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Category Archives: listening

>By Erlyn Baack – ITESM, Campus Queretaro, Mexico

A teacher asked about “Listening/Speaking exams to assess low intermediate students if they are ready for high intermediate level and then high intermediate students if they are ready for advanced level of ESL. Putting an emphasis on better academic preparation, in Listening we stress listening to lectures and note-taking, and in Speaking, we stress academic vocabulary, grammar correctness, and presentation techniques. We consider (1) exam content, (2) testing efficiency considering the number of students, (3) a rubric for Listening/Speaking, (4) involvement of outside instructors to make testing more objective.

The teacher asked a whole series of interrelated questions involving testing of 40 low intermediate and 80 high intermediate students, and while the questions were specifically about “Listening/Speaking exams, the emphasis is much broader including listening and note-taking and academic vocabulary, grammar correctness, and presentation techniques.

Those questions, therefore, are all-encompassing questions that must be asked early on in the semester or even before the semester begins.

Teachers at both levels and the school administration should ask themselves (1) What do we want the students at each level to know (or be able to do) when they finish the level, (2) how are we going to teach it, and (3) how are we going to test it? Essentially, therefore, teachers at both levels should be (or should have been) addressing these questions in their lesson plans and classroom activities since the beginning of the semester. If daily or weekly classroom activities are designed for students to achieve the successes desired by the time of the final exam, their probability of success is high.

It would seem to me that listening to lectures and note-taking would be the easiest to teach and test although it takes collaboration among teachers and administrators on setting it up. For a simple classroom activity, I would recommend going to a website like Living on Earth at , download some MP3 files of radio stories, play them for the class while they take notes, and then test using ten multiple choice questions, for example. (Parenthetically, it is EASY to get written permission from LOE to use their MP3s in this manner, even including putting their files on CDs for the reserve in the library or for free distribution.) After the quiz (or before in some instances) students at both levels should have the opportunity to discuss the stories because they are interesting, sometimes polemic, and they can generate a lot of discussion. The last radio show is at consisting of seven stories ranging from three minutes to 17 minutes, and finally, an additional benefit is that the text is always available to these MP3 stories as well.

Regarding testing, to be fair, academic vocabulary and grammar correctness can be taken from materials (like Living on Earth) that students have already been exposed to. The text can be used for that, and at the levels Inna Braginsky is asking about, students can always benefit from focused attention toward S-V agreement, pronouns, modals, simple, compound, and complex sentences, adjective clauses, parallel structure, etc. It is up to the teachers and administrators to address the most obvious weaknesses at each level and focus on a few specifics students can study, so when they take their multiple choice texts on these things, they can succeed. (No apologies for multiple choice tests here! 😉 )

The hardest part is the speaking exam because it requires an enormous amount of consensus among TRAINED teachers.

First, teachers must agree on a series of possible questions or topics which may be announced beforehand or not, their preference. I think to be reliable the topic should come from topics students have already been exposed to, much like the Living on Earth topics suggested above (a dozen topics would not be too many for students to prepare for). After students are given three or four minutes to present a (1) SUMMARY or an (2) ARGUMENT for something or a (3) RATIONALE against something (for examples), teachers should ask a pertinent follow-up question or two, and both teachers/administrators and students should at least feel that the speech topic was fair; it was a topic the student was at least exposed to and had the chance to study.

Then, teachers should assess the speaking abilities of the students (both the prepared and extemporaneous parts), and ideally they will have worked together long enough with the parts of their rubric to arrive at a consensus independently. If four teachers, for example, assign the student a four of six points on an aspect of his speaking performance, they should be very proud of that!

I didn’t address bringing a bunch of non-ESL-trained teachers into the mix, but their opinions count! Spaces both formal and informal should be available for “mainstream” teachers to explain the “greatest weaknesses” of the ESL students, but I wouldn’t invite them to exams.


>Guy Brook-Hart, author of the Cambridge University Press Business English book, Business Benchmark, came to China and talked to teachers about how to teach listening. Dave Kees also interviewed him. To hear the interview and some excerpts from his talk as well as talks by Jack Richards and David Nunan, go to the Insights Into TEFL podcast site.

>By Merton Bland


A few years ago the author was assigned to the prime TESOL institution in southern Vietnam, the University of Social Sciences and Humanities. What he found was quite a challenge: an educational system, centrally administrated, mired in traditional practices. The grammar/translation methodology, a legacy of the French, held sway in the classrooms, producing, in spite of six years of English in the secondary schools, a nation of graduates unable to communicate in the target language. Discussions with Vietnamese colleagues, usually trained abroad, resulted in plans for a lecture tour to the major teacher training institutions of Vietnam (including Hanoi, DaNang, Hue, and about a half-dozen others) with a message stressing alternatives to the status quo, and the present format was developed. The author was subsequently invited to speak at institutions of ideological training (Communist Party Cadre) and information diffusion (schools for journalists) previously off-limits to Westerners, as well as the teacher training institutions previously noted.

The Commandments

(1) Do not teach English. Teach something, anything, IN English, using English as a vehicle of communication rather than an object of study. This is sometimes called the content-based curriculum.

