Context developing activities

It is widely recognized that second language (L2) mental lexicon must be independent of its first language (L1) counterpart, if learners are to use the target language effectively and fluently.

The purpose for the L2 vocabulary is to be stored in much the same way as L1, which has two significant implications:

  • learners do not access their L2 lexicon by means of translating and so can save processing time while improving their fluency and
  • L1 does not interfere and so the target language produced is more native-like.

It is easy to observe that there is a whole area of functional language, usually in the form of fixed expressions or sentence frames, which is impossible to acquire on productive level unless learners have developed their own independent mental lexicons in L2. The reason is clear-cut. These items cannot be efficiently accessed through the process of translating from L1 to L2.

This is also true of other areas of vocabulary, such as some collocations or discourse markers. Take the word 'actually' for example which is very frequent in spoken English. Most learners' dictionaries give definitions which begin with 'used in/as/to ...' followed by a description of context in which the word usually occurs. This single fact suggests that learners may have to link certain items of vocabulary to context rather than anything else.

Clearly, if we are to help the learners acquire independent L2 lexicons, we need to highlight the importance of the context in which the language naturally occurs. Once the idea of context playing a decisive role in the choice of language is firmly established, we can begin to introduce varieties of the language used in different contexts, such as cultural and regional, social or situational. However, the reality of L2 instruction heavily exploiting EFL materials rife with all too notorious fill-in exercises, where sentences are artificially constructed and/or lacking any context whatsoever is rather saddening.

On the other hand, this feature of many coursebooks provides learners with plenty of opportunities to develop their own context for the language presented. Here are a few activities that can be used with this purpose.

1. Odd one out
Write up an expression (eg. That's none of your business!) on the board and supply four different situations. The students have to identify in which situation the phrase would be inappropriate. You may follow it up with questions penetrating the context deeper and also expand the line into a short dialogue.

2. Brainstorming
Write up an expression (eg. Hold on.) and have the students brainstorm situations in which the expression would be likely to occur. Then follow it up in the same way as with the previous activity.

3. Fill-in exercise
Infamous fill-in exercises too can be adapted for use in context developing activities. First use the activity as usual and then pick one or two sentences and go on to ask: "Who was most likely to say it?" Supply a few options for the students to choose from or invite them to suggest their own examples.

4. Dialogue
Present a short dialogue, or part thereof, with a consciousness-raising activity helping the students notice a particular language feature (eg. weak forms). Drill the dialogue chorally and then have the students in pairs answer questions such as:

  • Who are the two people? Make up their names.
  • How old are they?
  • What is their relationship?
  • Where are they?
  • What time is it?
  • Why...? (2-3 questions)


Once they finish, put two pairs together and have them discuss their answers. The purpose of this stage is to find any logical inconsistencies and fix them by supplying additional explanations. The students can form new groups and continue in the same way until they are satisfied with the outcome which they can then present. Finally, drill it again chorally and individually in pairs. Also, consider whether any of the situations presented may be suitable to act out!

Soap operas or romantic films are a particularly rich source of colloquial language suitable for this type of activity. For the more famous Hollywood films it is also easy to find complete subtitles on the internet which makes the preparation easier. On the other hand, the danger is that the students may know the particular scene which would effectively stop them from using their imagination.

Here, for example, is a short exchange from Notting Hill. Note the high occurrence of words from the semantic field of 'Food' and functional language 'Offering'.

A: Uh, would you like a cup of tea before you go?
B: No.
A: Coffee?
B: No.
A: Orange juice? Probably not. Um, something else cold. Uh... Coke? Water? Some disgusting sugary drink pretending to have something to do with fruits of the forest?
B: No.
A: Would you like something to eat? Uh, something to nibble? Um, apricots soaked in honey? Quite why, no one knows, because it stops them tasting of apricots... and makes them taste like honey, and if you wanted honey, you'd just buy a honey instead of... apricots. Um, but nevertheless, there we go there. They're yours if you want them.
B: No.
A: Do you always say "no" to everything?
B: No... I'd better be going.

Unlike the first three activities which, depending on the expression, may be easily adapted for any levels, the last activity in particular should be attempted only with intermediate+ students as it requires a high degree of understanding the language input and ability to respond quickly when challenged by other students. In return, however, it provides ample opportunity for engaging discussion in which the students slowly expand and fine-tune their story so that it's coherent with the language presented.

Jiri Brazda, teacher, Czech Republic

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