EFL 4 Digital Natives Part II: Context Is Crucial

Here is a list of words. Try to commit them to memory: you’ll be quizzed on them and asked to reproduce this list a few weeks from now.

  • rings
  • archery
  • budget
  • minister
  • brownfield
  • rights

Despite your familiarity with both the words and their definitions, I’d be willing to wager a Learner’s Dictionary of your choice that most of you would not be able to retrieve the list from your memory in a month’s time. We can safely assume, therefore, that ELL’s would have a far harder time of it.  A vocabulary lesson based on such a list would be failure pretty much assured.

But what if you could “hook” these words to a narrative… say a news item about the 2012 Summer Olympics which will see the famous five rings flying over London; and in which a government minister is trying to play down fears of massive budget overspend on the Games by promising better use of brownfield sites, for example holding the archery competition in a former fuel depot, and by reporting that proceeds from the sales of licensing rights to the 2012 Games mascots are much better than forecast?

And how much better would the retention of this lexis be if the news item in question were audiovisual, tightly scripted, and illustrated with zoom-ins and panning camera shots of the people, locations and items being talked about? How much more impactful if the news item were not an bespoke creation for a textbook or a course DVD, but rather an actual video package carrying the credibility of the BBC or ITN or CNN, and available online for viewing and re-viewing at the learner’s convenience?

Clearly, this approach would be superior for learners in terms of interest, of negotiated meaning, and above all retention. And fortunately, that is what is happening in EFL today: authentic materials are taking over the classroom, slowly elbowing aside the classic “Two return tickets to Brighton, please” taped artificial dialogues and other vestiges of the TEFL industry’s early attempts to go beyond the textbook and the chalkboard. But while language teachers and linguists seem to buy in to the authentic materials movement on various levels, I nevertheless get the feeling that they underestimate the power of the concept of Context in the overall language learning dynamic.

For the role of Context is not just to provide a more realistic or engaging language setting: it’s much more fundamental than that. When we teach language contextually, we are providing precious help to the learner by allowing him or her to filter the language through a logical, mental framework often validated by personal experience (a work setting vs. a party setting pre-disposes the learner towards entirely different communicative interpretations of the language chunks that will follow; a concept often referred to as the register of the communication). We are thus engaging the learner’s intelligence, from the outset, on a level beyond the purely linguistic. Furthermore, by providing context, we allow the learner to pick up all the non-verbal clues, hints and messages around the language – the glint of wistfulness in a glance; the hard edge in an irritated voice; the slump in the shoulders of a defeated opponent – that accelerates the all-important negotiation of meaning.

Make My Day (context = meaning)

This meaningful context thus becomes not just a “nice to have,” but a vital ingredient that provides what language learners would typically have at their disposal anyway in real-life meaning-negotiation situations, but which has so often been artificially stripped away in the language lab or classroom. Context synthesizes form, use, and meaning all at the same time, constituting a veritable Swiss army knife of pedagogical value. It’s why language learning in an immersive environment – in which the learner is bombarded by context all day long — is far more efficient than learning in the learner’s L1 country; and why communicative tasks work so well in forcing learners to associate specific language chunks with goal-driven, real-world, meaningful behavior.

Yet we still see far too many teachers draw up disembodied vocabulary lists; compendia of idioms or common collocations;  out-of-left-field grammar lessons; and random usage drills which seem to have been grown in a petri dish, devoid of any and all context. These materials and lessons lack not only situational meaning for their learners, but also fail to provide the kind of motivation that context often provides.

Because a key component of context is emotion, and there is no question by now that emotion is both a learning motivator and a learning facilitator. Our brains associate exposure to new information while in an emotive state to information that is important, information that should be retained. That’s why we forget an office phone number as soon as we don’t need it anymore, whereas we can remember every note in a guitar solo from a song we heard on a significant romantic encounter years or even decades ago. And there is no question that an authentic news package about a current world event; a clip from a blockbuster movie, or a chart-topping music video will convey more emotion – and thus encapsulate a lot more learning potential – than an artificial dialogue created specifically for the purposes of language instruction.

Emotion is particularly crucial in motivating teens and young adults. The reason why your average 16-year-old girl is keen on the latest Twilight sequel but couldn’t care less about modals and past participles is that one resonates strongly with who she is as a person, as a teen, and as a young woman buzzing with hormones; and the other is totally abstract and without meaning in her universe. One, in other words, creates an emotional response; the other does not. But if we divorce an item of learning achieved through a clip from Twilight from its context, we also lose the power of that emotion in creating retention of the learning, and thus we are back to square one.

So in order to leverage emotion to trigger learning, we need to not only use the right authentic materials — ones relevant to her age and interests, as input (see my previous post on input here) — but we also need to force ourselves to present all derived language learning from that input in, and only in, the context of that input, so that we avoid breaking the connection between emotion and language that works so well for this age group.

Allow students to connect with language, through moving the concept of context right to the front of the line in your teaching priorities, feeding it with the right input, and watch the kids come alive. If you engage them with meaning, with relevance, and with emotion, you will finally start getting through to them.

One Response to EFL 4 Digital Natives Part II: Context Is Crucial

  1. David says:

    I’m glad I got here and read this!!!!

    You are so right on so many levels. It is something that technology also allows us to do better – bring in the world to the “test tube” and artificial classroom. In doing so, in bringing the world with language, context facilitates acquisition of language.

    You guys are trying to do it in your own way – I’m also doing this with EnglishCentral. Basically there we have a video corpus of the English language. Right now, we are creating powerful ways to search it and pull up video clips of anything – say “asking for help” or “pronouns” or “past perfect tense”.

    But really love your comment about emotion. It is this egocentric and deep emotional commitment that makes for strong language learning.


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