May 5, 2013

In context or with co-text?

Photo by @Mr_Schenk via eltpics

About a month ago I took part in a debate entitled Teaching Vocabulary: in or out of context where I was on the team defending teaching vocabulary in context. I hereby confess that on occasions I had to resort to unfair tactics to win the debate. While making the case for teaching vocabulary in context, I argued, for example, that the word goal should be taught together with either:


otherwise, there would be no way to distinguish between the two senses of the word.

Or take the word key. How can you know, I argued, whether it is

a key to a door
a key on a keyboard
a key to solving the problem

In actual truth, what I was referring to is not context of a word but rather its co-text.

I first came across the term co-text when reading Michael Lewis's The Lexical Approach but later found out that it was probably first used by Michael Halliday, a systemic functional linguist, who distinguished between:
co-text – the linguistic environment of a word
context – the non-verbal environment in which a word is used
Put another way, the surrounding situation in which a word is used is its context whereas the surrounding words is its co-text, the most obvious manifestation of which is collocations.

Do we need Amelia Earhart to provide context?
File:Amelia Earhart, circa 1928.jpg
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Let's look at it it in the context (!) of teaching. If I were teaching the word goal in context I could use images (e.g. Nelson Mandela) to evoke the life of a man who overcame difficulties in order to achieve his goals. Or I could wait until the word goal came up in a text, for example, the story of Amelia Earhart who was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Undoubtedly this makes vocabulary learning more interesting but does it result in better learning? After all, learners, especially adults, come to class with their life experiences and real world knowledge, and should be able to contextualise new vocabulary themselves. Co-text, on the other hand, is important because the way words behave differs across languages. To be able to use the word goal in English learners would have to know the verbs that commonly occur with it, such as

achieve / set / accomplish or score (if talking about football)

Photo by Shaw Girl on Flickr
[CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Likewise, if you're trying to explain the meaning of the verb to chop as cutting something into pieces, learners may simply map chop onto a word in their L1 which means cut (in many languages both words are the same, e.g. Russian). It would therefore be wise to supply the words that frequently co-occur with chop:

onion, garlic, pepper

without recourse to a Youtube video of a cookery programme to provide the context.

Too much hype over context?
Many teachers unfortunately equate teaching words in context with putting it in a sentence. This may not always be the most effective way. One study showed (Webb 2007) that presenting new vocabulary in single sentence contexts doesn't result in better learning of meaning or form. In fact, presenting decontextualised words with their L1 equivalents proved more effective than presenting new words in glossed sentences (two groups of learners were compared), even though the difference wasn't statistically significant.

So to revisit the question raised at the debate I took part in: whether I am really in favour of or against teaching vocabulary in context, I'd say that new words - especially high-frequency items - should not necessarily be taught in context but they should almost always be taught with co-text.

Webb, S. (2007). Learning word pairs and glossed sentences: The effects of a single context on vocabulary knowledge. Language Teaching Research, 11, 63-81.


  1. Hi Leo,
    Interesting post, though I'm not really sure that I understand the term co-text or how it differs from context. I need clarification.

  2. Hi Dominique,
    If you're still not sure my post hasn't served its purpose then, hasn't it? :)

  3. If you think of English as a language rather than lists of words that need to be learned for a test, it seems obvious that vocabulary should be taught in context to give it real meaning. Since many words don't have exact translations in L1 or may have different translations depending on the co-text students very often need the context to understand the word properly. Otherwise you get all those wonderful "bagrut bloopers" we love to share.

    1. I think beyond the first two thousand (K2) most frequent words, teaching in context is the only way to go. But there are many arguments for teaching (initially) basic vocabulary out-of-context to get to the K2 threshold.

  4. Learning words along with the words that usually appear next to them just seems like a much more efficient way of learning vocabulary. Isn't this like teaching collocates?

