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The teaching of listening comprehension

As listening is an integral part of language as a system of human communication, it should be a compulsory and integral component of any language teaching syllabus . The ELT syllabus should focus on the teaching of real-life listening strategies that are involved in daily human interactions. For procedural purposes listening comprehension lessons should follow the steps below:

1.  The preparation stage

The teacher is invited to select only one or two sub-listening skills as suggested in the syllabus. For the effective achievement of the goals stated for listening comprehension, the teacher should be aware of what each sub-skill is and what is involved in its teaching. Focus on one sub-skill at a time ensures the spiral progression of the practice of the sub-skills.

2.  The execution stage

The listening comprehension lessons should follow three main stages:

  • Pre-listening:

The main objective of the pre-listening stage is to activate the students’ schemata and make them ready for the listening activities. Activating background knowledge should be taken as a listening sub-skill in itself. For this reason, ‘activating background’ knowledge should be an integral part of every listening lesson. The teacher is invited to vary the strategies used to activate the learners’ background knowledge from lesson to lesson. Pre-listening activities include:

  • Group brainstorming.
  • Pair-work interactions (on a topic related to the topic of the listening lesson).
  • Whole class discussions/debates.
  • Think-Pair-Share.
  • Poser sessions.
  • Portfolio discussion.
  • Oral presentations.
  • Video-watching , etc…

Any of the activities above could serve as pre-listening activities for the listening comprehension lessons.

  • While-listening:

This stage should deal with the development of the target competency. Each listening comprehension lesson focuses on training the learners on one or two listening strategies.  Being aware that listening skills, like reading skills, cannot be developed over one session or even one year of instruction, it is preferable to state the objective of the listening comprehension lesson in the form of a ‘training’ objective. That is to say, the teacher can say, for instance: ‘by the end of this lesson, the learners will have training in scanning for specific information / skimming for the gist.

It is assumed that strategy training should be the main focus of each listening-comprehension lesson. Therefore, the learners should be instructed on how to practice the target skill. For this to happen, the teacher is invited to move from simple skills to those which require more cognitive involvement on the part of the learners.These steps can be followed for strategy training in listening comprehension:

  • Select one listening comprehension strategy at a time. (e.g. in Unit 1: making predictions about the listening passage/ scanning).
  • Name the target strategy and state it as the objective of the listening lesson.
  • Model it using the same listening passage or a different one.
  • Allow the learners to practice it.
  • Provide scaffolding to the learners as they are practicing the strategy.
  • Allow the learners to independently practice the strategy.

 ‘Making predictions’ should be taken as a listening skill. In fact it is a real-life skill; whenever we are listening to someone speaking, we make predictions about what he/she’s going to say later. So, the learners should be trained on how to use the given clues to make predictions about subsequent details in the passage being listened to. In video-viewing, using images and the sequence of events can help the learners further predict what’s coming next.

‘Skimming’ is an authentic skill which is frequently practiced in real life. ‘Skimming’ is when the learners identify the main idea of a spoken/written text. While trying to identify the main idea of a spoken passage, the listeners do not have to listen to all the details in the text. The main idea (the gist) can be understood from the first sentence(s) or from the first part of what is being said. In video-watching, images are sufficient to provide the learners with the main idea. So, the teacher should choose the most appropriate part of an audio/video track which would allow the learners to get the gist of what is being listened to.

In unit 2 of the textbook, for instance, the target sub-skill is ‘scanning for specific information’. In this this strategy, the learners try to locate specific details in the text. Specific information can also be understood using video images as support. A detail can be names, dates, figures, numbers, percents, amounts of money, etc. So, as a strategy, the teacher is advised to train the learners on how to locate specific information in an audio text usually through directing them to where the detail is being discussed without having to listen to the whole text.

  • Post-listening:

The post-listening phase of the lesson should be devoted to discussing the importance of the strategy dealt with in understanding the text . During this phase, the teachers can also further exploit the content of the text. If the audio/video text is about a topic related to ‘family’ or ‘friends’, for instance,  the post-listening stage can be devoted to a speaking session in which the learners talk in groups or give a short talk to the class about their families or relatives. In this stage, the teacher can also link the listening class to a ‘reading comprehension’ or a ‘writing’ class, making the topic being discussed as a starting point for the coming lesson. Other activities that can be dealt with after a listening lesson include:

  • Pair-work  on the ideas  dealt with in the listening audio/video.
  • Group work discussion on an aspect of the text.
  • Short talk/presentation related to the topic.
  • Paragraph writing about the topic (about my family, for instance).
  • Quick-writes.
  • Story-telling in reaction to the topic.
  • Role-plays (imitating the people in the video).
  • etc.,

What do you think?

