5 important points English teachers show know about context

Questions

What do we mean by context? What do we mean by contexts of writing or production? What do we mean by contexts of reading?

5 important points

  1. Definition from Cambridge Dictionary:  the situation within which something exists or happens, and that can help explain it. Examples: 
    It is important to see all the fighting and bloodshed in his plays in historical context.
    This small battle is very important in the context of Scottish history.
  2. The context of a text is both the world the book creates in the reader’s mind (contexts of reading), and the world it came out from (contexts of writing or production).In order to fully appreciate a text, you need to appreciate the contexts in which it was written or produced – known as its contexts of writing – and the contexts in which you read the book, or the contexts of reading.
  3. The origins of the word are interesting. It comes from the late Middle English (denoting the construction of a text): from Latin contextus, from con- ‘together’ + texere ‘to weave’.
  4. Contexts of writing. This is potentially a huge area to explore because ‘contexts’ essentially means the ‘worlds’ from which the book has arisen. For the best books, these are many and various. The most obvious starting point is the writer’s own life: it is worth thinking about how and why the events in a writer’s life might have influenced his or her fiction. However, you do have to be careful not to assume too much. For example, some critics have suggested that Bathsheba, the feisty, beautiful heroine of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, is based on Hardy’s cousin, Tryphena Sparks, but you must remember that Bathsheba is a character in her own right in the novel – a vital cog in the narrative wheel, a literary construct and not a real person! As a result, it is particularly fruitful to explore other contexts of writing. We can look at the broader world from which Thomas Hardy arose (the rural Dorset society he grew up in, the respectable Victorian world he came to know as an adult), and consider carefully how, in his writing, he both adopted and rejected the morals of his time. Other contexts might be the influence of the literary world that [the author] inhabited (what other authors were writing at the time), how religion shaped his views, and so on.
  5. Contexts of reading. Just as important as the contexts of writing are the contexts of reading: how we read the novel today. Most of us, before we read a classic novel by Thomas Hardy, have a lot of preconceived ideas about it. Many of us will have seen one or more of the many film versions of the book, and/or been influenced by what we have already heard about Hardy.  Your own personal context is very important too. A feminist will view Bathsheba’s search for independence in a very different light from a person who believes a woman’s place is in the home. In order for you to fully consider the contexts of reading rather than my telling you what to think, I have posed open-ended questions that seem to me to be important when considering this issue.
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About @wonderfrancis

Francis Gilbert is a Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London, teaching on the PGCE Secondary English programme. He also teaches the Creative Writing module on the MA in Children’s Literature, which is run by Maggie Pitfield and Professor Michael Rosen. Previously, he worked for a quarter of a century in various English state schools teaching English and Media Studies to 11-18 year olds. He has, at times, moonlighted as a journalist, novelist and social commentator. He is the author of ‘Teacher On The Run’, ‘Yob Nation’, ‘Parent Power’, ‘Working The System -- How To Get The Very Best State Education for Your Child’, and a novel about school, ‘The Last Day Of Term’. His first book, ‘I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here’ was a big hit, becoming a bestseller and being serialised on Radio 4. In his role as an English teacher, he has taught many classic texts over the years and has developed a great many resources to assist readers with understanding, appreciating and responding to them both analytically and creatively. This led him to set up his own small publishing company FGI Publishing (fgipublishing.com) which has published his study guides as well as a number of books by other authors, including Roger Titcombe’s ‘Learning Matters’ and anthology of creative writing 'The Gold Room'. He is the co-founder, with Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, of The Local Schools Network, www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk, a blog that celebrates non-selective state schools, and has his own website, www.francisgilbert.co.uk. He has appeared numerous times on radio and TV, including Newsnight, the Today Programme, Woman’s Hour and the Russell Brand Show. In June 2015, he was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing and Education by Goldsmiths.
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