Theoretical evidence in decision making and lesson planning in B2 listening classes
By Vassiliki Lismani
Listening, along with reading, is categorized as a receptive language skill. Sharing their common fate, listening and reading are also considered secondary skills giving prominence to writing and speaking. Nunan (1997) describes listening in particular as “the Cinderella skill in second language learning” (para 1). Educators seem to be less interested in implementing effective instruction to develop their students’ listening skills as if it came as naturally as L1 listening ability (Siegel, 2014; Flowerdrew & Miller, 2012).
The aforementioned misunderstanding can go to the extremes as students reach B2 level. This is the time when teachers should ‘prove’ their effectiveness and students their abilities. It is also the turning point when some teachers start focusing on exam preparation material and test – like conditions resulting to negative washback effect. In reality, they just turn a blind eye to the never ending need to enrich and promote their students listening skills. However, despite the demands of the level and the anxiety caused by the forthcoming exams, listening tasks should be designed to provide a learner not a teacher or an exam centred environment. Such tasks should allow students to be “actively involved in structuring and restructuring their understanding of the language and in building their skills in using the language” (Nunan, 1997, para 11).
As CEFR Companion Volume with New Descriptors (Council of Europe, 2018) clearly states, reception is related to “receiving and processing input, activating what are thought to be appropriate schemata in order to build up a representation of the meaning being expressed and a hypothesis as to the communicative intention behind it” (p. 54). An effective B2 listening lesson plan should be not deviate from these directives. It should be established on the idea that students can become more competent listeners if they are prepared accordingly. This preparation can be twofold related to acquiring the necessary background concept knowledge and being able to apply certain strategies to deal with the task at hand. Engaging input is of paramount importance as well because it arouses students’ curiosity and encourages them to be more concentrated during the task. The aforementioned factors aim to turn listening into an engaging and manageable task but also promote effective autonomous listeners and not successful B2 exam takers.
The pre – listening stage should be viewed through the top – down approach based on the activation of prior knowledge and the implementation of specific strategies (Goh & Taid, 2018, p. 224). Comprehensible listening is to a great extend due to the conceptual knowledge available in the listener’s system of concepts (Rost, 2011). Therefore, “activating an appropriately related schema allows the listener to make inferences that are essential to comprehending a text.” (ibid, p.59).
Moreover, it is particularly useful if the teacher familiarizes learners with “approaches and techniques that are likely to be effective in accomplishing a task or a goal” (Goh & Taib, 2018, p. 223) and through practice can be automatically implemented in any future task. Prediction can be particularly useful especially if it is combined with “pair discussions, and post listening – reflections” (Goh & Taib, 2018, p. 224) which check, confirm or reject the original predictions (Yeldham, 2016; Siegel, 2018). The expected results of the aforementioned practices (schemata activation, prediction) can be optimized if they are modeled by the teachers through a think aloud process (Goh & Taib, 2018; Siegel, 2018).
The while – listening stage stands in the core of any listening task although it should be evident from what has been discussed so far that the learners can achieve very few at this stage if the pre – listening stage is not well organized. It is very important that the listeners are aware of the demands and expectations of the particular task, what is described as “task knowledge” (Goh & Taid, 2018, p. 223). For example, most B2 level listening tasks are related to the comprehensible approach in listening according to which students are asked to respond to comprehension questions (mainly in the form of multiple -choice tasks) or fill in the gaps retrieving information from the listening text (Siegel, 2018) through a process of “auditory scanning” (Field, 2008, p. 59).
Among a number of reservations related to this approach (ibid.), it is asserted that it does not foster learners’ listening development but merely indicates the current level of listening skills (Siegel, 2018). However, despite these objections it could be argued that if this level derives from the consistent practice of certain techniques (like predicting), then it can be considered as an indicator of learners’ development. Apparently, discussing the validity of their original predictions and reflecting on their success will make students feel more motivated and self-confident (Goh & Taib, 2018). In the case of less competent listeners, providing the transcript at this stage can support the reflection process.
There are two more parameters which can determine the structure of the while – listening stage. First, there are voices supporting the idea that despite learners’ level, their problems related to listening tasks are mainly speech rate and distraction. Therefore, providing extra practice in actual listening could be more helpful to “develop listening skill and automaticity in processing oral language.” (Renandya & Farrell, 2011, p. 54). Thus, watching authentic videos can offer students the opportunity for extra practice. Additionally, appropriate input like TED Talks can connect adolescents with their community as an integral part of the learning process introducing social issues and addressing them with a more critical eye. Foucault (1984, in Pèrez, 2017) suggests that social learning in EFL classes “means questioning reality, raising awareness, transforming self and rewriting the world” (p. 151).
For the post listening stage, integration of skills can be the key to consolidate the acquired content knowledge. On the top of that it makes classroom listening activity more realistic as in real life we always do something with the auditory input. It is not about listening for the sake of listening but listening and keeping notes in order to expand later on in the form of a report, an article or an essay. Providing our B2 students with the opportunity to deal with a social issue through interaction and collaboration (Oxford, 2001) we support their overall cognitive linguistic development. For example, engaging our students to a debate is considered highly beneficial for its interactive mode since according to Vygotsky’s theory, interaction is a prerequisite to linguistic and cognitive development but also develops their critical thinking skills (Želježič, 2017). It is evident that students who develop critical thinking through meaningful tasks like evaluating different perspectives and become more proficient language users. (Shirkhani & Fahim, 2011).
To sum up, exam preparation classes can cause lots of anxiety both to teachers and students. Focusing on exam preparation material in an endless testing - checking – grading process would not benefit our students neither as test takers nor as independent learners. Schemata – building and adequate knowledge of social issues, and listening strategies can help reach the level not of B2 exam taker but B2 language learner.
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