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Strategy 6: Contextualizing Grammar

Research has shown consistently that grammatical structures will become internalized only if the learners use the structures for meaningful, communicative purposes (e.g., DeKeyser & Sokalski, 1996; Salaberry, 1997; Shrum & Glisan, 2000, for review; VanPatten & Cadierno, 1993).

“ ...[I]f words take on their meanings when used in connection to each other, learners will need to experience “whole” contextualized language (stories, legends, poems, listening selections, cartoons, songs, recipes, etc.) with an emphasis on meaning-making and sense-making before a focus on form can be a productive instructional activity (Long, 1991)” (Shrum & Glisan, 2000, p. 151). Classes that focus on language form for the purpose of increasing comprehension and meaning have been shown to result in greater language gains than classes in which no focus on form is available or in which forms are learned as meaningless structures, not connected to any meaningful communicative act or applied in any way (Lightbown & Spada, 1990, in Shrum & Glisan, 2000). That is, focus on form is only useful if this knowledge can be used by the learners in a new way at a later time.

According to Shrum and Glisan (1994): language that is introduced and taught in context presents real situations that encompass the physical setting, the purpose of the exchange, the roles of the participants, and the socially acceptable norms of interaction, in addition to the medium, topic, tone, and register of the exchange (Hymes, 1974). Grammatical structures that might otherwise be devoid of context become an integral part of the communicative acts that occur in contexts (p. 23). In discussing the concept of contextualization, Tedick (2003) cites examples from Widdowson (1978) to show that the context in which language occurs overrides grammatical function to determine meaning.

Context refers to the topic and situation of a communicative act that are necessary for understanding (Walz, 1989). Walz (1989) points out that a number of language textbooks provide contextualized grammar exercises. These exercises provide thematically related sentences requiring mechanical manipulation of a grammatical form, but often do not force students to understand. Therefore, contextualization of mechanical drills in this sense is certainly not the same thing as creating a context (Walz, 1989, p. 162). Contextualization involves meaningful language use for real communicative purposes and helps students to understand how meaning is constructed by language users (be they writing, speaking, reading, or listening) depending upon context.

In CBI, content provides the context in which language (functions, structures, vocabulary) is taught and used.


Mike Smart’s unit—From Godzilla to the Ring: An Overview of Japanese Film: Lesson 1

In this lesson Mike does a very good job having his students learn and practice comparatives and question structures in the context of the theme related to Japanese and U.S. film.


Barbara C. Anderson’s unit—Le Moyen Âge en France: Lesson 02 (During phase)

During this phase of the lesson, Barbara has her students work in groups of four to research a specific topic (e.g., explore pre-selected historical web sites) and complete a graphic organizer. Group members are required to cooperate in order to list possible causes and effects for their event on a graphic organizer. The final task requires them to utilize their findings to write a one-paragraph summary in the past tense. While completing this task, students will have a chance to practice language/grammar in context using the structures included in the lesson’s objectives (e.g., past tense and expressions of cause and effect) in order to describe historical figures and event.


Pam Weseley's unit—Stereotypes of the French: Lesson 02 (Focused Learning phase)

In this particular phase of the lesson, students, after having completed the assigned reading, discuss their impressions of the text and the stereotypes described within. During this time, student can express themselves and share their thoughts in French (this pushes students to be active and produce orally—maximizing output). While performing this task, students have to use specific language and expressions that are part of Pam’s lesson language objectives: in order to share their thoughts on the topic, students will need to express agreement/disagreement and give reasons for their opinions related to what was read. By setting up the task in such a way, Pam can be certain that her students will have practiced the language in a meaningful context.



DeKeyser, R., & Sokalski, K. (1996). The differential role of comprehension and production practice. Language Learning, 46, 613-642.

Hymes, D. (1974). Foundation of sociolinguistics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania .

Lightbown, P. & Spada, N. (1990). How languages are learned. NY: Oxford University Press.

Long, M. (1991). The least a second language acquisition theory needs to explain. TESOL Quarterly, 24, 649-666.

Salaberry, R. (1997). The role of input and output practice in second language acquisition. Canadian Modern Language Review, 53, 422-453.

Shrum, J. L., & Glisan, E. W. (1994). Teacher's handbook: Contextualized language instruction. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

Shrum, J. L. & Glisan, E. W. (2000). Teacher's handbook: Contextualized language instruction (2nd Ed.). Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

Tedick, D. (2003). CAPRII: Key Concepts to Support Standards-Based and Content-Based Second Language Instruction. [online at CoBaLTT website]

VanPatten, B., & Cadierno, T. (1993). Explicit instruction and input processing. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 15, 225-241.

Walz, J. (1989). Context and contextualized language practice in foreign language teaching. Modern Language Journal, 73, 161-168.

Widdowson, H. G. (1978). Teaching language as communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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