TESOL Teaching mistakes to Avoid 5: ‘Now listen to the recording’ is a listening task
In this series of articles, we are looking at some common teaching actions which more often than not simply don’t work. If you find yourself doing this in the classroom, think about why you are doing it - if you don’t have a clear reason, or evidence that it helps students to improve their language in practice, it may not be the most effective way…
There are many reasons for using audio recordings and reading texts in the language classroom. Listening and reading are major language skills which both involve a wide range of linguistic, cognitive and communicative skills. We can listen or read for comprehension (to understand the information being communicated), for vocabulary (by investigating meaning in the context of a longer text), to investigate grammar in use, for tone, pronunciation and as support for other forms of language work in an integrated skills approach. So why are so many reading and listening tasks instructed in the same way: ‘Now listen to the recording’, or ‘Now read the article and answer the following questions’?
A good language task should have a clear purpose, aside fro the act of reading or listening itself. Without linguistic or communicative reasons for reading or listening, students will never get the most out of the time they spend engaging with a text. They may feel unprepared or adrift in the stream of speech or written ideas that comes at them, trying to find a reason for reading or listening rather than focusing their ideas on a specific task from the beginning of the task. Without a clear task, learners can feel as if they are in ‘freefall’, with ideas and speech hurtling past them as they try to find the ripcord on their parachutes. A well set up task, used to prepare students for reading or listening, acts as a parachute which opens as soon as they launch themselves into the reading, allowing for more time to look around and engage with ideas as they move through the text.
Task purpose can be introduced in different ways, either directly by a teacher, through written task instructions, or implicitly by the point in a lesson where the text is used. Here are three ways of adding purpose to a receptive task, which add purpose and therefore increase learner focus during tasks:
Perhaps the easiest way to ensure that a reading or listening task has purpose is to spend some time setting up the task before distributing the text or hitting ‘play’. Outside the classroom, we rarely read or listen to anything without some knowledge of the situation where that reading or listening event takes place, or thinking about what to expect from a text or speaker, and some level of context is also required by learners in order to prepare them for a listening or reading activity.
A quick discussion of the topic of the text, or some of its key ideas, goes a long way to providing a more critical purpose for reading or listening. A simple ‘do you agree’ question can prompt a lot of key concepts and language which appear in the text, or at least activate these topic areas in the learners, readying them for their first contact with the text.
Another way to prepare learners for a text is to give them the title, or even the first paragraph to read, and ask them to predict the content of the rest of the text. For listening activities, play the first 20 seconds of the recording and stop to ask the class who is speaking, where and why. Prediction tasks such as this will activate contextual cues in the learners’ listening or reading brains, and prepare them for the specific ideas in the rest of the text or recording, reducing the effort of trying to decode the language that they hear at the same time as understanding the contextual details of what they are working with. Once they have finished reading / listening, having the class compare their ideas from before the task and the ideas in the text make for an effective and quite critical feedback stage.
However you work with texts and recordings in class, it is important to present some kind of task instructions for learners to perform while they read or listen. This is the fundamental reason why ‘listen to this / read this’ are not in themselves listening or reading tasks. Without something to do with the information being read or heard, it is likely to be a wall of sound or text, which the learners do not know why they are reading.
Tasks provide purpose, so if there are questions to answer about the text or recording, present them before the text itself, not afterwards. Giving questions after working with a receptive text can easily become a memory test rather than a skills-based task. This is especially true of listening questions presented after the recording is played - there is no text to refer to in order for students to answer the questions, so they have to rely on their memory to do so. Providing a transcript of the recording turns the listening task into a reading task, as students will go to the written text to find any responses they didn’t hear during the recording.
Conversely, presenting a set of questions before reading or listening, and checking that learners understand what is being asked of them, gives a known reason for reading or listening, and the result will be much more focused. Learners will be thinking about the questions as they listen or read, actively looking for the answers rather than scrabbling in a vacuum as they listen for information they don’t know that they need.
Exceptions: There are two exceptions to the task-first approach to listening and reading:
If you are taking a top-down approach to the text, you may want students to read or listen to it cold, then think about their response on a broad level to the main ideas or aspects of context without too much preparation, before going gin for a second or third contact with the text to investigate how specific language is used.
If you are teaching the academic skill of note-taking as a study strategy, it can be more effective to play a recording cold, without any preparation, to see how students deal with the weight of new information, organising it for themselves in their notes.
A final way of setting up a listening or reading task is to make it the culmination of a lesson based around a specific structure or topic. After 40 minutes of an hour-long lesson based around different ways of talking about the future, for example, students should be familiar enough with the forms to listen to a dialogue which contains a lot of future forms, and discuss how and why they were used in the context of what they have studied. Similar to the ‘noticing’ approach above, this usage-based stage can be delivered at the key point in a lesson where students are ready for it form a language point of view, adding purpose through lesson content.
However you work with text or audio recordings in class, 99% of the activities that you do will work more effectively for your learners if you set up a task, pre-teach key language or ideas, or stage your class around the text, preparing them for their first contact with the text and focusing them from the first word that they read or hear.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL and level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.
If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher development courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.