Archive for Tag: listening comprehension

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Music has Meaning – Part II

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

The Functions of Focus

Recently, I shared the research of Reed (2015) in which she sheds light on the disconnect between what speakers mean and what students may actually hear. Specifically, when proficient English speakers shift the pitch change from the end of a thought group in order to communicate a specific meaning. For instance, when a speaker says, “My boss said he’d fix the problem” many English learners may assume that the problem had been or would be fixed. Conversely, proficient English speakers would understand that the pitch change on the word “said” implied that, in fact, the problem probably hadn’t been resolved at all.

Not hearing or failing to understand the meaning that is communicated by these pitch changes on focus or prominent words can put our students at a major disadvantage. They end up missing out on key information that their peers will have gotten and they are often incapable of making the predictions that help good listeners follow a conversation.

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Friday, October 25, 2013

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part I: The Gap Between Production and Reception

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

I was recently reading the magazine, “Runner’s World,” and I came across an article called “Reboot, Refresh” about plateauing. The article basically points out that “every runner eventually reaches a period in their training where their progress levels off.” Apparently this plateauing is inevitable, and it is easy (at least for a slowpoke like me) to understand how a straight, climbing trajectory of improvement would be physically impossible.

As I read this, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the plateaus that frustrate runners’ dreams of personal bests and the plateaus that we notice in our students’ English development. Just as “[o]ver the course of a running life, there are natural peaks and valleys – and flat lines in between,” I have noticed my students’ English skills grow, recede and stagnate. In my experience, this leveling off seems to happen when students are trying to move from Intermediate level to Advanced. Many of them simply give up, deciding that their language skills are sufficient for their purposes. But, some struggle on, and eventually they become advanced and then proficient users of English. So, what made the difference for those students? How do some students make it through plateaus and what can I do to help?

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Learning to Listen

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

For years (and years and years), whenever I had to teach “listening”, I just popped the CD into the machine, pressed play and hoped for the best while the students scrambled to fill in the gaps, answer the questions or match the cards. I always had the sneaking suspicion that I could, and in fact, should, be doing a lot more to support my students’ listening development, but aside from listening practice and more listening practice, I was not sure what else to do. In spite of my many years of teaching and the confidence I feel helping students with speaking and pronunciation, I felt like a neophyte when it came to teaching listening. So, imagine my relief when, as the Speech, Listening and Pronunciation Chair elect, I was tasked with organizing an Academic Session at TESOL on teaching listening for the 2013 TESOL Conference in Dallas. It was actually Helen Solorzano who organized the session, and all I had to do was show up, take credit, and learn!

Top Down Strategies – Check!

So, here’s what I learned: it turns out that what I have been doing for all these years was, in fact, “testing” listening and not teaching it at all. I needed to back up a bit and think about listening as speech processing. Dr. Steve Brown spoke about how listening is a combination of top down and bottom up strategies. Stronger listeners make more use of top down strategies, which means they pull from their general knowledge about the context and the topic to make inferences about the listening. Happily, a lot of texts on the market encourage students to do this by including pictures and warm up questions designed to activate students’ prior knowledge about the topic. As a result, even in my very primitive approach to teaching listening, I did occasionally manage to expose my students to top down listening strategies.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Thoughts on Teaching Listening (Part 3)

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

Speaking from my own experience, I think a strong argument could be made that, wherever possible, it is better to study the pronunciation of a language before you study the actual language itself. This is because listening to a language when you have no idea of its vocabulary or grammar forces you to rely 100% on your ears, which results in you hearing the language the way it really sounds. If you learn a non-phonetic language like English or Chinese by reading and writing graphic representations of the words, your brain will automatically assign sounds to those characters according to how it thinks they would be pronounced in your first language. I had that experience when trying to read Chinese words written in “pinyin.” I was fortunate in my learning of Japanese that I was able to learn the sound system before doing any formal study of the language by listening to Japanese pop songs and learning the words by heart. One great way of helping your students to understand what it means to use only their ears is to play them videos or recordings of songs in a language that none of them is familiar with. Check out this video for a famous example of someone just using their ears to copy the sounds of a foreign language. Isn’t it amazing how much it sounds like English while being completely incomprehensible!

In my last post, I discussed the importance of developing pronunciation skills in order to improve your listening ability, but I did not say exactly what skills I was talking about. That will be the topic of today’s post. There will be nothing new here for experienced teachers, but I hope it will remind people of things that they might have forgotten over the years. For newer teachers, I hope some of the points will give you ideas about how the teaching of pronunciation can be broken down into manageable (i.e., teachable) components.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Don’t Speak, Just Panic!

