Lessons from Learning: Context

Shaun Sweeney

A little bit of context:DSCF5070.JPG

I moved from Italy to Spain, or more accurately from Milan to Barcelona, just over 2 years ago. By this time, I should be quite good at Spanish, right? Well, sadly, like many of us in this profession, I have to put in a lot of work hours to keep the wolves from the door and this has perhaps impacted on20150816_161153 the amount of time I’ve had to spend on studying and learning a new language. I spend a lot of time in the classroom, reading lesson plans, giving feedback, moderating forums – all of it in English, my first language. So I haven’t had the opportunity to really engage and interact in Spanish (let alone Catalan) enough to see striking improvements.

Or maybe I’m just lazy and making excuses – you decide.

Either way, I’m in a good position to experience the feeling many of our learners go through when trying to make sense of episodic, sporadic L2 input. This goes for all aspects of the language learning process, and it’s of course something of a conceit to separate out skills such as listening  from systems like phonology and lexis, but being at a low stage of language development, bombarded daily with messages in at least one foreign tongue and trying to make heads, tails, caps, cabezas, colas or creus of them all has lead me to focus on listening.

Like many of us, I’m sure, I’ve been dissatisfied for a while with the way listening skills development is still often approached – a two stage comprehension model which fails to dig very deeply into the processes at work and which doesn’t do much more than test comprehension, rather than teach how to listen or develop listening ability. I should stress that I’m not being new or revolutionary in my insight here – these things have been said time and again by many others, and with much more academic rigour and eloquence than you’ll find here from me.

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For instance, you’ll no doubt have read Scott Thornbury’s entertaining post about the travelling gnome – and if you haven’t, you must. It may be overstated somewhat, but I’m sure we can recognise the key features of what  ‘doing a listening’ all too often means. That was in 2011.

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John Field published his excellent book Listening in the Language Classroom three years before that, in 2008. He challenged us to reconsider an approach to teaching listening that relied on comprehension questions. This after numerous articles outlining how to focus more on the underlying processes of listening, rather than the product of correct answers.

Examples of dissatisfaction with what we do when teaching listening can be found even further back – take these quotes from Sheerin almost 30 years ago now, in 1987:

Listening comprehension lessons are all too often a series of listening tests in which tapes are played, comprehension exercises are attempted by the learners, and feedback is given in the form of the ‘right’ answer. In lessons such as this, listening is not being taught but tested.

In the rest of her paper, Sheerin highlights the importance of building up context and focussing on discourse features of the text being used (one wonders if it was the teacher’s or learner’s choice to hear a recording about how to make paper aeroplanes, but anyway). Sheerin concludes (my emphasis in bold) by stating that:

there is still woefully little attention paid to what happens when the whole process goes awry and the learner fails to understand. I know of no listening course which suggests how to diagnose the cause of failure, or how to prevent similar failures in the future. If we are claiming to teach listening comprehension, then it is imperative that we provide more help for learners than merely telling them that their answers are wrong, and the right answers are X, Y and Z. We need instead to consider very carefully the nature of the discourse in order to try to ascertain what difficulties it presents, and what sort of information or training the learner might need in order to understand similar discourse types in the future.

When we bear all this in mind, it’s surprising perhaps to see the endurance of the classic comprehension model with two or at most three listenings – first for gist and then for certain details deemed important by the teacher. It has its place, yes. It’s effective for assessing listening, sure. But why do we stick with it when it comes to attempting to develop listening skills?

Perhaps because it’s relatively easy to produce a set of comprehension questions. Perhaps because we teach for exams which have just such a set of comprehension questions. And once we have a set of questions, it’s easy, or seems easy to ‘do a listening’. To play through a couple of times, get the students to compare answers and then reveal said answers on the board, a projection or in an answer key. And then what? The students who didn’t get the answers will sometimes diligently scribble them all down  – focussing on the product rather than developing the process. I’ve always found this mildly amusing – as if writing the correct answer will help in any way now that we’re moving on to discuss our opinions of the text. It’s over at this stage. From the point of view of developing skills, there’s often no real need for them to write down anything. But they clearly want to have answers. And I empathise – I want to have answers when I’m listening to a foreign language text in or outside of the classroom. And no doubt so do you. But answers to pre-set questions are at times irrelevant to our own individual curiosity and our own individual skills development.
792px-StateLibQld_2_179487_Doris_Auguste_Heindorff_listening_to_a_gramophone,_New_Farm,_Brisbane,_1903-1913So, perhaps the key thing to do is to dispense entirely with the set of pre-set written questions in favour of a learner-led exploration of the listening text. Let me once again stress that this is nothing new (again see e.g. Field, 2008) but it seems to me that this idea has yet to take hold. We appear to crave something to ‘hang’ our listening lessons on. Takling this problem was the focus of the ‘lessons from learning’ thread devoted to listening here. We decided to go with a simple proforma to aid a listening sequence. The first attempt was with the Iran Tourism lesson.

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