Protected: Program Design: Principles

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Program Design Posts and Passwords

Dear readers,

I have had a few emails about the recent Program Design posts, asking why they are password protected.

The answer is that I’m trying to design a new program at our university, with input from colleagues. The blog is the best way to communicate. As these are internal documents, it seemed best to keep them private.

I have a large amount of professional and personal stuff going on at the moment, but I do hope to get back to some regular blogging in the second half of the year.

I’m sorry for any disappointment I may have caused.



Protected: Program Design: Needs-based Goals

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Protected: Program design: Setting goals

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Protected: Program Design: An Introduction

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What do my students think about English?

This is a very quick post to explore some answers to a survey that I gave my students in the first week of classes this semester. It might also link nicely to the recent #keltchat, “Just who are my students anyway?

I asked my students to complete the sentences below using a Google form. 52 of them submitted answers.

  1. In the past, learning English made me feel…  because
  2. In the future, I would like to use English to…
  3. Things I do well in English are…
  4. In this class, I want to work on the following abilities:
  5. The following activities will be useful for developing my English:

Here follows a very rough analysis of the results.

1. In the past, learning English made me feel…  because

Generally positive answers: 16.

Typical statements: Lots of talk here about learning new things and enjoying learning languages. Also contact with “foreigners” and English speaking culture, mostly movies and music. A couple of students talking about how being good at English made them feel proud.

My thoughts: Nice to see that enjoying languages hasn’t been totally beaten out of them by the school system, but not a whole lot of surprise here, and about the number of positive responses that I would have expected.

Answers about feeling shy or scared: 8.

Typical statements: Two main factors here – pressure of getting good grades, and not being good at English. One poor student got railroaded into a fairytale narration competition by their elementary school teacher and clearly still resents it. I don’t blame them.

My thoughts: Perhaps a lower number than I’d expect, and surprisingly no mention of fear of talking to foreigners.

Negative reactions (anger, frustration): 15.

Typical statements: Lots of talk about memorization here, presumably of the never-ending-vocab list kind. Also lots of mentions of the complexity of English (a four-dimensional language according to one respondent).

My thoughts: I wonder if anyone ever gives any of these kids any support in memorizing words, or techniques to help them memorize them?

Apathetic reactions (boredom, tiredness): 13.

Typical statements: Boredom seems mostly to come from students not understanding. Only one mention of boring teaching.

My thoughts: I don’t blame you at all, and a good message to me not to talk too much or at too high a level.


2. In the future, I would like to use English to…

First answers*

  • Talk with foreigners or people from other countries**: 24
  • Travel: 10
  • Work: 10
  • Cultural things (reading, watching movies): 5
  • Teaching others: 2
  • Studying: 1

My thoughts: Very interesting that answers are predominantly about social and leisure activities rather than more self developmental pursuits (studying and working). This would seem to indicate that my students have a good deal of curiosity about the world and its people, which is really healthy. However, I wonder what effect my presence has on these answers, and whether they would be the same with a Korean teacher. It might also be interesting that testing and test scores never make an appearance.

* Some students gave more than one answer, but I took the first as being the most important and only included that.

** Very few students specified “native English speakers” or “Americans” here.


3. Things I do well in English are…

First answers

  • Listening: 14
  • Reading: 12
  • Speaking: 9
  • Writing: 6
  • Nothing: 2
  • Others (vocab, interest, presentation): 9

My thoughts: Once again my students are confounding my expectations. I would neither have expected listening to outrank reading, nor speaking to score so highly. The students who said speaking tended to say they enjoyed conversation with foreigners (and had had some experience of it), and also that they were not very worried about grammar or accuracy when they were speaking. I would guess that this doesn’t fit most people’s profile of a typical Korean student. I wonder what this means, if anything, for my classes. Another thing that I wonder here is whether these answers would be the same had I surveyed the first groups I taught three years ago.


4. In this class, I want to work on the following abilities:

First answers

  • Speaking: 27 (plus 2 for “communication” and 1 for “pronunciation” which might take it to 30) .
  • Writing: 4
  • Listening: 4
  • Confidence: 4
  • Presentation skills: 4
  • Grammar: 3
  • Reading: 1
  • Vocabulary: 1
  • Weak points and error correction: 1

My thoughts: Not a huge amount of surprise here. I think almost all students recognise that their speaking skills may lag behind others as a result of well documented problems with Korea’s English education and its focus on (obsession with?) receptive skills and formal knowledge. This gives me a lot of confidence that a strong focus on speaking is both necessary and wanted in class, and I feel that the desire to speak is there if tapped in the right way. I’m coming to this data a few weeks into the course and I would say that it’s well reflected in the students’ participation so far.


