Speaking and Listening – rising to the challenge

Since leaving the classroom just under a year ago, I find that when I am in contact with teachers now, it’s generally from the front of the room, with the teachers as my audience.

So I was delighted and privileged a few days ago to be at a presentation given by Rachel Hawkes – and anyone who has ever been in one of her sessions will know what an inspiration she is!

Her theme was “Creative speaking and listening ideas for the languages classroom”, and as someone who has always found it the most difficult thing to develop my pupils’ listening skills, I was keen to hear what she had to say.

Even from the second slide in, I knew I was going to learn something.


Rachel’s notes say:

Listening is vital for language learning.  It is a source of language input, the decoding of which is believed by most to account to a large extent for language acquisition.  But for learners it is often the activity that causes most anxiety.  You can often detect a powerful change in the atmosphere in a languages classroom when a listening activity is announced and then in progress.  So often students ask ‘is it a test?’ when you start a listening activity, presumably because this is how it feels to them.  I’ve never been asked that about a reading activity.

Rachel shared some wonderful ideas and links, which you can access from this page on her website (the June 2012 entry).  Definitely worth a peep!


Maximo veteris dux Eboracensis

©Crown Copyright
Disclaimer – Prince Andrew has nothing to do with the primary Curriculum Review!

So the big ‘story’ of the day for us language teachers was the official appearance of the draft Programmes of Study for the primary National Curriculum, which can be found here.

Despite the flurry of rumours doing the rounds over the weekend, these Programmes of Study are actually only for primary English, mathematics and science at the moment – information for other subjects is yet to come, along with the fallout from the secondary consultation.  The reference to compulsory languages appears in two of the FAQs, and towards the bottom of page 4 of the letter from the Secretary of State for Education to Chair of Expert Panel, with his response to the panel’s recommendations for primary curriculum.

I am absolutely delighted to officially read that learning a foreign language is to become a compulsory part of the Key Stage 2 curriculum.  It is something which benefits pupils to start learning when younger, and which also has potential on a wider, economic scale for the nation.

I have no wish to dampen any enthusiasm, but if you would indulge me in one moment of disappointment and one of confusion.

My confusion is from a Twitter exchange I had with @educationgovuk, on the idea that

“The new foreign languages Programme of Study will require an appropriate balance of spoken and written language. Pupils must learn to speak in sentences, with appropriate pronunciation. … And they should become acquainted with songs and poems in the language studied.

I enquired, with no tongue in cheek, as to how this would work with Latin, as a) we don’t know how it was pronounced, b) it’s not a spoken language anyway and c) I’m not aware of any authentic songs in Latin (although Classics scholars please feel free to enlighten me).  Adeste Fidelis doesn’t count.  The Twitter response pointed me in the direction of the Minimus Mouse scheme, which apparently has versions of Old MacDonald’s Farm and other nursery rhymes in Latin.

  • If Latin isn’t a spoken language, how is there supposed to be ‘an appropriate balance of spoken and written language’?  If a school chooses Latin as its curriculum language, how will it undertake to provide that appropriate balance?

My disappointment is much more serious.  Two years ago, primary schools, secondary schools who supported them, along with and trainers and consultants, were poised to roll-out a programme of language teaching and support to primary schools across the country, until the Rose review was pushed aside following the General Election.  Years of networking, confidence-building and training had been undertaken to be ready to offer a language in the primary curriculum.  Suddenly, not only was that not happening, but several friends and colleagues found themselves shifting their roles, or worse, losing their jobs completely as a result.

And now, primary language learning is back. Just like that.  Those experienced professionals who found themselves without a job, or sidelined into other roles, will suddenly be in demand.  Yes that’s good, but it’s a bit of a smack around the face at the same time because it didn’t need to happen.

  • Foreign languages in the primary curriculum was more or less there – and now we’re having to start all over again?

It’s like the Grand Old Duke of York – neither up nor down at the moment! Or should that be Maximo veteris dux Eboracensis 🙂

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

What Went Well … Even Better If … Maximising Performance in Controlled Assessments

I attended this event this afternoon/evening, and it was well worth it.  It was organised by the National Association of Language Advisers (North West region) of which I am a member.

I’m sure that to many of you, the information isn’t new, but in case you wanted a refresher, I’ve put my notes below for you to take a look at, or take away!

I apologies to the two speakers, David Mee, and John Halksworth, if I have misinterpreted any of their comments, but hopefully I have done them justice!

Click here to download: Notes from NALA NW Controlled Assessment event

NALA North West Regional Conference

If you’re in or near the North West of England on 1st March and are interested in some quality CPD related to Controlled Assessment, then can I point you in the direction of this event:

You can download the flyer here:


Don’t worry that both of the speakers are Spanish moderators – as the flyer says, it’s the underlying principles and ideas that will be offered which are important.

NALA (National Association of Language Advisers) put on great events, and so if you can make it, I think you would find it worthwhile.

Back to Basics

This all started because I was compiling some simple classroom activities from my own archives for a project for work.  Then I realised that it would be even better if I crowd-sourced some ideas and as ever, the #mfltwitterati were magnificent in sharing.

The main aim was to collect those basic, no props required, vocabulary drilling activities.  In collecting them, other simple ideas snuck in, but I decided that was absolutely fine – who’s going to complain!

I’ve separated them into four different categories to make it a little bit more manageable.  There will be errors, I’m sure, and you’ll have your own versions.  In fact, @langwitch has a Lingo Bingo all of her own and she has explained it far better than I can, so hop over to her blog and have a look yourself.

Then there’s always the issue of what to call these activities – I call it one thing in German, another in French, and that’s without regional variations!

But call them what ever you like, you’re more than welcome to them!

No props required list

Board activities list

Flash card activities list

Little prep required list