Teaching Listening Comprehension - Where is the Problem?
Eva Homolová, Slovakia
Eva Homolová is a teacher trainer at the Department of English and American Studies, Faculty of Humanities, Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia. She is interested in teacher’s and learners´ roles and using authentic material in ELT . She has written two monographs on roles and one on ways of using job advertisements in developing language skills. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Problems with teaching reading comprehension
In the process of teacher training program it is necessary to cover many areas that constitute the content of the program. Every teacher trainer in pre-service teacher training intuitively feels that some areas are more important for trainees than others. This feeling is based on the knowledge of the situation in the country, impact of mother tongue, traditions, content of final tests etc. In other words though some areas may be universal for all training programs others are very specific for individual programs and teacher trainers.
When it comes to topics of my lectures and seminars I spent more time on, they could be listed as:
- reading aloud and reading comprehension
Our teachers and trainees do not consider reading aloud and silent reading to be totally different skills with different learning value. Learners are often asked to read an unknown text aloud, answer comprehension questions or translate sentences into mother tongue.
- teacher’s reactions to mistakes in learner’s oral production
Many teachers over correct, they focus on everything wrong in learner’s oral/written language production disregarding the aim of the lesson (developing accuracy/fluency). They correct major and minor mistakes the same way.
- teaching listening comprehension
Teachers let learners listen to an unknown text without giving them reasons for listening. After listening they bullet number of comprehension questions, which learners are not able to answer. So they listen to the text again with course books open.
So these are the reasons why I pay more attention to them. Not only trainees but teachers with many years of teaching practice go against basic methodological principles when they deal with the areas above.
Each of the mentioned areas deserves our careful attention but I would like to stop at the last „ trap“ teachers and their learner are caught in – teaching listening comprehension. An important factor for consideration is the overall objective of this skill. If we consult any reference book on EFL teaching the authors stress the importance of listening comprehension as an aim and means of acquiring language (Harmer 1993, Scrivener 1994, Gower 1995, Ur 1996). I feel that it is not possible to prepare a communicatively competent learner without teaching and practicing this skill. In other words the main objective of teaching listening comprehension should be to help learners in coping with listening and communicating in real life situations. A very clear specification of what is expected from a learner at each proficiency level (A1, A2, B1, B2) is stated in A Common European Framework.
The problem I face does not lie in the underestimation of importance of listening but in the way it is taught and practiced in our schools. I would like to begin with a short description of how I deal with listening comprehension topic. In the lecture I turn trainees´ attention to importance of listening, to focused and unfocused listening, various listening strategies, and criteria for the texts selection, extensive and intensive listening, pre-, while- and post-listening activities and a basic methodological model for teaching receptive skills (Harmer 1993).
I devote some time to Doffs Unit 17 and in Workbook activity 2 trainees suggest a more effective approach than the one provided. What I stress is the importance of learners having their course book closed otherwise it is not teaching listening comprehension. To make my presentation of the topic even more transparent and clear I use a taped listening extract (on the beginners level) in which four people are introducing themselves on a business meeting. In my presentation I make as many mistakes as possible ignoring all didactic rules:
- no lead in – I did not present the topic and setting of the dialogue, did not elicit any expected language and did not introduce speakers and did not give any constructions,
- no guiding questions – I did not provide any reasons for listening (listening tasks),
- I deliberately made some noise and moved around, changing volume, coughing, etc.,
- after the 1st listening I asked number of tricky (comprehension) questions by which I tested primarily learners´ short term memory,
- I stressed the fact that the chosen text was below their level and despite it they were not able to answer my questions.
By my apparent ignorance of very basic methodological rules I want to make them aware of problems learners could face if a teacher does not use the right procedure for working with a text. After being exposed to an example of how NOT to work with a text for listening I concluded our session by pointing out a common sense rule:
“We should teach listening by listening, reading by reading, speaking by speaking and writing by writing which is in my opinion very clear and straightforward”.
I feel that the value of the way I present the topic of teaching listening comprehension lies in the trainees´ getting “hands-on experience”.