5. The following activities will be useful for developing my English:

First answers

  • Speaking / Conversation: 29
  • Watching videos: 7
  • Listening: 2
  • Games: 2
  • Other*: 12

My thoughts: Again, not surprising but a very positive base for making my classes strongly conversation driven. More interesting is the popularity of video. The cynical part of me wonders if this is students making a play for some nice easy movie watching time in class. The more positive part sees students wanting to connect with culture and authentic materials. I’d be quite interested in some kind of extensive watching program, but sadly I don’t have the time in class to make it work. I’m also heartened by only two students saying “Games”. I sometimes wonder if students get conditioned to games as almost the only way to learn English by their school and hagwon experiences where games are an excellent way to encourage participation**, but this is clearly not the case. I’m pretty anti-games in my current context, so it’s good to know that I’m not crushing student expectations!

* Quite a lot of students seemed not to understand this question.

** I’m not suggesting here that games are a bad thing, or that teachers shouldn’t use them. I have certainly made extensive use of games in other contexts, and believe they can be extremely effective tools for learning. 

Final thoughts

Overall this was quite an interesting experience, especially the questions about students’ ambitions and views of what they do well. I think if anything it shows that freshmen university students may well have had a high degree of contact with English outside of the school system, and in fact do view it as a practical language for social and leisure purposes, rather than just something to study to pass an endless slog of tests. This is an assumption that I am very much guilty of. I’m not quite sure what effect all of this will have on my class yet, but I’ll try to come back to this post before next semester and try to view my next intake of students with fresh eyes.

TBVGBTS: Listening in a second language class

This is another post in a series of posts stemming from my experience taking a Korean class at a university in Seoul. Other posts about the class, which might help with the background, are linked at the bottom of this post. This time I want to share some of my experiences with listening to recorded materials (ie. coursebook listening materials, not teacher talk or other students) as part of a wider discussion of the role of listening materials in the classroom.

The first thing to say is that listening to recorded materials requires an awful lot of attention, especially if the book that they are drawn from is pitched at a higher level than the students can comfortably handle, as ours was. As a teacher and a student, I believe that listening is by the far most difficult skill involved in language learning, but I think that impression may well partly come from the way we deal with listening in the classroom. Note that I’m deliberately avoiding saying “teaching” here, because this course went a long way to confirming what I’ve suspected for a while: that “teaching” listening is more or less impossible, and my experience of listening to recorded materials on this course might have helped me to understand a bit better why this is so.

The problem is that, if Skehan’s limited attention hypothesis is to be believed, we have a limited amount of brain power to devote to whatever we are doing.  If this happens to be listening to L2 speech above a level that we can comfortably understand, more or less all of our attention is going to be directed at trying to make sense of it. By way of illustration, at times during listening activities I found it helpful to close my eyes and listen; blocking out visual signals seemingly freed up a bit more processing power for decoding audial ones.

So how do we help students to process difficult listenings? The textbook way seems to be to use “listening strategies” (take a look on this page and see if you can find out what even one of the oft referred to “listening strategies” is), or “metacognitive strategies”. The problem for me is that even metacognitive strategies demand cognitive resources, and these, as we’ve seen above, aren’t readily available during difficult listenings. “Then the listening’s clearly too difficult,” I hear you chirp. Well, yes, but if it was easier then we wouldn’t need all these strategies in the first place – we’d just understand it.

I’d also suggest that pre- and post-listening tasks surely are a function more of the contextless nature of listening on English courses rather than anything you’d actually need to do in the real world. “Ah! Here is a picture of a goat in my textbook. I hence predict that I may hear information pertaining to horn configuration, or an anecdote about one of the greedy buggers eating the sleeve of a favourite jumper.” (Goodness, I should write a listening textbook – it’d be amazing!). In the non-textbook world this kind of schema activation is pretty much unnecessary because all of the context is already provided: if you’re listening to something in the real world, you most likely know what it is and what you expect to hear anyway. It’s only when you completely decontextualise a listening, as well as removing all of the visual support that the real world would offer, that you have to spend minutes of valuable class time getting students to reconstruct it before they listen (for a textbook writer’s point of view on this, see @pterolaur’s post here).

