The Teaching of Listening and Speaking in Large EFL Classes
PGDELT 2001 HUANG XIN
In the present EFL teaching context in my college, the teaching of listening and speaking relies heavily on the language lab or tape-recorders. It is generally agreed in China that the main reason for this is that most EFL teachers are non-native English speakers and thus may lack proficiency in English. However, in the classroom in which the tape-recorder is used frequently there are some common problems as I have observed in my teaching experience. For instance, the teacher may just manipulate the “machine,” supplemented by a few comprehension questions after the students listen to the aural material. This can hinder the intrinsic motivation of students. Normally, most of the teacher-posed questions are answered by the better students. Meanwhile, the majority of students just remain silent and listen. Some may even feel bored and sleepy. In such cases, I usually find that I cannot motivate the students in the class to participate actively in the listening lessons.
Unlike the listening class, native English speakers have been invited to teach speaking in my college. These teachers have made the speaking classroom more lively and have helped more fluent student speakers. However, I find that many students speak as poorly, if not worse, than those I taught years ago. Only the better students took the opportunities to talk in group work. And usually it was these students who spoke for most of the discussion time. These students, I think, were able to monopolize discussions for the following reasons:
- The large size of the class: Each class usually comprises 35-40 students, which is much more larger in scale than the international standard. Owing to complex reasons, the number of students cannot easily be reduced to the normal 12-15.This makes it difficult for the teacher to control the whole class in group work and to get feedback from all the students.
- Affective factors: Some extroverted students tend to be talkative and learn better in oral work, while the introverted ones remain quiet.
- Lack of interesting authentic materials: Listening materials in China depend to a large extent on the textbook. Even teachers who are very proficient in English are not encouraged to make tapes of their own for the students.
2. Reflections on Teaching Concept:
In order to enhance the speaking competence of the students in the oral communication classroom, students must have sufficient comprehensible language input, most often through language tapes. At the same time, language learning must be linked to meaningful language use on the part of the learner in the communicative classroom. The language learning experience must involve the expression of the learner’s opinions and thoughts as s/he negotiates interactively with other classmates and with the teacher.
Here personal investment is crucial. Some students in the classroom don’t take the opportunity to speak in group work or to respond actively after listening, partly because of a lack of roles to play or turns to take and partly because of affective factors. One of the major obstacles in learning to speak is the anxiety generated over the risks of blurting things out that are wrong, stupid or incomprehensible. The language ego here makes some students fearful of being judged or teased by others. Some anxiety, however, is needed because it contributes to learning in the classroom. So, teaching techniques must be very effective and practical for the teaching of both listening and speaking. They can be best achieved by integrating listening and speaking.
3. Improving Teaching Methods:
3.1.The teaching of listening:
Focusing on listening is particularly advantageous in large classes. Through proper speaking activities, such as teacher-student interactions and student-student interactions, we can get immediate feedback from the students and at the same time motivate them to listen more attentively. The following procedures are proposed in the listening classroom.
3.1.1.Pre-listening: Activity 1
Warm-up questions: This activity can be done as pair work, the goal of which is to relate students’ prior knowledge to the message they will listen to. In this case, students may lower their affective filters, and have their respective turns to speak.
3.1.2.While-listening: Activity 2
After students listen to the message once or twice, the teacher may use pauses and ask questions (using both bottom-up and top-down skills). Before asking questions, it is better to tell the students that everybody will be asked to respond. In this way, the students will listen more attentively.
3.1.3. While-listening: Activity 3
Teacher-led evaluation and self/peer evaluation can be done with the help of tape recorders or through the integration of the language skills, as described below:
(a) The teacher asks listening comprehension questions one after another; all the students answer them respectively through student microphones and simultaneously record their responses with student tape recorders. Then, the teacher can ask any student (through teacher-to- individual student calls) to play his/her tape to the class so that other students will not know who answered the question. Then, teacher-led evaluation and self/pair evaluations follow. In this manner, students learn in an uncompetitive situation, and thus lower their affective filters. Moreover, every student in a large class can get a chance to practice.
(b) Self/pair evaluation can be done through the integration of listening with writing. Some forms or blanks can be made beforehand by the teacher for the students to fill in after they listen to the tape several times. And then, ask the students to check the answers in pairs with the help of the teacher’s feedback or correction.
3.1.4.Post-listening: Activity 4
Role-plays: Ask students to take roles in listening to conversations or dialogues. Role-playing one of the speakers makes students listen more attentively to the speaker they will play. These role-plays can be practiced in pairs or groups. Such speaking performance after listening can be done in class, if time permits, or after class as homework, as required later in the task for a speaking class.
3.2.The Teaching of Speaking
In contrast to the listening class, the focus of the speaking, of course, is to improve the oral production of the students. Therefore, language-teaching activities in the classroom should aim at maximizing individual language use. This requires the teacher not only to create a warm and humanistic classroom atmosphere, but also to provide each student with a turn to speak or a role to play. Pair work and group work, therefore, are often implemented in the oral communication class. Communicative language teaching, however, does not merely mean pair/group work. Since learning and communication strategies form one of the components of communicative competence, we should spend more time teaching speaking strategies, or communication strategies. Our students need to learn not only linguistic and sociolinguistic knowledge but also how to use speaking strategies to keep conversations going.
In large EFL speaking classes, pair work and group work are often difficult to carry out effectively due to affective factors and problems of logistics. Here too, tape-recorders and role-plays come to our aid. First, we can use tapes to warm up or promote students’ pair discussion through songs, music, or sounds like whistling winds, breaking waves, and so forth. Then, we can use role-plays in class to enable each student to speak. Generally, there is in sufficient time for each group in a big class to present their role-plays to the whole class. Homework, therefore, should be assigned.
Some guidelines for lesson planning can be summed up as in the following:
- Present and explain the speaking strategies.
- In a large EFL class, speaking strategies, such as asking for clarification and using fillers in order to gain time to process, etc., can first be introduced to the students by exemplification. These strategies should be related to the topic to be discussed in class.
- Provide a topic that engages the interest of the group and is educationally enriching. Design a group task that involves some degree of discussion and uses the strategies presented and explained by the teacher related to the topic.
- Consider and specify the role each participant of the group can play in the group discussion. Clear specifications are useful in avoiding problems, such as uneven participation.
- Specify the time allotted for group discussion and presentation of group views to the class.
- Provide adequate help to the students in the form of information, guidelines, or vocabulary prior to or during the group discussion.
- Employ the following homework procedures: (a) A task implementing the above guidance should be given as homework to the students; (b) The oral group task should encourage the use of authentic language in the meaningful contexts; (c) Each group will record the oral work of its members and submit the tape signed with their names to the teacher for assessment; (d) The teacher gives feedback to the students and plays selected tapes to the class.
These guidelines can only be helpful when the teacher is more aware of the communicative nature of the teaching of speaking skills. And, I think it will be a long way before the English teachers in a non-native classroom context attain a reasonable understanding about the relationship between speaking and listening.
However, problems presented in this paper and strategies or methods proposed to improve listening and speaking teaching skills are only the results of my observation. Suggestions should be further testified in order to be made more practical in different teaching situations. And, it is my faith that an integration of listening and speaking in EFL classrooms, especially in large classes, will be more and more effective, thus more and more favorable.
- Bialystok, Ellen (1990). Communicative Strategies: A Psychological Analysis of Second-Language Use. Basil Blackwell, UK.
- Byrne, Don (1986). Teaching Oral English. Longman Handbooks for Teachers. Longman, Singapore.
- Ur, Alan (1983). Teaching Listening Comprehension. Cambridge University Press, UK.