Professional Development Series (1) -Three questions every  teacher wanting to improve their teaching practice should ask themselves

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1.Intro

One of the buzz-words in the Professional Development circles these days is ‘Reflective practice’. Teachers are told on a daily basis that being a ‘reflective practitioner’ is a must if they are to build on their craft and enhance the quality of teaching and learning in their classrooms. Teachers are encouraged to work in dyads and triads  to work collaboratively on lesson plans , to carry out peer-observations and read research together… Excellent stuff! I have done it myself during my school’s professional-development afternoons with my insightful and creative colleague Dylan Viñales and it has indeed benefitted my teaching whilst triggering ideas for the blogposts I publish on The Language Gym.

But I do have a teacher-training background and a PhD in Applied Linguistics  on top of 25 years language teaching experience. Would my learning discussions with Dylan be as fruitful were I simply to rely on the input on language teaching methodology I received during my PGCE in Hull 30 years ago?  What my PGCE tutors and my school-based mentors taught me about language teaching methodology was a random mix of tips borrowed from various – often contrasting – schools of thoughts, often discounted by current research findings and cognitive psychology acquisitions. So, for instance, I was taught to teach speaking pretty much in the audio-lingual way whilst being told that my teaching was meant to be absolutely CLT-based. I was told that not talking in the target language was anathema whilst research indicated clearly that code-switching does not do any harm to the students in terms of L2 acquisition. Tragically, many of such misconceptions still persist nowadays in the teaching profession.

So the question is: do most teachers possess sufficient know-how in terms of knowledge of theories and research in second language teaching and learning? The ugly truth, in my experience, is that most language teachers have not received adequate training in this area of their teaching competence and, sadly, many do not often have the time – busy as they are marking and planning lessons – to spend hours reading articles or blogs on L2 teaching methodology. Hence, professional development sessions which encourage practice-sharing and collaborative reflection can be beneficial but only to a certain extent; in order to improve one’s teaching it is imperative, in my view, to have an understanding of how the brain processes and acquires languages, of how language competence evolves and of what constitutes valid assessment, as such an understanding enables one to design the curriculum in a more principled and consistent fashion; to sequence learning activities more effectively and more adaptively; to create tests that are as objective and fair as possible and actually measure what they purport to measure.

So, why this post and its extremely pretentious title…? Because the three questions the title alludes to should be, in my view, the essential starting point of any reflective process on one’s own teaching practice. When I was asked the most important of those questions (“How are language learnt?”) by Professor Ron White – an Applied Linguistics legend – on my MA TEFL course 20 years ago I felt as disorientated as I did after my first parachute jump as a young recruit. I felt I should have known the answer, as I had been teaching for over five years prior to that course! Yet, I could not actually articulate it.  It was only after three months of Language-Learning-Principles lectures and much individual and collaborative reflection with fellow MA-TEFLers that I felt I was starting to nail it.

In my experience and in that of many of the readers that contact me in the social media, not many teachers find it easy to articulate their beliefs as to how languages are learnt; in fact, many of them do not really espouse a specific view of language acquisition or do not have a given principled pedagogic reference framework.

But “Do teachers actually need one?” – the best teacher and head of faculty I have ever worked with – Gillian Bruce – once asked me. “I know many teachers who do not have any knowledge of SLA theory and still get excellent results!”. My come-back to that was: “Would those teachers who get excellent results do even better if they knew more about Language Acquisition theory and research?” My hunch is that they would.

Here are the three questions I think every teacher who wants to improve their own practice should ask themselves  . These questions should be pondered over and answered way before Departments venture in the typical development-time discussions on what the elements of a great language lesson are; on what constitutes best classroom practice; on how to best provide corrective feedback (a highly controversial area of teaching which is massively affected by one’s espoused L2 acquisition theory);  on how to best integrate emerging technologies in the curriculum etc.. How can a language department even remotely hope to tackle the above issues effectively when they have not addressed the three questions below?

  1. The three questions

(1) How are foreign  languages learnt ?

In my opinion this is the most important question a teacher should ask themselves and I encourage every PGCE student /Probationary teacher to do so at the very beginning of their teaching practice. Trainee teachers should ask this question to their PGCE tutors and school-based mentors, too. This is paramount as any long-/medium- and short-term planning should be based on the answer.

In my case, finding the answer to that question and using it to frame my classroom approach was fundamental in enhancing my teaching- a true professional breakthrough for me. It meant sacrificing and adapting much of what I had been doing until then, but it paid enormous dividends. Cognitive models of language acquisition (especially Skill-based theories and Connectionism) provided the basis for my espoused theory of learning and shaped much of what you read in my blogs and of what I have been doing in the classroom for the last 20 years.

Can someone hope to answer that question without reading books or articles on second language acquisition? I believe so, if one has been teaching for a fairly long time, has been an assiduous reflective practitioner over the years and thinks long and hard about their own language learning experiences (what worked and what didn’t).

What matters is not to come up with a universal truth but with a set of guiding principles which are not written in stone – as future experiences or learning discussions with peers might end up restructuring them- but can provide a reference framework which will warrant consistency and cohesion to our approach. As professor Macaro, former Head of the Oxford University Education Department, wrote in his review of our book ‘The Language Toolkit’ :

it’s all very well saying there are no ‘methods’ for teaching a foreign language any more but it can’t then be a free-for-all with teachers doing exactly what they want to do. As much as I believe in teacher professional autonomy, language teaching is so complex that you have to have a series of guiding principles.

Ideally, as a Head of Department you will compare your reference framework/guiding principles with those of your staff and come to a sort of agreement – hopefully through democratic consensus-  as to what the espoused theory of the department is and on how it should shape teaching and learning. This will hopefully bring about consensus amongst the team as to what constitutes desirable and less desirable practice and possibly prevent controversy during post-lesson observation discussions and lead to fairer performance evaluations.

