Etymologically, the concept of context can be sourced to its Latin origin as texere/textere, referring to a weaving process or ‘to weave’ [1
]. The significance of context in language learning and teaching has had many proponents over time [2
]. It provides important reference points for meaning making in language learning. Its relationship with content is crucial as it gives meaning to content [2
]. Creating context can provide stimuli and helps to hook the new learning content with the learned or known [4
]. Neuroscience has confirmed that “the incorporation of context in teaching facilitates the efficient functioning of the brain by acknowledging the spheres of our realities” [5
] (p. 19). Creating context in a language lesson not only makes the learning interesting and/or motivates the learners, it can also activate the area of the brain that relates to learners’ experiences. That is, the use of context has advantages beyond an interesting or motivating lesson ‘starter’ in that it “provides avenues for storing information to be held in long-term memory” [5
] (p. 20). From this aspect, it facilitates the achievement of the sustainability of learning.
It needs to be acknowledged that it is the process of ‘contextualization’ rather than ‘static context’ that provides relevance for new learning content, and a hook for linking to past learning and possibilities for that in the future. Language without contextualization can appear as a jumbled collection of words in a list without any relevance or reference point for understanding. To have students activate their learning by providing a dynamic context for the lesson content provides a soft landing for students in terms of meaning making and their understanding. However, studies focusing on how to create foreign language learning lessons embracing context as a dynamic, purposeful strategy is less researched, and arguably very rare with specific reference to Chinese as a foreign language (CFL) teaching and learning.
The significance of this research is couched in efforts to support successful CFL teaching and learning, by foregrounding the importance of context in lesson designs. It provides evidence of actual CFL teaching where contextualization was a dynamic strategy implemented to assist with meaning making, understanding and memorization for young students learning the Chinese language. In direct opposition to universal methods of CFL based on textbooks, the approach investigated in this research demonstrates a pedagogy of contextualization and localization as the needs of local students, their home, school and communities, were encapsulated in the dynamic contexts created in the CFL classrooms.
2. Literature Review
A search of empirical studies revealed a tendency for context to be ‘treated’ as a taken-for-granted equivalent to ‘background’, or a decorative substitute for ‘location’, ‘environment’ and ‘circumstance’. The consequence of such a conceptual understanding is that context is understood as most frequently located within, and pertaining to, a description of the physical setting in second language teaching research [6
]. ‘Context-titled’ studies often include a description of a static background separate from the centered event or learning content with only occasional reference to the political and/or cultural domain. For example, Rosa’s [10
] study on language ideology revealed changes under different communicative or socio-political contexts could be identified and Yang’s [11
] research on the influence of educational reform context on teachers. In these studies, the concept of context was not examined beyond a very general account of the location where the research was conducted. Likewise, in the field of Chinese as a foreign language (CFL), there is ‘context’-related research [12
]. However, and similar to the issue noted above, ‘context’ itself was rarely studied as the research focus in a second language education, and the role context plays with reference to its practical application is rarely investigated.
Analogous to the anthropological domain of context, exploration into linguistic-focused context has been conducted, albeit moderately. For example, Liontas’ [15
] application of context in the construction of idiomatic meaning, focused on discursive context to enhance students’ understanding of idioms in foreign language learning. The researcher compared zero context against full context task designs [15
]. Similarly, Li [16
] conducted a study on linguistic context in relation to Chinese idiom learning. Both studies concluded that the linguistic context had a positive impact on idiom learning. These studies foreground teachers’ pedagogical use of linguistic context as sustaining language learning; however, they denote context as ‘surrounding text’, without delving into its anthropological dimension nor its dynamic function.
The contribution of this research is its intention to transcend the static view of context as a physical space or environment where activities occur [17
] and to also surpass the linguistic text-context domain. It critiques the limited view of context “as an immutable given or barely described at all” [20
] (p. 164). This research concretizes the constructionist view of context as a dynamic process of making connections and relevance between context and a text, an object or an experience. Based on an assumption that language teachers do construct or create dynamic contexts or contextualize their teaching to facilitate students’ language learning, this research asks: How do CFL Chinese background teachers design classroom activities in terms of contextualizing the teaching content to achieve pedagogical purposes? It seeks to identify the teachers’ forms of contextualization and activities designed to achieve contextualization for learning. It attempts to contribute to the current research gap in this area and provide insight into the application of context for CFL pedagogy at both practical and theoretical levels.
