Skip to main content

Which skill is most neglected in languages classrooms?

Out of interest I posted a poll on Twitter with the question "Which skill do you think is most neglected in MFL/WL classrooms?" The four options were listening, reading, speaking and writing.

The responses (320 of them) were interesting and as follows:

Listening 47%
Reading 7%
Speaking 40%
Writing 6%

I have usually written that listening is the most neglected skill and this accords with what the respondents to the poll thought. I wonder if this is because of the way we perceive "listening" in language teaching and the way it is assessed.

One of the unfortunate by-products of the GCSE exam system in England and Wales, introduced around 1987, is that listening is seen as a separate skill, assessed separately and therefore to be taught separately. (For readers outside England and Wales, about half of our 15-16 year-olds do a high-stakes, national exam called GCSE which has always assessed (reasonably discretely) listening, reading, speaking and writing.)

This had tended to encourage teachers to divide up planning and lessons into these four skills. As a consequence, listening sometimes (by no means always) ends up being practised in the form of separate exercises or tests which typically consist of short snippets or longer extracts of recorded speech accompanied by various question types - true/false/not mentioned, matching, gap-fill, ticking correct statements and questions in English or TL.
In addition, teachers wisely spend a good deal of time doing practice exam papers to help their students prepare for exams. This reinforces the notion of listening as a test.

As Gianfranco has written in his blog, and as we wrote in The Language Teacher Toolkit, teaching listening therefore becomes testing with the emphasis on right/wrong answers and a certain degree of resultant stress for students. Students often express dislike for listening.

But actually, when you think about it, much of the listening students do takes place during classroom interactions when they hear either the teacher or a partner speaking. This can be enhanced by the use of well-chosen recorded extracts involving manageable, scaffolded tasks which need not be in the form of testing questions.

Don't forget (if you did) that teacher-fronted question-answer work and other forms of interaction are as much, if not more, about developing listening skill as oral skill. If we neglect such teacher-led work we deny students the chance to develop their confidence with listening skill and confidence over time.

Poor practice would be to teach some grammar, teach some vocabulary, do a few practice tasks then move straight to an audio recording of paragraph-length speech. Better would be to engage in lots if interactional activities, all carefully scaffolded, using the teacher's voice as much as possible, along with the voices of fellow students, before moving to short recorded snippets, then longer recorded sections which link with previously learned material.

Over several years this type of approach will produce more confident listeners. Of course, you'll never remove the stress of doing listening exams altogether. By their very nature (total concentration is needed, you only hear the material twice) listening tests will always cause difficulty. But if you let listening become a very large part of every listen by doing "multi-modal" tasks, to use the jargon, listening skill will develop more organically.

So I would argue that you should not worry about talking a good deal in TL to classes, as long as your talk is supported by all the aids needed to make your self understood. Similarly, allowing students to do well-constructed pair or group tasks and combining listening with reading and writing via transcription, gap-fill, reading aloud, note-taking, writing answers to oral questions and so on, will help develop confident listeners.

Do have a look at Gianfranco's blog for some great ideas on developing grammar through listening: gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com.




- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

A zero preparation fluency game

I am grateful to Kayleigh Meyrick, a teacher in Sheffield, for this game which she described in the Languages Today magazine (January, 2018). She called it “Swap It/Add It” and it’s dead simple! I’ve added my own little twist as well as a justification for the activity.

You could use this at almost any level, even advanced level where the language could get a good deal more sophisticated.

Put students into small groups or pairs. If in groups you can have them stand in circles to add a sense of occasion. One student utters a sentence, e.g. “J’aime jouer au foot avec mes copains parce que c’est amusant.” (You could provide the starter sentence or let groups make up their own.) The next student (or partner) has to change one element in the sentence, and so on, until you restart with a different sentence. You could give a time limit of, say, 2 minutes. The sentence could easily relate to the topic you are working on. At advanced level a suitable sentence starter might be:

“Selon un article q…

Google Translate beaters

Google Translate is a really useful tool, but some teachers say that they have stopped setting written work to be done at home because students are cheating by using it. On a number of occasions I have seen teachers asking what tasks can be set which make the use of Google Translate hard or impossible. Having given this some thought I have come up with one possible Google Translate-beating task type. It's a two way gapped translation exercise where students have to complete gaps in two parallel texts, one in French, one in English. There are no complete sentences which can be copied and pasted into Google.

This is what one looks like. Remember to hand out both texts at the same time.


English 

_____. My name is David. _ __ 15 years old and I live in Ripon, a _____ ____ in the north of _______, near York. I have two _______ and one brother. My brother __ ______ David and my _______ are called Erika and Claire. We live in a _____ house in the centre of ____. In ___ house _____ …

Worried about the new GCSEs?

Twitter and MFL Facebook groups are replete with posts expressing concerns about the new GCSEs and, in particular, the difficulty of the exam, grades and tiers. I can only comment from a distance since I am no longer in the classroom, but I have been through a number of sea changes in assessment over the years so may have something useful to say.

Firstly, as far as general difficulty of papers is concerned, I think it’s fair to say that the new assessment is harder (not necessarily in terms of grades though). This is particularly evident in the writing tasks and speaking test. Although it will still be possible to work in some memorised material in these parts of the exam, there is no doubt that weaker candidates will have more problems coping with the greater requirement for unrehearsed language. Past experience working with average to very able students tells me some, even those with reasonable attainment, will flounder on the written questions in the heat of the moment. Others will…

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for frenchteacher.net three separate PowerPoint presentations using the same set of 20 pictures (sports). A very good way for you to save time is to reuse the same resource in a number of different ways.

I chose 20 clear, simple, clear and copyright-free images from pixabay.com to produce three presentations on present tense (beginners), near future (post beginner) and perfect tense (post-beginner/low intermediate). Here is one of them:





Below is how I would have taught using this presentation - it won't be everyone's cup of tea, especially of you are not big on choral repetition and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), but I'll justify my choice in the plan at each stage. For some readers this will be standard practice.

1. Explain in English that you are going to teach the class how to talk about and understand people talking about sport. By the end of the lesson they will be able to say and understand 20 different sport…