IATEFL – Good at listening, or good at listening tests?

The International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) held its annual exhibition and conference in Glasgow this year, from 19th – 23rd March.  My Twitter feed had been building momentum for several weeks before, so this is obviously a big event.

But until I got there, I had no idea how big!

The exhibition was fairly compact, but there were a large number of sessions to choose from, and the rooms in which they were held were quite spread out.  This meant that I spent a lot of the time walking to and fro between sessions, and if I’m honest, it was quite difficult to chat to other delegates, or find people I wanted to meet up with, especially as I was only able to attend for one day.

However, one of the most interesting sessions I attended was by John Field, entitled “Good at listening, or good at listening tests”.

Helping my pupils improve their listening skills is something which I always feel is the weakest area of my teaching, and so I was keen to hear John’s views.  And even though the presentation was for teachers of English as a foreign language, there’s no doubting that the skills are the same, whatever language you’re learning.

So here are my bullet points from the session.

  • Listening is an internal process.  It can only be tested indirectly, by asking questions of the learning to try to establish what they have internalised.  In other words, it is not a real-world experience.
  • To combat this, there are (at least) 2 things which a teacher can do:
    • Ask ourselves “What signal is reaching the learner”?
    • Consider how we ask questions of the learner.
    • When setting tests or test questions which are eliciting information, there should be no possibility of subjectivity; there has to be an obvious answer.
    • The wording of descriptors often contains subjective words, ie normally / usually / generally
    • The descriptors define where students should end up if they have been successful, but do not tell us how they can get there.  A destination, not the journey.
  • Students often employ a ‘key-word’ strategy when listening; but the key word they decide to listen for may well be in the written question, and does not appear in the spoken answer, as the audio often uses a paraphrase.  This strategy is therefore counterproductive.
  • “Provide the task after a first playing of the recording and before a second.  This ensures more natural listening without preconceptions or advance information other than general context.”
  • Instead of asking students to give the required answer to a written question, ask them to report back what they heard.  If not distracted by a written question or prompt, students find reporting back an easier task, as their attention has not been divided.
  • Gap-fill activities.  Not necessarily easy, as students are effectively reading someone else’s notes and trying to fill in the other person’s gaps.
  • Multiple choice questions give the learner more to deal with, instead of making the task easier. 
    • John played an example listening text, and displayed the accompanying question.
    • In this situation, the listener is also trying to eliminate the incorrect answers as well as listen for the correct one.  This makes the task cognitively much more demanding, particularly for a less advance learner.
    • Therefore, may be a good ideas to test orally. Ask questions and get answers in the learners’ first language. That tests their listening, not speaking/writing.
  • Skilled listeners are able to handle information in a particular way [see image 1].  
    • Listener hears information (black box), then information relating to it (grey / blue boxes).  Recognises when topic has moved on (second black box).
    • Unskilled listeners create a more linear structure [see image 2 ] and find it less easy to identify when topic or perception has changed.
    • Therefore, structure-building tasks involving note-taking encourage listeners to identify what’s important, and how the content moves forward.

    Image 2

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2 Comments

  1. I also find it challenging to teach and assess listening skills. I’m currently trying to help students improve their note-taking skills during lectures, so the notes on the seminar you attended were helpful.

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