Design: This research is one arm of a longitudinal case study of a Research-oriented School-Engaged Teacher Education (ROSETE) program in an Australian university. This is a structured research education program equipping the participants with research and pedagogical training to undertake the teaching of CFL in local Australian schools. The University provided ethics approval (H11038) for all aspects of the longitudinal case study.
Whilst the longitudinal study sought to track the strategies, capabilities and skills implemented by the teacher-researchers in their daily CFL teaching, this research sought to investigate one of the overarching tenants of the ROSETE Program, that is, the importance of contextualizing teaching in response to knowing and addressing the local learners’ needs.
Data collection: The longitudinal study collected data through observations, documentation study (research theses) and interviews. The research informing this paper focused on answering one sub-question from the larger study: How do CFL Chinese background teachers design classroom activities in terms of contextualizing the teaching content to achieve pedagogical purposes? To this end, the dataset applicable to this paper are reflexive journal entries recorded in the evidentiary chapters of the theses written by the teacher-researchers. In order to refine the overall longitudinal dataset, thirty theses produced by the ROSETE teacher-researchers were located through the University’s publicly available thesis database and subjected to an initial screening for the key words “Chinese language teaching” in the thesis title and/or abstract. This data reduction exercise resulted in ten theses being identified as the eligible dataset for this research (Excluded from the results of the key word search were those theses that focused on teacher identity and/or professional development).
Data analysis: Theoretically informed thematic analysis (TA) and content analysis (CA) were employed in the data analysis process [22
]. By ‘theoretically informed’, [23
], it is assumed that researchers are “unlikely to be working from the naive perspective” [23
] (p. 1278). It can be argued that they are always informed or subconsciously influenced by some existing theories when coding and analyzing the data. In this research, as part of the first round of thematic analysis, the data were open-coded and categorized within a constructionism framework of context. The textual content of each reflexive journal entry was processed and themes emerged around the ‘forms of contextualization’ and ‘contextualizing activities’ (see Appendix A
). Based on the first-round themes, content analysis was adopted and the frequencies of the ‘forms of contextualization’ and ‘contextualizing activities’ were explored using descriptive statics. In each contextualizing episode, students’ responses (such as smiling, nodding, exclamation and clapping) corresponding to a specific contextualization form were also recorded based on frequency. The correlation between a particular category of contextualizing teaching and students’ response was also examined through applying the Spearman’s correlation coefficient.
5. Findings and Analysis
Data analysis revealed 207 valid contextualizing episodes. These episodes were identified in various forms including connections made to learners’ first language, visual and musical aids, body language and real-world objects. These forms of contextualization were designed to facilitate the learners’ meaning making and were accompanied by ‘contextualizing activities’ (contextualizing actions) (see Appendix A
). Implementing the contextualizing actions or activities included strategies such as teachers’ explanation, learning-by-doing games and competitions, traditional cultural activities and students’ experiential recall. It was found that the frequencies of different types/forms of contextualization and the contextualization actions the teachers used varied as did the frequencies of students’ in-class responses to these.
5.1. Contextualizing Forms
Gesture is one form of contextualization that the teacher-researchers applied in their teaching practices. To support students’ learning, teachers enacted gestures or body movements to indicate the change in the tonal pronunciation of Chinese, character meaning or the written order of strokes in each character. Another form identified was the use of images. The teacher-researchers utilized pictures, drawings or photos to illustrate and invigorate the content and to provide examples for students to have deeper impressions and interest in order to enhance comprehension. The use of video was another contextualization form implemented by the teacher-researchers to animate their lessons and engage students. The teacher-researchers also deconstructed Hanzì as another contextualization form whereby Chinese characters were dismantled into parts and these components were actively linked to images and etymology. As an additional contextualizing form, real objects were brought into class for demonstration or presented as classroom decorations. Students were reported to be more engaged in the atmosphere created by introducing real objects. In contrast to the above-mentioned visual forms, the teacher-researchers also contextualized their teaching across audio forms. A frequent audio contextualization was translanguaging for learning Chinese pronunciation. Utilizing the students’ first language (L1) of English was identified in the data, when teacher-researchers were actively comparing or imitating the Chinese pronunciation with similar pronunciation in the students’ mother tongue. Teacher-researchers also chose music or songs to connect to their teaching by using a strong rhythm, musical instruments or recorded songs to boost students’ content learning. The contextualizing forms in Table 1
below provide textual examples as evidence extracted from the research data.
