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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?

A national EFL syllabus.

No doubt, changing the currently used textbooks in the teaching of English in Morocco is a crucial necessity. However, before writing and publishing new textbook, there are other critical areas that have to be dealt with first; otherwise, the change would be no more that a waste of money for some and huge budgets for others.

There are so many problems with the current EFL  textbooks. I am not going to deal with issues that concern the activities,texts or any other materials in these textbooks; yet, my concern is with with some macro areas. The disparities that exist between the three textbooks that are used in teaching the baccalaureate level (and other levels as well) are due to the lack of a standardized structure that makes the broad goals (macro-competencies) that are targeted in all the textbooks coherent with each other.

For any possible reform to be successful in achieving the goals of teaching foreign languages in Morocco, it must start from building up a ‘robust’ EFL syllbus. It has never been enough to give textbook writers a list of topics and language items, and ask them to build a textbook that complies with the list(s).

For this reason, I do believe that starting from building a national EFL syllabus (some might prefer to use the term curriculum) is of paramount importance for many reasons. First, this syllabus should make clear the profile of the Moroccan EFL learner/speaker that we want to have by the the time he/she finishes the secondary school. It’s not enough to specify that profile in broad terms that might be cross-curricular or inter-disciplinary. The EFL learner should be specified in terms of what he/she can do with the English language in very clear,  manageable and measurable items.Certain statements such as ‘by the time he/she finishes the baccalaureate level, the Moroccan learner should be able to sustain a conversation to achieve his/her communicative needs” or “the Moroccan learner should be able to write a simple e-mail to inform the (recepient can vary) of his/her own persoanl life,culture, needs and opinions….). These are sample ways in which the profile of the learner can be specified in terms of his/her own performance, not in braod terms such as ‘to communicate with the other’. These performances should specify what the learner should be able to do in all the four language skills in addition to what he/she can do with the use of ICT to further pursue learning language and using it for inter-cultural communication.

By clearly determining the profile of the language learner we want, we provide the textbook writes with a road map to follow while designing the activities they will include in the textbook. These activities have to target developing specific language skills that contribute to the development of the general profile of the learner (language competencies). Many of the “activities” in some of the textbooks that are currently used have no clear objective,maybe more than throwing the learner into an ocean of language where he/she has to seek his/he chance of getting through it safely.

Of equal importance in any future change of the textbooks is the specification of the approach to be used for teaching EFL in Morocco.  I think that it’s high time clear terms were used. Textbook writers are not sure whether  the approach is “approach par compétence” or “standads-based appraoch”. This explains why one doesn’t find the specification of the targeted skills in clear ways at the beginning of every unit in the textbook. Sometimes the terms standard, skill and competency are used interchangeably. The focus should be on what is to be achieved, not on importing “concepts” that distract people’s (textbook writers’, supervisors’ and teachers’) attention from focusing on achieving clear competencies.

In my opinion, textbook writers and teachers should be aware of the approach that they have to follow while designing texbook activities/tasks or being involved in actual classroom practices. In language teaching, I suppose it is enough to make people aware of the main principles that are involved in language teaching. These principles have have to adhere to the ‘communicative function‘ of language teaching. Therefore, there is no reason to tell people in some references that we are adopting “the competency-based” approach, in others “the standards-based approach” and still in others “the communicative approach”…. Specifying the targeted competencies necessitates and drives with it a language teaching approach/method. In saying “the Moroccan learner should be able to use language to exchange information…’, it’s clear that any technique used to teach the activities that target such objectives must be ‘communicative‘. Teaching for communication doesn’t rule out comparing/contrasting cultures/languages; it neither neglects speaking about other cultures and getting insight into the aspects of life of other people; hence, I do believe that, without having to mention it, the 5 Cs of communication that are the cornerstone of the standards-based approach are embedded in any communicative classroom.

One last thing that has to be specified for textbook writers, and mainly for language teachers, is the type and function of assessment in language teaching. It’s high time teachers were clear about whether language assessment is  for learning or of learning. A national syllabus has to make it clear when to test the learners summatively because we need grades for reasons of evaluation ,and when to assess the learners -not because we want to collect grades- but because we want to understand and maybe redirect and correct the way we teach/the way learners learn. In other words,it just doesn’t make sense to to advocate ‘formative assessment’ and grade learners at the same time.

Changing the current textbooks, using new names, new colors is of great interest; however,  it  wouldn’t end the ‘communicative’ crisis our secondary school learners are facing when it comes to using foreign languages. Any coming textbook reform should be prceded by a clear text which specifies the terminal competencies of our learners, the approach that should be used to achieve those competencies as well as the role(s) of assessment in language teaching.

The death of an EFL teacher- part2

In my part one of the things that really kill an EFL teacher,I talked about certain issues that are related to technology integration and the ICT illiteracy among some head-teachers.I then concluded that to prepare our schools and students for the future,we have to allow more money to stream into professional development both for teachers and school principals as well;otherwise,we will be bypassed by the new generation of internet children who are already better than their head-teachers in this domain.

