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The Horror! A Listening Curriculum for English Language Learning


I've been inspired by Clare Maas' blog post, which was inspired by Dr. John Field's TEASIG/CRELLA talks, to share my shock at the listening curriculum of an intensive English program where I previously worked. To be fair, this listening curriculum was designed twenty years prior and my job was to lead faculty efforts to revise it. Unfortunately, the program went through financial difficulties and leadership changes, resulting in the "non-renewal" of most of the curriculum committee members.

Upper-Level (EAP) Listening (B2-C1)

Listening was relatively equally integrated with speaking and reading skills in one course set apart from another course that focused much more on writing. This was the case for the two highest levels for students who intended to matriculate into the university as undergraduates. The highest level was not dependent on any one coursebook, so all of the listening material had to be collected by the instructors. When I was the curriculum coordinator, I observed that most of the listening material came from YouTube with videos ranging from relatively easy TED-Ed videos to short but complex samples from documentaries, in which the listening was competing with alluring visuals and, at times, distracting background noise.

Although the content and the linguistic features were wide-ranging, the media was not. Rarely did an instructor use listening material that was not an online video, such as podcasts or other types of audio recordings. Prior to my arrival, there was a set number of videos all instructors were required by the curriculum to use in class to "develop" their listening skills. Most of these videos were selected by more senior teachers who transcribed all of them to help prepare worksheets.

Cloze or Gap Filling Worksheets

The most commonly used listening task for the highest level was cloze listening. It comprised of one sheet of paper, roughly three paragraphs, of text with a blank on an average of every other line. This one page of paper represented about three minutes of an online video the students were to watch. The requirements for the students was to fill in the blanks while the teacher played the video no more than three times. Some of these videos were only loosely tied to the courses' content, so there was very little background knowledge to activate prior to showing the video. Honestly, the curriculum did not allow for much time to activate any prior knowledge or discuss key terms. Teachers usually just jumped right in with, "Now it's time for listening!" before passing out the worksheets and giving the directions.

This activity felt like a crude interpretation of Krashen's input hypothesis: if they listen to the video enough times, they will get it. However, the students would be assessed on a completely different video for the midterm and final exam with no way to prepare. Only the senior teacher knew what the midterm and final video was going to be 24 hours prior to the exams. The only similarities between these activities and the exam activities were the task type and the theme. Sometimes the exam had a video with a much faster narrator or speaker and/or a video with a completely different format, using more colloquial speech.

What is worse is how they were assessed. Often times the word in the blank was a word not quite familiar to them or a word that was not considered a vocabulary word. However, students were penalized for misspelling the word. Most teachers went against the lead teacher when it came to being strict here, which is quite understandable, but this then made the curriculum inconsistent with students complaining about the teachers who stuck to the rules. Basically, it was a nightmare for everyone:
  • The lead teacher spent hours finding the most appropriate videos and would spend even more time transcribing them and creating these horrible cloze worksheets not because they wanted to but because it was part of the curriculum. It was how things were done for 20+ years, and some teachers believed that these were helpful.
  • The students were given very little pre-listening activities to help them prepare for the listening. Most of the time it was sink-or-swim. Feedback was mostly about not spelling the words correctly. 
  • The other teachers spent time figuring out how to make these worksheets meaningful for them. Because they did not know the cloze listening activity on the exam until the day before, they often had to find ways to make it fairer to the students if the selected video was more difficult than expected, either through proctoring or assessing. 
I don't believe this was a good use of teachers' time. So much of the teachers' time was spent selecting and transcribing the videos and then conspiring to make the videos or worksheets meaningful and accessible to their classes. Although most students disliked the cloze listening on the exams, many of them liked the cloze listening done in class because some teachers presented it like a game. Because only a few students complained about this activity, I believe nobody felt there was a reason to change it. Another reason is that some teachers saw improvement in cloze listening. Although that is possibly true because we were drilling them with cloze listening, that does not mean they were better at listening throughout.

