Podcast: Context - the Secret Sauce in Language Teaching & Training (with Matt Courtois)

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Understanding what people in say from the sounds they make is all but impossible without context, even in our first language. So how can we make more use of this amazing tool which helps prediction, understanding, engagement and application? We discuss what context is, why it’s important and how to incorporate it when teaching adults, teaching kids and in teacher training.

Post podcast beers with (l-r) Matt, Tracy, Ross

Post podcast beers with (l-r) Matt, Tracy, Ross

Listen to Jordan Peterson's Podcast on music

Blog on designing great ESL games

Context The Secret Sauce of Language Teaching Training - Transcript


Tracy Yu: Hello, everyone. Welcome to our podcast. We've got our regular guest, Matt Courtois!

Matt Courtois:  Hey!

Tracy:  Hey, Matt.

Matt:  How's it going?

Ross Thorburn:  As our starting point, I wanted to play you guys a quote from Jordan Peterson's podcast. He's a psychologist. This is from a lecture actually about music, but it's him talking about how human beings can understand the sounds that come out of other human beings' mouths.

Jordan Peterson:  ...It turns out that it's very difficult to listen to what someone's saying, and that's partly because all of the information is not encoded in the sounds that they're making.

For example, part of the reason you can understand what I'm saying is that you know, more or less, that this is a lecture about psychology. You know it has a scientific basis. You know that there are certain things I'm not going to talk about.

The entire context within which you sit, informs your understanding of my speech. Every word I say helps build a framework for you that informs your ability to understand each word.

Ross:  Basically, just what we say to each other isn't enough, by itself, to be able to understand what's going on. We all have to understand what context we're in to be able to pick up all those clues and decode meaning from sound.

Matt:  I had a student years ago, a really high‑level student, and I asked her to quantify how much English she could understand whenever I was speaking. She said it was about 30 to 40 percent.

The rest of it was knowing me and knowing this context and understanding things I probably would be saying, and she's able to fill in all that stuff. In this student's case, the other 60, 70 percent of her language is guesswork.

We're actually talking about how you can do that within a real conversation.

Ross:  That's definitely a skill, isn't it?

I had a really interesting example of this a few years ago. I went for a run. It was in Beijing, actually, in the winter. It was really, really cold, but I was still wearing shorts and tee shirt. Afterwards, I went into a 7‑Eleven and bought a bottle of water. The person on the other side of the counter, said, "Are you cold?" and leaned across and touched my arm.

I remember thinking, "If I couldn't understand Chinese, I would be so freaked out."


Ross:  I wanted to pay for the bottle of water, and then the person started massaging my arm. I think that's because context causes you to predict what is going to be said, and what's going to happen.

When you go in to a shop and you put something down on the counter, you can say with 99 percent certainty that the thing that the person behind the counter is going to say next is the price.

All these great examples of how we use context in our day to day lives to predict what's going on, but we also need to bring those ideas into our teaching and probably our training, as well.

Tracy:  I think what I encountered when I'm training teachers...Usually, teachers, they feel quite difficult to understand the concept of context, because it's basically about where you're going to use a language in real life.

I usually tell them, "In real life, think about, if you're talking to somebody, who the person is. Is it a friend? It's a family member? It's a colleague? Is it a doctor or is it some stranger on the street?

"Why did you need to talk to them? Ask for advice? Ask for directions? Maybe you are paying for something at the cashier? What kind of situation you are, or where you are," and then try to help them understand what context is.

Ross:  I would almost say it's like language learning physically happens within a classroom, but you want, mentally, for it to happen in another place.

For example, we'll talk about examples later with kids, but if you're teaching kids the names of some wild animals, don't make it take place in a classroom with some flashcards. Make it take place on a safari, or make it take place in a zoo.

I think people make the mistake of thinking you need context when you practice language ‑‑ you do ‑‑ but you need context everywhere. From the moment the students walk in to the class, there should be context. For when they first encounter a new language, there should be a context. When they're practicing a language, there should be a context.

Matt:  You reminded me of a podcast I was listening to recently.

This person went and saw "Sweeney Todd." Before the show, they walked in, and people were serving meat pies ‑‑ which is part of the plot ‑‑ and everyone was speaking with a London accent, and it was in the US. Everyone who went to this just said it was such a richer experience for the actual play, that they...

One thing, we're teachers...When they struggle with context, it's like they choose a grammar point, and they decide, "This is what my class is going to be about. I'm going to have a class about the second conditional."

They start off with a bunch of advice like, "If I were you, blah, blah, blah." Then they ask a question, "If you won a million dollars, what would you do?" then everybody answers it. Then it's like, "If you were an animal, what would you be?"

The only thing stitching the whole thing together is the actual grammar that's being covered, and it's a really boring class to watch.


Ross:  Or to be in.

Matt:  My advice is always to think about...Don't stitch your lesson together with the grammar points. Stitch your lesson together with that context that you were talking about.

Tracy:  It's so difficult to cover the different language points. If they really want to teach some certain language points, they feel difficult to find the context.

Ross:  Maybe over the next few minutes, we can help people by giving them some examples of how to include richer context in their lessons.

Let's go through our three questions. First of all, we can talk about how to use context with adults. Second, we can talk about...

Tracy:  How to use context with young learners.

Ross:  Finally, we can briefly talk about...

Matt:  How you can use context in training.


How can we use context with adult students?

Ross:  One of my favorite things to do with adults to set a context, is to go in and to take something that the students actually think is real and use that as the thing for the lesson. Something I've done before, for example, is gone into the class, and I've pretended to take a phone call.

