All language lessons need a context. Language must be learned and practiced in context. Without context, students cannot remember or use new vocabulary. You've probably heard these arguments before (possibly on this podcast), but are they true? We discuss the pros and cons of context with our friend and teacher trainer (and former many other things!) Diederik Van Gorp.
Context – Tyranny or Triumph (with Diederik Van Gorp) – Transcript
Tracy: Hello, everyone. Welcome back. Today we have a special guest, and this guest you've never listened to. His experience and valuable input in ELT. We have Diederik.
Diederik Van Gorp: Hello, thank you. I'm very happy to be here.
Ross Thorburn: It's awesome to have you on.
Tracy: Would you like to introduce yourself?
Diederik: Yes. I'm Diederik. I was born in Belgium. I got into ELT in 2001. I took my Trinity certTESOL in 2001 in winter. Pretty much went straight to China to teach, and then 17 years later I am still doing this.
It brought me to very interesting places. I worked in China. I worked in Hong Kong. I worked in the States. I worked in Uzbekistan, Spain, Italy, and now, I'm back in China.
I worked in, I think, probably every aspect of the industries. Obviously, teaching. Teaching all ages and levels. I was a DOS so I managed schools.
I managed larger regions. The materials. I was an examiner. I wrote materials to prep people for exams.
I'm a teacher trainer, mainly for Trinity. I'm also a moderator for Trinity, so I go to other courses and check if they meet the requirements, and now I'm a certTESOL trainer for Trinity. That's mainly what I do at the moment.
Ross: That's it for the podcast. [laughs] It's so much experience I took 15 minutes. You were also my boss for a little while.
Ross: Correct. As I said earlier, you were probably the first person to make me realize it was more to teaching English than just flashcards and fly swats.
Ross: Today we're going to do, I think, two parts. Over at context, we could talk about, first of all, the Trinity advantages first.
Ross: Then talk about the tyranny. I thought we can call this context, "Triumph or Tyranny."
Advantages of Context
Ross: Let's start off with talking about some of the advantages of context. I don't know if it's since I did my diploma, it's become more and more popular or if it's just something that I've become more and more aware of. It's definitely something I've been borderline obsessed about. Might be in the past, probably too much.
What of your experiences been with that and your opinions on it?
Diederik: Very similar. At some point, I would say it was the only thing that I would not question in like a sacred cow context. The context has to be right, has to be relevant, has to be real‑world.
When you see a lesson and the context is absolutely right. It's beautiful. The students are so talkative. They keep on going because it works but getting the context totally right is very hard.
What I tell trainee teachers, "When you think about context, the more WH questions you can answer, probably the tighter the context is." If you can answer only one, then you probably just have a topic, let's say, what.
The why and the when are also very important, and who are you talking to. Sometimes that's maybe one that you can't quite answer, and then you feel there's something missing in the free practice, or whatever.
For example, there was one lesson I observed that was really good but it was something was lacking. It was about movies, so they were recommending movies to each other, but in the end, it was mechanical. They were doing it because they were nice students and it was nice language.
In the end, there was something lacking and it was the why. Why are we talking about movies? Why are we even recommending it to each other?
Just a simple thing like, "Well, today's a rainy day. OK, let's go to the cinema." There's a lot more purpose to it.
I still think that the why is one of the more crucial ones.
Ross: It almost seems to be like a task out come type thing. That if we had this task, then what's the result we need to get at the end?
Diederik: Exactly. I think task‑based learning has had a massive influence on it. Especially it seems to be that one of it needs to be relevant, needs to be real world.
Tracy: Because I think the most important thing of having the context, why the students are really motivated, because there is a connection. You talk about real‑life situations. Even though sometimes maybe something the students haven't experienced it yet, but they can see there might be a chance in the future and they can be in that situation.
I think that's the intrinsic motivation for learners to be connected to that context.
Diederik: Yes. It's too often forgotten, "Why are we here?" It's because you need to use it outside of the classroom, there are no flashcards there.
