I was in Peru for the Britanico conference, a conference for the largest chain of language schools in the country. It’s a very well organised event, with more than 500 teachers in attedance – all from the same school. There was a good mixture of international speakers (Jeremy Harmer, John Hughes and Susan House were there this year) and lots of workshops by local teachers. I went to one on listening, enticingly called When Mrs Speaking killed Mr Listening. It was about the difficulties students face when listening and had some excellent suggestions, including doing “live” listenings. The presenter showed us a video of one live listening she had done with a colleague in front of the students. In the discussion at the end of the workshop, someone brought up a very good point that I’ve often thought, that it’s difficult and unusual to listen for a sustained time without being able to see the speakers.
I made a list of when I do this kind of listening in real life:
– podcasts (one person speaking)
– news on radio or interent (one person speaking)
– interview or vox pop on radio or internet (one or two people speaking)
– audio books (one person speaking, usually)
– audio guides, the kind you get at a museum (one person speaking)
– radio or internet plays (two or more people speaking)
When we do listenings like the ones above in class, they at least reproduce a real-life event. What I (and my students) had trouble with in the past is the eavesdropping to a conversation. And yet these are quite common in our teaching material. On the one hand, it’s important that students hear examples of interactive language, of conversations. They can be useful models. But it is hard, and it can be quite unnatural.
For Global, we kept this kind of listening but reserved it more or less for functional language (the Function Globally lessons). In the main lessons we tended to favour many of the other kinds of listening genre above. However, as technology in classrooms increase it won’t be long until perhaps we can have listening to sustained conversations but this time on video as well as audio. Watching people have an argument, or haggle over a price at a market, or buy a ticket or make a complaint etc might actually be easier for our students as they can pick up all the non-verbal clues. This material does exist, but more often than not as an extra feature or component of a course. But imagine a course, and an exam, in which all listening exercises have the instructions Watch and listen, instead of just Listen. With good quality video and scripts or authentic material we might be able to kiss goodbye that horrible groan that comes from the students when we say “ok everyone quiet please, I’m going to play the CD again”…