TESOL 2015: Achieving Balanced Listening Instruction

Every TESOLer at the convention hopes to attend sessions with a lot of take-away. Beth Sheppard of the University of Oregon didn’t disappoint anyone. Making every minute of her 45-minute session informative, she raised our awareness of the need to provide more balanced listening instruction for our students.

Just what is balanced listening instruction? First of all, it begins with seeing listening instruction as a process rather than placing emphasis on the product: comprehension. Beth reminded us that listening is a difficult yet essential skill, and failure to comprehend increases anxiety. Competition can take place inside the learner’s mind. As Beth explains, what gets heard leads to several possible interpretations, which then compete with one another.

So how can we facilitate the listening process? Beth highlighted Vandergrift’s Process Approach, which starts with planning and predicting. Then after three stages of verification, listeners move into reflection, where strategies are discussed and goals are set. However, Beth recommends one more step in the process.  In the Appropriation Stage, as she calls it, students are given the chance to manipulate or extend language so that they can truly make the language their own.

What exactly should we aim to balance in our listening instruction? It’s more complex than just process vs. product. We balance bottom-up and top-down processes. We balance extended and focused listening. We recognize that uncertainty needs to be countered with motivation. The right degree of challenge must be balanced with opportunities for success. I especially appreciated how Beth stressed the need to balance explicit instruction and learner autonomy. Our students do need some metacognitive strategies taught directly, and to that end we might employ listening diaries for guided reflection. At the same time, our students need opportunities to struggle and work through the listening process. Do we jump in too soon with hints? The Process Approach encourages non-intervention, allowing instruction to be student-centered and student-directed.

As far as listening styles go, it’s important for students to have some extensive practice, not always listening intensively or selectively. Beth characterized extensive listening as easy and enjoyable. The language should be at or below a learner’s level to remove the pressure of comprehension. Also, we can design our lessons to incorporate interactive listening, where students listen to responses in interviews or group work.

Similarly, we need to achieve a balance among the different practice types: language-focused, meaning-focused, strategy-building, and fluency-building. Students’ needs will vary, so “balanced instruction” doesn’t mean 50/50 when considering two aspects or two formats. Our students’ needs should guide our decisions in lesson design.

One activity Beth addressed was dictation. We’ve all used this form of practice, but what would make it most beneficial for the learner? Beth explained that she dictates at a natural pace, choosing a length that’s level appropriate. She might also create a single gap, purposefully targeting an unknown word, which forces students to guess and find the missing word based on their knowledge of orthography and the context. Indeed, this very form of practice mimics the real life need to make sense of unfamiliar words.

Among the other activities shared was the use of transcripts, in which a text might intentionally include errors that need to be corrected or blanks that aren’t really needed. Those features in transcript activities can actually build confidence as students learn to trust their skills.

Many thanks to Beth for sharing her helpful insights and teaching tips! She welcomes comments and also collaboration. For private inquiries, you can write to me and I’ll put you in touch with Beth. (All comments are private until approved for public view.)

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