Friday, February 26, 2010

Is That (Really) Clear?: Refining the Art of Gauging Students’ Listening Comprehension

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

In 1996 I flew to the US for the first time. Somewhere over the Atlantic, I was standing in line for the restroom when another passenger approached me and asked politely for what I considered at the moment to be an odd favor. I had not quite caught the whole message, but because by trade I was a teacher of English (someone expected to have few if any problems with listening comprehension), I shied away from asking the woman for clarification and simply responded. It seemed that she was asking me to wipe her tray table where she had spilled some juice. Astonished, I remarked, Well, that’s quite an unusual favor you’re asking me for. Her facial expression indicated that she considered my response peculiar- after all, she was only inquiring about whether she could go ahead of me in line to get a paper towel so that she could quickly clean up the result of her “juice accident.”

My reluctance to ask for clarification stemmed from my unwillingness to admit that I had just experienced a complete lack of listening comprehension. That woman’s words were English words, and I had been studying English for years. Even though I considered the woman’s request bizarre, the circumstantial combination of an adultish ego and a childish timidity prevented me from asking her to clarify or repeat what she’d said. I realized later, however, that if the woman and I had been speaking Polish, my first language, I wouldn’t have thought twice about responding with a Slucham? (Pardon me?). Italic

Two Obstacles to Gauging Listening Comprehension

That experience reminded me of two basic obstacles to gauging listening comprehension in the ESL/EFL classroom (two obstacles regularly highlighted in ESL/EFL methodology courses):
  1.  Students frequently avoid asking for clarification or repetition.
  2.  Students often answer Yes or nod their heads in response to the question Is that clear? when they know that they do not sufficiently understand the concept or point about which they are being asked. Italic
Common Ways of Actuating Requests for Clarification
How do we usually embolden students to ask for clarification or repetition?
Many of us:
  • provide students with a list of phrases they can use, such as Could you repeat that? or Excuse me, what does … mean?;
  • praise students who ask for clarification by saying, That was a good question or I’m glad you asked that question;
  • or illustrate that “comprehension checks” are a natural component of conversation, both formal and informal, and they often take similar forms in students’ first languages.
Common Ways of Ensuring Comprehension

How do we usually ensure that students’ Yes, I understand. really reflects comprehension?
Many of us:
  • read students’ body language when they answer the question Is that clear?;
  • ask follow-up questions, such as Which exercise will you be working on now? or What does … mean?;
  • or ask students to repeat the key idea mentioned.
Alternative Ways of Ensuring Comprehension

I’m familiar with a few alternative ways of ensuring students’ comprehension, and I’ll share them in the forthcoming Part II of this post. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you about additional ways of ensuring students’ comprehension which have been effective in your classroom.


Comment from sureshniranam
March 2, 2010 at 7:32 pm

Some additional ways to ensure students comprehension may be
a. To add a question tag in the end of the statement or point.
b. To have a session of ‘question me’, where they raise their doubts to seek clarification.

Comment from Ela Newman
March 3, 2010 at 4:55 am

Thank you for sharing your ideas. I especially like the concept of a "question me" session, and will certainly try it in my classroom. Do you use it often? Does it work well?

Comment from sureshniranam
March 5, 2010 at 6:22 pm

Yes, I use it when i teach prose in the class. It also helps as a comprehension check. It works well.

Comment from oriel ortega
January 4, 2011 at 7:13 pm

Good Morning Professor Newman

I have worked as an English teacher for 8 years. Right now I am taking a master degree in TESOL. What you wrote in this article , it is very true. Our students don’t understand some concepts, but they don’t dare asking because they don´t know how. THe idea you proposed is good. To provide a list of questions for our students is a helpful idea. I do it, but I think that my list is limited… Can you send a list of questions I can use in my classroom. I work in the elementary section.

Leave a comment on this post