Unsure about what context is and how to research it? In this article, we'll explain what it is, how to research it, and how to incorporate it into your Year 9 English responses.
Once you are in Year 9, you will need to start thinking about more complex ideas in texts. This means that you will need to understand what context is and how to discuss it in your essays. So, this article will show you 10 things you must know about context for Year 9 English, including what context means, how to research and write context, and what not to do when writing about context.
In relation to High School English, context is the circumstances surrounding a particular time or event. It refers to the circumstances and ideas that shaped the world when the text is created.
You will see that the different aspects of context change depending on the time period or place and other aspects remain the same.
For instance, slurping your food seems rude in Western countries but it is a compliment in some Asian countries. Racism existed during Shakespeare’s time (the late 1500s), and it still exists today (2020s) even though it is, arguably, less extreme.
As you would’ve seen above, there’s quite a lot of information that can be considered as context! On the surface, it is has a very broad definition, so let’s narrow it down to help you better grasp what context means for your English studies.
There are different types of context that you should know about. Knowing these types of contexts will help you find contextual points in your texts and better understand them.
Here are some different types of context you should consider:
Biographical context or personal context refers to the personal circumstances of an individual. In terms of your English studies, it includes an examination of the composer’s personal life.
This can include :
If we can understand their biographical details, we can start to understand and unpack their perspectives and hypothesise about their motivations. Knowing these points will help you understand the composer’s perspectives and viewpoints and how they influenced their literary works.
Cultural context refers to the customs and social behaviours of different groups of people. This can include:
Cultural context allows us to understand the beliefs that shaped a composers worldview and identity.
Note: Cultural context is quite similar to social context but they’re not the same!
Social contexts refer to the social aspects of society. In other words, the way society functions. When you think about social context you might consider the following:
Social context allows us to understand the opportunities composers had in their lives or the ones they missed out on. Suche experiences can have a significant impact on an individuals life and perspectives.
The historical context deals with world events and other major influential events. Think about the falling of the Berlin wall, World War II, the Me Too movement, the Hippie era, COVID-19 and other similar events.
These can also shape the way the composers think and feel about particular issues and events.
For example, writing during the peak of The Roaring Twenties, F.Scott Fitzgerald painted a grotesque picture of the excesses and privileges of American Elites.
Everything is influenced by context!
The way you think, your knowledge and your personality is shaped by your environment.
This also applies to texts! When a composer writes or creates their text, their personal ideas and perspectives will shine through the text.
For instance, Shakespeare’s texts are a direct reflection of his context. Most of his plays have religious undertones because of his highly religious society. They also tend to reflect the highly patriarchal views of his society.
On the other hand, Animal Farm (published in 1945) is an allegory of the 1917 Russian revolution. The farm represents Russia; it explores ideas of propaganda and corruption.
However, remember, context doesn’t have to be obvious in a text. Sometimes, major historical events or ways of thinking aren’t being explicitly discussed, but instead, acts as a backdrop for the text.
No one has experienced exactly the same things as you did. Even though you might be born on the same day as another person, and grew up in the same area, there will still be minor differences.
This also means that no one has the exact same context as you.
So, your context and your composer’s context are different!
William Golding wrote Lord of the Flies during the 1950s after experiencing the horrors of World War II, where he served in the Navy. As such, the war is a major influencer on his way of thinking. On the other hand, we’ve never experienced or participated in warfare. Instead, we’re probably reading Lord of the Flies in the safety of our bedroom as a prescribed text for our English class.
As such, it is important to understand that composers have a different context than you, even if you’re the same age or grew up in the same area. Realising this will help you better grasp the text as you will understand why and how the text is written the way it is written.
We’ve seen how texts reflect the context of their composers and we learned that our context is different from everyone else’s. So, this also means that the meaning of a text and its relevance can change depending on the context.
For instance, The Birth of a Nation (released in 1915) applauds the Ku Klux Klan’s efforts to maintain white supremacy. At the time, the film was quite successful as American society was openly racist against African Americans.
However, if this movie was released today, it will be highly controversial as we are much more critical of racism. Today African Americans have more rights than they did in 1915. So, this is a clear example of a text losing meaning and relevance over time because of the changing social context and values.
