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Grammar in context

Watch Luke Pearce talk about the importance of local and wider contexts when making sense of language.
Now it’s time to look at our third principle, which is authentic texts and contexts. And as you might be able to tell from the title of this course, this is a really important one for understanding our approach. So to start with, we’re going to look at an example of an activity, and this was taken from a website, a very popular website with resources for pupils in England and Wales and a resource about English grammar. You’ve seen this resource in the last steps. I’m sure you’ve already had a go at this and been discussing it, but the question is, what is a verb? We have Building, Castle and Tower. So first of all, what is the answer to that question?
Can you share an answer that you think is correct and I’m sure, as you’ve already noticed and realized, there’s actually an issue with this question. So what are the problems with this kind of question? And what makes this question ambiguous? And I’m sure you’ve already been discussing the issue here, it’s that the question presumably expects there to be 1 correct answer, when in fact all three of these words could be used as verbs as well as nouns which you might more commonly assume, that each of these words would probably more commonly be seen, perhaps as a noun, but they can all be used as verbs, so this question is just to demonstrate that.
If we talked about what to avoid and we talked about made-up examples and decontextualized language, this is the kind of issue we face because if we look at these words out of the context of even a sentence, the grammar isn’t going to make a lot of sense, and that can be off-putting for students. So let’s take a look at some of the issues with this question. You can see some example sentences there. The council is building new houses. So the verb ‘build’ used in the present continuous or the progressive form, would be a verb. The one that you might not have known and I wasn’t familiar with at first is a phrase from chess.
You cannot castle if the king has already moved. So ‘to castle’ is a move in chess and then ‘The teacher towered over the pupils’. Tower, clearly more commonly, perhaps used as a noun, but we can use it there as a phrasal verb. So all these words can be used as verbs depending on the context, and that’s why this decontextualized approach isn’t so helpful and that we really want to analyze language in the wider context to make sure it’s meaningful. So we’ll just have a quick look at some of the sort of theory behind this, and then we’ll be moving on in the next week to applying these principles and theories and looking at lots of examples of classroom activities.
So we can talk about context at two different levels. The first level is the local context, so that’s the linguistic content or what we could call the clause level grammar. So those are the words and phrases and sentences and paragraphs as they appear on the page, and it can seem very straightforward to say that, well, the meaning of a text comes from those letters put together to form words and sentences on the page, but it’s clearly not as simple as that, because if we have a book, on a shelf, and it’s never opened, never read than those words would still be there, but they wouldn’t create meaning. So for those words to become meaningful, they have to be read.
They have to be, well, produced and then read. And that is what our wider context is. So what was happening in the world when the text was produced? What was the intention and the purpose of the author? When is the reader reading this text? What are their interpretations and biases and perceptions. And we can call this the wider context. The discourse level grammar.
So if grammar is making meaning, that meaning is being made beyond simply the text on the page, it’s being made in the mind of the person reading the text, not only in the mind of the author, and I’m sure many of you will be familiar with this concept of the death of the author and how much do we count the author’s intentions when it comes to analyzing and making sense of a text.
And we’re not going to get into that debate in detail here, but needless to say, we should consider these issues in our classroom teaching so we can see that meaning making, which is the thing we keep talking about, seeing grammar as a meaning making resource that is happening at the interplay between these two levels. So the local context, the text on the page is only going to make sense if we take into account the wider context and what the reader brings to the text and how they interpret and makes sense of the text. And I’m just going to touch upon another issue very briefly. Which again, many of you will be familiar with, which is cultural capital.
So we can’t go into this issue in great detail, but this idea that pupils bring their own knowledge with them to the classroom and the school and the teachers and the government and the national curriculum and the people who set the tests, they have their kind of cultural capital background knowledge. So the question is, what is ‘normal’ knowledge that we should expect our learners to have? And is that the same or different as what the school or the teachers or the government, politicians expect them to know? So what knowledge is brought to the classroom?
And does our curriculum prioritize certain types of knowledge over other ones and just a few brief examples, we have these ideas from high and low culture. So in the GCSE English language, for example there’s unseen texts. If that text happens to be about something like skiing or ballet or whatever, it might be, the examiners might think that’s a typical thing most people will know about, but for some students who won’t be familiar with those things for whatever reason perfectly reasonably is going to make that text a lot harder to analyze and understand, and that’s more of a question of this wider context. rather than testing their language ability. So we could say it’s somewhat unfair and just that final picture.
I just quickly had some students, we were reading a text and about the evacuations during World War Two and I through a discussion with the students, they had no idea what the evacuations were and one of them really had no idea what World War Two was, so it’s easy to assume that your students. have a certain wider context and understanding, but very often our students won’t have that or they’ll have misconceptions, or they’ll just have their own wider context and interpretations, which are quite different to ours. So that’s the principle we’re going to look at next. So just to discuss below this video in the discussion area, leave a comment.
What examples can you share of learners struggling due to wider context? Have you faced similar issues because your learners haven’t been aware of something or had totally different ideas about something which we’ve presumed maybe that everyone’s on the same page? OK, and then we’ll continue looking at this concept of text and wider context in more detail.

All texts are produced in and for a certain context.

They are produced with a purpose and audience in mind. These considerations will impact what choices the author makes. Our learners, as authors, should consider the context when making choices in their writing. The same is true when analysing texts.

We can describe the context as existing at two levels: the local and wider context.

  1. Local Context

    • The grammatical features of a text

    • Clause-level grammar

  2. Wider Context

    • The context of production and reception

    • Discourse-level grammar

Meaning is made at the meeting of these two levels.

This course will mainly focus on the local context i.e. the linguistic content of a text. However, we should always bear the wider context in mind. Even if your specification does not require learners to comment on context, taking this into account will help them in making sense of the texts they are fronted with.

Learners each have a distinct background and set of assumptions that affect how they read a text. Not all learners have the same cultural capital that is seen as desirable by the education setting, and therefore may have gaps in their knowledge of the wider context. For example, a learner with an understanding of World War II or feminism will be able to make sense of certain texts differently from others without that knowledge.

In the next step, you will try a short activity to explore your knowledge of local and wider contexts.

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Teaching English Grammar in Context

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