It is very important for the answer to this question to be as unambiguous as possible if you are working as a Department. For instance, in many Department handbooks I have come across lines to this effect: the Department endorses a Communicative Language teaching approach to MFL instruction. What does this entail in practical terms? A set of guiding principles , whilst not being overly prescriptive, should state roughly  how much TLU (target language use) is desirable; roundabout what ratio of receptive-skills-to-productive skills ; suggest possible approaches to listening, reading, speaking, writing, vocabulary and grammar instruction; a framework for the implementation of PBL work; how it is believed that Information technology should be best used to enhance learning etc.

 

(2) What are the implications of the answer to question (1) for language teaching and learning ?

As hinted above, the answer(s) to the first question will inevitably shape teaching and learning in your classroom, from the emphasis you will give to comprehensible input to the prominence of speaking and auracy/oracy, from teacher-centred to student-centred approaches, from all-out traditional feedback methodology to selective or no error correction, etc.

If you are doing this exercise as a whole Department, this process is bound to cause some controversy and has to be handled with much sensitivity and respect for other colleagues’ views. Having come up with a very clear set of guiding principles in answering question (1) above will definitely help.

My answers to this question are laid out in my blog posts  and I am glad that they are, as the process of writing about them has embedded them even deeper in my cognition . I do advice colleagues to answer this and the other questions in writing; it will impact your practice more.

 (3) Is the answer to (2) truly reflected in your own teaching practice? If not how can you make sure that it is in the light of the existing curriculum, resources and other logistic constraints (e.g. contact time)?

Chances are – as many research studies show – that your practice is not fully aligned with your beliefs. Partly because of your previously acquired metaphors of learning (which you formed throughout your own language learning experiences) which subconsciously shape the way you teach; partly because of the (often textbook-based) curriculum adopted by the school/institution you work at and the exam requirements; finally, the micro-cultures in your department will play an important role in the way you teach.

Will you’ have the guts’ to be true to yourself and find ways to teach the curriculum content in a way which reflects your beliefs? In my experience, teaching in a way which is consistent with one’s beliefs leads to greater satisfaction and self-fulfilment. Sadly, compromise will be necessary as your bosses’ pedagogic dogmata and the exam requirements will indeeed limit the scope of your freedom to a certain extent. In my case, for instance, I have had to adopt feedback-to-writing strategies that are not aligned with my espoused language learning theory and beliefs – despite having researched error correction in second language writing as part of my PhD study.

If you are doing this as a Department, this can be an exciting opportunity to rewrite the dull Schemes of Work that you have (not) been using so far in a way which is much more conducive to effective and productive curriculum design. You might finally come up with schemes of work that people will actually use, not frozen icons on your computer screen for OFSTED inspectors or your line managers to open as part of checklist-ticking exercises.  

Concluding remarks

Reflecting on one’s teaching practice does contribute to making us better teachers. Without a doubt. However, the self-reflection whether conducted alone or in dyads and triads needs to be framed adequately and needs some background knowledge – even fairly basic –  of teaching methodology and acquisition theory. There are many blogs that provide valuable pedagogic know-how, some of my favourites are listed in this post by Steve Smith.

In the absence of an espoused theory of language teaching and learning, I suggested classroom practitioners start the reflective process from the three framing questions discussed above, the most crucial one aiming at identifying the core sets of beliefs we hold about how languages are learnt. Once identified such beliefs one can then lay out the guiding principles which will warrant their classroom practice consistency and cohesion.

To find out more about my views on language teaching and learning do get hold of the book I co-authored with Steve Smith: ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit‘ 

The seed-planting technique: how it has enhanced my teaching and may enhance yours

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1. Introduction – ‘Seed-planting’ or ‘Anaphoric recycling’: a differerent way of recycling

                          

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant”

                                                                                                                          (R.L.S Stevenson)

A few years back I came across the above line by Robert Louis Stevenson, so true of any teaching/learning experience, but especially relevant to second language acquisition. This is because many of the gains our students make day in, day out are invisible and even though they may not yield any tangible outcomes in the here and now they do often silently contribute to those sudden and ground-breaking ‘light-bulb moments’ they will suddenly experience a week, a month or even a year down the line, which often mark the beginning of acquisition.

Also, just like any other skills, language learning is not about recalling the ten target words, the grammar rule,or learning stategy the teacher taught by the end of a 50-60 minutes lesson ; it is about being able to understand/produce those words as close as possible to native-speaker accuracy and speed long after the end of that lesson. In other words, language instruction should concern itself with the long-term implications of what happens in each and every lesson we teach.

Yet, too much language teaching concerns itself with the short-term, the here-and-now. Consider lesson observations, for instance : how futile is the item ‘evidence of learning’ on the observer’s checklist. Evidence of learning at the end of a sixty-minutes lesson ? Really ? And what about the fact that humans forget more than 40% of what they ‘learn’ at a given time one hour later ? And does being able to recall a list of words at the end of a lesson constitute evidence of language acquisition ? That is the easy bit; one can say those words have been actually learnt only when the students will be able to recognize those words whilst listening to a near-native-speaker audio recording or be able to use them in production – which will probably take many more lessons down the line.

How many lessons on the Perfect Tense have been rated as outstanding by lesson observers – shown lots of evidence of learning, yet a few months later you will have heard the very teachers who taught those lessons complain that the students keep making the same annoying mistakes with the same tense in their speaking and writing? And the explanation : the students are being careless, lazy, dumb,…really ? How about the seeds sown during those fantastic lessons not being watered and looked after properly in the days, weeks and months after their occurrence ?

