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Listening is the key

I see that in the government's latest version of GCSE modern languages we are returning to an assessment regime based on 25% of marks awarded to each of the four skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. I really do not know why each skill is valued the same; it has that suspicious look of a government target like the one which aimed for 50% of young people going to university.

Although 4 x 25% is better than the current regime it still seriously overvalues writing and undervalues listening. In my perception of language learning (everyone is entitled to their own since science cannot tell us what works best for every person or teacher), listening is at the heart of everything. When we learn our first language we do so by listening and are spared preparing for vocabulary tests, writing essays and doing translation (which would be a bit tricky). When we learn a second language I am happy to go along with the simple and appealing notion that it is a lot like first language acquisition in that we acquire fluency through, above all else, listening to messages we understand. Reading fulfils a similar but less fundamental role.

Therefore, it seems to me, we should be getting students to listen as much as we can and we should be rewarding this skill as much as possible in our assessment regimes. The more marks we allocate to listening in examinations, the more likely we are to spend time on it in class. If we do more listening, we will not only improve comprehension, but bring about greater oral fluency in our students.

As for writing, as I have written before in this blog, the main reason for doing it in class and for homework is to reinforce the other language skills. In later life very few people will need to write in a foreign language, whereas far more will want to engage in simple conversations. Computer translation is already quite sophisticated and rapidly becoming more so, therefore when the need arises to write in a foreign language people will take advantage of Google Translate or similar. I already use Google Translate to save time when I am adapting material from an English language source. I get a first draft from Google, then correct and adapt it, thus producing more quickly a very acceptable piece of written French. I would need to be a native speaker to do much better.

If I were designing a new GCSE assessment regime and wanted to separate out each skill (we don't have to, by the way), then I would weight the skills roughly as follows:

Listening   30%
Speaking  30%
Reading    25%
Writing     15%

It is worth noting that some ways of assessing oral skills demand some additional assessment of listening as, in the context of a conversation or role play, you have to understand to be able to speak, so marks are bound to be awarded ultimately for listening comprehension.

The truth is that we tend to judge a person's skill in a foreign language by their ability to speak. To do this a person has to be able to listen effectively. Reading has its place in some contexts, writing in fewer.

Is such a devaluation of writing a form of dumbing down? I believe not. Grammatical skill is still assessed as part of speaking assessment and also comes in to listening and reading assessment. One might argue that written papers are the ones some students find hardest and all language teachers have had to endure appalling standards of writing at times. However, many students will also report that speaking and listening are the hardest to do because they require such instant reactions and complex skills.


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How can we make listening more enjoyable and effective for pupils? How can we turn it from a potential chore to something more memorable (and therefore more likely to stick in their long term memories)? I am of the opinion that since humans are "wired" to engage in personal listening and speaking (the expression "social brain" has been used in this context), they may be more interested and attentive when the message comes from a real person rather than a disembodied audio source. (This may or may not be relevant, but research has been carried out which demonstrates that babies pick up phonological patterns better when they listen to a caregiver rather than listen to a tape or watch a video - see here for summaries of research into this area by Patricia Kuhl.)

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What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

The Language Teacher Toolkit review

We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’( The point i…

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When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.

1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own tru…