Including observations on how contexts shape the meanings that students observe in the language, structure and form of the texts they study is often difficult to teach. The temptation to ask students to add in comments where relevant without fully understanding the depth and gravity of what they are implying is certainly a trap I have fallen into before. AQA describes this skill at A Level as “the central historicist literary concept” and requires “perceptive understanding of the significance of relevant contexts in relation to the task” at the highest level. The fact that this skill is conceptualised adds another layer of challenge for teachers as there is nothing tangible students can get their hands on, like language, nor is it something they can dance over lightly. They must consider both how these contexts are “significant” and how they “influence” the literary texts.
I approach teaching contexts from the beginning of a course and thread the teaching and learning of its key concepts throughout, building in detail each time. By teaching thematically and in steps, this both supports students’ memory and allows them time to consider each ‘layer’ rather than being lumped with a load of historical information.
‘Love’ as a theme is clearly incredibly broad, but it also gives birth to many other concepts like marriage, perceptions about femininity and masculinity, gender roles, class divisions and childhood and adulthood. In learning context, I ask my students to develop a flow chart of how these ideas thread down from the umbrella theme of love – firstly, in the modern world. Having completed our notes on this, I then consider what knowledge they have about the contextual theme around the time when their literary text is set and written. They complete this in a different colour to highlight the changing attitudes. If they can first spend time thinking about their own ideas, they are more likely to identify with different experiences, but more importantly to see where their own began.
Both these perspectives are important as the AQA mark scheme notes specifically (as an example): Othello’s increasingly cruel and violent treatment of Desdemona which is especially shocking from a 21st century perspective.
The understanding of how ‘love’ as a theme and an umbrella term changes over time is what students need to be equipped with in order to deal with both studied texts and unseen texts. Students need to consider how expressions of love are shaped by the cultural, social and historical contexts around them. This is where associations with language, form and structure play a part, not just connotations.
*An activity that I find really useful to demonstrate the intrinsic links between language and context is to ask students to write their own poem based on the things that are important to them, including their material possessions. They then anonymously swap poems and make inferences about the writer and the context of their lives based on their language choices (this works with a group who get on well!)
*We also spend time looking at ‘conventional love’. Using this as a foundation to branch off from also provides perspective and reveals the journey of love and how it has been moulded and shaped as time has gone on.
Teaching context with a thematic approach holds many benefits that very quickly materialise in students’ writing. Not only do they secure a more rounded knowledge of context, rather than historical facts, they are able to naturally make links to other texts, poets and writers that they haven’t studied in detail but understand are significant in moulding the particular text for their exam or non-assessment.