5 Sep 2007

In Context

If you have been in my classroom, hung out in the teacher's room, snooped around my desk, or used my materials, you would never wonder what my teaching philosophy is; I may as well tattoo it on my forehead: IN CONTEXT.

As a recurring motif in all things pedagogical in the TESL/TEFL world, contextualized language teaching seems such an obvious approach. Ask any teacher of ESL or EFL whether he incorporates context into his lessons plans and I'm certain the reply will be something along the lines of "Well, duh". However, I'll also bet that if you probe a little further, that same teacher may be unable to explain how he builds context into a lesson; even more likely is that you'll discover while he may have a "theme" (holidays, travelling, health...), there is very little actual context-building going on. Now, I'm not just saying all this because my texts are context-based (well, that's kind of why). I'm flogging this particular horse because, while there is an overwhelming consensus that context-based teaching is an effective method, few teachers seem to do it.

A theme can be, of course, a form of context. Teachers will often work within a theme and practice vocabulary and dialogues with relevant readings and listening activities. Many textbooks are already designed for thematic lessons. Grammar and functional gambits, however, are often left to their own devices. True, some worthy attempts have been made to create contextualized grammar lessons (Grammar Dimensions and Focus on Grammar are two series that come to mind) , but overall and with particular attention paid to the greatest selling grammar series of all time, the Azar series, grammar is rarely taught in context. Worse, functional gambits are still being filtered through the likes of Functional American English and the basic, Gambits 1, 2 & 3. I've been told that functional English has fallen from favour, but really only the labelling has changed. "Situational English", even "ESP" embody the functional
approach. It goes without saying that grammar has never fallen from favour, it just went underground for awhile. So why the lack of context-based grammar and gambits lessons? I have my theories.

One possibility is that the context-based grammar texts that do exist are boring as heck. They are often simply not relevant to the students' lives. Another is that, without a textbook, building context is just too much darn work. Teachers have big piles of work. As far as gambits go, aren't they contexts unto themselves? Uh, no, not really. Handing students a list of gambits is not building a meaningful context.

From my first textbook, Function-all 1: Intermediate Plus, teachers have used and built upon several successful contexts that their students have not only enjoyed immensely but have acquired some useful language in the process! Among these are: "Guessing: Stereotypes"; "Likes and Dislikes: Smells"; and a particular favorite: "Checking Understanding: Jargon". I'm not suggesting I have the key to all language success but I'm working on it!

If you need a process for context-building, email me: fiona@eslenglish.ca and I would be happy to send on some materials used in our English in Practice workshops.

If you have built some fun and successful contexts in your ESL/EFL classroom, I'd love to hear about them: fiona@eslenglish.ca . Join the mailing list at www. eslenglish.ca and I'll send you a free unit!

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