Teaching listening skills often presents challenges. This receptive skills is however vital to ensure communication and by following some principles you will make it easier for your students. Developing listening skills means developing the capacity to use known vocabulary and grammar in a real context. You will often find out that even if your students know the grammatical structures and the vocabulary in a listening activity they will find it hard to make sense of it. Once you show them the transcript it all make sense. The problem is that they find it hard to process the meaning of the language at real speed. The best way to help them overcome this common issue is to practise over and over again different listening activities so that they can train their ears to listen. For that reason the exclusive use of target language in the classroom is very important as I mentioned earlier in articles about Target Language. Not only is the use of Target Language important but also the use of an authentic pace while talking. Of course you may exaggerate the pronunciation of some tricky words and pause a bit more often when you teach beginners but under no circumstances should you slow down the way you normally speak. When we watch DVDs or listen to songs we can sometimes use subtitles or even stop the videos or listenings but in real life we simply can’t.
There is a wide range of material at our disposal to help our students improve their listening. Songs, videos, podcasts, listening activities from the textbooks are great resources and are very successful if we follow some key principles.
First of all you need to choose the type of listening document carefully according to your students’ needs, age and ability. Make sure as well that you covered the vocabulary and grammatical structures that they are going to listen to. As much as possible introduce the type of document you are about to work on without being too specific though.You may want them to discover the type of document they will be listening to. If you have chosen to work on a song try to have some pictures about the singer or band or find information about the context to give your students some cultural insight.
Songs, videos, podcasts, listening activities from the textbooks are great resources and are very successful if we follow some key principles.
Review the vocabulary and grammatical structures with them before the first listening to ensure they understand the main point of the document. These activities can be match-up activities, card games where one student has one card and the other has the definition or maybe a cloze activity.
For the first listening have your students to focus on background sounds first. These sounds will give them some clues about where the scene takes place. You wouldn’t hear the same types of sounds if you are on the street or over the phone or at a restaurant. For a song have them to focus on the rhythm, beats, rhyming words if any. This first approach should reassure your students and it should help them to understand what kind of document it is. For the first listening the main is to have your students to understand the main idea of the listening document. You don’t need to go too deep for that first listening stage.
After some class feedback about their first findings about the setting, the number of people involved, their gender, their relationships etc. your students should feel ready for a second listening. For the second listening have a worksheet ready where your students will have to complete a gap-filling, a matching exercise or reorder some lyrics but it must anyway be the type of activity that will provide some information.
The third listening should allow your students to answer more open-ended comprehension questions or they can even lead to some discussion. If you work on a song you may even have some debates – Justice in the Hurricane by Bob Dylan.
After your listening activities your lesson may progress to some singing as a follow-up to the song or reproducing an interview, dialogue, weather reports. The main idea you should keep in mind is that your listening activities should lead to some active production where the students will reuse the vocabulary and grammar structures studied.
Planning reading tasks is crucial to ensure its success and avoid blank faces. Pre-teaching the vocabulary that our students will come across is necessary apart if your objective is to have them to elicit this vocabulary. There are many ways to pre-teach vocabulary. I usually write the new vocabulary on board with a definition drawing or synonyms, I also sometimes write words they need on the board and ask students in groups or in pairs to sort them out according to the meaning they believe they have or according to their role in a sentence- verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs etc. Once they have brainstormed in pairs we do a whole class feedback and see if we can find some kind of common agreement.
When it comes to understanding a passage questions are very useful. A good idea is to ask your students to read the questions before they start the reading, as it will guide their reading. I would generally have questions following the order of the text or a comprehension grid or easier questions at the beginning then more complex ones at the end to challenge the whole class. You need to put students out of their comfort zone as much as possible, that is why having a mere True/False activity following a text doesn’t ensure all of your students have understood the text. If you really want to use a True/ False activity after a reading make sure you ask your students to quote the text or justify their answers. You need to keep in mind that a comprehension task for intensive reading has to be challenging and understandable. You will notice that your students have understood a piece of text when they are able to reformulate main ideas of the text with their own words. If they can reproduce the key information of the text, then you know they got the main idea and that your reading task was successful.
Planning reading tasks is crucial to ensure its success and avoid blank faces.
An alternative to questions is the summary. You may want to ask your students to write a summary about a short story, a novel or an article they read. This type of activity is more challenging as most of the time students don’t know where to start. An idea here that I use is to give them a grid with main points that you are expecting of them (for example when talking about a book: characters, relationships, plot, conflict, climax, resolution of the conflict etc.) This type of activity being a bit more tricky to handle with beginners I would suggest you use it with more advanced students who already possess the language to express themselves more fluently.
Another technique is what I call the teacher-drama reading. Instead of asking your students to read silently, be the one in charge and have them to follow you while you are reading. Insist on the punctuation. Exaggerate emotions felt by characters. Mime while you are reading. Pause. Vary your intonation. You need to imagine yourself as a storyteller; you could even bring some accessories for the setting, as it will help your learners visualize the story. Don’t forget to stop sometimes to make some comments about what you have just read and try to involve your audience.