Any approach to evaluating language learning based solely or mostly on the tangible outcome one observes at the end of a lesson or short cycle of lessons is flawed because it fails to consider that L2 acquisition is less about learning the meaning of word X or the way grammar rule Y operates and more about how the brain speeds up the processing of that word and that grammar rule across a wide range of different linguistic, semantic and cultural contexts. [Please note, incidentally, totally out context, that I am against lesson evaluation of the sort that assigns scores to classroom performance as they are flawed in their purpose and because – based on my experience- way too many observers know too little about language acquisition to be able to pontificate as to what constitutes effective teaching and learning].

I remember, at the end of a lesson observation – in which I had been the observee – my observer telling me that she was concerned about two of my students who had struggled during a mini-board translation task as they were listening to my oral input (short sentences). Unlike the other students in the class, these two boys had not completed every single translation in the time I had allocated ; hence ‘you ought to differentiate better’ was the advice. Yet, two months down the line those boys caught up with the rest of the class at the same task. My observer had focused on the here-and-now, the immediate product of learning, not the process, failing to consider that the two students were refining the skill of processing my oral input and writing every single time they wrote on the miniboard, even if they had not completed the whole translation the first, second or third time around. They knew the meaning of the sentences I uttered ; they simply needed to speed up their ability to process those sentences ; subsequent practice of the same kind lesson in, lesson out allowed for that to happen. The most important thing was not the product, the words on the mini-board, but the process, training their ability to process my input faster. You only learn to hit the ball harder and faster by practising hitting the ball, regardless of the many failures.

In a nutshell, as I often reiterate in my posts, effective teaching and learning cannot happen without effective curriculum design – yes, the Department Schemes of Work that most language teachers don’t look at ! A well-designed language curriculum plans out effectively when, where and how each seed should be sown and the frequency and manner of its recycling with one objective in mind : that by the end of the academic year the course’s core language items are comprehended/produced effectively across all four language skills under real life conditions (or R.O.C.=real operating conditions). The biggest challenge : time constraints – which brings me to ‘why’ I applied the Seed-planting technique in my teaching.

  1. Optimizing contact time through ‘seed-planting’

The greatest obstacle to effective L2 acquisition in most school  settings is definitely time constraints. Hence, teachers must find ways to maximize the use of the time available to them. One way to do this is obvious : if accurate fluency across the listening, reading, speaking and listening modalities is the main objective of instruction, the first and foremost imperative is not to waste too much time on activities which do not promote fluency (e.g. lengthy grammar explanations ; making posters or iMovies in lessons ; masses of Kahoot quizzes).

Another , less obvious approach – the Seed-planting technique or Anaphoric recycling – involves smart curriculum design, by planning in your schemes of work, as meticulousy as possible, the systematic recycling of vocabulary or grammar structures as peripheral-learning items throughout the run-up to the lesson/cycle of lessons in which they are to be taught as core items. Example : if I am planning a set of irregular perfect tense forms in term two, I may want to systematically ‘plant’ them as often as possible in any comprehensible input I will expose my students to throughout term one. I will use typographic devices (e.g. highlighting, underlining or writing in bold/italics) in order to help my students notice each occurrence of the target verb forms. I will also provide some support in the way of translation (e.g.in brackets ; a help vocabulary list).

By so doing, the students will have the opportunity to process any ‘planted’ lexical items or morphemes several times over before the lesson in which you will explicitly present them. This will give the students a significant advantage as they will have many previous instances of encountering those items (through aural and written exposure) to relate to ; lots of dots to connect. It will also allow you to use a more inductive approach to grammar instruction as the students will not get to the target structure as totally ‘clean slates’.

Evidently, for this technique to work at its best, the ‘seed-planting’ ought to occur in both aural and written input (i.e. listening and reading) in the context of texts which contain comprehensible input (i.e. input that the students do not need much guesswork or dictionary use to understand ).

Seed-planting can obviously occur through the speaking and writing media too, by providing the students with unanalysed chunks/set phrases / whole sentences to learn by rote which the teacher will ‘unpack when the students are developmentally ready to grasp their constituents.

Many teachers do indeed say they ‘seed-plant’; however the issue is how, how often, how systematically, how meticulously. How they promote the noticing of the target ‘seeds’. How they support the students as they process them. How explicitly and regularly seed-planting is embedded in the Schemes of Work.

A final point: effective anaphoric recycling (seed-planting) does not mean less emphasis on cataphoric recycling (i.e. recycling after explicit teaching).

  1. Benefits of Seed-planting

How this technique has benefitted my teaching practice:

3.1 Greater focus on my short- / medium- and long-term planning

When you have been teaching for as long as I have been you don’t look at the course’s Schemes of Work as much as you should – especially when the curriculum is based on the textbook with little or no alterations. ‘Seed-planting’ has had three positive outcomes in this respect: (1) it has made me reflect much more on both anaphoric and cataphoric recycling and how vocabulary and grammar structures were taught throughout the year. This has enhanced the quality of my recycling, thereby improving the Schemes of Work and my curriculum designing skills; (2) I have actually been using the Schemes of Work more because they finally have some use for me; (3) I have always been meticulous about the linguistic content of my lessons, but this process has made me focus on it in even greater detail.

3.2 More work on receptive skills and comprehensible input

One of the greatest influences on my teaching this year has definitely been Steve Smith’s advocacy of the importance of comprehensible input in L2 acquisition – a view that I was unconvinced before meeting him but that I now espouse. The seed-planting technique has forced me to do more receptive work, especially listening (I highlight the ‘planted’ items in the gapped or whole transcripts I give my students or in the body of the text if I we are doing a jigsaw listening task). The technique has crept into my classroom TLU (Target Language Use) too, making it become a vehicle for the deliberate and systematic seed-planting on a daily basis,

All of the above has greatly benefitted my students

3.3 Less time spent on explicit grammar teaching

Because of the frequent encounters the students have with the target structures prior to their explicit teaching, I have had to do less explicit teaching and/or the students seemed to pick them up more quickly. All in all, grammar teaching felt easier.