These forms of contextualization are representations of the dynamic connections and interactions constructed in the teaching process, linking directly to the teaching content. That is, different teaching and learning content lend themselves more advantageously to specific forms of contextualization.
5.2. Contextualizing Activities
Data revealed that the contextualization of teaching and learning occurred across a range of the planned/designed activities. One of the distinct categories identified was that of the teacher-researcher’s explanation. In this theme of contextualizing activity, the teacher-researchers used their understanding or interpretation to justify or localize certain content. Although their explanations were not always precise and correct, examples of subjective explanations appeared to be very well received by the students.
Learning by doing was another category of contextualizing content identified in the data when teachers actively reinforced students’ learning through practice. The teacher-researchers also organized unique experiences for the students via games and/or competitive activities, aiming to retain or revise the teaching content. The use of traditional cultural activities was another category when teacher-researchers actively combined cultural content with students’ interests to support their focus and motivation to study the planned teaching content. The final category revealed in the data was the students’ experiential recall. In this contextualizing activity, teacher-researchers actively (albeit accidentally on some occasions) created opportunities for students to recall their former knowledge or life experience to comprehend complicated content, thereby making learning content more accessible for students to accept and compare to their localized life experiences. Examples from the data across each category identified above are presented in Table 2
These data excerpts provide a sample of the contextualizing content initiated by the teacher-researchers in support of student CFL learning, exemplifying how both can exert agency and interpretation to make meaningful connections with the lesson content.
All data were analyzed as per the aforementioned processes and the full categorized datasets were further examined to present descriptive statistics representing the findings related to the applied contextualizing teaching strategies as recorded in the reflection journals. The Spearman correlation test was also used to analyze the potential correlation between categorized contextualizing forms and content/activities and the students’ responses to them.
5.3. Frequencies of Contextualization Forms
The frequencies of contextualizing forms are provided in Figure 1
and Table 3
Across the 207 data scenarios, contextualizing forms were identified and categorized into audio and visual forms a total of 205 times. Among all the contextualizing forms data, pictures show the highest frequency (68/33.1%). This finding reveals that in the case of CFL teaching, these teacher-researchers preferred the use of visual methods to trigger students’ interests and attention when presenting certain learning content. These data also indicate that contextualizing through the deconstruction of characters (39/19%) is a popular teaching strategy, which may indicate the current situation that CFL teaching with beginning school learners draws on the written form of the language. The remaining three categories indicate consistent and moderate frequencies, which signposts the direct and efficient use of gesture (23/11.1%), video (28/13.6%) and real objects (21/10.2%) can be of practical significance to CFL teachers.
Compared to visual contextualizing (179/87%), audio contextualizing forms were less preferred by the teacher-researchers in this research study (26/13%). Among the observed audio contextualizing forms, bringing L1 English to assist with pronunciation (14/7%) was implemented slightly more often than music (12/6%). This may be due to the ease of practicality in combining the pronunciation with language teaching content, while the connection between the music ambiance and teaching content needs stronger agency to be justified. This connection may also be more difficult to present in terms of the resources needed and therefore may involve a comparatively longer teaching time.
5.4. Frequencies of Contextualization Activities
The frequencies of contextualizing content and activities are provided in Figure 2
and Table 4
From the 207 data excerpts analyzed, 175 contextualizing activities were identified as being implemented by the teacher-researchers to convey different learning experiences to the students. From across the five themes identified, culture (43/24.6%) and learning by doing (42/24%) were the most popular activities implemented by the CFL teacher-researchers. This finding indicates that they developed the context for teaching from various social-cultural activities to explain or deliver teaching content. It also indicates the necessity for CFL teachers to localize and internalize complex content through various activities when teaching local students in a foreign county. Culture can be regarded as knowledge specifically based on national conventions, which demands contextualizing as a ‘localizing’ process before it can be understood and accepted by students with different cultural backgrounds. Through such activities, students as participants can fully engage in a context-based cultural learning experience. With regards to learning by doing (42/24%) and activity-based (games/competitions) content (34/19.4%), their relatively high frequency may be due to the teacher-researchers’ training received in Australia. Compared to the conventional lecture-based teaching in China, CFL teachers need to use various contextualizing activities to adapt to the action-based Australian classroom. With the remaining two contextualizing activities, the connection between students’ former experience (experiential recall 26/14.9%) and teacher explanation (30/17.1%), it could be argued that these two contextualizing categories are relatively more demanding for CFL teachers to be fully aware of their students’ backgrounds in order to make connections with them. This is particularly the case for these teacher-researchers who were not the students ‘ongoing/full time’ CFL teachers. This may explain the lower frequency in use by these research participants.