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

Une Table Pour Deux

We were literally dodging raindrops as we darted into a bistro on a street corner in Paris. (One of the big advantages to living in Belgium is the ability to nip off to places like Paris for the weekend.) We were starving and all I could think about was one of those huge Parisian salads. We waited by the door for a few minutes as the waiter raced around with steaming plates. When he had a moment, he looked at us inquiringly. “Pour deux.” I said, holding up 2 fingers, just in case.

The Path from French Learner to Unconfident Speaker

One of the other advantages to living in Belgium is being immersed, at least to a limited extent, in a foreign language. For our first 3 years here, I diligently took French classroom-based lessons and shelled out for private lessons. I am the first to admit that I was never the kind of student we all love to have in our classes. My homework was done, but not with any particular care, and I rarely went above and beyond. And we all know that a few hours of lessons a week does not a fluent speaker make. Sadly, for the past year, my job has eaten up a great deal of what used to be free time, and I haven’t cracked a French text in many months. As a result, I have forgotten a lot of the vocabulary I once knew, and my confidence in my speaking has plummeted.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Thoughts on Teaching Listening (Part 2)

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

Pronunciation is one element of language courses that often gets overlooked. Part of the reason for this is that experienced teachers know how difficult it is to learn the sounds of a foreign language as an adult, especially if that language is nothing like your own. This basically means we accept that Japanese students will always have a Japanese accent, that Koreans will always have a Korean accent, and so on. Incidentally, I always used to think in terms of learners “gaining” the accent of a foreign language, but I remember hearing a friend talking about a Japanese person he knew who had managed to “lose” her Japanese accent. That is an interesting way of looking at it. I wonder which viewpoint is more common among teachers?

Anyway, as well as acknowledging the difficulty of the task of teaching pronunciation, most teachers also realize that even with a heavy accent, the majority of learners will be able to make themselves understood to proficient speakers of English. The combined effect of these two beliefs is that pronunciation often gets relegated to a once-in-a-while exercise with the sole purpose of providing a bit of variety in the course.

There are at least two problems with this way of thinking. The first is that teachers, particularly those of monolingual classes, are often very poor judges of how comprehensible their students actually are to regular speakers of the language. When I lived in New Zealand, I did the examiner training for IELTS (International English Language Testing System). As part of the workshop, we had to watch videos of candidates speaking and assign grades. What soon became clear was that teachers were giving far higher grades to students of nationalities they were familiar with. For example, two teachers who had worked in Korea gave a Korean student a high grade for her speaking, whereas the teachers who had mainly worked with European learners gave her a low one. Their reasoning was, “We can’t really understand what she is saying.”

The second reason why pronunciation deserves more attention in language courses is that a learner’s knowledge of the sounds of a language will directly affect their ability to perceive and recognize those sounds. In other words, having good pronunciation is just as important for listening as it is for speaking. My limited understanding of how recognition systems work is that they compare sensory input with stored representations of a variety of forms. For example, we learn how the word “boy” sounds, and we then create and store a template of it in our brains. When audio signals reach our ears, they are run through the database in order to find matches. The same principle applies to the recognition of words and letters. You recognize “x” as the letter that comes before “z” because the marks on this screen fit the representation of that letter that you already have stored in your brain. Of course, you would probably recognize it if I wrote it as “X” too, and even if I wrote it by hand. The human brain has an incredible tolerance for variation that allows it to recognize shapes in a way that computers cannot. That is the theory behind those weirdly shaped letters you have to input manually on some blogs in order to post a comment. The system works because humans can tolerate greater manipulation of basic forms than computers can.

Even so, there are limits to the tolerance (I am using the word here in its engineering sense) of even the human brain’s recognition systems, and these become stricter when representations of objects or phenomena resemble each other. For example, in many cases, it is impossible for us to distinguish between “1,” “l,” and “I” when written in isolation because they look so similar. When that happens, the knowledge of language and context that I described in my previous entry kicks in and allows us to make inferences that go beyond the information that is being provided by the senses.

When a language student learns a new word, they create a template for it and store that template in their database. It is quite possible that when they reproduce the word from its template, the audio signal that results will be within the limits of tolerance of proficient speakers of the language, so the learner will be able to make him or herself understood. A problem arises, however, when the focus switches to listening. Because the template the learner has created does not really match the signal produced by proficient speakers, and because the learner’s recognition system will naturally have a more limited tolerance owing to their lower mastery of the language, there is a very good chance that they will not recognize what they are hearing. It’s a bit like going to meet someone that you have never met at an airport armed only with a photograph that was taken twenty years ago. If the person doesn’t actually look like the photograph, there is a good chance that they will walk right past you without you recognizing them at all.