Diederik: Hey, you're not going to rank or turn over flashcards and use the word in a sentence.
Tracy: I was thinking, maybe we can give a little bit explanation about what context is, because when I was doing teacher training, it seems so many teachers that couldn't fully understand what it is.
Ross: I was thinking about this today, sort of the context continuum perhaps. Maybe at one end, you've got turning over name and flashcards, where there's no who, what, why, when or where. We're just in a language classroom naming flashcards or the fill in the blank. What is it like, "Bob went to work by blank."
Ross: Who's Bob? Where does he work, that kind of thing.
Diederik: I think at the other extreme, was maybe when the context is real, or the students might believe it to be real. Like, "We're actually talking about something that is," for example, "where are we going to go on our class outing?" Or, "Can you give me advice about learning English?" Or the teacher one, where the teacher comes in and brings in a problem and pretend it's real life, and the students then react to that.
Ross: See? That is being at the far end of the continuum where it's real or you're pretending it to be real. I think slightly further down is that cafe type of situation. Maybe where, "We're in a Cafe and we're having small talk about this," and it's obviously pretend, but it's maybe realistic. Then gradually that fades away all the way down to naming flashcards.
Diederik: Basically, any language doesn't exist in isolation, especially fixed expressions or sentences on larger utterances. You need context, what was said before that? What comes after, but beyond the sentence?
Tracy: I'd like to share an interesting story. After a teacher, she told me, her daughter went back home, and then she asked her, "What did you learn in your English class today?" Her daughter said, "Oh, we learned something about subject plus beaver plus I‑N‑G."
She said, "OK, can you make a sentence?" "No, no, no. That's what I learned, subject plus beaver plus I‑N‑G."
I think that's so interesting that definitely she remembered the form, but I think the teacher didn't really explore the context and when, in what situation you were using this form.
Ross: I think you've found something even further along the continuum, beyond the flashcard thing.
Tracy: Yeah, yeah.
Disadvantages of Context
Ross: Diederik. Can you remember the moment when you started to sacrifice or question the sacred cow?
Diederik: Yeah. A little bit of context first, of course.
Diederik: When I became a trainer for the Trinity diploma course, a relevant context ‑‑ real‑world context ‑‑ is a must‑pass criteria. For whatever reason, you cannot justify this context to. That it has to match your learner's needs, interests, everything, then it's a straight fail.
OK, but then you sometimes see actually lessons that are quite interesting, students are engaged, there is a topic that obviously is new for them, they never thought about, and it's a straight fail, and I think that's a bit difficult to justify. That's where I think that something can become a bit of a straitjacket.
There's so many interesting things and so much languages that you cannot immediately think of a clear context, while the context might be totally new to your learners that you just exclude it from it. That's when if context is the only guiding principle, there's so much language you can't cover, so many interesting topics that you can't do.
I had a lesson on poetry. It was a straight fail. Teachers go all out of their way to come up with a context, waste 15 minutes to set something up, and you think, "Those 15 minuets could have been spent better," because it has to be a real world, so they come up with very elaborate contexts like, "Yeah, this is something I can imagine to be real."
Also, there's quite a lot of language that there's no specific context for it. Talking about your childhood, talking about music, favorites, so it's like, when do you actually talk about your childhood? So you have to go all out of the way to create some kind of situation where you might be talking to somebody like that. Is that really worth all the time? I don't think so.
Tracy: I think that's why I noticed when I was a trainer for CerTESOL and also assessing DIP, I feel like most of the teachers there are choosing topics like travel, holidays, and work‑related.
Diederik: Yes. Airport...
Diederik: And everything is real, and it becomes so limiting.
Diederik: There was once a lesson about a religious cult that I saw.
Diederik: It was fascinating, but obviously, it was a straight fail, because you can't begin to justify it. Not...
Ross: [laughs] Unless you're in a cult.