    1. Basically yes. Teaching with co-text is basically teaching words with their collocates but also words that are found nearby but may not be necessarily identified as collocates, e.g. "afraid of flying"

  5. This needs more debate. But I do see the logic ın this approach. For effectıve learning to occur the last stage should be usıng the word ın-context and maybe ıntroduce the word wıth co-text. I shall be tryıng thıs. Thanks for choppıng up my core belıef ın how to teach new vocabulary to ESL learners

    1. Certainly. The debate is still on.
      Thank you for stopping by my blog!

  6. Co-text is definitely the much neglected step-sister of context. Thanks for the insightful post.

  7. Hi Leo,
    Not because I am afraid of letting go of things in general, but when it comes to teaching vocabulary, I would say that all the ingredients are important for an effective learning. To begin with, students coming across a new word / words. That would very likely happen in a context. I cannot really imagine going into the classroom and giving them lists of words to learn., co-text or not.
    So once we've come across new lexis in a text, i.e. in context, we'd move on to the next part, which is recording and then learning it. And that's the part where the notion of co-text is extremely important and interesting! BTW - reading your posts has raised my awareness of vocabulary teaching enormously! So thank you for that and hope to read more soon!


    1. Thank you for commenting on this post and your kind words about the blog in general.
      There are a lot of arguments - and evidence to support them - that you don't need to wait until new items come up in a text. These days many vocabulary researchers advocate decontextualised learning considering the fact that learning vocabulary is an enormous task.

      The procedure you describe above is what I would normally do in the past but have you tried experimenting with teaching new items out-of-context first? Students then read the text and come across the pre-taught items Try and see how it works.

      Thanks once again for stopping by!

  8. I repost a comment by Andrew Walkley who has had difficulty posting it on here and emailed it to me instead. Here it is:

    There are clearly some crossovers between context and co-text. Part of the confusion is the influence of grammar teaching, I think. Context in grammar establishes the situation from which we might generate a variety of examples of certain structures and establish meaning (vague and not very transferable to L1). With vocab this is a bit different. We might make the distinction between:
    sort out
    (isolated 'word' out of context)

    sort it out / managed to sort it out
    (word with co-text but no context - ie the words around sort out neither generate structures or relate it to meaning)

    I'd say the later is better than the former and could be efficiently taught and learnt using L1 as you suggest with students then providing /imagining contexts.

    In contrast teaching "in context" might be building a scenario. "My washing machine stopped working. It was a big problem because I had a conference and my conference shirt (as you know I only have one!) was dirty and I have a conference this week. I took my shirt to a laundrette and I called someone to repair the washing machine next week - so I managed to sort it out! "

    Context here might establish meaning, but does not generate multiple examples in the way context works for grammar contexts. Where there is a crossover between co-text and context for vocabulary is that the context building inevitable produces common co-text for sort out / sort it out - in this case, problem, stopped working, repair. This is helpful if students want to use 'sort out'.

    However, you could imagine say teaching "have a problem / stop working / call someone / sort it out / cost" where the individual words are taught with a (decontextualised) definition or translation and students then create contexts (possibly a variety of problems, a variety of people you called etc.). In this scenario we can see that unlike grammar it is co-text which is more generative than providing one context. Furthermore, by teaching co-text rather than just telling a context, students may notice that language better and the cognitive effort in students creating the context might aid retention.

  9. Hi Leo,

    Just to let you know that we’ve shortlisted this blog post for this month’s TeachingEnglish blog award and I’ll be making a post about it on today’s TeachingEnglish facebook page, if you’d like to check there for likes and comments.


    1. Hi Ann,

      Great news! Thanks
      Perhaps I'll be lucky fourth time around :)


  10. Very interesting topic. I really would have to agree with the co-text approach. All too often I have found that students will write the word in a sentence rather than in any sort of context that can hope to assist them in memorising the word.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Maureen. Sorry I didn't notice it earlier.

      I think writing the word in a sentence, ANY sentence does not necessarily provide either context or CO-text. What if learners were to write a sentence with "achieve" and they wrote

      Achieving something is difficult

      would you consider it conextualised? :)

  11. So far, so great. It has really clarified my doubt in this area. Thanks immensely. Hope to learn a lot from your blog henceforth.

  12. Leo this was very interesting for me to read. I have never really thought about the difference between teaching in context or co-text.
    The word 'head' can be used as a noun, verb and adjective and only the co-text would help the reader to understand its meaning.
    Teaching with co-text can help the students grasp the different meanings of the word.
    For example:
    My head is sore.
    I'm heading to the shops.
    He is the head of the department.
    From now on, I will be far more aware of co-text teaching in the classroom. Thank you Leo!


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