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Considering context

An article explaining how the meaning of a sentence is created both in the text and in the wider context that the reader brings to the reading.
A shepherd dog outside looking at the camera.

Here is the sentence from the previous step.

The big dog looked menacingly at the nervous postman.

When each participant read this, they created their own text world. This text world will vary due to our particular background, upbringing, nationality, culture etc. For instance, how many teachers from the UK pictured Postman Pat?

There are many possible interpretations of even such a short and simple sentence. Consider the potential different meanings of some of the vocabulary and concepts:

  • Dangerous dogs (Which breed? Rottweiler? Alsatian?)
  • Postman (Uniform? Gender? Appearance?)

Out text world will even be populated with aspects not mentioned in the original sentence: a house, door, garden, fence etc.

Evidently, a short sentence like the example produces differing interpretations. Our learners’ knowledge of contextual information makes a huge difference to their ability to interpret meaning.

In this example, we have broken one of our own rules! We have used a decontextualised and artificial sentence. As a reader, you had to rely even more on the wider context of your interpretation since the local context was so thin. Of course, examples like this can be useful occasionally to illustrate new grammatical or linguistic concepts.

In general, we should aim to teach a text with reference to the wider context. Using images, a glossary, and pre-teaching background ideas are useful approaches for helping our learners with context. If a learner does not know what some key vocabulary means, for example, ‘blitz’ or ‘evacuations’, their ability to create a rich text world is greatly hampered.

In what ways does wider context affect English teaching in your setting?

  • What authentic texts are your learners exposed to in everyday life?
  • What authentic texts can you use in your lessons?
  • Have any issues arisen in the class due to learners (or the teacher) lacking context?
  • Are there examples when it’s better to use decontextualised texts?
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Teaching English Grammar in Context

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