By Allistair Elliott
“Listening is the most critical communication skill”.
Harmer on listening (briefly)
Let’s look at what some of the heavy hitters in EFL have to say about listening. Jeremy Harmer states, “The way that teachers talk to students…is one of the crucial teacher skills, but it does not demand technical expertise. It does, however, require teachers to empathise with the people they are talking to by establishing a good rapport with them”. (Harmer, How to Teach English, 2nd edition, p 37). Rapport develops partially through the concept of “rough-tuning”, through which the teacher and the student can begin to understand each other. Experienced teachers (my emphasis), he says, rough tune as a matter of course.
Newer teachers (my emphasis) need to focus a bit and learn. (ibid, p 38). After a brief summary of Teacher Talk Time (TTT) versus Student Talk Time (STT), in which STT is favored over TTT, Harmer says that “Good TTT may [however] have beneficial qualities, … Such comprehensible input … is an important feature in language acquisition”. (ibid p38).
Thornbury on Listening (briefly)
In Scott Thornbury’s blog A – Z of ELT, the post “Z is for zero uncertainty” (https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2011/07/31/z-is-for-zero-uncertainty/) models a hypothetical listening sequence in which “the structure is pure textbook”. His comment about this “pure textbook” listening sequence is well worth referencing in full.
“Can we say, hand on heart, that this very superficial treatment of spoken texts has improved their listening skills one jot? For a start, by activating their top-down processing skills (world knowledge, predictive abilities, etc) and by setting only the easiest of gist checking questions, the learners have been so cushioned against having to engage with the language in the text at anything but the most superficial level that it’s very difficult to see how such a sequence prepares them for real-life listening at all, let alone teaches them anything new about the language”.
In a reply to a reader’s question below the line (BTL), Thornbury adds, “Finally, the point about ‘zero uncertainty’ is that … the best judges of whether they have ‘understood’ the text are surely the learners themselves. It’s the teacher’s job, therefore, to mediate [my emphasis] their understanding up to the point when they, as a group, can say, ‘Yes, we got it!’ In terms of shedding light, the coursebook tasks are the equivalent of opening the blinds a chink. I suspect most learners would like the windows thrown wide open!”
Krashen on Listening (briefly)
Finally, let’s take a brief look at Krashen’s listening approach of ‘listening as acquisition’.
“Krashen proposed the comprehensible input hypothesis which states that people acquire language best by understanding input that is slightly beyond their current level of competence”. Regional Language Centre Journal 36.1, 2005, p88 retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/249768854_Second_Thoughts_on_Teaching_Listening 2018). Ricardo Schütz offers a commendable summary and discussion of acquisition according to Krashen at https://www.sk.com.br/sk-krash-english.html. He begins by citing Krashen saying that the best methods supply “’comprehensible input’ in low anxiety situations, containing messages that students really want to hear” and that “in the real world, conversations with sympathetic native speakers who are willing to help the acquirer understand are very helpful.”
Classroom listening as it is.
So then, we are left to wonder why our learners should need to leave the classroom in search of sympathetic native speakers to help them understand and acquire their second language. Jeremy Harmer tells us that simple human empathy, rather than technical knowledge, enables experienced teachers to tune in to what is comprehensible. This helps establish low anxiety rapport as recommended by Krashen.
Rapport should lead to discovering what learners want to hear as well as understanding how simple our teacher talk should be and how much it should stretch. Thornbury points to the problem of listenings fostered by textbooks. Textbook listenings are written to a seemingly generic formula.
They dogmatically follow a template, even if this template ill-prepares the student for real-life listening. Inevitably when the student encounters a real-life listening situation, it is frequently embarrassing and highly stressful for our students. Textbooks have no empathy for learners and no rapport is to be found in the favoured yet tedious topics like family, food, school, shopping and fashion. These listening sequences and gist checking questions, Thornbury says, preclude learners from engaging with the language except superficially.
The perceived tyranny of TTT
The pros and cons of TTT are nicely documented in this useful British Council article. https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/teacher-talking-time And yet it’s the cons that dominate. TTT is most often juxtaposed as interfering with STT. As the above article is so quick to point out, “Excessive TTT limits the amount of STT. If the teacher talks for half the time in a 60-minute lesson with 15 students, each student gets only 2 minutes to speak. (ibid) Right?
So, in this class, there is simply a wall of incessant talk, whereby if the teacher is not talking, then the students immediately do so. Hmmm. In a further British Council article from a teacher trainer, we get the following; “Of course, there is teacher talking time (TTT) that can benefit students in the form of teacher demonstrations, conveying meaning and telling anecdotes”. However, they are as nothing compared to the myriad of different ways that TTT “…can leak out in many small, often unnoticed,ways”.
https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/english-teachers-are-you-talking-too-much-class Like trying to empathise with students by talking to them perhaps? Harmer also says that, “if a teacher talks and talks, (my emphasis) the students will have less time for other things, too, such as reading and writing. For these reasons, a good teacher maximises STT and minimizes TTT”. p38 Harmer.
Well, yes, but there are two problems here. Firstly, it’s over-dramatic. Clearly if a teacher “talks and talks”, there is an issue, but what if a teacher just talks, you know, like in a normal conversation where authentic language is exchanged? Isn’t this the goal? Secondly, and most obviously, missing from the list of skills above, is the skill of listening. Yes, if the teacher reduces TTT then there is more time for writing and reading, but there is of course less time for listening too. And this might be creating a big problem in our classes.
Classroom listening as it could be – (Note to supervisors, it’s there in the literature already!)
So how do we get to a better, possibly more “humanistic” approach to in-class listening as suggested by Thornbury at https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2011/03/27/h-is-for-humanistic-approaches/? Harmer offers this. “Perhaps, therefore, we should not simply talk about the difference between STT and TTT, but also consider TTQ (Teacher Talk Quality)”. Teachers who “go on and on” are not acceptable. “Whereas teachers who engage students with their stories and interaction, using appropriate comprehensible input will be helping them to understand and acquire the language”. P38 Harmer. Most notably, Harmer continues that, “…it is worth remembering that successful spoken communication depends not just on our ability to speak, but also on the effectiveness of the way we listen”. P133 Harmer.
So, if the goal is to improve our students’ English and Harmer proposes Teacher Talk Quality, then, I propose that we expand on Harmer’s emphasis of “successful spoken communication” to more directly support the goal of improving our students’ spoken English communication. Let’s subordinate Harmer’s Teacher Talk Quality to the promotion of Quality Student Listening Time (QSLT). While granting that teachers ought to be mindful of their TTT and TTQ, our target should be to exercise and strengthen the listening skill for interpersonal communication. QSLT would place TTT and TTQ into support of classroom talk, targeting genuine interaction that has rapport, that is comprehensible, that engages real interests, offers good models, and invites genuine and authentic responses.
“One of the main sources of listening for students is the voice of the teacher”. P133 Harmer. However, in Asia, the voice of the Native English Teacher (NET) is often the only source of live speaking / listening interaction. To restrict this dynamic due to supervisory zeal or trained understanding, might be severely reducing our student’s chances to acquire genuine English communication ability. We need to break the apparently fixed belief that TTT is simply bad because it reduces STT. This completely ignores the fact that it clearly reduces listening time (and thinking time too for that matter).
So, we, as teachers, need to make the case for good quality TTT in the service of good Quality Student Listening Time. To do so, can only benefit our students, strengthen the position of us as teachers and improve EFL, as a whole.
Harmer, How to Teach English, 2nd edition
Regional Language Centre Journal 36.1, 2005 at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/249768854_Second_Thoughts_on_Teaching_Listening 2018).