(2) Do not teach grammar. Ingesting rules can be counterproductive: We are all familiar with students who are unable to apply rules learned through rote memorization. Instead, the grammar of English is best acquired inductively by the students formulating their own hypotheses. (This reflects Krashen’s acquisition vs. learning.)

(3) Do not teach vocabulary. The schema, the concept pods which constitute the lexigraphical units of language, vary from language to language, even from person to person. No language is a direct translation of any other. Thus, vocabulary must be forged within the target language itself in a manner not unlike that of first language acquisition. To do otherwise is to risk forging the chains which prevent the bifurcation of the native and target languages and forever making your students translate in their heads word for word.

(4) Do not teach pronunciation. There is no longer any standard English. Well over two-thirds of the world’s 1.5 billion English speakers are non-native speakers. Their English is certainly as acceptable as the Received Pronunciation (RP) of a tiny fraction of the British or the Broad Midwestern of Hollywood–as long as their English is comprehensible to the greatest number of persons who do not share that particular accent.

(5) Do not give tests. While testing is well embedded in many parts of the world, scaling is to be preferred to testing. Usually tests only require the regurgitation of knowledge. Scaling, placing people on a scale from beginner to educated native, has much more validity.

(6) Do not use lesson plans. Teach students, not lesson plans. Many teachers come away from their teacher training institutions with a mandated compulsion to spend hours writing lesson plans. Such planning is quite counterproductive since in an actual teaching situation the teacher must be alert to the reactions of the students–stressing pragmatic considerations, putting more time and effort where the lesson needs it and shortening or eliminating parts where the students seem to be in command of the concept being stressed. Yes, the teacher should have a general idea of the objectives of the lesson. Certainly the teacher should have available any materials which will be needed. Most importantly the teacher should leave time after the lesson to reflect on it and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. But the focus of any teaching should be on the students, not on the constraints imposed by any preconceived lesson plan.

(7) Do not use the native language in the classroom: Never, never, never! If our aim is the successful bifurcation of the native and target languages, any use of the native language is by definition counterproductive. Draw a chalkline on the doorsill and proudly use the native language outside the classroom, but create an immersion situation inside.

(8) Do not use textbooks. You know your own students better than any textbook author. Authentic materials are all around you. For example: Record the news from the VOA or the BBC. Videotape CNN or Australian TV. Bring in any expatriate Anglophone in town and have him chat with the students. Have your school subscribe to the “International Herald Tribune” or “Time” or “Newsweek.” Borrow English language videos. If they have subtitles put a book in front of the bottom of the monitor to cover up those subtitles. Buy, with your own money if necessary, paperbacks. After you read them they can be the nucleus of an individualized reading program (each student reads his own book and then reports on it to the class). Have your class keep journals in English, and write their own English to English vocabulary lists. Have the class write their own book.

(9) Do not teach the microskills: reading, writing, speaking, listening. English is one language, indivisible. And English is a living language; one only dissects the dead.

(10) Do not teach. Empower your students to take responsibility for their own learning. This reflects a general trend, especially in North American education, to deemphasize the role of the teacher as the font of all knowledge and provide the students with the means to further their own educative process beyond the classroom. This is called the student-centered classroom (as opposed to the teacher-centered classroom).

Thus Hath Dr. Bland Spoke

On the international plane, a focus on communication is overtaking traditional methodologies. This is reflected in most of the commandments. On the other hand, some of the commandments, i.e. Number 4, were reactions to local controversies. Number 4 was a response to the discussions as to which English represented the standard: British (RP), Midwest American, or even, in the Vietnamese context, Australian English. The answer was none of the above, but rather a Vietinglish comprehensible to the greatest number of non-Vietnamese.
Obviously, no immediate revolution was planned, nor did one occur. The aim, rather, was to present some alternatives and allow them to foment. Someday one of those teachers-in-training will become minister of education, and perhaps he or she will remember Dr. Bland’s seminar and institute some of those reforms.

(Versions of this list have appeared in other publications, including the “WATESOL Journal.”)

Merton L. Bland has worked as a K-12 teacher in the USA; a US foreign service officer in Africa, Asia and Australia; and as an ESL/EFL teacher and teacher trainer in the US, Asia, Africa, and Europe. <>

>By Tony Lee

We can only try to be perfect. I started with a freshman oral class for the first time this semester and they certainly are different.

First thing I told them was since they are paying my salary, they are my boss. A couple of them have taken their responsibility as my boss very seriously and yesterday came to tell me what I was doing wrong.

First I was talking too much. I was their first Australian and yes I had talked for most of the first 2 hour lesson telling them all about Australia and myself. Second lesson they talked the whole time — on a progressive story so I could gauge their ability. Speaking — pretty good. Understanding me or each other – quite bad. So pep talk on active listening etc.