In the final assessment test at the end of the term trainees are given a text that they have to prepare for a lesson aimed at teaching listening comprehension. So far so good - test results are usually on a very good level. As time passes it comes to their first teaching during the teaching practice in a basic school.
Approximately 95% of our basic schools use T. Hutchinson `s Project course. As it is accompanied by teacher´ s book, supplementary materials and each trainee has a compulsory consultation with a tutor one would not expect any major problems in trainees` first teaching.
Unfortunately, recently I have noticed several segments of lessons in which trainees made major mistakes in approaching a text for listening. I could list them as follows:
- learners had course/books opened – the teacher did not instruct pupils to close their books,
- learners listened and followed the text in the books without any reason to do so,
- learners read the text aloud and translated it sentence by sentence,
- learners were asked to answer comprehension questions without having an opportunity to go through the text silently.
I could not believe my eyes and ears… why has all the theory collapsed in designing a lesson plan? Was the trainee not prepared or under a stress? Where has the apparent ignorance of theory had its roots? If we look at a relatively simple model of teaching receptive skills I could not think of any reason why the reality was so disappointing. Nevertheless after the lesson we had a feedback session and my first comments focused on the model of teaching listening.
The answer I was given was very short and simple: It is written in the course book and teacher ´s book. The strongest argument one can imagine. At this point I have to admit that not only novice teachers but also those with many years of teaching practice rely heavily on a teacher´ s book and they would never doubt instructions provided by authors of student´ s and teacher´ s book. If we have a look at the most of introductory texts in any Project course-book we find the following instructions: Listen and read (e.g. Project 3, p.28, 50, 74 etc.) Every section either Comprehension (Project 1, 2) or Language in Use (Project 3) begins with a symbol of a tape and tape script of a story with speech bubbles under the instruction: Read and listen.
One of the problems we are faced with is the fact that within some units you can see more tape scripts with the same instructions. I have to admit that the texts mentioned are not primarily aimed at developing listening comprehension (but they could and listening is present), their focus is more on presenting grammar functions/structures, lexical items, topics etc. (Project 3, p. 36, 82).
Apart from this type of “listening/reading activities” every unit contains a section on listening comprehension where no tape script for learners is provided. My trainees are confused and do not know exactly how to approach text with an instructions Read and listen. Should learners read and understand first and listen and follow the text afterwards? Or should they be reading and listening at the same time?
In TB p. 94 (Project 3) learners are asked to listen, read and match cues to the correct people. An important dimension of what we do on a lesson is the one of similarity with real life. In my opinion an activity Listen, read and match does not resemble a real life situation learner can come across in everyday life. We either have a text and no recording or we listen to a text without having it in a written form. In other words we either listen and make e.g. notes or read and “communicate” with a text (underline, make comments etc.)
The consequence of a confusing approach to texts is recognizable in lessons of many teachers. Wherever the tape script is available, our learners are often asked to look at it. When it is not included in a student´ s book some teachers copy it for their learners. However listening should be practiced by listening and reading by reading, many learners are forced to practice listening by reading and vice versa.
To conclude I want to point out the importance of clear instructions for users in any teacher´ s books as they have an immense impact on teaching. Undoubtedly, there will always be a large group of teachers who would rather rely on teacher´ s books than on common sense.
Gower, R.Phillips, D., Walters,S.: Teaching Practice Handbook. Heinemann, 1995, ISBN 0 453 24059 5
Scrivener, J.: Learning Teaching. Heinemann, 1994, ISBN 0 453240 98 7
Ur, P.: A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge : CUP ISBN 0521 44994-4
Harmer, J.: The Practice of Teaching English. Longman 1993, ISBN 0 582 091337
Doff, A.: Teach English. Cambridge : CUP 1988, ISBN 0 521 34864 1
A Common European Framework of reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment . www.culture2.coe.int/portfolio/documents_intro/common_framework.html
Hutchinson, T.: Project 1. Oxford : OUP, 2003, ISBN 0 19 436514-X
Hutchinson, T.: Project 2. Oxford : OUP, 2003, ISBN 0 19 436523 9
Hutchinson, T.- Newbold, D.: Project 3. Oxford : OUP, 2002, ISBN 0 19 436534 4
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