3.4 More opportunities for differentiation

Seed-planting has provided me with more opportunities for differentiation. How? Example: if a student completes a reading task earlier than the rest of the class, the ‘planted seed’ can constitute a springboard for a learner-led investigation on the web (possible in my case, because our students are equipped with iPads – 1:1). In fact, the gifted and talented in my lessons are one set of students who has benefitted greatly from this technique as it has propelled them ahead of the topics-in-hand sparking off more independent work on their part.

3.5 Enhanced acquisition(?)

In my perception, hardly a scientific truth, this technique has indeed facilitated the acquisition of the core vocabulary and of the grammar structures I ‘planted’, not simply as a direct result of the greater exposure to the target items, but also because of the benefits listed in the previous points

  1. Drawbacks

The main obstacle to the implementation of this technique is that it requires more work on the part of the curriculum designer(s). It is quite a painstaking process, as it does require fairly detailed planning. If you are a Head of Department you will hear comments like: “But we do it anyway”. Truth is that many teachers do it in some shape of form – but that the devil is in the detail and most importantly in how frequently and deeply the planted items are processed; and in what contexts.

4. Concluding remarks

The acquisition of a word or grammar structure is largely a function of how often the L2 learner processes it across a range of contexts. The more the encounters with a given L2 item and the wider the range of contexts in which those encounters occur, the more successful acquisition is likely to be. Obviously, as I have often reiterated in my blogs,  the ‘how’ of those encounters and what students do with it are very important factors too.

Seed-planting maximises the opportunities of recycling by exposing L2 learners to the set of words or grammar structures you are planning to teach on a given date over several weeks or even months prior to that date promoting through various means the noticing of those items.

Noticing is crucial to acquisition (Schmidt, 1990) and may prompt more inquisitive students to find out more about those items autonomously. Other, less keen and curious students, will benefit from processing those new items in familiar contexts placed in the comprehensible aural or written input they are exposed to, provided that the teacher offers some support (e.g. by glossary or translation in brackets) and guidance. In either case the process will give the learners a useful head-start, which, in my experience, often propels their acquisition of the ‘planted seeds’ further

Many teachers claim they practise seed planting. Truth is many do; however, let me reiterate this, the effectiveness of this technique lies in how systematically and meticulously it is applied in curriculum design.

To find out more about my ideas about language learning, get hold of the book I co-authored: “The Language Teacher Toolkit’

 

Listening instruction (PART 1) – How the brain processes aural input, instructional challenges and implications for the L2-classroom

Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith (co-author with Gianfranco Conti of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’ ) and Dylan Viñales (ML teacher at Garden International School)

fluent-english-speech

1. Introduction – The least practised, understood and researched language skill

Since posting my three articles on listening ( ‘Listening  – the often mis-taught skill’, ‘So…how do we teach listening?” and “Micro-listening tasks you may not be using often enough in your lessons”) I have been flooded with messages from Modern Language teachers worldwide, all asking me invariably the same question: “So, how do I improve my students’ listening skills ?”.

This has brought home to me the realization that many L2 teachers – and not simply those working within the English-and-Wales educational system –  are unsure and anxious about what constitutes effective listening instruction practice. This is not surprising; as Professor Weir and his co-workers (in Weir et al., 2013) point out, of the four language skills listening is by far the “least practised in the language classroom, the least researched and the least understood.” To-date, Listening is not fully integrated in L2 curricula (Macaro, 2003)

Yet, listening is the most crucial skill in first language acquisition, as it is through the aural medium that humans learn to speak in the first place. According to a number of studies in naturalistic/immersive environments around 45% of language competence is obtained through listening, 30 % through speaking, 15% from reading and 10% only from writing (Renukadevi, 2014) – ironic how the two top skills on this list are also the most neglected by British-trained teachers…

As a teacher trainee – both at Uni and during my teaching practice – and even on my MA TEFL (where Professor Weir was ironically one of my lecturers)  I was taught close to nothing on how to teach listening; for many years I simply taught listening as I had been taught it myself at school or as prescribed by the course-book in use. CPD on listening was pretty useless and centred on facilitating student guesswork, rather than providing teachers with guiding principles on how to enhance learner listening skills. This is, to my knowledge, what most teachers do and that is why Steve Smith and I devoted an entire chapter of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’ to aural skills in an attempt to address some of the most important challenges posed by Listening instruction.

1.1 A ‘trilogy’ about Listening Instruction: goals and expected outcomes

This is the first in a ‘trilogy’ of posts written in collaboration with MFL guru Steve Smith and Garden International School colleague Dylan Viñales. The objectives of these posts are to (1) Discuss the mechanisms underlying the way humans process and interact cognitively and affectively with aural input and listening instruction (in PART 1); (2) identify the shortcomings of much current Listening instructions (PART 2 – to be published next week) and (3)Examine the implications for the classroom (more superficially in PART 1 and in much greater depth and detail in PART 3) and discuss the approach that I have undertaken (not always succesfully) in my own classroom practice in collaboration with some colleagues at Garden International School (Kuala Lumpur).