On the teaching of reading comprehension.

I would like to start this post with a question: ‘Do you teach or test reading comprehension in your reading classes?’.

This post is evoked by a comment that was made by a fellow teacher: “I would admit that I never taught reading comprehension. What I was doing was following blindly the questions in the bottom of the reading text.”

I have seen many instances where teaching reading comprehension classes are turned into testing reading comprehension- or a little bit far even from being testing. The teacher would start his/her lesson with a brainstorming of the topic, trying to activate the learners’ prior knowledge. He/she then immediately asks the learners to ‘read the text and answer the questions’ underneath before moving into the correction of the questions one after the other. This seems a very normal process in most of our EFL classes. What makes this far from being a reading comprehension lesson?

  1. I don’t think the teacher is aware of the target reading sub-skill in the lesson.This is manifested through dealing with questions which target different sub-skills, sometimes reading for the gist, sometimes scanning and other reading for details.
  2. This means the students are moving from one unit/text to an other without  being trained on how to apply any one reading startegy in the classroom/exam reading texts, and ultimately in the real-life reading (as a skill).
  3. This entails that neither the teacher nor the learners are aware of the reading lesson’s objective, or target competency. Maybe the only clear objective that can be given is ‘to teach reading’. But, for what purpose?

In the light of the above considerations, it’s recommended for any reading comprehension lesson to target one reading sub-skill. The lesson should focus on training the learners on the use of the target reading comprehension strategy. This means that the teacher is required to select only one reading comprehension skill and target it in the lesson. Again adopting most textbooks the way they are now is very misleading. Neither in ‘the map of the book’ nor at the beginning of each unit is the target reading competency (sub-skill) identified. In the best cases reading comprehension skills are ‘misidetified’ and confusing or crammed together at the top of the first page of the unit in as much the same way they are listed in the national syllabus.

I do get confused when I see ‘read for cause and consequence’ featuring as a reading competency or skill, and I feel dizzy when I read that ‘read and define a concept’ or ‘read a menu’ are considered  reading comprehension skills… It is also unrealistic and anti-didactic to target four or five reading comprehension sub-skills in one lesson. This further proves that the reading lessons in the text are more test-like (and so is the teacher’s lesson if the textbook is followed as it si) than heading towards strategy training.

It is very appreciated if the teacher adapts the passage on the textbook and targets only one reading comprehension skill in his/her lesson. It’s rewarding when the teacher is aware of the skill he/she’s dealing with in the lesson. Only in this way can he/she make the learners aware of the target competency and use appropraite strategies to train the learners on the real-life use of that skill.One final comment in relation to strategy-training, most of the (exam-oriented) textbooks simply tell the to ‘read the text and answer the question’, whatever the question is. Targetting one specific reading skill doesn’t require ‘reading the text’; reading the title, the subtitles and looking at pictures is enough to get the gist of a newspaper article.

  • Have a (critical) look at the reading sub-skills that are targeted in the national syllabus (mind things such as ‘identifying the topic sentence of each paragrpah of the text’, The  Guidelines, 2007:23).
  • Match each sub-skill to the most appropriate reading passage in the textbook or use your own text if you can afford it, providing that it fits the unit theme.
  • No need to tell the learners to ‘read the whole text’. Use the appropriate strategy as is required by the skill.
  • Adopt an explicit approach to teaching reading strategies. Say for example: “for question number XX, you don’t have to read everything (the whole text). Read only the first paragrpah and the last one/ read only the first sentence in each paragraph as you are reading for the gist, we only need the main idea of the text. Time the reading depending on the task/target skill.
  • Recycle the sub-skills as you move along the syllabus. It’s not enough for a skill to be targeted in one unit and then forget about it once for all. Besides, recycling strategies prepares the learners for the exam as they will get into a text that is more or less similar to the exam text by the end of the year (multiple questions targeting different sub-skills).
  • Give less time to the learners as you progressively train them on the strategies that build the skill.
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