Listening Comprehension

The cloze listening task represents the worst of the curriculum. The higher level did a much better job with listening comprehension as the task focused on identifying main ideas and key details from the listening. The lead teacher also prepared videos and comprehension questions for the other teachers, but these were much easier to modify than cloze listening to meet the needs of our students. Sometimes the cloze listening used the same video as the listening comprehension worksheets, but that was not the case in the final exam.

My only issue with the listening comprehension worksheets is that they often did not require students to apply the listening content to the other content in the course. This is could be an issue of cognitive load, but if you give students time to compare, contrast, or synthesize information between the listening and another text (listening or reading), that task type would better prepare them for undergraduate courses. Because this was the highest level course for students matriculating into undergraduate courses, I strongly suggested that we include these types of tasks as a learning outcome.

The biggest problem I had when I first arrived was that listening comprehension tasks were weighed lower than cloze listening in assessments, so most students and teachers wanted to spend more time (too much time) on those. Fortunately, I quickly convinced the curriculum committee to balance the weight and eventually, before the committee was dissolved, we had listening comprehension weighed more.

Debates

The second highest level had what I believe the most challenging listening task in the curriculum: participating in debates, which required students to listen and react to their classmates. Once in a while debates would also be in the highest level, but participating in them was a consistent learning outcome in the second highest level. The debate assignments were well designed, so the only thing horrible about this was that cloze activities were considered the more challenging listening task  according to the curriculum. Therefore the horror was in the overall structure (sequencing) of the listening curriculum.

Lower-Level (ESL) Listening (A2-B1)

The horror of the lower-level listening curriculum was the course books. The four levels below the two mentioned above had a course specifically focused on listening and speaking, and the curriculum was completely dependent on the course books. Therefore the books dictated the student learning outcomes. It made the teachers' jobs easier. In fact, most of the teachers of these courses were teaching assistants (TAs) from the Linguistics department. The horror with that is that these TAs were not learning much about ELT pedagogy other than following the book with very little oversight. The student feedback was enough to inform the IEP if they were doing a good job.

What's wrong with following coursebooks? I'm not the blogger you seek for this answer. I recommend following Geoff Jordan. You can start with his post "The lose-lose folly of coursebook consumption."

What I dislike from the listening tasks from most coursebooks is most of their recordings. Admittedly, they are better than when I first used them decades ago. I dislike the over-rehearsed speech, the inauthentic situations, the bland humor, and the price students have to pay for it. I'm totally against using them myself, but I'm not totally against using them for a program. I just urge teachers not to depend on them. Playing audio recordings are a great opportunity for teachers to disengage from the class, which is a great temptation for overworked or lazy teachers. There may be fewer options for EFL teachers, but when you work at a university, there are plenty of ways for students to access more authentic listening practice.

So for the lower levels, the horror is that the listening curriculum is the course book for the lower levels. Easy prep, easy grade, and a pathway set for an unrewarding dehumanizing career if that's what you think teaching is all about.

Solutions

In-service teacher training or professional development
When I brought up the weaknesses of the listening curriculum a year ago, it was evident that the teachers needed to know more about teaching listening. My first step was finding a book that included both theory and practical advice, and I found that in Vandergrift & Goh's Teaching and Learning Second Language Listening: Metacognition in Action.

Many of the teachers admitted only having a limited scope of teaching listening because the curriculum had been limited for so long. I wanted to invite a guest speaker and develop a workshop for creating better listening materials and exercises for the students. Perhaps Dr. John Field would have been a great guest as Clare mentioned in her blog post.

Critical pedagogy
Of course, the biggest hurdle for me was to encourage critical pedagogy especially against the dependence on coursebooks and the previously inflexible curriculum. This would not only change the listening curriculum but the entire curriculum that needs to be carefully monitored by the faculty and an expert in curriculum design and/or research-informed practices.

Action research
Inspired by Richard Smith's work, the program should encourage and support teachers to develop action research projects to investigate the efficacy of the listening curriculum. Teachers can help determine which activities have the best results over the short and long terms. Among other things, they can also determine what listening materials are most suitable for the students. There are many ways teachers can help inform the curriculum through their own research, but they should start by reviewing the literature.



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