Questioning

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Note: For a while now, I’ve wanted to do a series of posts for TESL certificate students and recent graduates. This is the first of what I hope to be a series of articles focused on some foundational skills needed in being an English language instructor.

When I was nine, we got our first computer at home. My brother ordered a Sinclair ZX-80 from the UK and it was a beautiful thing. This thin, white masterpiece of British engineering had 1KB of RAM and no internal storage. Instead, it used cassette tapes for loading and saving programs, which could take up to an hour to load.

I loved it. I was determined to write my own programs and make my millions as a computer programmer. I read through the manual on Sinclair BASIC and played around with simple programs before setting off on my ambitious plan of writing a computer game I could sell. After thinking about it for while (probably 10 minutes), I settled on the name Tank Wars. I wasn’t sure of the details at that point, but I knew it would involve tanks moving around the screen and shooting at one another. Yeah. A winner for sure.

Fast-forward a few years later and Tank Wars still hadn’t gotten off of the ground. I had made some progress, but due to a number of issues, I just couldn’t make it work. Eventually I gave up. Thankfully, it wasn’t a complete loss. I learned a good deal about programming and realized it wasn’t the path for me. I also learned a whole lot about careful planning.In programming, you need to specify what you would like the computer to do every step of the way. When you start thinking about Tank Wars for example, I needed to determine things such as how many players there would be, the size and shape of the tanks, the limits on movement, scoring, and so on. It seemed like every time I would answer one question, three more would pop up.

Jump forward to today and you may find that some of those lessons learned are being applied in an area I never anticipated would happen when I was a young programmer with aspirations on my future career in computers. Surprisingly, lesson activity planning is not that much different from writing a computer program. Let me illustrate with an listening activity idea I ran across in the book Teaching and Learning Second Language Listening: Metacognition in Action by Larry Vandergrift and Christine C. M. Goh.

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If you’ve been teaching for a while, especially in a situation where you’ve needed to use an ELT coursebook, you’ve likely run an activity like this before. While the activity itself seems fairly straightforward, there are a number of variables that need to be considered first before it makes it to the classroom. Let’s start at the top.

Step one: What are we attempting to accomplish with an activity like this? Does it have any merit as a language learning activity?

These should always be the first questions asked. If there isn’t any real value pedagogically in an activity, it seems fairly obvious that we shouldn’t be considering it in the classroom. In this case, there is general support for activities that include listening to and processing information. There are also some indirect benefits for lexical, pronunciation, and pragmatic items.

In this specific activity, I want my students to be able to understand information found in various texts. It is easier for a language learner to spot the same vocabulary or phrases in various texts, but are they able to determine if the information is being used in the same way. For example, in one text, the speaker may be using negative language to show their displeasure with a particular topic, while the other text may be approaching it from a position of support. It is the surrounding language that helps us determine this along with bias, genre, and other informational items. By having them pull out the various pieces, it helps us as instructors to see what are students are able to process from the listening and we can then support them in developing their listening skills.

Step two: What does it look? Who is involved? What are the participants going to do?

This is an obvious second step in that we need to know what happens during the activity. Without a general outline, how are we going to be able to determine the various steps ourselves and our students are going to take while doing this activity?

In this particular activity, I have decided to use two different listening texts so as to not overwhelm my students and discourage them from finishing the task. I want them to have some support since some people will be able to finish the activity quite easily, while others will take more time to complete it. I don’t want some students sitting on the sidelines while others complete the task, so I’ve decided to have them do this activity in pairs.

Firstly, one student will listen to audio file A and the other student will listen to audio file B. While they listen, they will make a list of the important information from that text. Next, they will compare their chart with their partner’s, completing a graphic organizer that has things that are just in audio file A, things that are just in audio file B, and those that are in both. Students then switch and listen to file they haven’t listened to and check the information on the graphic organizer to see if there is anything they would add, change, or delete. They then present those findings with another group.

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Step three: What happens if there is an odd number of students? How are you going to pair them up?