5.5. Correlation between Contextualizing and Students’ Responses
The correlation data gathered are frequency-based discrete variables. They do not conform to normal distribution to be analyzed in conventional correlation coefficients such as the Pearson correlation. The Spearman correlation was applied to reveal the potential correlation between the frequency of teachers’ contextualizing practices and students’ reactions under the variables of the context created. Furthermore, the Spearman correlation analysis with nonparametric indicators shows lesser requirements on the normal distribution and the volume of the original dataset. Therefore, its applicability was considered suitable to analyze the discrete categorical data in this study.
From the Spearman’s rho Correlations listed above, four types of correlation relationships are proved reliable, and their significance values are all within the usually required significance level of 0.05. Among the visual contextualizing categories (Table 5
), contextualizing with the deconstruction of Chinese characters negatively correlates to the students’ responses (−0.241 **). The mismatch between the teacher’s subjectivity and students’ understanding of these ‘subjective’ connections could explain this negative correlation. Teachers use their agency and subjectivity to connect Chinese character parts with particular object forms, shapes and images for students to remember, which may need further clarification for students to understand, that is, a mismatch in understanding was generated.
The results of this research sound a warning for implementing audio contextualizing such as utilizing L1 pronunciation to compare Chinese pronunciation for beginning learners. Table 6
indicates this contextualizing form had a negative correlation with the students’ response (−0.508 **
). This negative teaching effect can be explained by the mismatch between the teacher’s established connection between an unknown Chinese word and an English word with a very different image. A further negative influence is that subjectively connecting the target language pronunciation and students’ L1 pronunciation with nuances and differences could produce flawed pronunciation habits among students, which may be hard to rectify in future teaching.
The results in Table 6
also indicate that music and songs are very positive contextualizing strategies to connect with Australian students in primary schools (0.515 **). Adding musical elements to CFL teaching has the potential to create a relaxed and entertaining ambience, which could be very helpful in establishing a direct connection between foreign language teachers and local students.
The results reported in Table 7
also illustrate that contextualizing through games or competitive activities can positively correlate to students’ responses (0.180 *). This correlation can be explained by the role of the teacher as organizer in these activities. That is, when teachers actively create and organize socio-cultural activities a stronger rapport between teacher and students is a possible outcome. Under this activity-based contextualization, planned content can be actively delivered to students, supporting their meaningful language learning.
In addition to examining how contextualizing can be realized by teachers in practice, the data analysis also investigated the direction of agency between teachers and students in a CFL classroom with contextualized forms and content to engage learning. The following section provides the basic statistics and several examples to reveal how teachers and students use their agency to shape contextualizing actions in teaching and learning as socio-cultural activities.
5.6. Teachers and Students’ Agency through Contextualization
The interactions and actions of the teacher-researcher and students were analyzed to determine if there was a dominant agent across the 207 data excerpts. The initial finding was that the agency of the teacher-researchers was centered in 142 (69%) of the recorded teaching and learning episodes, whereas students were actively interacting for 65 (31%) of recorded lessons. Across these 65 scenarios, the actions of the students in class usually outweighed the teacher-researchers’ guidance or instructions. In these instances, data revealed that students took a major lead in the direction of the lesson or the explanation of certain teaching content. Students in these cases showed strong interest in the teaching content, actively participated in classroom activities or displayed substantial autonomy in self-learning. Students accomplished contextualization based on their understandings, which in some instances, gave rise to unexpected effects on the teacher and the learning experiences. A data excerpt is provided below to illustrate.
The teacher taught students the new word “Sān míng zhì” which means “sandwich” in English. To the teacher’s surprise, one boy recognized “sān” and said, “It is three. The symbol is three lines.” Then the teacher asked, “why does “Sān míng zhì” start with the number three?” Another student answered, “Sandwich has three layers, so the sandwich starts with “Sān” (documented in a teacher-researcher’s reflective journal).
In this case, the student actively connected the image of a “sandwich” with the shape of the Chinese character “Sān” (san: three). This connection, enabled by the student’s agency, was surprising and inspiring for the teacher. It was later shared amongst the students to help them remember the character “Sān”. All students could relate to the connection between the sandwich image as a vital context for the new character “Sān”.