PART 1 – Identifying the challenges listening-skill instruction poses to teachers and learners

In this post I will narrow down the focus and concentrate on novice-to-intermediate learners discussing how, based on Skill-acquisition models of language learning and my own classroom experience teachers may be able to enhance their students’ proficiency. I will start with a concise reminder of how L2 learners interact with L2 aural input both cognitively and affectively

2. Some important facts about how human interact with and process aural input

2.1 Top-down and Bottom-up processing

There is a general consensus amongst researchers that the human brain comprehends aural input by applying synergistically two types of processing: Top-down and Bottom-up. Top-down processing involves applying our knowledge of the world (schemata), all we know about a specific subject, topic, situation or group of people in the understanding of input which relates to that subject, topic, situation or group of people (Macaro, 2013). For instance, in listening to a love song in a foreign language we have a whole set of expectations about what it is going to be about and we can make educated guesses about what line is going to come next even if we do not understand each and every word – purely based on our previous experiences of listening to love songs.

Brown (2007) identifies the following Top-down skills which he labels Listening macro-skills (for conversational discourse):

  1. Recognize cohesive devices in spoken discourse.
  2. Recognize the communicative functions of utterances, according to situations, participants, goals.
  3. Infer situations, participants, goals using real-world knowledge. (pragmatic competence)
  4. From events, ideas, etc., described, predict outcomes, infer links and connections between events, deduce causes and effects, and detect such relations such as main idea, supporting idea, new information, given information, generalization, and exemplification.
  5. Distinguish between literal and implied meanings.
  6. Use facial, kinesic, body language, and other nonverbal cues to decipher meanings.
  7. Develop and use a battery of listening strategies, such as detecting key words, guessing the meaning of words from context, appealing for help, and signaling comprehension or lack thereof. (p.308)

Bottom-up processing, on the other hand, involves interpreting the aural input by analysing basic linguistic features such as recognizing word boundaries, stress and intonation, grammatical word-classes (nouns, verbs, etc.), systems (tenses, agreement, pluralisation, etc.).Below is Brown’s (2007) list of listening comprehension micro-skills (for conversational discourse) (p. 308)

  1. Retain chunks of language of different lengths in short-term memory
  2. Discriminate among the distinctive sounds of [the target language]
  3. Recognize English stress patterns, words in stressed and unstressed positions, rhythmic structure, intonational contours, and their role in signaling information.
  4. Recognize reduced forms of words.
  5. Distinguish word boundaries, recognize a core of words, and interpret word order patterns and their significance.
  6. Process speech containing pauses, errors, corrections, and other performance variables.
  7. Process speech at different rates of delivery.
  8. Recognize grammatical word classes (nouns, verbs, etc.), systems (e.g., tense, agreement, pluralization), patterns, rules, and elliptical forms.
  9. Detect sentence constituents and distinguish between major and minor constituents.
  10. Recognize that a particular meaning may be expressed in different grammatical forms. (308)

The two processing modes ‘work’ together, concurrently and synergistically to help making sense of what we hear.  Going back to the love song example, for instance, my previous experience of listening to love songs by singer ‘X’, will give rise, in listening to one of her songs, to a set of expectations about what the song is about (top-down processing). The song’s title and the video-clip that accompanies it will expand the set of predictions I am building. My predictions will be confirmed or discarded by the words I will be able to identify (bottom-up processing) whilst at the same time helping me make sense of the words I do not understand. It should be noted that, in my attempt to identify a challenging word I may use its sound (phonological level), its word-class (morphological level), its position in the sentence (syntactic level) – amongst other cues- in order to recognize or make sense of it.

Skills 1, 5 and 7 on the above micro-skills list (in bold) are particularly important as skill 1 speeds up processing, freeing up cognitive space for our brain (working memory) to focus on meaning and skill 5 helps us make sense of what we hear by segmenting the aural input. Without segmentation aural input is perceived by the students as an unintelligible fast-running flow. The inability to segment input, linked with poorly developed decoding skills, is the greatest obstacle to understanding for many novice-to-intermediate learners and the main reason of learner disaffection and low self-efficacy vis-à-vis listening. Hence the need that I reiterate ad nauseam in my blogs for systematic and extensive decoding-skill instruction (i.e. the ability to transform graphemes into phonemes, letters into sounds) from the very early days of L2 instruction (read my post here:Micro-listening tasks you may not be using often enough in your lessons”).

As for skill 7, it is paramount for students to get used to different speeds of delivery in order to train their aural-input processing skills – reading the same text several times at different speeds, from slower to nearnative speed or viceversa pays dividends in this regard, in my experience.

As I will point out in PART 2, very few – if any at all – of the skills identified by Brown (2007) are explicitly and systematically addressed by curriculum designers and course-books in use in most UK educational settings. Yet, they provide teachers with a very useful blueprint for listening instruction by isolating the core macro- and micro-skills; a much needed framework, considering that much L2 listening instruction is currently designed and conducted in an unstructured and in same cases, haphazard fashion. I strongly believe that by integrating the core skills amongst those identified by Brown (2007) in our curriculum and explicitly teaching them to our students we can significantly enhance the impact of listening instruction.

2.2 Processing capacity

Working Memory (WM) Processing capacity is a very important determinant of how effectively and efficiently our students comprehend aural input. As Cornell professor Morten Christiansen and his Warwick Univeristy colleague Nick Chater put it   in a recent ground-breaking paper (Chistiansen and Chater, 2016):,“the ability to quickly process linguistic input […] is a strong predictor of language acquisition outcomes from infancy to midde childhood.”

This is because Working Memory having very limited cognitive space available for the processing of any incoming information, if it is performing too many tasks at the same time it will experience overload and that information will be lost due to divided attention. In order to create more cognitive space, the brain tends to automatize lower order skills (e.g. decoding skills; segmenting aural output; recognizing grammatical word class) so that it has more processing capacity to devote to higher order cognitive skills such as analyzing meaning, building inferences, etc. Hence, without enabling our students to automatise the micro-skills on Brown’s (2007) list, their brain will never manage to have sufficient cognitive space to process higher level listening tasks.

