For the past 4 years, I have been part of a committee in my school district looking at a range of programs from publishers, with a goal of finding a new program for our schools to adopt in our French as a Second Language (FSL) classes. One of the biggest objections to the old programs (aside from the fact that one of them was going out of print) was the quality of the listening component.
For a long time, I have seen listening as possibly the weakest link in many second language programs, with many only requiring listeners to select a category or respond to multiple choice or matching type questions. In many cases, success on a listening activity was only as difficult as listening for a specific sound effect or tone of voice. Because most listening exercises are pre-recorded, teachers who want to go beyond the built in exercises often find it difficult to find something appropriate. This is especially true at the beginner level.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that we do away with categories and multiple choice questions. They are often a good way to begin expressing understanding of material a student listens to. What I am suggesting is that it shouldn’t stop there. Students will expand their listening skills quickly and see these exercises as connected if they are asked additional questions such as the following:
- What key word(s) did you hear that helped you choose your answer?
- If you selected true or false, explain what you heard that helped you decide?
- Justify your response?
- How did the context help you to understand?
- What are three key words from the conversation you heard? How do you know they are important?
- What is one thing you heard that you could use or adapt in your own communication?
It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of listening, given that it’s the most important tool to allow students to exit the silent period of second language acquisition, and to begin production of their own communication. Regardless of its importance, a quality listening program that gave students useful feedback to improve their skills has remained one of my biggest challenges.
One of the best articles I’ve read is this one on differentiation of listening exercises from Edugains, a website that houses ministry-created resources to support the Ontario curriculum. This article divides listening tasks into 5 categories, each connected to the purpose for listening:
- Listening as Oral Comprehension Listeners receive knowledge by processing the words and information they hear; checking for understanding is an evaluative process (to confirm a match between the intended message and the understood message)
- Listening as Interpretation Listeners make inferences based on what they hear and their previous knowledge, ideas, and opinions; checking for understanding is a conferencing process (to discover the listener’s interpretation of the message)
- Listening as Interactive Listeners demonstrate understanding and respond in an ongoing conversation loop; checking for understanding is a self-assessment process (to make adjustments to one’s own communication)
- Listening as Negotiating Meaning (Transactional) Listeners collaborate with the speaker by contextualizing and inferencing; checking for understanding is a mutual process (to achieve an objective or complete a transaction)
- Listening as Recreational Listeners appreciate texts; checking for understanding includes personal, subjective components
I thought about how to include these categories in my classroom instruction, and although they are all important components of listening instruction, some of them describe processes that are more internal and depend on critical and creative thinking processes that students use while listening. For me, they fall into three general categories.
Listening as oral comprehension involves audio and video recordings, and students select an answer based on what they hear.
For my classroom planning purposes, I am looking at categories 2-4 (Listening as interpretation, Listening as interactive, and Listening as negotiating meaning) as one group of related skills. They all require students to be engaged in conversation and to show their ability to understand and respond. In order to use these categories to plan my listening activities in class, I looked at this newly released resource connected to the CEFR, for practical descriptions of what listening skills look like for young learners at different levels.
Listening as recreation is hard to put into a formal plan of instruction – it implies that students will develop their own personal preferences and will choose to listen to things that they enjoy. Because of the highly personal nature of whether a student enjoys listening to something, it’s very difficult to quantify or document enjoyment. The closest thing I have figured out so far is a personal reflection (oral or writteon what types of listening students enjoy. This can include types of music, movies they have seen in class, speakers they found interesting, etc.
My first step was to create rubrics that I could use in my observations of students while they are actively engaged in listening. I looked at two sections for this – the descriptors of listening, and the descriptors of mediating communication. The source document contains quite a few criteria that can be used to assess active listening, which I decided would be best focused on one at a time in class. I’ve only included a few in these samples, and here’s a sample of level A1:
And level A2:
My next step was to come up with a list of different types of tasks for each level for oral comprehension.
Listening as Oral Comprehension
Sample Tasks pre-A1
All of these tasks should incorporate everyday, familiar words, and are delivered slowly and clearly (from a French speaker’s perspective) in a clearly defined, familiar, everyday context. Visuals, gestures and repetition are used as necessary to support understanding.
- Students recognise everyday, familiar words
- Students recognise numbers, prices, dates and days of the week
- Students understand short, very simple questions and statements
Sample Tasks Level A1
All of these tasks should incorporate simple vocabulary and information, delivered slowly and clearly (from a French speaker’s perspective), Situations should be relatively predictable, familiar to the listener, and kept short and simple.
- words and expressions used in conversations about self, family, school, interests, surroundings, etc.
- conversations about a simple transaction
- information about a predictable situation (e.g. a guided tour)
- instructions and directions
- figures, prices and times
- instructions for actions
- concrete information on familiar, everyday topics
- words, names and numbers
Sample Tasks Level A2
All of these tasks should incorporate slow, clear discussion (from a French speaker’s point of view), and familiar, predictable everyday topics with clear structure and visual support where appropriate. Repetition may also be needed.
- identify the topic of a discussion
- recognise when speakers agree and disagree in a discussion
- follow main points of a social exchange
- follow the main points of a demonstration or presentation
- follow a presentation or demonstration, illustrated with slides, concrete examples or diagrams
- understand the outline of information given in a situation, such as on a guided tour, e.g. ‘This is where the President lives.’
- understand and follow a series of instructions for familiar, everyday activities such as sports, cooking, etc. provided they are delivered slowly and clearly.
- understand announcements (e.g. a telephone recording or radio announcement of a cinema programme or sports event, an announcement that a train has been delayed, or messages announced by loudspeaker in a supermarket)
- catch the main point in messages and announcements.
- understand directions relating to how to get from X to Y, by foot or public transport.
- understand instructions on times, dates and numbers etc., and on routine tasks and assignments to be carried out.
- understand the most important information contained in short radio commercials concerning goods and services of interest (e.g. CDs, video games, travel, etc.).
- understand in a radio interview what people say they do in their free time, what they particularly like doing and what they do not like doing
- understand and extract the essential information from short, recorded passages
- extract important information from short radio broadcasts, such as the weather forecast, concert announcements or sports results
- understand the important points of a story and manage to follow the plot
- identify the main point of TV news items reporting events, accidents etc. where the visual supports the commentary.
- follow a TV commercial or a trailer for or scene from a film, understanding what the actors are talking about
- follow changes of topic of factual TV news items, and form an idea of the main content
Finding additional resources
Even while using a regular program of instruction, there are many reasons to have extra listening resources that can be added to lesson plans from time to time. These can range from differentiating tasks for listening at different levels, to additional practice of a given skill or content area, a vehicle for formative assessment, or extra opportunities for students to demonstrate learning.
There are many resources available online that can be used and adapted at each level. In addition to those online sources, here are some resources I have used and adapted in my French as a second language classes, giving me more of a range of tools to support learners at a variety of levels.