Comparatively, the other 142 (69%) data cases depicted the teacher-researchers’ dominance in the teaching and learning episodes with the students complying with the teachers’ directions. In these cases, the teacher-researchers’ lessons were hinged on achieving the objectives or targets and they drew on their agency to maintain strong control through guiding the class activities while explaining or delivering the content. Contextualizing based fully on the teacher-researchers’ agency did not always result in positive feedback or reactions from the students as indicated in the following data excerpt.
The teacher asked the whole class to play the role of the guest while she acted as the waitress. As the teacher said ‘nǐ hǎo’, all students kept quiet. The teacher said, ‘Guys, the waitress just greeted you. It is your turn to say hello in Chinese’. However, the students still did not say anything. So, the teacher read out the customer’s lines for students to repeat. With more practice, the students dared to speak out by themselves (documented in a teacher-researcher’s reflective journal).
In this case, the teacher actively assigned the role-play setting to the students based on her own agency. She put students into a waitress-customer conversation and tried to trigger their awareness to respond as the waitress greeted them in Chinese. There was a mismatch between the students’ responses and the teacher-researcher’s anticipation of their engagement. It can be argued that the connection between the greeting phrases and the role-play setting (as context) needed to be more clearly established based on the students’ understanding. The teacher-researcher had to read out the lines and perform multiple practices for students to build the connections and remember the vocabulary within the context of a role-play setting. Therefore, creating context requires teachers to actively combine teaching content with particular objects and/or surroundings.
It can be concluded that contextualizing teaching relies more on a teacher’s agency, their guidance and the design of the class activities with appropriate opportunities provided to have students’ agency activated. This result indicates that to ensure students’ understanding, the connection between context and teaching content should not just be based on the teachers’ interpretation but also needs to be acceptable to the students in terms of their background knowledge, experiences and capacity for new CFL learning.
As indicated in the literature reviewed, context has often been explored from linguistic perspectives and whilst context-related research foregrounding its dynamic dimensions has been undertaken, this focus is scant in comparison. For example, the studies by Liontas [15
], Yu [14
] and Li [16
] investigated the impact of linguistic contexts on students’ learning and understanding of idioms, without any consideration to the anthropological aspects of ‘context’. Other CFL studies [12
] situated context as a ‘pre-existing’ background, environment or physical space—as a static entity, in second language education. Further, a review of CFL teaching and learning by Gong et al.’s [24
] reported a substantial tendency for CFL teachers to rely on rote learning strategies in daily practice. Context in these studies is relegated to a descriptive reality independent from the ‘texts’ involved. In contrast, this research is advanced through a constructionism lens enabling an examination of the anthropological and dynamic domains of ‘context’ in CFL teaching.
The findings from this research established that the teachers not only taught the Chinese language at a textual level, but more importantly created contexts and made connections with the “external situation” [18
] (p. 475) for local students. Drawing upon the conceptualization of socio-constructivist researchers including Dilley [17
], Engeström [19
] Malpas [21
] and Van Oers [18
], this research identified the contextuality that teachers and students employed, tracking the process of how they chose and connected ‘context’ and/or ‘environment’ to CFL teaching and learning. Real-world objects, cultural artefacts and social semiotic signs such as gestures, visuals (video and pictures) and music were observed as the ‘contexts’ these teacher-researchers incorporated into their CFL teaching. The findings also indicated that the frequency of connection across the range of contexts was varied. For example, visual connections were demonstrated to be a highly valued form of contextualization to engage students cognitively. Linking music and/or songs to language teaching created a relaxed and entertaining ambience and achieved emotional engagement. As reported in the findings, contextualization in teaching was enacted across various socio-cultural activities and strategies ranging from teacher-centered explanations to learning by doing, games and competitions, traditional cultural activities and students’ experiential recall. These teacher-researchers stretched the activities in numerous directions with subsequent variations in students’ responses and engagement.
Actualizing constructionism as the theoretical framework, this research also identified the relative nature of contextualization in practice. It supports Malpas [21
] and Dilley’s [17
] arguments that there is no single context. The teacher-researchers and students in this research were from diverse historical, cultural and social backgrounds, knowledge bases and experiences. The type of contextualization and designed activities incorporated into CFL teaching and the students’ responses reflect their specific socially and historically situated agency. The construction of context is a personal connection based on how teachers and students, as agents, logically or subjectively conceive of the knowledge or what contexts are relevant, appropriate and able to be connected to assist CFL teaching and learning. This research also determined that the subjectivity between the teachers’ and students’ contextualization sometimes generated mismatched understandings in CFL meaning making.