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Do you do enough two-way listening?

It may be tempting to think of "listening lessons" as playing an audio or video recording and doing a task related to that recording, e.g. answering comprehension questions, doing a true/false/not mentioned task, a gap-fill or matching starts and ends of sentences. You are familiar with the typical exercises we find in books and exams.

Or else you might see listening lessons as opportunities to practise phonological awareness and decoding, e.g. transcribing, gap-filling with letters and syllables, repeating, using tongue twisters, playing phonics games etc. Gianfranco has recently blogged about some activities of this type.

Both of the above general types of listening activities have their place. The first is necessary for students to hear different speakers talking, to practise exam technique and to hear lengthy samples of speech. The second, too neglected, is useful for developing students' bottom-up decoding ability - building up the micro-skills needed to understand complex speech. The most able students pick these skills up without too much help, most do not.

But I would like to argue that, more important than these in everyday teaching, is two-way listening, what is known by teachers in the USA as "interpersonal listening". (The term interpersonal is one of the three communication modes put forward by the ACTFL - American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages - see page 7 here). In two-way listening, as the term suggests, the listening is taking place in the context of a dialogue of some sort.

Let me explain.

If the target language is your normal means of classroom communication you expose students every lesson to large amounts of listening input. I am not talking here about routine phrases such as "Open your book", "Look at the board", "Work in pairs" and so on. These are handy phrases which are easy to teach and use, but they represent a tiny and indeed, the least useful, type of input (since it is barely transferable language, not designed to develop grammatical or vocabulary awareness).

Much more important is using the TL in communicative activities, some artificial, some more authentic, where the teacher is leading and using large amounts of carefully scaffolded language. I wonder how consistently teachers do this. For instance, a bread and butter technique is the skillful use of question-answer (called circling by TPRS teachers). To remind you, Figure 1 below shows the hierarchy of question types you can employ:

Figure 1

Question type
True/false statement.
Tom is a cat. True or false?
Students simply process a statement rather than a question form where the sentence structure varies. Students just have to produce true or false.
Yes/no question through intonation.

Tom’s a cat?
Students just say yes or no. there is no question form to decode. The intonation of the voice shows it’s a question.
Yes/no question.

Is Tom a cat?
Students have to do a little more decoding here, but still only have to say yes or no.
Either/or question.
Is Tom a cat or a dog?
A little more decoding is required, but students only have to choose between the two options they are given.
Multiple-choice question.

Is Tom a dog, cat, elephant or crocodile?
Slightly harder than the above because of the added options.
Question word question.
What is Tom?
The hardest question type since the students can’t use much in the input to help them produce their answer.

Through skilled question-answer technique students get to hear numerous repeated examples of words, chunks, whole sentences and even individual sounds (if you build this in to the teaching sequence). But, unlike the types of task I outlined at the start of this post, the listening students do is set within a framework of meaning-based, two-way communication.

Interestingly, when we think of question-answer or pair work we probably see it in terms of its value for speaking. In our minds we may be thinking "I'm doing these questions or setting up this paired task to get students to speak." In fact, with teacher-led QA work, most of the work being done by students is listening. In paired work it is around 50% listening and in group work more than that.

With this in mind perhaps we should see QA (as TPRS teachers do) as primarily an opportunity to provide listening input, quite tightly controlled by you the teacher (at least at beginner level). To demonstrate how much input students can get during a QA sequence. Look at Figure 2, where I lay out what can happen during a QA exchange.

Figure 2

QA sequence based on a two columns of pictures, the left-hand column showing Johnny's life now, the right hand column showing his life in the past. (This was how I regularly introduced the imperfect tense in French, with a focus on the sounds involved in recognising the imperfect.)

Hide the pictures depicting the past and ask:
Does Johnny live in a flat or a mansion?
Where does he live?
Does he drive a Mini?
What type of car does he drive? etc.
(Hands-up and occasional no hands-up)
He lives in a mansion.
He drives a Rolls Royce.

Mix up your question types, using yes/no, either/or and open questions. Adjust this to the speed of your class and their usual expectation. Throw occasional questions at non-volunteers, get individuals to repeat correct responses.
Hide the present tense pictures and display the imperfect tense ones.
Repeat the above routine.
As above.
As above. Be prepared to recast incorrect verb forms and any other errors.
Reveal the two columns of pictures together again.
Mix up past and present questions.
As above. Use group repetition when you think it will help “fix” the verb forms or endings.
Intermediate groups will do group repetition if they are trained into it. It keeps everyone on the ball and they can find it amusing at this level.
Now, leaving all the pictures displayed, tell the class you are not going to ask a question, just point at a picture. They will have to give a response.
Students give responses.
This subtle change of activity changes the mood in the lesson and allows you to repeat the same work in a slightly different way. This is a key principle to remember; “same, but different”.
Pair up students and ask each partner to describe the two columns of pictures to their partner. The partner may correct.
Students try to recreate your original commentary in pairs.
Another change of perspective to the lesson, building the level of challenge.
Ask an individual to summarise in full either one column or both.
Get two or three students to do the task. This allows you let the best students stretch themselves. It’s a minor example of effective “differentiation by task”.
Reveal a written version of the commentary and read it aloud once more.
Students listen and read.
This allows students still in any doubt to see the different verb forms and spellings they may have been curious to see.

The commentary on the right of Figure 2 reminds us that we can recycle lots of language to get students to listen to the salient point we wish to get across, in this case the phonological and meaning contrasts between present and imperfect tense verbs - note how grammar is closely related to meaning here. (Incidentally the pictures are made simple enough so that students are not confused by too much new vocabulary - beware "cognitive overload").

The sort of questioning techniques above can be used time and time again when working with pictures or written text. To my mind, the secret to success here is to be rigorous in the amount of repetition you do whilst varying the interaction type - hands-up, no hands-up, choral repetition, individual repetition etc. This type of work can work at all levels, although in my experience it is of most use with beginners and intermediates.

Where I would depart a bit from the TPRS approach, by the way, is that I would not be worried about "forcing the output", i.e. making all students take part orally in some form. To me this reinforces good pronunciation habits, gives confidence and helps students build up their automaticity (proficiency, if you prefer) of language use. (Some TPRS teachers would argue that we should not force students to speak, just let the input do its work as with first language acquisition.)

One final example of listening within the framework of a classroom activity. My favourite language game Alibi, described here in case you don't know it, could be seen as an oral game, since students have to ask and answer questions to find out if the accused pair are guilty, but in fact most of the work being done is listening. And because the teacher leads the activity, asking some of the questions and constructing questions with the students at the start, he or she can carefully control the listening input. In this case it can be by stressing the sound contrasts between the perfect and imperfect tenses. Recycling of language is built in to the game. Alibi is an excellent example of a productive language game with a focus on communication and careful two-way listening for a real purpose.

Finally, let me return to the main point. Classroom interaction is where most listening happens and it may be through this that listening is more palatable to students, taking place within meaningful exchanges where there is a real requirement to listen and take part in conversation. If we do this effectively - along with audio-based comprehension tasks and decoding/phonological awareness activities - to whatever level our class can manage, we are more likely to produce confident and competent listeners.

Some of the ideas and examples here appear in my book Becoming an Outstanding Languages Teacher (Routledge) which is published in August.


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