On the other hand, Shakespeare’s texts seem to still be relevant today despite being written in the late 1500s and early 1600s. This is mainly because Shakespeare explores the human condition like dreams, hatred, love, loyalty and honour. But Shakespeare also considered societal issues that are still relevant today like prejudice, racism and gender disparities in his works.
Understanding the context of a text (and the composer) is crucial as it helps clarify meaning and messages in texts.
Knowing the context of a text helps prevent miscommunication.
This includes meaning within the storyline and the wider message of the text.
For instance, in Romeo and Juliet (1597), the characters bite their thumbs at each other.
Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
I do bite my thumb, sir.
Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
SAMPSON (to GREGORY):
Is the law of our side if I say ay?
No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you sir; but I bite my thumb, sir.
This was a common gesture during the Elizabethan era used to insult the other person. As such, people during the Elizabethan era would’ve understood this easily. However, nowadays, biting your thumb at people is not common at all. Instead, the equivalent of biting your thumb at people is lifting the middle finger at someone.
If you didn’t understand the context of Romeo and Juliet, you wouldn’t understand the meaning behind biting one’s thumb.
This also applies to understanding texts as a whole. As we previously discussed, a text’s meaning can change over time. So, if you want to figure out the composer’s intentions and purpose of writing/creating a text, you should attempt to understand their context. This will give insight into how they think and feel, which will help you figure out the text’s messages.
For instance, the nursery rhyme Ring Around a Rosy is just a fun song that children sing today. No one really thinks twice about the meaning of the rhyme because it doesn’t really apply to today’s context anymore.
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
However, when this rhyme first arose during the 1600s, it had a much more grave meaning. London during the 1600s was suffering from the Great Plague.
This outbreak and its symptoms were well known by the people at the time. If you caught the bubonic plague, you will get a rosy rash (“Ring-a-ring-a-roses“) and sneezes and coughs (“A-tishoo! A-tishoo!”). People also carried posies of herbs to protect them from the smells of the plague (“A pocket full of posies”. And, the last line (“We all fall down”) refers to people falling and dying once they caught the plague.
As you can see, once you understand the context of a text, you can better understand its meanings and purposes.
As we mentioned earlier, knowing the context of a text is crucial to having a stronger understanding of a text. this means you must research the text’s context!
We know this might sound intimidating but it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s break down the different aspects of context that you need to research.
If you want to learn how to research, check out this article: How to Research for Your English Texts. This article may be targeted towards senior students, but it will still be useful for you!
To quickly summarise the article, here are the steps you should take to research context for English texts:
Now that you know how to research generally, let’s see what you should look at when you are researching about context. Here is a general (and non-exhaustive) list of questions you can use as a starting point for your research:
Now that you know how to research context, it is time to learn how to discuss the context in your essays!
One of the biggest issues that students come across is that they either don’t discuss context at all or they have large chunks of text discussing context that isn’t integrated well into the essay.
Remember, contextual information can provide insight for a number of different analytical points.
For instance, in Romeo and Juliet:
As you can see, you can link contextual points to many aspects of the text.
So, there is no need to brain dump a paragraph about context, because you can disperse it and integrate it throughout the essay.
Integrating your discussion of context will also bring your writing to the next level as it is much more cohesive to read and creates a deeper analysis.
Another big issue that students come across is that their links to context are not relevant to their essays.
Here is an example:
“William Golding, the author of Lord of the Flies, was born in 1911. His father was a schoolmaster”
So, why do these sentences seem irrelevant to the essay?
Firstly, brain dumping dates and fun facts does not necessarily mean that you are effectively discussing context. You have to ensure that it is relevant to your arguments and analysis.
This means that you should pick relevant contextual points and always link them to your analysis.
For instance, “William Golding traumatic experiences in World War II as a member of the Navy inspired him to write Lord of the Flies. This text explores ideas of chaos and order and violence”.
See how the contextual point is used to explain aspects of the text? This is how you effectively integrate relevant contextual points in your essays.
Discussing the composer’s context and their beliefs and perspectives is a great way to boost your essay to the next level. However, you also need to share your perspectives and arguments too!
Markers want to read what you think about the text as well!
Remember, don’t simply discuss other people’s views and perspectives or copy their arguments. Always ensure that you are providing your own arguments and viewpoints. This will make your work more ‘critical’ and authentic.
Matrix+ Online Course will help you break down context with our subject-matter experts and provide you with one-on-one feedback through our Q&A Boards. Learn more about Matrix+ Online English classes now.