2.2.1 A few important facts about Working Memory 

As concisely laid out in my post on Working Memory (here), WM is a buffer between the world and Long-Term Memory; a ‘device’ in our brain which processes any incoming information and, should the rehearsal of such information be successful, commits it to Long-term Memory (where it will be stored for ever). As you read this post, your WM is processing my words interpreting them based on the existing information in your Long-Term Memory. WM activates information through chains of association triggered by the sound, meaning, grammar, etc. of whatever input it processes. So, for example, if I hear the word ‘dog’, everything to do with the notion of dog will receive electrical impulses along the brain neural network; the language items more strongly connected in our personal processing history will receive the greatest activation and will be easier to recall.

Models of Working Memory posit a system made up of two slave systems, the Visio-spatial Scratchpad which stores images (including language characters from ideographic languages, e.g. Chinese) and a Phonological loop which stores the sounds we hear and consists of two parts: the phonological store (inner ear) and the articulatory control process (inner speech). A third component, the Central Executive, is in charge of orchestrating the functioning of the two slave systems and of managing the flow of data to and from Long-Term Memory.

Much of our students’ success at comprehending L2 aural input will hinge on how efficiently and effectively Working Memory processes such input. This is because:

  1. Working memory storage is fragile – it takes a minimum distraction for the information being processed to be lost (forgetting from divided attention);
  2. Working memory storage capacity is very limited: 7+/- 2 digits only according to Miller (1965), less according to others (Christiansen and Chater, 2016). The Phonological Loop (more precisely: the phonological store or inner ear) can only store only about 1 to 2 seconds of speech at any one time (some say even much less – 100 milliseconds). This has three important implications: (a) that individuals genetically endowed with a larger working memory span will have an advantage; (b) that the ability to store language will be a function of how effectively the students can decode and pronounce the sounds they hear (since the faster they can reproduce the sounds the smaller the space in the phonological store they will occupy) – the argument for ultra-emphasizing decoding-skills instruction; (c) whatever information ‘X’ students hold in Working Memory as they process aural input will be lost when new incoming information ‘Y’ arrives, which means that students have an extremely short time frame to process what they hear before it is overwritten by new input. As Christiansen and Chater (2016) posit, the brain speeds up language processing by ‘chunking’ linguistic material into a hierarchy of increasingly abstract representational formats, from phonemes to syllables, to words, phrases, sentences, discourse. ‘Chunking’ prevents the information held in Working Memory from being erased for ever from our brain (to learn more about chunking read here
  3. The brain works like Google – A given language item’s processing history will determine (a) how easily it will be processed and comprehended and (b) the extent to which it will facilitate or slow down comprehension. Why? An analogy with Google search will help illustrate what I mean: this morning I as I was typing into the Google search box ‘we don’t’ a number of options appear in a hierarchical arrangement: ‘ we don’t talk any more’, ‘we don’t want another hero’, etc. In other words Google statistically predicted the sentence I was looking for based on Google users’ behaviours to-date or, when I searched through my own Google account, based on my own searching history to-date. The brain operates similarly, based on our individual processing history with specific language items; so, just like Google, on hearing the words ‘ we don’t’ our Working Memory will automatically activate any words , phrases, sentences containing those three words that we have heard more frequently; the ones heard most frequently will receive the strongest activation, the ones processed least frequently, the weakest. Other cues/constraints from the environment (e.g. the topic we are talking about, the facial expressions of our interlocutor, etc.) will affect the activation of those words/phrases/sentences too, to a certain extent. (Macaro, 2003).

The most important implications of the above are that:

(a) learners need to practise a lot more listening than they typically do at present, day in, day out. This is fundamental. Ideally, teachers would put a lot of effort in promoting independent listening outside lesson time for pleasure or at least through homework;

(b)  again: listening micro-skills, especially decoding skills, must be taught (I will deal with this point more extensive in my next post)

(c) the core language items must be recycled extensively through listening/speaking across as many contexts as possible -not simply reading and writing – for the reasons outlined in point 3 above (ease of retrieval depending on an individual’s processing history of each language item acquired).

2.3 Differences between audio-recording-based listening comprehension and real-life listening

In real-life conversation and whilst watching audio-visual material paralinguistic features such as visual expressions and other gestures render aural comprehension easier as compared to listening to a recorded text. Moreover, in conversational listening the listener benefits from  repetitions, redundancies, hesitation and pauses in the input which easify comprehension. The typical listening comprehensions we give our students do not offer these facilitative features in their input. This brings into questions the validity of audio-recording-based listening comprehensions (especially in high stake tests and national examinations) as they do not necessarily prepare students for real-life communication. These isssues bring us to the next point.

2.4 Listenership

Listenership refers in the literature to the ability to comprehend our interlocutor(s)’ input and respond to it in real time in the context of a conversational exchange. As it is obvious, it requires the acquisition of an altogether different set of skills to the ones we deploy in ‘passive listening’ activities such as the execution of a listening comprehension task). Listenership thus refers undoubtedly to the most important set of language skills an autonomous L2 speakers requires in the real world, whether as a tourist finding their way around Paris or as a businesswoman negotiating a deal in a video-conference. Listenership can only be acquired through masses of oral communicative practice

2.5 The Listening-as-modelling vs the Listening-to-test-comprehension approaches

In the early stages of L1 acquisition new language items are picked up through highly simplified aural input which is produced by parents/caregivers at a slower speech rate than in normal native-speaker-to-native-speaker communication; repetition and use of gestures to facilitate comprehension are frequent too. Caregiver speech rate increases significantly as the child’s processing ability increases.

