How Context Matters

What are these? How are they used?


They’re bricks, or more accurately, broken bits of bricks. But, knowing what they’re called doesn’t really help you understand how they’re used.  Taken out of context, the objects have little meaning.

How about now? How are the bricks used?

net with bricks

When you see the bricks in context, their purpose is easier to understand. The bricks are used as anchors to hold down a net.

If trash day in your country (or in your part of Japan) doesn’t look like this, you might still feel a bit puzzled. Context is also cultural.

What if I add a story?

In my neighborhood, we put trash in color coded bags—green for burnable trash, blue for plastics, orange for PET bottles and cans, and brown for bottles. We put all of our bags in a central location on the appropriate day before the designated time.

This week, I’m on trash duty. It’s my job to take out a large blue net to cover the trash bags. I have to wake up very early in order to put the net out before anyone brings trash bags. After the trash has been picked up, it’s my job to put away the net and clean up the trash drop off area.

The net keeps crows out of the trash. There are a lot of crows in Japan–giant, monster crows.  These birds think of trash day is their all-you-can-eat buffet. The bricks keep the crows from lifting the net (and also keeps the trash bags from blowing away).

Since it’s my job to clean up after trash day, I never forget to put out the net, or the bricks!

Context provides meaning and helps us remember.

You aren’t likely to be teaching “trash net anchors” as a vocabulary item in your classes. But, I wanted to choose an example that was unfamiliar, so you could understand how your students might feel when trying to learn words without context.

Like in a word list.

Teachers of young learners naturally include a lot of context in teaching, since most of their students don’t yet read. They teach vocabulary with

  • picture cards (teacher made or those that support a course book)
  • scenes including the vocabulary items (like classroom objects actually in a classroom)
  • stories (related picture books, or teacher-created to go along with picture cards or scenes)

You can play with context.

Context is a tool. Once you understand how it works to support meaning, you can play with it.

Introducing an object without context can grab your students’ attention. Were you curious when you saw the bricks alone? Were you hoping I’d add information to complete the picture? You can ask students to predict where they might find a particular object, or imagine how it might be used.

Taking familiar objects out of context creates guessing games. Put a picture card inside an envelope or cover it with a piece of paper and ask students to guess what it is, getting some great Yes/No question and answer practice along the way. Or, put real objects inside a bag and let children touch the bag as they guess.

Use close up pictures of objects to play with context. Ceri Jones has some wonderful teaching ideas involving close up photos on her blog (and other wonderful teaching ideas not involving photos, too!).  A good place to find close up photos is on ELT Pics, a great Flickr collection of pictures for teachers taken by other teachers (and shared using the tag #eltpics on Twitter).

You can take objects that are familiar in one context, and introduce them in a new context. For example, if my original vocabulary item had been bricks, I probably would have shown a picture of bricks being used in a traditional way (on a building or in a walkway). Then, I might have had students brainstorm additional places and uses they’ve seen for bricks. Perhaps my trash bag anchoring bricks would come up in discussion. If not, I could bring it up. Or, if students have learned the word pen you can expand the context by bringing in pictures of unusual places you could find pens (pens to use underwater or in space).

The more students use words in context (and in different contexts) the more memorable the language becomes, and the closer they get to owning the language (making it a tool for them to use, too).

How about you? How do you use context in your teaching? How do you play with context in class?


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18 Responses

  1. Mark Kulek says:

    Great post Barbara. Just about everything I present I attach a picture. Lately, I have been doing activities based on lexical chunks. I choose I rather vague picture to represent the chunk. I do this to leave more open for the children’s imagination. We take a few chunks to sequence a situation to practice in pairs. After doing these sequences in pairs, we do drawings followed by changing them into other situations, keeping the basic original form.
    Mark in Gifu

    • Barbara says:

      Sounds fascinating, Mark! Could you give an example of a lexical chunk you’ve done this with? Or even better, would you consider writing a post showing us how you use this approach in your classes, and how we could use it, too?

  2. Great post, and glad I was drawn here by @ozge’s tweet.

    I saw Ceri speak at IATEFL and it was probably my favorite presentation. I was blown away by her rhythm and flow between audience questions, partner discussions, lecture-oriented moments. A socially-smart educator !

    I did a class playing with this guessing game and context for “advertising” with my university students in China. It was more of a discussion-starter and driven by the “illogical” nature of “I’m Yao Ming. Drink coke” and yet how these messages are no longer illogical at all, but very accepted. Fun class… involved showing pics one-by-one and next to each other until there was a full on advertisement pic that suddenly within context seemed “odd” in a way it might not have before.

    Thanks again for the post and interesting reflection. 🙂

    • Barbara says:

      I wish I could have seen the presentation at IATEFL. I wish I had been at IATEFL!

      Sounds like a great class you had. I love how those out-of-context bits attract our attention. When I taught rhetoric (ages ago) I loved when we got to examine advertising and the way ads persuaded (or didn’t persuade) people to buy a product.

      Congratulations on your Lexiophiles nomination for top language twitter, Brad. I always enjoy your tweets, and am glad you’ve received recognition for your contributions!

  3. Breathyvowel says:

    Funny you should mention this, as I recently pinched Ceri’s idea of the picture flashing to introduce one of my lessons. I used a slightly strange picture of a backlit cup-holder from a limousine and it generated far more interest and discussion than anything presented in context. Perhaps, as you suggest, lack of context is the way forward.

    • Barbara says:

      I would have loved to see that backlit cup-holder shot! It must have been quite attention grabbing!

      Taking things out of context can be effective for drawing students into an activity, but I wouldn’t recommend making it our primary approach. If students know that we’ll always show something out of context, then it loses it’s power, I think. They might just wait for you to get to the part of class when you tell them what it is.

      It’s most powerful because it’s unexpected, so it’s best to mix things up, I think.

  4. Paul Driver says:

    I create context by framing my communicative activities as alternate reality games. It gives my students an opportunity to use the language outside of the classroom, in the real world, to achieve real goals.

    Here’s a clip of one of them in action:

    • Barbara says:

      Wow! I am seriously impressed with your Spy Walking videos. What level students do you use these games with?

      They look like a lot of fun!

  5. Paul Driver says:

    My groups are all mixed ability, ranging from false beginner to advanced. Most of the videos there on YouTube are just small cuts and not intended to be viewed out of context. I had to load them into YouTube to geo-locate and embed them on the map (used for storytelling at a later stage). There’s a link to it on the front page here:

    • Barbara says:

      Wow, wow and wow! I’m very impressed with all the work you’ve put into this–the attention to detail is amazing. Would you be willing to write a guest post explaining how you created these materials, or how you use them with students, or both?

      • Paul Driver says:

        Hi Barbara,

        For some reason i didn’t get the alert that there’d been a follow-up comment so I’ve only just spotted it! Of course i’d love to if the offer is still open.

        If you’re interested, I’m giving a presentation on the use of pervasive games and mobile technologies at IATEFL in Glasgow later this month which I think will be streamed for those who can’t make it.

  6. kylie says:

    Thanks for this post! It has stretched my imagination to think of more ways to bring context (and out of context) into my classroom!!

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