Listening to the Universe of Discourse 00

bayas-naranjasOf course, there’s a book in this. However, just to get the juices flowing, here’s some thoughts on this activity, commonly known as “listening”, in the ESL classroom.




Testing for listening skills

I’ve been thinking on this since yesterday, when I saw a question on a social platform about testing teachers on their capacity for teaching “listening”. I wanted to jump right into the conversation, but had to make dinner. That was good, it gave me all of today to think about what I really wanted to say.

The jumping off point of “listening” would naturally be a clear definition of what the activity is. I can improvize a couple of “non-definitions” just off the top of my head:

What isn’t “listening”?

  • Listening to a short, recorded conversation, without background information, perhaps two or three times, then answering five to ten comprehension questions to see if the student has captured what has been said
  • Watching a movie from start to finish in English, then perhaps the teacher engaging in a question-led discussion of the film at the end (or not, there’s usually not any class time left after seeing a 90-minute film)

These are the first two activities that come to mind, not at all unusual in the ESL classroom; however, teachers often become frustrated when the first does not clearly indicate the student’s comprehension, while the second seems to stimulate not only boredom but long silences during the discussion period. In both cases, there seems to be little improvement value to either of these exercises.

The listening “test”

Naturally, in a testing situation, the first of the two above will be defended as the best way to objectively evaluate the student’s ability to understand spoken language. Unfortunately, because this type of exercise in futility involves keeping vital information from the student (who is speaking, what they are speaking about, where they are speaking, etc….), the task goes beyond simply understanding that which is heard and unfairly includes the filling in of blanks of the Universe of Discourse that envelopes the conversation.

The classroom cinema

The second of the two above is often abused in the ESL classroom. Too often teachers will put on a video of the latest, most popular film available and have the students sit through the entire show.

Though the students may have seen the film before, may have a general idea of what is going on, who the characters are, there is just too much on-going information: before they can confirm that they have understood one part, the film moves on to another part.

Add to that the fact that modern cinema is not particularly strong on everyday dialogues and tends towards the special visual effects and you have little actual listening and more simply watching.

“Listening” as recognition

In both of these cases, one vital aspect is being left out: the recognition of speech. ESL students will generally be unable to recognize speech that they are unfamiliar with. If the teacher says “Hello”, that will be recognized, understood and even responded to. If the teacher asks “How old are you” the answer may well be “I am 13 years old” (though “13” is more than enough of an answer….).

On the other hand, if the teacher suddenly asks “What is the principle export product of Zambia to the Eastern Block countries”, students will probably get hung up about three words into the question, not even hearing the remaining nine or ten words, as they try to recognize the word “principle” within the question and give it meaning.

“Listening” is an active activity

Consequently, listening is not a passive activity of hearing sounds and responding to questions or participating in led discussions. Listening is an active activity of recognizing strings of sounds, applying the correct meaning to those sounds and responding appropriately to those sounds with their own utterances.

That definition needs a great deal of breaking down for the majority of ESL teachers who tend to try to teach towards the test or get a bit lazy right before holidays and spend the last two classes watching “Titanic” with their students. That will be the subject of another post.


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