The same often happens when,say, an English Native/Expert speaker interacts with a much less proficient L2 speaker. For instance, yesterday, as I was talking to an L2 Italian speaker I found myself talking to them pretty much in the same way as I used to talk to my daughter when she was two, repeating key words several times with greater emphasis, exaggerating facial expressions, pointing at objects around me and often producing ungrammatical utterances to facilitate understanding on their part (e.g. leaving the verb unconjugated and using discourse markers only to indicate the future).

A slower speech rate, lots of visual cues (whether through images and gestures), simplified (comprehensible) input, lots of repetition and translation (yes- translation!) facilitate the new-language modelling function that aural input performs in the early phases of language acquisition; it provides speakers with poor aural-input processing ability with more time and greater chances to notice new linguistic features as segmentation (identifying the boundaries of words) is easier to perform. This is important, as noticing a new phoneme, word or morpheme is thought to mark the beginning of its acquisition (Schmidt, 1990, 1993,1994,1995).

Smith and Conti (2016) drew a clear distinction between the Listening-as-modelling and the Listening-for-testing-comprehension or ‘Quiz approach’ to listening-skill instruction. The former concerns itself with ensuring that L2 students learn through every single aural activity staged; the latter, sadly the more common approach in the typical UK classroom, concerns itself with providing practice in picking out details in order to answer a few questions on a recorded text heard two or three times – hardly an effective way to model new language. As I will discuss in the sequel to this post, to be published next week, the predominance of the ‘quiz approach’ remains to-date the root cause of the inefficacy of much listening instruction; as I shall argue there, listening-comprehension tasks can indeed play an important role in listening-skills acquisition, but only provided that much listening-as-modelling as occurred before.

By listening-as-modelling I do not simply mean the very common practice of asking the students to repeat a word or short phrase a couple of times after the teacher utters them since, as mentioned above, speech stays in working memory for too short a time for that sort of repetition to lead to acquisition. Also such practice models short phrases, not sentence building or more extensive and complex discourse.

Reading aloud is one example of listening-as-modelling that is indeed practised in a number of UK learning settings. In our book (Smith and Conti,2016) Steve and I provide a strong rationale for using it and there is mounting evidence (e.g. Seo, 2014) that even a few minutes per lessons can significantly impact speaking proficiency and willingness to communicate.

And how about the teacher using the target language in most of the lessons? Not an uncommon occurrence in UK classrooms, after all…Well,  it may be argued that teacher fronted talk in the target language does constitute Listening-as-modelling when the target language is used to explicitly model and recycle new language and to deliberately promote noticing (as in the example Steve Smith provides in our books in the section on target language use). However, in 25 years of lesson observations in British schools, I have indeed seen target-language teacher talk being used effectively to facilitate comprehension, but not to explicitly model specific language items through systematically recycled ‘patterned’ input. The teacher’s aural input is usually spontaneous – not a bad thing; however, when teacher contact time is limited (one or two hours a week), this kind of aural input is unlikely to substantially enhance acquisition – at least in my experience. I do believe, however, that in immersive or other input-rich L2 environments such practice can indeed significantly impact learning.

As I reserve to discuss in greater depth in my next post, Listening-as-modelling includes instructional activities which focus the learners on pronunciation and decoding skills, in an effort to facilitate phonological processing and segmentation; on predictive strategies; on the identification of word-classes and systems; on the understanding of syntax and sentence building; on the development of aural-input processing; on building metacognition vis-à-vis the listening process. Listening comprehension is built in such activities but in a way that scaffolds the modelling.

2.6 The affective response

So far we have looked at the way learner cognition responds to aural input. How about the affective response? In my experience, the ‘quiz’ approach, especially in the absence of adequate training in inference strategies and differentiation (difficult when all students listen to the same track at the same pace from the same input source) has led to a generation of disaffected listeners. This is tragic considering the wealth of L2 audio-visual material available on the web. However, as long as listening instruction limits itself to quizzes it will elicit guesswork and guesswork will rarely build learner self-efficacy, a crucial precursor, as Smith and Conti (2016) argued, for the development of intrinsic motivation.

For self-efficacy vis-à-vis aural-input-processing to be fostered in the classroom, the learners must be adequately prepped for any listening task which may be perceived as a test (e.g. a listening comprehension) by a few listening-as-modelling activities which recycle very similar lexical material and phonetic, grammatical and syntactic patterns so as to scaffold success. In the sequel to this post (PART 2) I will explain how I attempt to do it.

3. Conclusions to Part 1: first set of implications for teaching and learning and issues to be tackled in Part 2

The above discussion has huge implications for listening-skills instruction. Please note that each of the point below will be treated more extensively and with several examples in my next post.

(1) students need tons of listening practice which aims at speeding up processing (i.e. automatising ‘chunking’) – I will discuss how in the sequel to this post. A culture of listening-for-learning as opposed to listening-for-testing must be established in the classroom since the very early days of instruction through a variety of activities which aim at modelling comprehensible input and elicit a positive affective response (e.g. jigsaw listenings using songs; sentence building mats,  watching short movies with subtitles; story-telling with visuals). Moreover, speed of delivery should be reduced and varied (in a formative way) and linguistic content should be simplified with repetitions added in if necessary to facilitate comprehension. Transcripts and translations (e.g. parallel texts) could be used to scaffold the modelling process (this, too, will be discussed in my next post).

(2) students need EXTENSIVE practice in pronunciation and decoding skills from the very beginning of their L2 learning experience (e.g. through listening-micro-skills enhancers , partial transcription tasks and even short dictations ). I use them a lot in my lessons and students find them useful and fun. The set of new phonemes and corresponding graphemes taught should not, in my experience, amount to more than three or four per lesson.

