A letter to the teachers of English: 51Contextualize the language you use in the classes [Archives:2004/736/Education]

May 10 2004

Dr..M.N.K.Bose ([email protected])
Associate Professor of English,
Faculty of Arts, Ibb.

Dear Fellow teachers,
In an earlier letter I have told you the importance of classroom language, the kind and the amount of English you speak in the classroom while teaching English; experts call this 'metalanguage' and this is, in fact, what helps your learners to a large extent to acquire English from. This language should be simple, understandable and meaningful to the learners; this is the language you use incidentally to give instructions such as 'Open your book at page number such and such', 'Bring me a chalk, will you?', Have you done your homework?', Keep quite', 'Listen to me carefully without looking at the book' etc. This is also called 'teacher talk', and experts say that this is similar to the 'mother's talk' to their babies in the mother tongue and has the same effect.
In this letter, I would like to share some ideas about how to contextualize your language in the classroom, or how to use the language in contexts. Why should we use English in contexts? In order to make it meaningful and useful for learning. It is a fact that the English that we use in the classroom is the major, in many cases the only, source from which our learners learn it. It is, therefore, important that we use English in such a way that they understand it and contexts will help in this process to a large extent. That is why we should use English in contexts familiar to them, especially at the beginning stage; for example, about their lives, their festivals, their food habits, their surroundings etc. Because some of us use unfamiliar contexts at times, we have to resort to the use of Arabic excessively in order to make them understand. The Crescent English Course materials need to be adapted to your situations; some of the names in the books at the beginning level (for example, Sue) need to be changed.
Another important thing in contextualizing is to see that the sentences we speak are cohesive (grammatically connected) and coherent (communicatively connected). Look at the following example taken from Henry Widdowson's book:
1. A: What happened to the crops?
2. A: What happened to the crops?
B: The crops were destroyed by the rain.
B: They were destroyed by the rain.
A: When were the crops destroyed by the rain?
A: When?
B: The crops were destroyed by the rain last week. B: Last week.

According to him, the sentences in conversation 1 appear to be related but they are not cohesive, but those in conversation 2 are cohesive because they are fused together. If we recollect our use of English in the classroom, we can think of several occasions when we speak sentences like those in conversation 1. Some of us teach our students to answer questions in complete sentences, for example, 'What is your name? My name is ))))-.' This is alright when we teach our students question-answer in grammar classes, but we should also tell them that they needn't answer such questions in complete sentences in casual conversations; no one answers this question in a complete sentence in the mother tongue. Another activity where we can practise this kind of answering briefly is reading; questions to test their comprehension can be answered briefly, not necessarily in complete sentences unless there is a need for it.
Let's try to use English in useful and familiar contexts. Good luck.
Yours fraternally,