Zarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels, across the world. She joins us on the blog today for the fifth article in a series focused on boosting classroom participation. Last week, she explored asking better questions and improving questioning style to allow for different learning styles in class. This week, Zarina focuses on improving your own listening skills as a teacher.
“Are you really listening…or are you just waiting for your turn to talk?” Robert Montgomery
Last week in the previous article in this series, I explored how you can get more out of your students by improving your questioning technique – but it’s just as important to work on how you listen and respond to their answers.
In an average, busy lesson when the teacher has planned a set of activities, it is easy to ask questions of our students, knowing what the answers should be. This sometimes results in ‘half listening’ to their responses. Students often answer with a lack of confidence in themselves, so they speak quietly, or purposefully mumble certain vocabulary that they feel they can’t pronounce properly. As teachers, we sometimes fill in the gaps of what we have heard, or think we have heard.
This may appear to save time in the short-run, but it does not build the trust required to help students gain confidence. In the long-run, students who don’t fully trust their teacher and lack confidence in their abilities in another language take much longer to answer oral questions or offer opinions. It is in this kind of situation that a language lesson can often seem like a monologue and lack that important two-way communication. We therefore need to practise active listening.
What is active listening?
We can demonstrate that we are listening actively by the way that we respond to what someone is saying.
- First, how can we respond more positively to correct answers?
If we just accept the answer as correct or acceptable and move on, we haven’t let the student know what we heard. Instead, show that you think the answer is a good one, by saying things such as “Exactly!” “Well done, you really thought about that” “Just what I was looking for”. Ask the rest of the class “Did everybody hear x’s answer?” then ask the student to repeat it, adding “What you said is really important, I’d like everyone to hear it.” This values an answer, boosts confidence and gives recognition to those who give it a try. It should also encourage others within the group to get involved too.
- But what do you do if you can’t hear, or don’t understand what a student is saying?
Don’t move on after guessing what they meant, thinking that you are saving them from embarrassment. Tell them you couldn’t hear their answer and ask them to repeat it. If it’s the meaning that’s the problem, when they repeat the answer then it is useful to rephrase their response and ask them “Did you mean _______?” Surprisingly, rather than dying of embarrassment, the student will probably realise you actually want to know what they mean, and try to communicate their idea differently. If you follow with an apology for misunderstanding them (and state that you now understand what they mean), rephrase if necessary or restate the answer for the rest of the class. This demonstrates that you are willing to work with them on an answer and that you are truly interested in understanding their response.
- What can we do if students are struggling to answer?
Students may try very hard to answer a question or give an opinion, but struggle to get their idea across in another language. In such cases we need to try to piece together and summarise what they are trying to say, with their consent. This illustrates that the message being conveyed is more important than accuracy of language and that inaccuracies don’t make an idea or opinion invalid. So if they stumble over whether to include an article or not, for example, quickly add “That’s right, we say on THE street,” then bring them back to the content of what they were saying. “So what was happening on the street?”
- How can we explore students’ answers in more detail?
It’s also important to check that the thought processes behind students’ answers are correct – in fact, this part is actually more important than the final answer! We can do this by asking questions such as “Tell me why you think that?” or “Where did you find that answer?” This also has the benefit of helping students who have been struggling to come to an answer, because they will hopefully be able to follow the thinking behind their classmate’s answer.
In summary, teachers who listen actively do so by clarifying and rephrasing their students’ answers, and reflecting on their students’ thought processes. By concentrating on the thinking behind students’ answers, not just the answers themselves, we can foster a more trusting relationship between ourselves and our students, giving them greater confidence, and reducing their fear of making mistakes. After all, active listening leads to active communication, which should be every language teacher’s goal.