There is no way we can teach a language without teaching reading skills. Reading is a very important skill and we need to prepare our students for this. Finding relevant texts adapted to our students, ensuring comprehension and evaluating this skill can be extremely challenging but it can also be easy it done step by step.
When teaching reading skills we also teach numerous other skills. For instance we wouldn’t use the same technique when reading advertisings or novels. We use different ways according to the type of texts we face and this is what we need to teach our students as part of reading.
We need first of all to train our students to skim texts for gist. In other words we need to teach them how to get information in a text through a quick look. Students browse for information without looking for details. They have a look to the type of document for one minute maximum and they should be able to give you answers to some very general questions such as
What kind of document is it? Is it an article, an ad, a short story?
Who is author? Who is the audience? What is the aim of such a piece of writing?
What is the layout, font like? What do we learn from this?
We need to choose texts with vocabulary and grammar that are adapted to your audience in terms of content, age, motivation and ability. If you are not too sure about the type of texts, start first with texts you can find in textbooks, they are generally relevant and if you would like to stretch some of your students you could easily write another paragraph to the text. Alternatively if you have weaker students bring them some support by giving them the vocabulary they need before they start reading.
Scanning is what we do when we look for a specific bit of information. For example when you receive an email, you will look for the topic and main issues. You scan the text without processing it, you just look for specific information. Once you have the information you are looking for only then do you start reading extensively. For this skill, you may ask questions about the characters in the story (their relationship), any relevant date or stages in the plot but you are not at that stage asking specific questions.
In lessons we often use what we call intensive reading which means that we ask our students to focus on every single word including the use of punctuation. In that type of reading we focus on the content and we let our students take the time they need to understand everything.
Scanning is what we do when we look for a specific bit of information.
Extensive reading is not the type of reading that we use very often in classroom as extensive reading also means reading for pleasure. For instance when we read magazines or novels we have chosen to focus on the plot and we may chose to leave some facts because we are not interested in them. Extensive reading should be more developed in schools through books reviews or reading programs to incite our young learners to read.
In language teaching there are plenty of ways to vary the types of assessment we give students depending on the skills we want to assess.
- Listening skills
They can be assessed in different ways. You may decide to use songs with a matching-up or filling-gap activity related to what has been taught in lesson, you may also use post-listening activities to check understanding and develop use of skills in different contexts. These listening activities should be authentic and purposeful. For example you may ask your students to listen to a weather report and they will then have to decide on which activities they will do according to the report. Any listening assessment should require our students to demonstrate their proficiency in listening by completing some tasks acknowledging their understanding like circling correct answers, filling a comprehension grid, crossing the odd-one-out etc.
- Speaking skills
There are plenty of techniques to assess speaking skills. Here again assessing speaking skills has to be done in an authentic context and you should ask your students to complete tasks that they may encounter in the real life.
Among others let’s mention the oral interview that could be done in pairs. Students ask and answer questions about topics that that have learnt about. The oral interview can be quite useful to develop our students’ confidence when done in peers, as they will progressively learn to speak without fearing to make mistakes.
Alternatively role-plays are great tools to assess students’ speaking abilities. By giving them a context and a role to play students can use the language more creatively while incorporating the vocabulary and grammar learnt previously. The importance here is about pair communication. Can they interact with each other and can they understand each other?
Class presentations are also brilliant to assess speaking. You need to ask your students to prepare in advance and look for information about their topic. The advantage of such an assessment is that they have time to incorporate vocabulary and grammar to give their best the day they will have to speak in front of the class. For that kind of assessment not only will the presentation be assessed but also the content, vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.
Class presentations are also brilliant to assess speaking.
- Reading skills
When preparing a reading assessment you need to keep in mind what you are going to assess. When assessing vocabulary matching up activities with pictures and words, true-false activities, odd-one-out are always useful. You may also use a text with comprehension questions or a grid to fill in. As for grammar cloze exercises or filling-gaps are quite relevant. Students have to fill in the gaps with words that are the most logical grammatically. These words can be provided in a toolbox or not depending on your students’ level.
- Writing skills
Students write a writing sample. It may be a conversation about ordering food, a self-introduction, and a film review with their opinions or even an essay. Remember that developing writing skills takes time. As a consequence practice is necessary to ensure progression and the tasks you plan for assessment need as well to be progressive.
Providing effective assessment is a tricky topic but let’s see how I could give you some key principles about it.
First of all the main aim of assessment should be to help our students to learn better. Even if it a system of ranking and accreditation, teachers should keep in mind that summative and formative assessment should be both aiming at the same goal: developing understanding and knowledge. Consequently planning assessment is important. We need to measure when and how to assess our students. A very heavy assessment load will be counter-productive, as students won’t be given the necessary time to understand the material and concepts. Not only will it be counter-productive but students will also lose interest and motivation if the assessment workload is too demanding.
