IATEFL 2016: Teaching Academic Listening: helping learners take control

My talk at IATEFL this year forms part of a forum on Listening. This means that a number of speakers, in this case 3, take 20 minute turns to speak about their topic. An additional 20 minutes are allocated to questions for all speakers. My co-speakers were Craig Wealand whose talk was entitled The power of podcasts for adult self-study and Ellen Servinis who spoke about Listening journals for enhancing skills and strategies. My own contribution, based on my experiences at Sheffield International Summer School pre-sessional programmes in 2014 and 2015, is called Teaching Academic Listening: helping learners take control. 

In the ten-week pre-sessional programme, which I taught on for both summers, as well as teaching your tutor group writing skills and guiding them through the process of producing an extended written project, each teacher is responsible for teaching one of the other skills (reading, speaking or listening) to their own and a further two groups. For me, that skill was listening.

Being a 20 minute talk, the structure was fairly brief and straightforward:

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I started my talk by introducing myself and my context:

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Next I highlighted certain ‘issues’ that I met in this context specifically in relation to my listening skills classes. I use ‘…’ because they are more just contextual constraints, the way things are. Nevertheless, here they are:

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Assessment: Listening isn’t assessed directly at the summer school, whereas all three other skills are. Students are assessed via their projects and presentations, which directly tests reading, writing and speaking. Students who haven’t got unconditional offers do a proficiency listening test at the end of the course, alongside all three other skills proficiency tests, but they have specific classes preparing them for these tests.

Timetable: Students have one lesson of three hours per week, which is a lovely chunk of time. Of course, in between times a heck of a lot of stuff happens to them, in the form of classes for all three other skills plus a project class plus compulsory attendance at one lecture per week. Remembering what was done the previous week and carrying it forward to the current week isn’t necessarily straightforward! Yet, the skills development thread is constantly building on what has gone before, as learners are expected to use already learnt strategies and add new ones as time goes by.

General intensity of the programme: Students have a lot to do and as listening isn’t assessed directly (see above)it tends to be the one that they might let slip in terms of extra work.

Having discussed these ‘issues’, I put forward the ‘solutions’ (no plasters, just little attempts I made to make things work in my context!) I came up with:

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Which I then went on to expand upon.

Metacognitive Pedagogy

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Vandergrift and Goh (2012:kindle loc. 1995) define metacognition as “a state of consciousness of our own thoughts as we focus on a particular cognitive or learning situation”. Their proposed pedagogy for teaching listening focuses on helping learners become more aware in three main ways: of themselves as a person, of the tasks that they are doing and of the strategies that they can use to complete these tasks. Oxford (2011) gives us the image of an orchestra conductor (the learner) using their gestures (their strategies) to control the instruments of the orchestra (the cognitive activities) in order to produce a beautiful piece of music (an effectively completed task). Being such a brief talk, I could not go into a lot of detail regarding this pedagogical approach, but I recommend both books if this is a subject that interests you.

Next I went on to demonstrate how I put the theory into practice:

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Here, you can see the materials I made for the second week of lessons. A week after the first lesson, I knew that students would struggle to remember what we had done previously so the first activity checks what they do remember. Both summers, students were unable to complete most of the gaps. Having guided them to the correct answers (encouraging use of last week’s notes etc.), I handed out the strategy tables for them to look at. This sequence guides them to an awareness of the utility of the strategy table, the “why” of it. Introducing the listening logs followed a similar sequence. I showed examples of each, both empty and completed:

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Reviewing strategies learnt in the previous lesson and listening done between classes acted as a means of ensuring that students brought their knowledge and experience forward to the current class:

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At the end of each lesson, I built in time for guided reflection via small-group discussion:

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As the course progressed, evaluation was also introduced:

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As you can see, all of the questions guide learners to think more deeply rather than just do things.

Another activity I built in was a reprocessing information activity. This was to help the learning become more deeply ingrained. The course material required students to present something using specific language, so I made the activity about their own learning on the course i.e. the strategies we had studied and how they fit together. Making these diagrams pushed learners to think about how the strategies connect rather than being a disparate list:

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That was more than enough to get through in the time allowed, so the only thing left to do was give them my references and point them towards this summary post!

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