Like all language teachers, I constantly struggle to make myself understood to my students. I have often noticed that the reason my students cannot understand what I am saying is that they have learned an incorrect pronunciation of a particular word. The following is a typical example of a conversation in one of my classes:

Me: Can you close the curtain?

Student: ??


Student: Curtain??

Me: (gesturing) The curtain!!

Student: Ah, kah-ten!!

It is almost as if they are correcting my pronunciation to match their internal representation of the word. Every teacher in Japan knows that we can easily make ourselves understood by simply saying a word the way our students say it, and I suspect the same is true of any teacher with experience of teaching a particular language group.

My point is that learners need to learn words as accurately as possible so that the template they create reflects the audio signal that is produced when proficient speakers of the language pronounce that word. If a learner creates a template that is significantly different, it might be close enough for their recreation of it to be understood by proficient speakers, but it may not be close enough for them to recognize the word when they hear it.

As teachers, I think we need to start realizing that pronunciation is just as much a listening skill as it is a speaking one, and we need to start giving it greater prominence in our courses.



Tuesday, February 7, 2012

How Champagne Changed my Teaching

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

Two Tours in Champagne

Although neither my husband nor I are Champagne experts, we do like a glass of bubbly from time to time. So, over a recent long weekend, my husband and I drove to the Champagne region of France. Our first stop was at the famous Tattinger Champagne house in Reims. There, we took a tour of the caves lead by an English-speaking guide. We learned where the grapes for Champagne are grown, how the bottles are turned periodically, and how they get the bubbles into the bottle.

After our tasting, we left the city of Reims and began to drive along the touristic Champagne route described in our guidebook. It is a beautiful drive, peppered by plenty of smaller Champagne houses along the way. After passing a few of them, we decided to stop at the Bernard Chauvet et Fils Champagne house. Our experience was completely different at this Champagne house. The tour was shorter, the tasting was free, and the proprietor spoke no English whatsoever. The tour and demonstration was entirely in French.

Now, as you might know if you are a regular reader of this blog, I have sporadically been studying French. However, my vocabulary is certainly not technical enough that I would have been able to understand what the proprietor of the smaller Champagne house was saying had I not seen a similar demonstration at the Tattinger house earlier that day.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Thoughts on Teaching Listening (Part 1)

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

I can’t remember who said it (I have a feeling it may have been Penny Ur), but I remember hearing a quote about teaching listening once that really made me stop and think:

We don’t really teach listening; we just keep testing it.

Whoever it was, I think he or she had a very valid point. Our standard methodology for teaching listening is a cycle of giving listening tasks and then asking questions in order to test the learners’ comprehension of what they have heard. In our defence, of course, it is difficult to see how we could do otherwise. Like reading, listening is a receptive skill that can only be developed through repeated practice, so there are good reasons for teaching it the way we do. Anyway, I was recently asked to do a presentation on this topic, and I started thinking about aspects of listening that do actually need to be taught rather than simply practiced. The first thing that came to mind was a list of general principles of which learners often seem to be unaware, and I want to write about the first of those today.

The first point is that we listen with our brains, not our ears.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Confusion in Conversation

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

I was visiting some friends in Madrid last weekend. A few years ago, I used to teach a class of women who got exceptionally close over the semester. Since then, we have all kept in touch, going out for dinner and emailing often. When two of our group moved back to Spain, it was logical for us to plan a weekend away to visit them.

So, there I was in the back seat of the van with my Polish and Greek friends. Our two Spanish friends were busy driving and navigating in the front seat. To make conversation with my back-seat-mates, I asked them, “What time did you get to bed last night?” (I need my beauty sleep, so I always went to be long before they did.) My question was met with looks of complete confusion. Let me be clear; these are high-intermediate speakers of English. My question wasn’t grammatically complex and the vocabulary was simple. Even a high-beginner could probably comprehend the question if it was part of a lesson. So, why the bewilderment, even after I repeated the question?

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Better Alternatives to Asking “Is Everything Clear?”

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

How many times have I hesitated before asking my students the question “Is Everything Clear?” Many. Why? Probably because I have suspected something.

