Good listening skills are crucial for success in a foreign language. In a normal day, for example, listening is typically used twice as much as speaking, and a full four to five times more than reading and writing. Most students will quickly say that listening is difficult, if not admit that this is their weakest skill.
Students who are at the upper-intermediate or lower-advanced level can accomplish many tasks required in their personal and professional lives. They mostly have good fluency skills, although these may suffer when talking about a difficult or unfamiliar topic. They can anticipate and provide clarification, and this includes additional information for both concrete and abstract topics. And, in general, information which is presented is well structured.
As a result, many teachers find these students difficult to teach because their needs aren't as readily identifiable as beginner or lower-intermediate students. What should a teacher do with these upper-level ESL EFL learners that will further progress their skills?
Here are a few ideas:
It can be quite difficult to teach discussion-based lessons. Not only must the teacher carefully consider the material for the lesson, but must also think about language to teach, talk time, and activities. What if students aren't interested in the material, for example? Or the material is too difficult? Or the students have a contradictory opinion to what is deemed correct?
What follows is some advice for discussion-based lessons to maximize meaning-focused output with your students.
Dictation. Many view the activity as boring, lacking communicative elements, and with little enough value to offset the negative aspects. However, dictation can be used flexibly enough in the classroom, and so elements can be effectively incorporated into many activities. Consider the following:
1: Dictation can provide some example sentences with the target language. Additional examples mean students are better able to see the language pattern. They then are better able to use the target language in original sentences.
Listening proves a vital skill for success with language. As someone who lives and works in Japan, a country which yet focuses on tests and the grammar-translation method in many classrooms, many of my students desperately need access to a wide variety of activities to improve this skill.
However, even with students from other countries where a better balance of skills exists, listening can and should be viewed as an important component brought into most lessons. Each student has difficult strengths and weaknesses. For example, some students might pay less attention to details, and so misunderstand the information conveyed; others, though, might focus so intently on the details that they cannot keep pace with the listening, fall behind, and give up.
Students may need to encounter new vocabulary as often as twenty times before it enters long-term memory, and so simply using a new word a few times in a lesson proves insufficient. Of course it helps when students review the textbook and in-class printables after a lesson, but new words are typically spread across several resources, written in margins as a quick note, and without any context. As a result, students may miss some of the new words; fail to review; misunderstand because a lack of context; or even make mistakes with new words later. A vocabulary notebook can be of great benefit to students because it provides a systematic approach to recording and reviewing new words.
It's important to balance accuracy and fluency among the various stages and activities in a lesson. Both refer to the productive skills of the students. Where one focuses on getting the language right, the other focuses on getting the language out smoothly and quickly.
What is Accuracy?
Accuracy refers to the mechanics of the language. Students address and improve on the following ideas:
- Clear and articulate speaking or writing.
- Language free from grammar mistakes.
- Words spelled and/or pronounced correctly.
- Language appropriate to the situation and/or context.
Communication and language acquisition heavily depend on listening skills. Just think: With poor listening ability, you can't participate or continue a conversation. You can't follow instructions correctly if at all. Success at work, in a classroom, and elsewhere would be significantly more difficult to achieve.
But what makes listening so difficult?
Skimming and scanning are very important reading techniques. In short, skimming refers to looking through material quickly to gather a general sense of the ideas, information, or topic itself. When you skim, you read through an article three to four times faster than when you read each word. Scanning refers to reading through material to find specific information. When you scan, you run your eyes over text or information to pull out specific words, phrases, or data. For example:
Vocabulary is an important need for students. Without vocabulary, they cannot speak at all. But what does it mean to know a word? For example, if students can understand the word but can't use it in a sentence, do they really know it? Do students know the word if collocations are unknown, as well as many of the other uses the word may take? Do they know the vocabulary if they don't have a firm grasp of all the possible uses (such as develop, developer, undeveloped, and underdeveloped)?
Let's start with the foundation, the form, meaning, and use of a word. These three components make up the points required for successful vocabulary comprehension.
We strive for a balance between the four skills in our classrooms. We employ a whole language approach, teaching and reinforcing the target language, developing new skills, and improving existing skills and abilities. Yet true mastery of the language comes down to being able to speak it. In lessons that focus on speaking, we work towards maintaining a balance between fluency (getting the words out) and accuracy (using grammar and vocabulary correctly). And although we can't dismiss the other skills, namely writing and reading, we want to construct lessons that give students ample time to orally practice the language, as well as ample time to use the language freely. Below follow four steps which can serve as a lesson model for conversational classrooms with higher-level ESL learners.
Reading articles and stories provide a lot of benefits for English students of all levels. For example, students see grammar structures, encounter and acquire new vocabulary, and also see collocates with words and phrases. They get examples of how to organize information, as well as link and transition between ideas too. Lastly, students can more or less approach reading at their own pace, which may mean that they check a dictionary for a word, break down a sentence into chunks for improved comprehension, or re-read sentences and paragraphs.
A lot is required for students to successfully acquire grammar, regardless of a teacher's approach. Students often complain and/or lose interest when the teacher spends too much time on the target language, yet they will also continue to make mistakes and demonstrate poor fluency skills with the new grammar without the additional practice. Students will also continue to make mistakes with previously learned language without review. And this seems to be universally true for all levels and backgrounds of students.
The teacher should realize, though, that it often takes more than one lesson and a handful of practice exercises to successfully acquire any new grammar point. Students learn at different speeds, for example, may approach lessons with less effective learning habits, or may even possess fossilized mistakes, just to name a few possibilities that affect how quickly and effectively they acquire the new language.