The Unraveled Teacher

Teaching in Context for the Middle and High School Language Arts Classroom

What is teaching in context vs. teaching in isolation? Specifically, this question often comes up in the realm of grammar, but it applies to several areas of Language Arts. When teaching a skill in context, it means that skill is attached to a larger reading. If you’re reading The Giver, for example, you would find teachable skills that present themselves in that book and teach those as they come up in your students’ reading.

When I moved into a 10th grade ELA classroom to take over for a teacher that had to leave mid-year, I was still a very new teacher. The students were really eager to give me unsolicited opinions about what they disliked about the class before I arrived. Something that the students lamented was the weekly vocabulary tests that included 25 alphabetized words. Now, students will complain about having to do work, and I know these guys were trying to lessen their loads by testing out the new teacher, but I also happen to hate teaching vocabulary in isolation. I wasn’t even aware about studies regarding contextual teaching, but I knew that vocabulary lessons would be more meaningful if the words were part of a reading. It was the first thing I changed about how that particular class was run.

What teaching English Language Arts really boils down to is giving students as much reading and writing opportunity as possible.

We learn new words when we encounter them multiple times through reading. Have you ever had a student who is very well read but regularly mispronounces big words? Those students are picking up vocabulary because they read a lot, but they haven’t necessarily heard the words spoken before so they sometimes mispronounce them. This actually a wonderful thing and it perfectly illustrates why you need to give your students as much opportunity to read as possible. Grammar, vocabulary, sentence variety and structure, the use of descriptive and figurative language follows when students are given the chance to encounter it through reading.

It was much more fun to pull vocabulary words from Macbeth that to drill random vocabulary and definitions with my students. I made them create their own skits incorporating Shakespearean vocabulary. Many of those students will actually retain much of that vocabulary because of the way they had to interact with it in class. There were no definitions quizzes.

The Difficulties of Teaching in Context

Teaching a skill in the context of a reading does put a lot of work on the teacher. It requires going beyond worksheets and recall quizzes which are easy to acquire and grade. Before you assign a novel, short story, poem, or any other text, you need to comb through it for teachable skills that your students need to work on. I’ve been using the HMH Collections textbook for several years now because it’s the required textbook. It’s obvious that these textbooks are attempting to rely on teaching in context, but I always feel that they fall a little short for how I want to accomplish teaching and learning in my classroom. I supplement heavily with novel units that I’ve created over the years. This is where I really go to town on contextual teaching with my students. I tend to modify what I teach from class to class and year to year based on what my students need. It’s a lot of work, but I know it’s the right way to help students retain and apply skills.

If you want to start doing more in terms of contextual teaching, just pick something as a starting point. I use the vocabulary example because it’s really one of the easiest ways to make that shift into contextual teaching.

Poetry is a wonderful way to teach skills in context! To supplement the 6th Grade HMH Collections textbook, give my lyric poetry lesson and quiz a try. Let me know what you think!

If you want your high school students to learn how to apply the use of spectacular imagery to their own writing, take a look at this writing activity that comes with a written sample project. Using a sample writing piece is a great way to get students to elevate their own writing.


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