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Practising listening with Upper Primary students

Teenagers sat at a table talkingTo celebrate the launch of Project fourth edition, Goodith White, author of Listening from the Resource Books for Teachers series looks at practical ways to practice listening with upper primary students.

I had two interesting encounters yesterday; one good, one bad. The first was with my tax adviser. Most people look on these people in the same light as dentists, but I actually enjoyed the hour I spent with him. The second encounter was on the phone when I rang a company to arrange for something to be redelivered to my house. I ended up feeling angry and frustrated and ready to scream!

What was the difference? In the first situation the person really listened to me, showing attention, sympathy and understanding. He  showed he had been listening by asking questions which followed on from what I said. In the second, the person on the other end of the phone was following some preset routine rather than listening to what the customer said. She asked me for my name and address FOUR times in the space of five minutes. Grrrrr!! Have you ever had an experience like these?

These experiences illustrate the importance of learning listening skills in your first language, and also in a second language. We need to be able to listen well in order to function well at work, with our friends and families, and in order to learn at school too, when we need to listen to what teachers and our fellow students are saying. When learning English as an L2 at school, so much of it is coming to us initially through our ears.

Listening skills in English  often get taught badly at school, don’t you think, or ignored? From experience, I think teachers need to follow guidelines like these:

  • Work from the children’s own interests
  • Get them to make some of the listening materials and tasks
  • Explore the possibilities which the Internet and other media offer for listening practice
  • Create situations where teachers listen to children, it shouldn’t always be the other way round! Teachers need to provide good models of listening that children can imitate– showing attention and interest, for example
  • Have some listening skills in mind that you want to develop over the year, and give listening practice designed to develop those skills in a systematic fashion – it isn’t really enough to just ‘do listening in class’. Do you want to practice listening to a variety of accents, or predicting, or aspects of bottom-up listening?

An activity for upper Primary children which might combine all these features could be:

‘The Generation Gap’

  • Teacher listening to studentsAsk the class about the best toy or game they ever had, and why it was so great . Write a list of toys and reasons on the board or Interactive Whiteboard. Keep the list.
  • Ask the class to interview someone at home who belongs to another generation (parents, or grandparents, perhaps). They should ask them what their favourite toy or game was when they were young, and why they liked it. This person needs to speak a little English, but just enough to say ‘My favourite toy was …. because……’ They can record what the parents tell them on a mobile phone, if they have one. If not, they can make notes so they can remember what to tell the rest of the class next day. If parents can’t speak English, then you could invite an English speaker (or more than one) to class to talk about the games they used to play.
  • The next day, you could either upload to recordings to the class computer if you have one, or get students to play the recording on loud speaker, or just tell the rest of the class what their parent or grandparent told them. The rest of the class should listen and write down what the toys were.
  • Finally the class vote on the best  (or ‘worst’) toy of ‘yesteryear’ which has been mentioned.

You could also have a discussion about how fashions in toys and games have changed over time. Were the older generation deprived because they didn’t have computer games?

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Scared to teach?

Jamie Keddie, author of Images, part of the Resource Books for Teachers series, discusses the role of images and texts in classroom activities and whether they are used as a substitute for actual contact teaching. Jamie will be hosting a Global Webinar on this topic on 14th and 30th November 2011. You can find out more information and register to attend here.

Recently, I heard a story about an English language teacher who went on to teach mathematics at secondary level in the United Kingdom. Having spent 6 years in Spain, looking for ways to get his learners to speak English, it seems that he was able to put the fruits of this period to good use in his new job.

One communicative activity for geometry that he devised was to give each student in the class a piece of paper with a different shape on it. Their task was to mingle and describe their shapes to each other without showing each other the images.

“Well, this shape has three sides and two of them are of equal lengths,” student A would say. “Is it an isosceles triangle?” was the expected response from student B.

My friend who told me the story was making the point that many of the techniques that make up a language teacher’s classroom repertoire may lend themselves to other teachers in completely different contexts.

This is, of course, hardly a revolutionary observation. But what about the other way around? In other words, how much do language teachers borrow from the techniques of non-language teachers?

Of course, I can only speak for myself. And to do so, I want to recall a moment from earlier this year.

It was a Sunday evening and I was desperately trying to find a short text on the Normans. I needed classroom material to use with a group of visiting students from China who were in the UK for an intensive English language and culture course.

Now, I happen to enjoy history. If you want to know about the Normans and how they changed the course of the British history, you could do a lot worse than ask me to tell you what I know.

At school, I was lucky enough to be taught by a number of inspirational teachers, none of whom were afraid to share their subject knowledge. In other words, they used to teach us.

So the question is this: Why did it not occur to me to stand up and enlighten these students using my own voice and teaching skills? Why was I so intent on finding a text – a piece of paper to do the job for me?

If teachers of other subjects can borrow from us, why did the idea of borrowing from them not cross my mind? Am I alone in realising that for years, I have been afraid to teach?

In my webinar next week, I shall be exploring this topic and more. Whether you agree or disagree, I hope you will join us, tell us of your own experiences, and put forward your own views.

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