Archive for Tag: listening comprehension

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?

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.