All of this ridiculousness might stem from two sources. Firstly, the need for coursebooks to provide listenings as part of a “four skills approach” or a “balanced curriculum”, or whatever.  Fair enough, I suppose, though I’d suggest that in a decently communicative class students will get a lot more useful audial input from fellow students and the teacher, especially with activities like live listenings, which might also be more efficient due to less contextualization, as well as not being contrived to sledgehammer home some arbitrary language point. Secondly, I think teachers feel a certain pressure to “teach”. You have to be seen to be doing something more than just pressing play and saying “listen to this and see if you understand it”. This leads to the kind of teaching that I experienced on the Korean course: teachers getting us to listen for how many points are made in a listening, when it’s pretty obvious even from prosodic cues like pausing and intonation where one point stops and another begins. This is not what I need to know from a listening; I need to know what the content of those points is, and that is a far more difficult proposition. I think it’s also worth saying that listening pieces vary so much in their structures (compared to writing) that, outside of very specific examples, it’s not really worth teaching structure either.

So what do I need from teachers as a second language listener? I see a lot of advice about getting listeners to accept less than 100% understanding. This seems fine, but teachers have to accept that below a certain percentage of words understood (and this will be high number, I’d say at least 80 and more likely above 90), all but the most rudimentary of listening for gist or very specific information activities will be extremely difficult. Furthermore, understanding below this level would more or less rule out any of the input becoming uptake, not that I think that listenings really provide much in this area anyway due to real-time processing making it near impossible to focus much on form.

What might be useful is if teachers could train students to listen in a different way to the L2 than they do in an L1. I’m in the realm of hypothesizing here, but listening to recorded materials reminded me of a really  interesting listening activity from my MA studies. It featured a man talking about a journey (in English), but only at the end did it become clear that he was recounting a time that he was ripped off by a taxi driver. The purpose of the activity was to show how when we listen we automatically construct and update mental representations and hypotheses based on what we are hearing as well as past experience. However, when listening in an L2, this process is fragile and subject to breaking down because there’s not enough understandable input, or because the listener suddenly encounters a word or run of words that are not understood, and so the updating becomes impossible, and the mental representation stalls or breaks down. The disorientation caused by a run of unknown sounds should not be underestimated, and so helping students to reorient themselves after losing the thread of understanding could be an important strategy for learners. It doesn’t, however, seem eminently teachable.

More sensible teaching approaches link clearly to features of pronunciation (Rachael Roberts has a great example in the video in this post) and I could possibly see a role for the learning of common lexical chunks or discourse markers in this vein too. One time I remember my understanding in Korean breaking down was when someone talked about an “angular chin”, a phrase I’d just been taught but hadn’t really internalized the pronunciation of yet, and I discovered this in a second playing of listening at slower speed.

The teachers’ approach to listening on my course seemed to be to play the listening at full speed once, look at our puzzled expressions, and then play it again at reduced speed, sometimes while translating it into more simple Korean for us. My jury is still out on the effectiveness of this because even though I understand much more when the listening is slowed down, I feel like it’s still too ephemeral for any kind of concious learning, though I do wonder if it might be used to develop a kind of listening fluency. What I would have liked, but never got time for, was some time after the listening to read a tapescript, look at the parts that I didn’t understand, and try to figure out why I didn’t understand them. This would have at least led to greater satisfaction, but perhaps few generalizable gains.

It’s difficult for me to see past massive amounts of audial input as the principal development driver for listening skills, and therefore this has been a bit of a depressing post to write, because I want to actively help my students to listen better. There are some interesting suggestions in John Field’s presentation here, though as outlined above I’m not totally sold on the idea that basing teaching on L1 listening strategies is entirely helpful. One example might be listening for the stressed words in an utterance (nuclear stress). It strikes me that there’s a lot of information contained in weak forms: I clearly remember a listening from the course that featured a man and a woman discussing their personality traits. I got all of the traits, but missed most of the pronouns, so had no idea who had which trait. This was all in Korean, which I don’t believe has such clearly marked nuclear stress (though I may be wrong), but it struck me that a lot of the information that I needed would possibly hidden in unstressed syllables and weak forms in native English. One real positive of Field’s presentation however is the recognition that any listening strategies or processes that we teach need to be repeated to the point where they become automatic, for reasons of limited cognitive resources given above.

Listening to Korean during the course has changed the way I think about listening in my classes as a teacher. I didn’t use textbook listenings that much before, but I might well think about banishing them entirely from the room and relying on my own voice, the students’ voices and anyone else that I can rope in to provide input. I’m hoping it might be sufficiently contextualized by what we are doing in class to to skip pre-listening tasks. Post-listening tasks might involve summarizing or analyzing a tapescript, but really, would it be so wrong just to sit students down and ask them to listen?

Links to to other posts about this Korean course