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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.




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