Abandoning, or at least limiting the use of this seemingly handy comprehension check question has not been easy for me. It has been attaching itself, by some universal law, to the end of my classroom explanations for years.

However, in many cases the question has seemed to serve very little purpose.

When asked “Is everything clear?” (or some equivalent of it), students will frequently answer “Yes.” because they wish to save face, to please the teacher, or to help maintain the lesson’s momentum, etc. Knowing this, we can only wonder at the sincerity of that response on a given occasion. Similarly, the response “No.” usually provides little usable feedback. Head-shaking to indicate a negative response can leave the teacher uncertain about whether students have misunderstood just one word, or most of an explanation.

Since establishing students’ comprehension is crucial to the teaching-learning process, it may well be a good idea to replace the asking of some common, yet characteristically ineffective questions such as “Do you understand?” and “Is everything clear?” with alternative and more productive comprehension check techniques. Here are a few that I have found to be comparatively effective.

Ask very specific questions and encourage students to respond using fingers or cards.

Questions like “Would you like me to repeat the last sentence?” and “Is this structure familiar?” can be better alternatives to the sweeping and often ambiguous “Is that clear?” After all, students may be unsure about what “that” represents.

But even when more concrete questions are asked, some students may feel too shy or too embarrassed to give a frank answer verbally. Most likely, the teacher will hear from only those who understood the concept. We can sometimes get a more accurate response from students if they are allowed to provide their answer visually. One way is for students to show the teacher two fingers (index and middle) to reply “Yes.” or just one finger (index) to reply “No.” When students are seated in a traditional arrangement (or in one of several others no doubt), the teacher can easily see their replies but their peers cannot. This method seems to prevent quite a bit of that suggestiveness which can spread almost instantaneously when answers are given orally.

A similar technique uses pairs of cards (red and green) which are placed face down on students‘ desks. When asked a question, students may raise the green card to say “Yes.” or the red card to say “No.” Due to the color-coding, the teacher can quickly get an impression of students’ responses.

Use concept questions instead of questions requiring repetition or recall.

Concept questions allow us to check if students have grasped the meaning of the language item they are studying. They ask for interpretation rather than repetition or recall, they often involve personalization, and they differ somewhat in grammar and vocabulary from the constructions and words being practiced.

Example: The teacher has explained and illustrated the meaning of the phrase “to be reluctant to do something,” and in order to check students‘ understanding of the expression, the teacher has presented students with the following sentence: Mary was reluctant to share her textbook.

If students provide answers to questions such as “Who was reluctant to share her textbook?” or “Was Mary reluctant to share her textbook?”, the teacher will have little confirmation of students’ comprehension of the meaning of the phrase.
However, if they offer responses to concept questions such as “Why do you think Mary could have been reluctant to share her textbook?” or “Since she was reluctant to share her textbook, what might she have said if you’d asked her to let you use it?” or, even more personalized, “Have you ever been reluctant to share something? If so, why?”, the teacher will obtain more usable information. A much more effective comprehension check can result.

Provide students with opportunities to practice asking their own, focused questions.

Students often have questions but they don’t ask them. One reason has to do with the difficulty of formulating the questions that they know are appropriate. Sadly, students will sometimes avoid asking any question if they can’t manage to formulate the one they really wish to ask, and, of course, basic questions like “Could you repeat that please?” or “What does … mean?” do not always fit the context.
So, if an intermediate student hears the sentence “The documents need to be sent to the Office of Human Resources” and does not quite catch the name of the office, coming up with ways to ask for clarification regarding that information might be a real challenge, especially if the student assumes that an appropriate question would take a form such as “What office do the documents need to be sent to?

Complicating the matter is the fact that clarification questions are not always formulated as complete sentences in natural, daily conversation. If native speakers of English didn’t quite hear where the documents must be sent, they might simply say, “Where?
In his article “Say What?: Getting Students to Ask Questions,” Randall S. Davis suggests exposing students to an amount of focused repetition so that they can practice isolating words they don’t quite catch, using interrogative words to ask questions about missing information, adding tag questions, and even simply identifying some last word that they understood, repeating it, and adding a facial expression to show their puzzlement. Davis includes a couple of interesting exercises which are based on the strategy of focused repetition that he outlines.

I’ll continue in my mission to substitute a variety of comprehension check questions for the reflexive, but ordinarily ineffectual, question “Is everything clear?” (and just hope that my tongue won’t need any more splints for sprains). How about you? Do you find yourself using that question (or an equivalent) reflexively? Any thoughts on the value of using it?