We listen to or read a massive amount of text every day and - whether you believe it or not – we almost always have a reason for doing so. The amount of times we genuinely just hear things without any kind of thought process being triggered, without any kind of expectation, evaluation, is tiny.
We meet texts with expectations – from those as mundane as “what platform is my train leaving from?” in the case of departure boards, to interpreting a cryptic message from someone we have feelings towards for any evidence of reciprocation or gentle rejection. We process these texts with these expectations in mind and these expectations in a very real way help us to make sense of the texts we are confronted with.
This can be tested with a simple thought experiment. Imagine you are asked to sit in on a lecture and afterwards you will be given a test of some unspecified kind. You do not know the topic of the talk, or the kind of thing you will be expected to do in response to it as part of the subsequent test.
How comfortable will you be during the talk? How confident will you be that you are “understanding” what you hear in a useful way? How well do you think you will perform in the subsequent test? How accurate a reflection of your actual listening ability will the result be?
The chances are you will feel extremely uncomfortable, not have any faith that what you are paying attention to is really the target of the latter tests, your result on those tests will likely be low, and even if they are reasonable, this will be a result of pure chance.
It follows, therefore, that if we want our learners to have useful and realistic opportunities to become better listeners or readers in a foreign language, it will help if we give them a reason for listening.
Texts, tasks, tricks and talk
For basic receptive skills (reading and listening) work, we need to account for three things:
TEXTS. Without these, there is nothing to read or listen to.
TASKS. These are the students’ reason for listening or reading.
TRICKS This is language in the story that the learners may need to know to do the tasks or not to get confused in general.
TALK. This is the learners’ chance to respond to the human level of the text in a personal way.
Let’s look at each of these in turn in a bit more detail.
A reading or listening text need not be long – in fact, the shorter a text is, the potentially more useful in class it may be. Short texts can be revisited frequently, thus providing learners with repetitive exposure to language and greater opportunities to focus their reading of or listening to the text to adjust for the parts of it towards which they need more attentiveness. In other words, shorter texts provide more bites at the cherry.
In concrete terms, a 2-3 minute oral text or a 200 word written text are often more than enough to provide a useful challenge, assuming they are stimulating and appropriately graded in terms of linguistic complexity.
What makes a stimulating text, though? Well, there are two general tips: keep it real and keep it personal.
Keeping it real means making sure the content of the text relates to real life as the learners understand it. Look for stories affecting the learners’ lives, or touching on their interests, or related to their view of life (which is different from concording with their view of life). Contrived texts about fictitious characters are much more difficult to care sufficiently about to pay attention to them.
Keeping it personal means – within reason – sharing stories from your own life. Your learners are generally extremely interested in you, whether they say so or not, and leveraging this interest by sharing personal stories is a simple and effective way of showing them implicitly that language is not an academic exercise.
Note here we are talking about personal stories, not intimate ones. An example of a personal story could be the following:
I was waiting for the train home one evening and I was feeling quite hungry, so I stopped off at an Asian takeaway and ordered some food. The place was very busy and the person after me ordered the same thing. I decided to eat in, so I took a seat and waited. A few minutes later I got my food and started eating. When I finished, I was getting ready to leave but realised that the cashier had not asked me to pay before I got my meal. I realised that I had the opportunity – if I wanted to take it – to get away with not paying for the meal…
I gave it some thought. The place was busy and my 5 Euros were a fraction of the business coming through the doors. On the other hand, I knew that if the cash register did not add up later, someone might have the missing sum docked from their wages. I also felt guilt at the thought that I was even considering not paying. I had got a good meal and I should pay for it… I reached a decision, and stood up.
I left the shop without paying, saying goodbye and heading home. I tried to make myself feel better by saying they would have kept the money if they had overcharged me, but I still slept very badly. I was disappointed in myself, I had let myself down. Next day, on the way to work, I went to the shop and told the cashier what had happened the day before and that I owed her money. I paid and left, and I am sure she was very surprised. I felt a lot better though!
Interesting story, likely to spark some interest and responses in listeners, but it isn’t useful for learning yet. We need some reasons for listening.
Taking the story above, we could use the following as an initial listening task:
Listen to the following story and tell me:
1) Where I was when the story happened. (Answer: at a takeaway café)
2) What problem I had. (Answer: I needed to decide whether to leave without paying my bill or not)
These tasks could accompany the story up to the point “…I reached a decision, and stood up”
After these two tasks were checked, the learners could be asked to predict whether I simply left or if I paid. They could share their ideas and try to justify them. These predictions then become the reason for listening to the remainder of the story.
It is no good having engaging tasks if the learners can’t understand the text, however, so it is time to consider what tricks are present.
The story itself could be used with almost any level of learner, but in its current form it has a lot of lexis which may be unfamiliar: in the version above, I have highlighted a lexical set relating to commercial transactions. I could clarify these before I told the story, or I could clarify them as I went along. There are other sets in the story too: phrasal verb sets (stop off; eat in; take away; get away with; add up; let someone down) for example.
The point is, we need to review how we are planning to phrase the texts we use in class, so that we can prepare to help learners manage its linguistic challenge and to exploit this later for language focus.
While the story is personal to me, at its heart is a more general and universally accessible theme: the challenge of doing the right thing. Our learners can certainly relate to that, and were probably having internal conversations with themselves while they were listening (or reading – as this could just as easily be used as a written text). Now might be a good time to exploit this engagement by asking students to talk about this broader theme.
Here are a couple of possible speaking tasks that learners could do in connection to this theme:
- Role-play various situations similar to the one told in the story (two people in a cafe, one wants to sneak out without paying; the other is resistant; conversation between me and my flatmate, who can’t understand why I am feeling bad about leaving without paying)
- Discussion questions: a) have you ever left somewhere without paying or seen anyone else doing it? Was it accidental? How did you feel afterwards? b) do you think society is more or less selfish these days?
Ways in, ways through and ways out
These ideas are workable, but they need to be strung together loosely to make a lesson. So we need a way in, a way through, and a way out.
Ways in are simple starting points for your lesson to transport your learners from wherever they are mentally to the starting point of your story. Ways through are clear and elegant segues between stages, and ways out are there to help you bring the whole thing to a rounded close.
Putting it all together
Here is a very loose framework for the lesson sketched out above, including ideas for doing each of these things:
Way in: ask students to brainstorm 5 local places to get food quickly, typical meals, prices and when these places are most busy.
Pre-teaching lexis: While discussing these, take opportunities to clarify and check lexical items such as pay, cashier, register etc.
Transition to first listening task: tell students “I want to share a story with you that happened to me in a place like this on the way home from work last week. I had a problem there connected with paying for my food, and I want your help. Listen to the story and find the answer to these two questions (on board).
Task 1: tell the story, allow learners to compare answers, tell story again, collect ideas. If disagreement, tell relevant section of story again to allow fresh “bite at the cherry”.
Transition to second task: chat about the dilemma. Say “what do you think I did?” ask learners to form predictions ad justify them. Collect on board.
TASK 2: tell remainder of story. Allow learners to reflect on whose predictions were correct.
Tricks (optional): perhaps use the transcript to explore some of the trickier language in context – in other words, a language focus stage using the text as the context).
Transition to talk: Ask students “what would you have done? Do you think I did the right thing? (or any other task from above). Collect examples of language used by learners during these conversations.
Way out: Listen to learners responses to the talk tasks and explore examples of the language they used with them on the board. Ask them to write a summary of/response to the lesson and email it to you. Thank learners and close lesson.