I start talking to the students, and I get someone to call me. I pretend to answer and I pretend, "Oh, it's my girlfriend's called me. She's really, really angry at me. It's her birthday, I forgot to send her flowers."

I say, "I don't know what to do," and then the students say something like, "You can take her to dinner tonight."

"OK," and I'll write that on the board. "Do you have any other ideas?"

"You can say sorry."

"Anything else?" and you get all these examples. "Thanks very much, that's really useful. Actually, before I came in here, I was speaking to my friend, and I asked him the same thing about what I should do with this situation. Do you want to hear?"

They're like, "Yeah, we want to hear." Then you play the conversation. All of a sudden, there's this rich context for the lesson where the students believe that some of this is actually going on, that it's real.

It's almost like a comedy show, when comedians talk about, "You know yesterday I was doing this and this thing happened."

I'm like, "I'm not sure. Did this actually happen to this person, or are they just making it up?"

Or avant‑garde theatre, where you're not sure what's really part of the act?

I went to a pantomime when I was back home for Christmas. People walk in late, and the person on stage accosts them and starts asking them questions, and you thought it was real, but actually, my sister had been to see the thing before. She told me that that happens every time. When you're watching it, you're not sure. They're blending the lines between the act and the reality.

Matt:  Not only is it more interesting, but also, the fact that, if you can relate it to real life, you're showing them that this is a real interaction between us and the classroom. They're actually giving you advice, about what to buy for your girlfriend. It's not just context, it's a realistic context.

I don't know if you've ever seen a class where somebody is like, "We're going to be the first group of people to go to Mars. We're going to set up the government, and we have to create a constitution and everything."


Matt:  That might be somewhat interesting for that person who wrote the class, but the odds are that none of the people in that class are going to be in that SpaceX mission to Mars, you know?


Tracy:  Well, you don't know.

Matt:  Yeah, maybe...



How can we use context with young learners?

Ross:  I think for kids, sometimes, people find it even more difficult to think of a realistic context, because kids' lives are often limited to school [laughs] and home.

Tracy:  I think that we should allow a little bit imagination or creativity your lesson, because kids, they do do that.

They think about, "Oh, what I want to do in the future," when they play with each other. They have teddy bears or toys, and they try to give them names, give them different characteristics.

I think we should take this kind of stuff into consideration. Allow the kids to use their imagination, not just, "Pretend that you are in a restaurant, and you're ordering food."

Matt:  Is that really a skill they need? To be ordering food? Because their parents are going to be ordering them food.

Ross:  Presumably, yeah. I think for them, like you say, a lot of things involve imagination.

For example, your thing of going on a space exploration and starting a new colony somewhere, that actually might be more realistic for kids, because that's the sort of thing that kids might think about or talk about or watch shows about. I think those imagination things can work perfectly for kids.

Tracy:  We talk about games in the class, right?

Kids like playing games, but you have to also make your games meaningful. Ross, you wrote a blog about how to use games in your classrooms, and I think one of the key point is to have the aim in it.

You have to make sure why you need this game. Is it really help them to practice the language, or make them realize, actually in this situation, they can use this language.

Ross:  One of the best classes I think I ever taught, we got some bits of paper, scissors, and tape, and we tried to make a really tall tower ‑‑ me and these 10 students ‑‑ out of bits of paper and tape. All the students had to do, was say to me, "Can I have some paper, please? Can I have tape, please?"

Tracy:  That's something also reminds me...Now it's quite popular, teaching online, but the field is so difficult because everything just depends on the Internet. They cannot use real flash cards and let students to touch it, to feel it. All the kids can't see each other face to face. It's quite difficult to manage.

I think don't just have a big lesson topic. Make sure the first second the kids see the screen, they understand where they are, and they are already in that setting.

Ross:  Right. Is that a zoo, a pirate ship, a pet store, or any of these things?

Tracy:  In Chinese we say, "Lead you into that setting or scenario." I think that's context, right?


How can we use context in teacher training?

Matt:  I know all three of us have done teacher training at some point. One of the biggest frustrations I always had was, when you cover any point in the training room, that teachers won't necessarily transfer those skills into the classroom when they're teaching.

I always thought it was my fault by not...by making that separation. "This is the training room, and that's your classroom, it's another place." I think it's really important in the actual training sessions to create the context of the classroom where teachers will be applying these skills.

Tracy:  Of course, if the time is really limited, but I try to maximize the practice time, because a lot of teachers, when you tell them, "I want you to teach..."

Ross:  To practice your skills.

Tracy:  "...To practice your skills, and not talk about how to use it." For example, you practice giving instructions, not talk about, "First, I would like to get the students' attention, and then, I'm going to do this and that." No, not talking through the steps...Do it! [laughs]

Matt:  Just do it.

Ross:  Even with doing it, you can then make it more specific. For example, I'm doing a training next week.

As part of the training activities ‑‑ so there's a bit more context ‑‑ it's not just, "Teach this lesson to your partner." They have a lucky draw type thing.

Someone has to draw out the age of the student, and then they have to draw out the student's personality. Are they shy? Are they outgoing? Then the teacher has to draw out a scenario like they're running out of time or they have to make up too much time.

All of this goes in, there's all these extra constraints, and it makes it a lot more realistic. There's a lot more context then going into that practice, rather than just saying, "Now, practice."

Tracy:  Thanks everyone. Hope this episode help you understand and use context in your class and training. Bye!

Ross: Bye, everyone!

Tracy:  For more podcasts, videos, and blogs, visit our website at...

Ross:  ...www.tefltraininginstitute.com.

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