In this part,I will be dealing with the so many other things that hinder the teaching of English as a foreign language in our schools,and maybe in so many other parts of the world.In the coming paragraphs I will be dealing with things that strip the language teacher and learners of their freedom to take control of their classroom processes.

Most of the modern teaching theories and approaches such as the competency-based language teaching,the standards approach and the dogme ELT stress teaching towards a competency or excellency level.These theories adhere mostly to the view that teaching should be driven by learning and not the opposite.In other words,the proponents of these approaches see that our teaching has to focus on what the student has attained in his/her learning process.Teaching can only move into another skill or competency level if the previous goal(s) of the previous level is/are attained.

Many of the official documents and directives that are adopted in our school system urges using the competency-based approach to achieve the standrads that are outlined by the educational authorities.There is no problem with setting certain standrads that might lead our schools to common and clear goals.

The biggest puzzle lies in the contradiction between setting standards and goals that every student “must” achieve before the end of a certain level,and fixing the number of curriculum units that have to be covered,maybe before that student attains those goals.It’s a big irony to adhere to a competency-based approach that aims to “produce” competent learners,and,at the same time, forcing those learners and their powerless teachers to finish an overloaded syllabus.

As there is always a hidden syllabus behind the texts and the lines every student faces,there are also hidden policies and ideologies that do what they don’t say.The teaching of EFL in our country is producing  no more than short-term parrots  — short-term they are because what they can regurgitate lasts no more than a few days.This is the automatic result of forcing the teacher and the student to deal with certain isolated and mechanical linguistic items by the end of a specified period of time.We are by consequence of these time guidelines coerced to turn our classroom into an Olympics stadium where every learner is struggling with his/her prefered sport to reach a gold medal;and yet,in our stadium almost  none of them gets to that end because the distance they have to run is much longer than the time set for it.

Other factors that make us teaching in a vacuum ,and which are related to the aforementioned ones are the focus on exams and testing.We have instilled in our kids an “exam and grade”only culture.They  no longer consider their existence in school as a preparation for the present and the future as well.The exams-focused syllabus has made them exam-oriented machines.This has made them and their parents as well unaware of the other valuable things that are among the school’s mission including the instillation of values, critical thinking,independent and life-long learning and every thing else that builds a strong and resourceful citizen.Testing at the end of every unit,at the end of every linguistic chunk,at the end of every term and at the end of every year has created  generations  who  learn-if there is any learning- only for the test.

Our students now no longer recognize that language is part of their life.They fail to see that communication and dialog is at the heart of human existence solely because they are tested on discrete parts of language.I suppose that language teaching has to be taken as part of the student’s life in all its processes :from teaching to testing to practicing.To achieve this, teaching language has to be done in a “conversational” manner where learners choose what they will talk about and study.This learner-initiated conversation should be the corner stone of any teaching/lesson as it shows clearly the level the students have attained in their own learning.Today,we teach following what others have supposed our kids know,which is a kind of false prophesy.I suppose that the availability of technology should make us,teachers and learners,free from commercial text-books that pre-suppose what our learners know and what they should know in a fallaciuos way.The dogme ELT is so far the only approach that touches such a point.Freeing teachers of heavy materials deosn’t make their responsibility easier.Yet,it’s only then that we assume complete burden of the student we make!

Social networking sites and web2.0 tools should be available for every student and evey teacher within the walls of the language classroom,not somewhere else in school.Only in this  way can the teacher at the spot decide about where his/her students are and where he/she should take them.I suppose that the primary purpose of teaching is exactly this;it’s to know where our kids are and how they are there and where we should lead them later.In schools,however,that’s not the case.It’s clearly obvious now that teaching is driving testing and not vice versa.We are even supposed to do a certain number of tests/quizes before the end of a certain time,and this makes it clear that the primary purpose of assessment in various schools is no more than to assign a grade to a student.

All this has produced no more than dead teachers and dying students.All this has produced no more than train-like teachers and students;they know only one direction.It’s going through the exam.Our EFL has to stop producing machines.We have to take the humans as they are made first.We have to make them creative and able to think.Our students should be  critical thinkers enabled with the highest order skills that are necessary for a globally competing citizen.

Unfortunately,our schools so far have produced no more than people who accept every thing they are given.Focus on exams,constraining us to a certain time and a number of units that have to be covered during the year leaves no place for creativity in schools.There has to be times where everyone,students and teachers, think and ask questions.There must be circumstances in which I wouldn’t be obliged to stop my student from discussing a personal problem in class while this is why language is created in the first place.Our students must feel that the language class is different from other classes.If the mission of EFL teaching is to teach “the passive”,”conditionals”…and the rules,that’s no longer language.It’s some other subject.Speaking;voicing our inner selves,conversing,and talking with each other is the prime mission of any language,and EFL teaching has to make that clear within the schools. Our students have different talents,skills and dreams.They have the right to be provided with the “time” and materials that allow them to be themselves.We don’t have to teach English 24 hours a day seven days a week to produce fluent learners.Less than that will be needed if that learner is taken as a human being not as a machine.And for a learner to be taken as a human ,language should be seen as a means for conversing ,and not as a set of grammatical rules that must be mastered and tested.

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