- Assessing what has been taught
Then the required tasks of the formal assessment should always be in line is what has been taught and learnt during the unit or term. The vocabulary and grammar skills learnt and taught have to be assessed accordingly. I also suggest that your formal assessments be differentiated according to your students’ ability. Students need to meet certain criteria and standards but this doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t adapt the questions in your tests to suit your students’ ability. Let’s not forget that nowadays we have mixed ability groups and while some of them need more support, others on the contrary will need to be pushed in these tests.
A range of learning outcomes have to be assessed and assessments need to reflect the variety of learning outcomes. For these reasons teachers need to vary the types of assessment they give theirstudents. Matching-up activities, true-false exercises, multiple-choice exams, oral exams with prepared or non-prepared questions, interviews, role plays, filling-gaps activities, substitution activities, close exercises, essays are just some examples of what could be used to vary assessments. I also suggest that when you prepare your assessment you start with easier tasks first and gradually use more and more difficult ones as it will give your less able students the feeling that they can achieve some tasks.
A range of learning outcomes have to be assessed and assessments need to reflect the variety of learning outcomes.
- Expectations and criteria
Students need to be clear with what is expected of them; as a consequence instructions in the tests have to be understandable and as short as possible. Providing an example of what is expected of them is always a good idea to avoid confusion. We also must remember when we plan exams that students may be very anxious before tests and it is not uncommon that they misunderstand an instruction and produce unproductive work. To avoid this, students should be offered the opportunity at the beginning of the course to know exactly what is going to be expected of them for their final exam. They should be aware of any topics, dates and weighting of these exams. Along with the types of assessments they also should be given the criteria for assessment. For instance they need to know that an accurate use of vocabulary and grammar will be required for the exams.
Giving a grade to students is not enough to ensure a real progression in their learning. A grade tells students about the effectiveness of their learning, but it doesn’t tell them what they have achieved or failed according to the assessor’s standards. What I tend to do is giving them two types of feedback. One is written underling what went well and what should be improved and how, and the other type of feedback is oral to draw their attention to the written feedback. Feedback, as we mentioned previously, is crucial to the improvement of our learners and it has to be positive as much as possible to make sure that our students will be willing to improve on their next piece of work.
Assessment for learning is a key element of teaching if you want your students to improve. As we said before Assessment for learning is aimed at helping you with your planning after you have identified your students’ strengths, weaknesses, their needs, their motivation and their learning styles. You will find in this article some useful steps to implement AFL.
A. Sharing learning objectives with students
At the beginning of every lesson you should share the teaching-learning objectives with your students so that they know what they are supposed to be able to achieve by the end of the lesson. I like to have general objectives displayed during the whole lesson at the top left corner of my board so that I can refer to them any time during the lesson. However I also have a set of differentiated objectives on what I called a SMART setting slide that is a Self-Target-Setting slide where students choose their targets according to their levels and abilities. These objectives targets will then be reviewed at the end of the lesson during the plenary. You will use these objectives for questioning and feedback. For example: “What were the objectives today? Have you reached your target? Which activity has helped you most?”
B. Developing students’ awareness about their aims and the standards
Not only is it important to define the objectives of the lesson with your students, it is also crucial to explain to them how they will meet these objectives. Students need to be aware of the type of criteria that will allow them to achieve their targets. If you are expecting your students to write a long piece of extended writing you need to model and demonstrate what you are expecting by showing them an example of this writing. Once they have produced their piece of work you may want to use these as examples and why not as displays to show others the expectations.
C. Involve your students in their learning
They need to know that they are responsible for their learning and progress. Consequently they need to be given opportunities to talk about their targets, the activities in the lesson and they should be able to express themselves about any point they have found difficult. For this reason you should always allow five minutes at least at the end of your lesson to review the objectives and ask them which activity was helpful for them and which activity they found difficult. We often rush at the end of our lessons but these five minutes thinking time where students reflect on their work is important so that they can decide of the next step for their learning.
D. Constructive feedback
Every type of feedback is valuable to motivate our learners to improve. Whether written or oral feedback, these comments will help students acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses and will help them to identify which steps they need to take to improve. These feedbacks however need to tell what was done well by the students but it should also explain to them how it could have been even better. Feedback have to point out on the positive side of learning to develop students’ self confidence and self-esteem as consent negative feedback can be damaging for learning and they can even have a bigger impact on the long-term on students’ personality.
E. Reflection for improvement
At the end of unit or term when we give our students some assessment tasks, students need to be clear on what skills are going to be assessed and they need to know the criteria against which they are going to get assessed. After the exam, reflection again is vital to decide on the future steps both for students and teachers. Both need to understand what went well in the teaching-learning process and what could be improved and how.