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Livening up listening

I've been watching this excellent presentation to English language teachers in Palestine from 2014 by Nick Bilborough. It would be worth showing at a professional development meeting. If you don't have the time to watch it, here are some of the key points he makes.

His main thesis is that listening need not be a passive test based on audio material, it can be two-way, interactive and really enjoyable. Here are two examples for intermediate to advanced level.

1.  "Physicalise" a story

You tell a story while students stand and act out what is happening, e.g:

“I was walking through a forest, I saw a box on the ground, I picked it up, I slowly opened the lid, (shriek) a bird flew out, and hit me in the face, I looked inside, wow!, it was full of treasure, I filled my pockets as fast as I could, oh no, someone was coming, I turned around and ran..."
You first narrate the story slowly, the a second time much faster. Nick makes the points that we help store memories thr…
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What I learned at choir today

Singing in barbershop choruses and quartets is my main hobby. We're lucky enough to have a remarkably talented musical director in our chorus Spirit of Harmony. She is a great example of an "outstanding" teacher in her field. In this morning's rehearsal for our big competition in Bournemouth next week she demonstrated some fabulous teacher skills which I thought would be worth recording here.

It's tempting to forget, when discussing language teaching pedagogy, that generic teaching skills may well be more important than the particular approach you choose to adopt. Whether you are a TPRS teacher, keen driller, comprehensible input fan or communicative language teacher, you need to connect with the class. Our musical director Sally's skills include the following:

- Showing total passion for her area of expertise. She bursts with enthusiasm for choral harmony music.
- Having expert subject knowledge. Sally is a leader in her field so we have belief in her experienc…

They do things differently over there

"The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language" is a quotation attributed to George Bernard Shaw. In the field of modern (foreign) language teaching (UK) or world/foreign language teaching (USA) this is certainly the case. US and UK teachers struggle with similar challenges, notably trying to motivate youngsters to learn a new language in countries where English is the world's language. In the USA geographical isolation makes the task even harder.

Interestingly, despite a shared challenge, we go about teaching languages and talking about languages in somewhat different ways. As an example consider the ACTFL's (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) Performance Descriptors for language learners:

These are divided up by a number of different parameters, e.g. ranges of performance (levels)are described as novice, intermediate and advanced (with sub-divisions of these, e.g. novice high); modes of communication are desc…

No more 90% EBacc target - for now

When Michael Gove was Minister of Education the coalition government decided that it wanted all, or nearly all, pupils to take the EBacc "suite" of subjects, namely maths, English, science, history or geography, and a modern language. The thinking behind this was broadly that high-performing jurisdictions in the OECD PISA league tables have a broad academic curriculum for all up to the age of 16 and that such a curriculum gives children a  better start in life with improved job prospects..

The reason for the particular choice of subjects (history/geography as opposed to religious education or psychology, for example), was probably down to tradition and personal ministerial bias as much as anything else. No doubt it might also be argued that history and geography provide better examples of that "selection of the culture" which should be passed on from generation to generation in line with the Hirschian view of cultural literacy as the main route to social mobility. …

A super listening game: Mr and Mrs

Many activities we typically consider to be about speaking involve, more importantly, large amounts of listening - listening with a purpose. Just think about when you run a teacher-led question-answer sequence based on pictures or a text. Most of the time students are listening to carefully scaffolded TL input. (Indeed this has been a frequent criticism of teacher-led QA - students don't get to speak enough.)

The following purposeful game is an example of such an activity which may, on the surface, seem to be an oral game. It is, of course, but most of the time the students are actually listening.

It is a game for intermediate to advanced level which provides lots of listening input, some speaking practice and a little reading, all in the target language. It's similar in principle to the Alibi game I've written about before and based on a familiar TV format. It's also a good way, more specifically, of practising question forms.

Get two students to volunteer to be a "…

The British oral-situational approach

Henry Sweet*, an English philologist and phonetician, was one of the founders of what is now referred to as the Reform Movement, a new way of teaching modern languages early in the twentieth century, an era which would become littered with methodological alternatives to the grammar-translation approach. Sweet, like Gouin in France, believed that speech was more important than the written word and that languages should be taught primarily using the spoken word. this was unusual for the time.

One approach which subsequently developed was not a "direct method" as such, but an adaptation of it - a "structured direct method", if you like. Jack Richards and Theodore Rodgers, in their book about approaches and methods**, label it the British oral-situational approach. It was no doubt used by a number of teachers in the first half of the twentieth century, but came to prominence in the 1960s with the publication of Marc Gilbert's best-selling text book series Cours Il…

Using lectures to improve listening skills and knowledge

In this post I'm going to make the case for making occasional use of the lecture format for delivering listening lessons with a focus on cultural knowledge. I'll provide an example at the end.

At A-level there is now a need to make sure that students have available a stock of cultural knowledge they can bring to bear in their speaking tests. Cultural knowledge is assessed within Assessment Objective AO3 and carries a significant number of marks. In addition, we want to improve students' listening skills as much as possible, especially given that students often say that listening is the aspect of learning they fear most. The lecture format allows you to efficiently deal with both of these priorities.

I strongly suspect that teachers rarely make use of the set-piece lecture to provide listening practice and cultural knowledge. Nearly all classroom listening takes place either as part of two-way conversation with the teacher or a partner or "passively" while listeni…