The interesting thing is at a brainstorm session they picked exactly the two top ‘wants’ as Eve’s class – they should speak all the time and I should teach them culture. The one about correcting them immediately was already in place as I had warned them that those who were worried about losing face should leave it (face) back in their dorm. Now the trick is going to be how to satisfy two almost
completely mutually exclusive activities. My easy solution was to tell them they can’t have their cake and eat it too and those who wanted more info on western culture would have to come to our apartment and look at my books, maps and photos and ask me questions.

They wanted things to debate so “who is responsibility for learning” will be more productive than some I had considered.

>By Simon Howell – Burleigh Heads Language Centre, Australia

A teacher asked for recommendations for coursebooks available in Japan.

Here are some books that I’ve found useful. I’ve always found it hard to use the same conversation book(s) for majors and non-majors but you can certainly do so if it works best for you.

For Conversation

Non-Majors: Levels of Non-Majors can really vary and are usually lower then English Majors, sometimes abysmally low. I had a lot of success with “Nice Talking To You” (2nd Ed) by Tom Kenny /Linda Woo. It’s a good core textbook but like all texts, it needs to be supplemented to bring it to life. Fortunately, the topics are quite good ones and are easy to supplement with your own materials/stuff from the usual sources.

English Majors: Communication Strategies by David Paul. Published by Thomson Learning. Quite a good book and is easy to supplement with your own materials. I have also used “Nice Talking to You” (same as above) with first year English majors, and with a bit of extra supplementing to adjust it to the level of your class it can also work very well.

Avoid the Nice Talking to You Too (2nd book in the series) at all costs. It is simply not ready to be used with a class.

For Listening

I quite like the Impact Listening series and have used Impact Listening : Book 3 with 2nd year English Majors. I haven’t used Book 2 before but the level is probably ok for 1st years. I also got the students to do listening homework from Randall’s Fantastic Listening Website. It’s an excellent site and the students can select the topics and levels they wish to do. You can find the homework sheets I used to use at here. On their course feedback forms, almost all the students mentioned that they really enjoyed the web homework. You can also put the students in small groups / pairs to chat about the homework at the end or beginning of the class: Which topics did they do? Any new interesting vocabulary? Would they recommend their topic to another student? etc?. It’s a good warmer or ending for the class and you can then easily check who is or isn’t doing their homework.

Sample copies of all the books above are available from the publishers if you don’t have access to a copy right now.

>By Maria Spelleri, Manatee Community College, USA

I use the internet a lot in class even though my students don’t have individual internet access in the classroom. Our classrooms “only” have an instructor computer station and an overhead projector so the whole class can see. I find it invaluable for giving students a variety of interesting input that I used to have to pull together myself from pictures, books, movies, etc. Let me give you an example of a typical day from recent weeks, with four different classes:

In my lower level class, I have bookmarked some video clips from YouTube, movie trailers, or an advertisement. We review grammar concepts with the video as I elicit a narration of the video and ask questions about what is happening or is going to happen.

In my upper-intermediate reading class, the students are working from a text chapter that has an academic article about DNA analysis. They have to read a complicated article on DNA studies on Oetzi the Iceman. Since no one has a clue who Oetzi is/was, I use the internet to show them photos and simplified background information about the topic, as well as a map showing his possible trek through the mountains and valleys of Europe. (Most of my students only had a vague idea where the Alps are.) I will also use my textbook publisher’s website to do a review on Fact vs. Opinion in the format of a series of brief examples we can easily read as a class from the screen.

In my advanced writing class, we are working on personal essays. I link to archives of a radio program that features personal essays from readers. I quickly copy and enlarge the text so students can see it, and play the audio of the author reading his or her own essay, which really makes the essay come alive and also makes it easier to comprehend.

We then discuss the differences between a typical academic, informative essay and a personal essay. For homework, students will go to this radio website, choose an essay to read, and then write in the class blog why they recommend this essay to others. Eventually, students will write their own essays, post them on the class blog, and then read and comment on-line on each other’s work. The class votes on their favorite, and this student submits it to the radio station, as the station has requested its listeners to do.

In my speech and listening class, I show students wonderful animation and video from a website that has video representation of sounds. On this day, we are working on long ee versus short i sound.. We look at the video and animations and try to copy the facial and mouth movements prior to further practice from the book.

I remember the old days of collecting photos and cutting things out of catalogs, running to the photocopies when I stumbled across some writing I wanted to use, spending entire weekends making class materials- how time consuming it was, and how richer I feel the input in my classes are now thanks to the vast resources of the Internet.

>By Janet Kaback, Newark, NJ

A teacher said: “We often have no evidence our talk is helping students. I assume teachers don’t usually design a listening task for what they’re going to say in class, so how do you know students actually understand? How do you know your teacher talk is helping students develop their listening skills?”

How can we tell if our teacher talk is helping students develop their listening skills? I use a number of techniques to ascertain their understanding:

  1. I ask the students to restate what I’ve said.
  2. I have the students write down what they THINK I’ve said.
  3. I ask the students to tell me what it is that is confusing them.
  4. If students do not follow the given directions, it is obvious that they didn’t understand.

If the students did not understand, I will find one that did and ask that person to restate what I’ve said. If I do not feel that the message is clear, I reteach it in another manner immediately plus write it on the chalkboard.