This is common situation that needs to be determined before you walk into the classroom. Some changes to the way things are planned might make it more difficult/easier for a group, make one or more member miss out on completing the task properly, or might make a task too long and the rest of the class is left waiting.

In this activity, if I have one group of three try to complete the task as is, two students would have to listen to the same audio file making it easier for both of them. One students might just sit back and let the other teammate do the work for them. The other student will end up doing more work than the other two. This is possible, but not ideal.

The other option is to add a third listening. If we follow the instructions as we had them written up before, this will add more time for this group and the other students would have to wait for them to complete the task. To make this happen, we would have to change the task just slightly. We would have one students listen to audio file A, one listen to audio file B, and one listen to audio file C. They would then add their information to a slightly revised graphic organizer to reflect the third listening text. They would then rotate which file they listen to next (A->B; B->C; C->A). They would then join another group and share their findings.

To pair them up, we could use a group randomizer of some sort, but since I said I wanted students to have some support, I would likely choose the pairings based on those who I feel or know are stronger listeners and place them with weaker ones. I have to be careful when doing this so as to not have students think that is what is actually happening so as to not discourage them. I might do a pair task before this that won’t show the differences and then keep them in their pairings for this activity. It is something to consider before I step into the classroom.

Step four: Where will I get the audio files from? How long will they be? What happens if one file is longer than the other? How will I have them listen to the files?

This is always tricky and really depends on the level of the students you have in your class, the content of the audio, the speed, the lexical density, the length of the file, and what you want your students to do with it. Some audio files are created specifically for the language classroom (e.g. coursebook audio files), and some are not (e.g. radio news).

In this situation, I’ve decided on using two news reports on the same event or topic, but from very different geographic locations. I hope that the report will show a difference based on the importance of that event for each location. I will need to also find a third report in case I have a group of three. My hope is to find videos that are roughly the same length and level of difficulty, which may prove to be tricky. I am think that 1 minute is a bit short and 5 minutes is a bit long, so somewhere in the 2-4 minute range will be perfect. By choosing news reports from traditional media outlets, the level of difficulty should be roughly the same.

By finding online videos or audio files, I can have students access them on their computers, tablets, or phones if possible. I make sure my students know to bring in their own headphones at the start of the semester, so this should make it easier for them to listen on their own.

Step five: What happens if they don’t understand some of the content? Should I be preparing students for the listening task?

This is a difficult one to answer. Some experts say we shouldn’t be preparing students before a listening task and some say it depends on what you are doing. No matter who you talk with, there is a consensus that students do need some sort of scaffolding (i.e. support) to help them complete a task. Without it, students are going in without the tools to complete the activity which defeats the purpose of doing it. In other words, it is a balancing act that requires some work by the instructor ahead of time to figure out a path that will lead students to being pushed just enough to learn, but with the tools needed to help them complete it.

In this situation, I’ve decided to give students the topic of the listening ahead of time so they can research it a bit on their own. This includes reading or listening to news on this topic or event in their own language. They will then have the basic content knowledge to help fill in some of the linguistic blanks as they listen to the two audio files I have assigned them during the activity.

Step six: How will I help them retain what they have learned in this task? How will it help them with their future learning?

In language learning, it is important that students have the opportunity to recycle and apply what they have learned in a variety of situations. They should be given an opportunity to make connections to other areas of learning and be given the tools to do this on their own. Since I only have them in my class for a fraction of the time each week, it is important that students take ownership in their learning and that means they should be guided in ways that they can move the learning outside of the classroom.

In this activity, I want them to become aware of the importance of listening for keywords to help them identify bias and tone. To do this, I will follow up with a discussion and future activities that will help them become more aware of these lexical clues and ways in which they can be used in their speech and writing. Since I teach in an EAP environment, I want my students to become better academic writers and presenters since this is what they will be required to do once they complete our program. This type of task is a good way to introduce the idea of tone and bias which we can then extend into other areas in future classes.

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