All about the context in English classes and why it is important

How to set context for an English Lesson

How to set context for an English Lesson


  • Teaching qualifications
  • Methodology

Let’s conduct an experiment. Think about what the following phrases might mean:


Sorry, I don’t have any.

It’s boiling hot!

When thinking about the answers, imagine who is saying each of the phrases, what he / she is trying to say, why the person is saying this, where exactly he / she is doing it. Here are the possible answers (yours may differ):

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  • Perhaps a grandmother is offering some tea to her beloved grandson, who has just returned from the street on a winter’s day to warm up in her kitchen.

Or maybe you’re sitting in a coffee shop and the waiter brings you some tea instead of coffee. And you say in surprise, “Tea?”, trying to explain with a stern look that you did not order this drink.

  • An ordinary situation: you are on your way home in the evening after work, and suddenly two big men approach you asking for a cigarette. You answer with confidence, “Sorry, I don’t have any”.

Or another one: at the checkout in a clothing store you want to buy a plastic bag, and the shop assistant apologizes, because they are all over.

  • You enter the class of teenagers in the 5th lesson. The windows are closed. It’s May. You almost lose consciousness and say to the students, “It’s boiling hot!” And they say to you, “And we’ve just had a PE lesson.”

You may want to have a cup of coffee between your lessons. You come to the staff room, turn on the kettle, pour water. The aroma of coffee fills the room… and suddenly the bell rings for the next lesson. You’ll have to drink cold coffee again because it’s “boiling hot!” And you still have to run for the register.

The answers to the previous task may well serve as contexts for the use of those three phrases.

As you can see, it is the situation that determines the possible meanings of each phrase. That is, if, for example, you want to show students in your lessons how to use a phrase to get something from someone ask, you need to put this phrase into a certain communicative situation so that the meaning you have planned is accurate and students can identify it.

This is the context in which it all begins. Without it, the meanings of words, expressions, and grammatical constructions are ambiguous.

It is ambiguity that causes difficulties for our students,  although it is ambiguity that is often the source of humor, jokes and interesting language memes. Again, as a rule, the understanding of different meanings indicates a fairly advanced level of language use.

Important: Every time we use language (vocabulary, grammar), it is in a clearly defined situation. Those who use language know exactly where they are and why they are interacting.

4 types of context

Real context. This is something real that can be discussed. For example, when students bring their favourite toys to class, or when you spill coffee on yourself during the lesson.

Realistic context. These are situations we may encounter in real life, but they do not occur during the lesson. For example, going to the supermarket or restaurant, buying clothes, cleaning or cooking.

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Implied context. These are familiar topics or topics related to your students’ lives. Maybe they’re all watching the same series, and you can talk about its characters. Or it could be a fun situation in your classroom, regular classes that you all do, or habits that you have as a teacher – all of these can be used.

Imaginary context. You can also imagine different situations. For example, who will win Eurovision or what would happen if you won a million dollars in the lottery. Of course, you can use a combination of these contexts. The main thing is that it has to be an exciting situation in which students are immersed.

Important: If everyone understands why they speak English, that's a good context.

How to set context?

Usually, the authors of authentic textbooks that we use to teach English have already taken care of everything. However, the textbooks are written for perfect conditions, and most will agree that there is no textbook that would meet all the needs of each student.

Often, the context in the textbook may not be very appropriate for students, or even boring. We don’t need it, so as teachers, we can create the right context. How to do it?

Step 1. Choose the form that you need to teach students (vocabulary, grammar) in the textbook.

Step 2. Imagine how you use these words, expressions, or grammar. When do you usually use these forms?

Step 3. Imagine yourself in a situation where you would naturally use these forms, and a situation that would be interesting to students.

Step 4. Use these situations and the target language in your class.

Often the context of a lesson can dictate its type: reading, listening, writing, speaking, grammar or vocabulary. At the heart of the following ideas are students, and all ways to set the context include performing a specific task.

Reading / listening

  • Place pictures showing keywords from the text  on the board and ask students to discuss what they see. After that,  students make predictions about what is in the text. This will work well later: when students first read, they can quickly scan and organize vocabulary as it appears in the text, and continue to refine the predictions they made earlier.
  • Use headings and images from texts. Students can discuss them and make their own predictions about the content of the text. Newspaper headlines, for example, often contain abbreviated lexical and grammatical forms that conform to unique grammatical rules.

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  • Use pictures from the text and ask students to discuss what they might feel in each situation or to share if something similar happened to them.
  • Make a word cloud from the text, and discuss with students what the reading / listening text might be about.
  • Allow students to listen to / read an excerpt from the text and imagine what will happen next.


  • Use a negative example. This often provokes a discussion about what would be right to say in such a situation.
  • Show videos or photos of the situation and ask students what they usually say in such situations in their native languages.
  • Write the expression on the board and suggest 4 different situations. Students should discuss and decide in which case this expression would be inappropriate.
  • Use dialogues, movies, videos.


  • Use sentences with false information. For example, if you are going to study the degree of comparison of adjectives, ask students to discuss sentences that contain this construction (Are people today happier than they were 50 years ago? Is it better to study English in class or online? What things are you better at than your best friend?)
  • Offer students a quiz that already has a grammar structure that you will study. For example, a quiz about famous people to study the topic ‘Past Simple of the verb TO BE’.
  • Drawing is a great way to arouse interest, especially if you have good artistic skills. You can try to draw a situation or people in different places gradually, encouraging students to guess what the final picture is.

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Of course, there are many ways to convey the meaning of a language item to students. Our task is to make students understand for what purpose and where to use different words, expressions or grammar, and that this goal is meaningful. So choose a topic, form and context and don’t forget to maintain that context throughout the lesson.

Article authors & editors
  • Yulia Chorna

    Yulia Chorna


    DELTA Module 1, CELTA certified teacher of General & Business English



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