Diederik: [laughs] Yes, exactly! It's the same. Let's say, predictions. Actually, a fun context is fortune telling. That would be a straight fail, so you go into something a bit more boring like career consultancy.
You do limit it a bit if it has to be absolutely real world. I think sometimes there's a bit of negative backwash of a qualification like that becomes gospel, and that people who almost brainwashed by that experience constantly think, "Oh, it has to be relevant," that when they leave, they get a bit too much like that, and then they limit themselves in the real world. Well, it's just one thing.
When I was a student of English in high school, what we talked about, it was about racism, homophobia. We were 16, 17. Those were not the topics of our choice, you know? We want to maybe talk about music or something.
But there are obviously had something a bit... We want them to talk about social issues, and ethical dilemmas, and all the thing...
Ross: This is an English class, is it?
Diederik: We would never really had vocabulary lessons. I remember moving to England, I didn't know the words for Hoover.
Diederik: I could talk about social issues...
Ross: He means "vacuum cleaner," if you're American.
Diederik: In that context, you would limit yourself. I mean, the world of a 16‑year‑old and maybe many people back then maybe didn't travel that much. "What are you interested in?" "Nothing."
Diederik: "Nirvana, The Red Hot Chili Peppers..."
Ross: Even that, I think we were talking about this earlier. Even that, what's the context for talking about music? Where's this task out come for that? It's very difficult to pinpoint something.
Diederik: It's very hard.
Ross: Beyond going, you're in a cafe and music comes on in Starbucks. You say to you friend I don't like this.
Diederik: You want to change it. You want to go to the jukebox.
Ross: We scraped all our money together. We only had [inaudible 11:26] . We could only choose the one song in the jukebox. That's it.
Diederik: That was an interesting thing as well. You were talking about these ethical dilemmas. Actually, when a teacher went out of the way and would talk about something you're interested in, you didn't like it.
I remember teaching something around Nirvana which was very popular back in the day. That's like, "No, no, no. That's our music. You don't touch this. This is not the classroom topic."
Ross: Yeah. It seems like there was this underlying assumption that all language is used to achieve a goal, isn't there? But, of course, it's really not. If you think about this conversation, what's our goal to record it?
Ross: Why? There's no goal.
Diederik: We should put waffling maybe a bit more on the pedestal. Today the context is we're going to waffle.
Ross: Yeah. If you actually looked at this sort of maybe the origins of language, a lot of it comes down to forming relationships with people gossiping so that people can adhere to social standards. Even just things like thinking. The whole idea that is it possible to think if you don't know a language? Maybe it's not.
The person you speak to the most in your life is yourself in your own head. What's the communication or the odds in there? You write a diary. Why? What's the point that you see?
Diederik: That's a very good point. A lot is bonding. Sometimes, you showing empathy or something. Actually, not because you're friends.
Ross: To wrap up then, do we have any rules or guidance or guidelines for teachers of when is it useful to adhere to context? When is it useful to stab the sacred cow?
Diederik: My most recent experience of learning a language just a few years ago in Spain, I really didn't like to first stage of the lesson. It's setting the context and engaging to steer it.
I don't need to see a picture of a closed shop. Let's just practice the language.
Give my feedback on if I'm using the vocabulary correctly. The phrases are how much those had cost? I know that. There you could use that language.
Ross: I've seen a closed shop before.
Tracy: Do you think it's because of the learner like a young learner or adult learners? Do you think it's related?
Diederik: I was thinking about it. Also, it had to do with my level. I was very much A1.
You've got clothing items. It's basically you're in a shop. You'll ask how much it costs, what is my size? It's very concrete.
Once it becomes less concrete, then indeed, you do maybe have to spend a bit more time on the context. Once you're into phrases like, "Don't worry. I'll pick you up," or something, then you do need context.
At least, brainstorm ideas for context. Maybe at the lower level, sometimes it's better to just spend less time on that and just get to the practice which I guess happens in teaching learners on low levels.
Tracy: Thank you so much, Diederik, for coming to our podcast.
Diederik: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.