(3) listening practice must recycle the target lexical material as much as possible in order to facilitate ‘chunking’ and future ease of retrieval from Long Term Memory. This may call for strategies like narrow listening, i.e. the administration of a series of listening texts which are very similar in terms of lexical, grammatical and syntactic content, thereby requiring increasingly less inferences on the part of the student-listener. At this link you will find an example of L2-French Narrow Reading texts which can be used for Narrow Listening, too. Again, narrow listening is something I used a lot in my lessons, usually preceded by a  battery of narrow reading texts containing the same linguistic material

(4) the target words and set phrases (especially if they are part of an Examination Board core vocabulary) must be recycled through the aural medium in as many different semantic, grammatical and phonetic contexts as possible in order to create a processing history which will facilitate comprehension in the long run (see 2.2.1 above).

(5)  The development of listening-skills, especially those underlying the ability to listen and respond to aural input (listenership) goes hand-in-hand with the development of oral communication skills. Hence, oral communicative activities (e.g. student-to-student conversations) should feature as often as possible in lessons. In order to ensure the type of recycling envisaged in point 3 and 4 above, such oral activities should include a substantial amount of structured activities ‘forcing’ learners to produce the target material (e.g. oral translations; role plays with prompts; cued picture tasks).

(6) listening comprehension tasks should be used almost exclusively as ‘plenary’ activities or tests to be carried out after much modelling of the linguistic material they contain has occurred. This will be perceived by the learners as much fairer than being asked to perform guesswork on an aural text containing lots of unfamiliar language and will enhance their chances to experience success, which will feed into their self-efficacy as L2- listeners. Teachers with good pronunciation may want to read the transcripts themselves rather than play the recording with less adept student-listeners, to facilitate processing. Please note that the Listening-as-modelling I envisage does include a comprehension component.

(7), curriculum planners may want to explicitly and systematically address in their long-/medium- and short-term planning the existing listening macro-skills and micro-skills taxonomies (e.g. the one by Brown, 2007, above). This would provide the curriculum  (e.g. Schemes of Work) with a structure and a specific set of objectives to focus on – surely a massive improvement over the haphazard way in which listening instruction is currently carried out. I use pre-listening tasks mainly as a vehicle for the modelling of the inference/predictive strategies envisaged by Brown’s (2007) and decoding skills (e.g. by reinforcing challenging sounds contained in the target text which may impair comprehension). I tend to use tasks involving focus on micro-skills in the in-listening activities I stage (three or four per task), jigsaw listening, segmentation tasks (identifying word boundaries) and patterns/system identification tasks (identifying word classes, tenses etc.), being my favourites. I use post-listening tasks, instead, for metacognitive reflection or critical listening (see my next post).

(8) Finally, as part of the Listening-for-learning approach, teachers ought to exploit any given recording much more than it is currently done by course-books. Carrying out three or four different activities with the same texts plus a pre-listening and a post-listening one will enhance the chances that the target vocabulary and linguistic features in the listening piece will be retained.

In a nutshell, the current teaching of listening skills does, in my opinion, need a drastic shake-up. The most important change language educators ought to implement is one of mindset, from a culture of listening-for-testing to one of listening-as-learning. This entails more Listening-as-modelling practice as well as more focus on Listenership, which in turns implies more oral interaction in the classroom.This change in orientation – which does not rule out using listening comprehesion tasks, as I hope it is clear from the above discussion – is fundamental if we want to equip the 21st century L2 learners with the skill set required to become effective autonomous listeners.

3.1 What I will write about in PART 2

In my next post I reserve to  delve deeper into the above implications and to discuss the ‘how’ I implement them as part of my daily classroom practice. I shall also point out the most common shortcomings of typical listening-skills instruction in the UK as identified by Steve, Dylan and myself, discussing the way we have addressed them (not always successfully) throughout the last academic year in our classroom practice (at Garden International School, Kuala Lumpur).

Part 2 and 3, the next posts in the ‘trilogy’, will concern itself with the following shortcomings of listening instruction, delving in much greater depth into the day-to-day strategies I have implemented in my classroom practice to address them in collaboration with my colleague Dylan Vinales at Garden International School (Kuala Lumpur):

  1. Insufficient aural/oral skills practice
  2. Poor curriculum design/lesson planning
  3. Ineffective sequencing and integration with other skills
  4. Insufficient ‘patterned’ recycling
  5. Inadequate exploitation of listening resources
  6. Lack of differentiation
  7. The ‘quiz approach’
  8. Insufficient use of listening-as-modelling
  9. No systematic and explicit focus on the development of aural-input processing ability
  10. Insufficient practice in listenership skills

 

Please note: To find out more about Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti’s ideas on the above, get hold of their book ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’

 

References

Brown, D. H. (2007). Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Christiansen, M.H. & Chater, N. (2016). Creating language: Integrating evolution, acquisition, and processing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Macaro, E (2003). Teaching and Learning a Second Language A Guide to Recent Research and Its Applications. London:Continuum.

Richards, J. C. (1983). Listening comprehension: Approach, design, procedure. TESOL Quarterly, 17, 219-239.

Rukadevi, D. (2014). The Role of listening in language acquisition; the challenges and strategies in teaching listening. International Journal of Education and Information studies, 4, 59-63  http://www.ripublication.com/ijeisv1n1/ijeisv4n1_13.pdf

Seo (2014) Does reading aloud improve foreign language learners’ speaking ability. GSTF International Journal on Education (JEd) Vol.2 No.1, June 2014

Smith and Conti (2016). The Language Teacher Toolkit. Amazon.

Weir, C J, Vidakovic, I and Galaczi, E D (2013). Measured Constructs: A history of Cambridge English language examinations 1913-2012. Studies in Language Testing 37