Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Helping Students Listen to Learn

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

If you walked into a lecture hall in almost any university or college in North America, you would most likely see and hear a very diverse student body. In fact, The Wall Street Journal (Jordan, 2015) recently reported that there are more international students in US classes than ever before. While this increase is beneficial for post-secondary educational institutions for many reasons, not least of which is financial, it does present a unique set of challenges for our mainstream colleagues.

When faced with a class full of international learners, college and university instructors are often unsure how to help the ESL students who seem to be struggling in their classes. Although occasionally instructors responded to this changing study body with frustration (“Why are they in my class if they can’t speak / read / write in English?”), more frequently teachers genuinely want to help these students to be successful. They tend to realize that, just because students have finished the ESL program at our college, it does not necessarily mean that these international students are the same as the native English speakers in the class. In fact, more and more, instructors of science, math, nursing, and business at the college and university level are finding that their students benefit from differentiation and specialized support.

One of the places where a few small tweaks can make a huge difference for L2 (or 3 or 4 or 5) learners is in the mainstream college and university classes lecture hall. In order to help international students access the course content, there are a few (mostly easy) adaptations professors can make to their lectures to make them easier for international students to follow.

Use Visual Support Thoughtfully.

  • Post PowerPoint slides online before the lecture, so students can print them off and take notes directly on them.
  • Include visuals that are content-based not context-based. Ginther (2002) suggests that content visuals (pictures of the subject matter) serve to increase listener comprehension, while context visuals (pictures that set the scene) actually decrease comprehension. So, for instance, if a lecture is about bees, the instructor should include pictures of bees and not of scientists or nature.
  • Remember that international students often find it hard to read text on a PowerPoint slide and listen to a paraphrase of the slide at the same time (Field, 2008). When lecturing to a group that contains a significant number of international students, it may behoove teachers to break the rules of a “good” presenting style and read directly from the text on their slides.
  • Ensure handwriting on the board is legible. (This is kind of obvious, but so helpful!) Don’t erase the board too quickly or, at least, consider allowing students to take pictures before you do. It can be helpful for mainstream teachers to remember that students whose L1s are not Latin alphabet-based can have difficulty reading cursive.

Try to use as many transition markers as possible to signpost the organization of the main ideas of the lecture.

  • Vary the transition markers you use. Macro markers, like Today I want to and There are three things, provide structure to lecture. Micro markers, such as so, right, well, ok, now, then, all right, because, and fine, signal topic changes (Flowerdew & Tauroza, 1995).
  • Keep in mind that less-skilled listeners have trouble recognizing the relationship between ideas based on relative importance (Gernsbacher, 1990). “The point here is that theoretically a student could understand all the individual words and still find it difficult to make sense of a lecture if the internal structure of the lecture were unclear.” (Brown, 2011, p. 98)

Be aware when using casual language and cultural references that international students may not know.

  • Avoid phrasal verbs (come across) and idioms (nuts & bolts / run-of-the-mill / a dime a dozen) when possible. Native English speakers often use this kind of casual language to put students at ease, but with international students, this may actually make them more nervous.
  • Remember that “[m]etaphorical language often leads to misunderstandings by L2 listeners, resulting in misinterpretation of the lecture. Littlemore (2001) suggests that misinterpretations are more serious than non-understandings, in which listeners are aware of a gap in understanding and can use clarification strategies to remedy comprehension.” (Vandergrift, 2004, p. 15)

Pause and repeat frequently.

  • Keep in mind that pausing gives students time to process and understand what you’ve said. Also, apparently, students remember more when there are frequent pauses rather than just slower speech (Harley, 2000).
  • Repeat key words and ideas at least three times.

Help students master the course vocabulary.

  • Remind and encourage students to use dictionaries, translators, even smart phones in lessons. So (so so so) much research (Folse, 2004) demonstrates students learn words better when using a bilingual dictionary.
  • Keep in mind that while all students need to learn the content words (for example, photosynthesis, solar system, thesis, equation) associated with the subject, L2 students may also need to learn the discourse words (such as, summarize, identify, collect, compare, infer, in other words, however, to sum up) used in your field in order to be able to talk and write about the content.

As ESL and EFL instructors, we often (consciously and subconsciously) do many of these things when we teach. These suggestions are not particularly ground-breaking. Rather, as someone pointed out at a recently faculty professional development session I presented with a colleague, these are really suggestions for “good lecturing” and should not be reserved for classes with large numbers of international students only.

Brown, S. (2011). Listening Myths. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Field, J. (2008). Into the mind of the academic listener, Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 10, 102-112.
Flowerdew, J. & Tauroza, S. (1995). The effect of discourse markers in second language lecture comprehension. RELC Journal, 23, 435-458.
Folse, K. (2004). Vocabulary Myths. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Gernsbacher, M.A. (1990). Language Comprehension as Structure Building. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Ginther, A. (2002) Context and content visuals and performance on listening comprehension stimuli. Language Testing, 19, 133-167.
Harley, B. (2000). Listening strategies in ESL: Do age and LI make a difference? TESOL Quarterly, 34, 769-777.
Jordan, M. (2015, March 24). International students stream Into U.S. colleges. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/international-students-stream-into-u-s-colleges-1427248801.
Vandergrift, L. (2004). Listening to learn or learning to listen. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, 3-25.


Comment from Claire
September 17, 2015 at 8:13 pm

Thank you, Tamara. This is useful information to pass along to content teachers during a professional development seminar or even make into a hand-out to give to teachers or professors.

Comment from Tamara Jones
September 18, 2015 at 6:05 am

Thanks, Claire, for your comment. I have found some content instructors to be resistant to the idea of differentiation until they realize that a few small tweaks can go a long way for their international students. If you do share this, I would be glad to know how it is received.

Comment from Farid
October 5, 2015 at 11:59 am

Thank you for the generous teaching tips tamara!

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