Thursday, July 23, 2009

Can Good Listeners Help Speakers?

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

newjgea@aol.com

Recently, I spent some time traveling on long-distance trains and buses in the company of various fellow travellers. Though these people were of all sorts of ages and lifestyles, most had one thing in common- being well equipped with “time-killers.” Colorful magazines, books, crossword puzzles, and, of course, cell phones and iPods were employed effectively by these travelers to kill time. While I was killing time thinking about how these folks were killing time, it occurred to me, as it has to others, that the best way to make traveling time pass is simply to talk a while with some “seat-neighbor.”

But what keeps such conversations going? After all, discussion of the weather, the upholstery, and one’s favorite brand of mustard can only last so long.

Engaged listening supports speakers’ oral skills

Apparently, the key to successful, interactive oral communication in a native tongue lies in the creation and maintenance of a bridge between the speaker and the audience. No matter how eloquent, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and fluent the speaker is, a true dialogue will not last very long if the listener does not genuinely participate. Engaged listening, forming one half of that bridge, is an ingredient essential to meaningful communication.

Are bridges like this possible or beneficial in the ESL/EFL classroom?

In my experience, the manner in which an audience reacts to a speaker helps or hinders the speaker in the ESL/EFL setting. Maintaining emotional support for the speaker, for instance, seems to foster improvement in student-speakers’ oral skills.

Perhaps it would be worthwhile to incorporate more activities which focus specifically on the characteristics of good listeners and the benefits of engaged listeners to speakers.

Potential Activity: Good Listeners vs. Bad Listeners

Students work in two groups: in the first, students identify characteristics of good listeners; in the second, students identify characteristics of bad listeners. One student in each group notes down the ideas discussed.

The “good listener group” may make notes like “ keeps eye contact,” “asks questions,” “gives feedback,” “paraphrases what the speaker has said,” or “lets the speaker finish his or her sentences.”

The “bad listener group” may note ideas like “ interrupts the speaker,” “changes the subject,” “does not comment on what has been said,” “is impatient,” or “is busy doing something else.”

Once the lists of ideas have been prepared, the groups, in turn, present brief, imaginary conversations which demonstrate the characteristics students in each group have discussed. While watching these conversation-sketches, students of the other group attempt to recognize and name the characteristics being demonstrated.

This activity could encourage student input and allow students to experiment in formulating manners of interactive listening. Students can discover ways in which listening skills can influence speaking skills.

Do you think an activity like this would work? Any thoughts on how it might be improved?

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