suggest rules. This is wrong because words, sentences and texts cannot be interpreted properly.

For instance, the sentence „He is teaching English” must be used in the proper context so that students can understand or interprete it correctly. If the teacher tells the student that the verb of this sentence expresses only an action taking place at the moment of speaking, he or she is wrong. What if the student hears the sentence „This semester? He is teaching English.” The student will misinterpret this sentence if he or she knows nothing about „the extended present” or about „a limited period of time”. In other words, the sentence „He is teaching English” means either „He is teaching English now” or „He is teaching English over a limited period of time (this semester)”.

Some students tend to produce simple or complex sentences that lack the real context; they should observe how the written and spoken words and sentences behave in the real context if they want to fully understand them. This statement implies the fact that vocabulary and grammar should be taught in contexts. The question is what is the context for teaching grammar and vocabulary. The answer is simple: the context for teaching grammar and vocabulary is represented by oral and written texts.

Teachers may ask themselves the following question: should teachers and students start from texts which are authentic or from texts which are artificial and made in the classroom? The question is not an easy one because both authentic and artificial texts are extremely useful. Authentic texts contain every day language while classroom texts contain language for all levels. In this case, teachers can make a compromise that motivates students. Authentic texts may be dense and may contain too much native language. That is why teachers should transform them into simple texts keeping their originality.

On the other hand, classroom texts should be more attractive and look like authentic texts. This does not mean that all classroom and authentic texts must be changed. Advanced and super-advanced learners are able to understand the ideas of an authentic text while beginners should study the grammar texts  at their level.

It is important that teachers should make students perceive words, sentences and texts as part of contexts.

There are some advantages and disadvantages of using texts in order to learn grammar and vocabulary. The main advantages are: texts give students the chance to learn grammar and vocabulary and help them to create their own texts; texts also help students to read, speak and write better. The disadvantages would be: difficult texts may not allow students to learn new grammar and vocabulary because they may not understand parts of the text that contain too much unknown vocabulary (too much rough tuning; grammar and vocabulary may be too difficult for them to understand.

Texts in their cultural contexts represent a rich source of learning and inspiration for all students. Teachers also learn form texts, especially authentic texts. They have to adapt their methods of teaching to the age of children and to their capacity of grabbing the messages of various texts.

Brown, H.D., Principles of Language Learning and Teaching, New York, Pearson, 2000.
Rodgers, T., Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, Cambridge, Cambridge University, 2001.
Oxford, R.L., Language learning strategies: What every teacher should know, Boston, Heinle and Heinle, 1990.


prof. Bogdan-Mihai Măimăscu

Liceul Tehnologic Grigore Antipa, Bacău (Bacău) , România
Profil iTeach: iteach.ro/profesor/bogdan.maimascu

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