Context as classroom killer

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Our memories from grade school are wrong, particularly is we are ESL teachers. The truth is that silence is the specter haunting most classroom. When the room is morgue quiet the teacher assumes the students have not understood, and in turn that they (the teacher) have done something wrong. It’s why so much effort is put into creating lesson context; so that the students are engaged and want to participate in class.

In theory.

The problem is that no one ever consults students on what they think about this context, and therefore it constantly has flaws. The worst of these flaws is when the the context seems a bit inflated (John McWhorter has an interesting quote about that[i]). A problem I never though I would encounter was students taking the context too seriously. They sometimes give the impression that anyone actually cares about validity of whether or not the blue lamp is indeed on the brown table. And in their defense, this means that the students you have are actually interested in doing a good job.

So in todays’ class I came to find out that my students weren’t entirely comfortable talking about giving lifestyle advice. Specifically, they didn’t have a lot of confidence that they were capable of giving good advice (as if the first person they would encounter in the English speaking world is someone desperately needing a therapist). So you give them the exercise (“look at this smoker! What should we tell him?”) and they blank, convinced that this HTML code’s future lung cancer can be saved by their words. And they hesitate.

After they stare at these images of people needing advice long enough, you tell your students that you really don’t care what answer they give so long as the functional language is correct. Suddenly, answers flow out of them; to the man who’s house if burning down “you should really walk your dog”; to the man recently fired “you had better take a relaxing vacation”; to the person with a drinking problem “you might want to have another drink”.

Good enough, me’thinks.

This isn’t to say that context is pointless. Actually, for all teachers who find themselves teaching functional language it is actually the glue keeping your whole lesson together. But it can be more of a determent than a boon, and you should have a modification at the ready in case you hit this problem.

[i] The hands-on approach to language acquisition is reinforced by the fact that, in most places in the world, there are no materials available for any but a few languages to be taught formally through books and instruction, such that one usually learns other languages “live” through imitation and practice, not through written drills of sentences like My cousin’s friend is wearing a shirt, studiously corrected by a teacher, or through listening to tapes purporting to depict speakers in their “cultural context” (which in practice generally means having four characters attend some indigenous event, mention how nice it is, and then proceed to converse at length about the fact that their cousins’ friends are wearing shirts).

John McWhorter
-The Power of Babel

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