Thursday, 16 April 2009

Listening in EFL, what’s the snag?

As far off as my memory can go -about a quarter of a century back- I can say it out loud that teaching listening has not improved at all. Some say it is the least motivating lesson for a class. Others believe it is alienating to both teachers and students.

Others reckon that pre- and post- listening activities take over the real and major task ie. listening. Shocking, isn’t it?

To address this issue, we should hold the bull by the horns.

Before we start, let’s have an overview of the teaching scene without makeup brushes.

If you are not a teacher of English, just fancy this!

This happens in a listening session.

- As a teacher, you are a ‘cassette-operator’ who winds, rewinds, adjusts sound…

- In front of you a class of some 30 students scattered at random in the classroom

- Three or four rows of fixed or unmovable seats

- In your hand a cassette-recorder with one speaker and most of the time without a counter

- A classroom with no sound-proof walls

- The classroom large windows open on the noisy school playgrounds and /or street where trucks, tractors, buses, silencer-free motorbikes never stop buzzing.

- Some hammering – over your head in an urgent roof-repair or from an active construction site nearby

- Other jam-packed classrooms around you with students probably taking a test.! With all due respect to a ‘don’t-disturb-test-taking class’…

You are about to play the tape now.

- You peep! Where’s the socket? Here it is. Fine so far…

- Where will you keep the cassette? No problem, you can snatch half of the pupil’s place. Or be ‘the cassette custodian’ and hold it high on your own hands during the listening session.

- Surprise! The socket is not fused.

‘Why don’t you keep a fuse with you all the time?’ suggested the school electrician.

Why not? Another teaching aid for listening sessions!

Will that fuse work in other classrooms? Of course not! An assortment of fuses is needed. Different brands of sockets are installed at school.

- You turn into a magician; you wave your wand and get out of your pocket some batteries. ‘Keep them at hand teacher! You will need them the next lesson’. Got it!

Don’t get bored with this, guys! The setting is not complete.

I forgot to tell you that this is about the end of the 1st decade of the 3rdmillennium. Just one more detail and then we will get started in a moment.

Windows closed! Door closed! Lend me your ears!

You impose a complete silence in the room.

After winding and rewinding, you finally start playing the tape.

A knocking on the door.

- Yes!

- ‘ Mr X told you to turn down the sound’, the first ‘envoy’ from the classroom next door tells you.

- Without disturbing the reverent atmosphere you have imposed before starting, you turn the sound down.

Students now claim their full right to have the sound turned up

- ‘Save your lesson. Do it!’ the voice of reason tells you.

You decide to turn the sound up.

A knocking on the door again.

- Yes! ‘ Mr X told you the sound is still high’, the second envoy informs you.

- ‘Don’t do it!’ The voice of reason tells you.

Without hesitation, you decide to keep it high. You are in your classroom. You are not trespassing and the students are focused on the task after all.

A knocking on the door again.

‘ I can’t work in these conditions. This is unbecoming of you! You’re being inconsiderate. Turn the sound down or else I will call the principal’, shouts angrily the Maths teacher.

- ‘To cut it short, you close the door and finish your lesson’………………………..

This is what practically takes place in every listening session.

You find me very sarcastic. Yes, I am. The situation is surreal. How many times has the lesson been interrupted? Are we really conducting a listening lesson? Are we equipping students with listening skills?

With this tiny cassette, how much will students get?

How many students of that large class will grasp the meaning and use the skills you as teacher want to pass on to them?

You will tell me ‘silence gives consent. You have been doing it for ages, why raise the issue now?'

You’re right. Simply I saw some people putting the cart before the horse. A language lab (Software and hardware) has been installed in almost every CREFOC targeting language teaching. The millions of Euros spent on labs -not yet functional after one year of lingering expectations- could have provided thousands of CD-players to schools and repaired the thousands of dilapidated classrooms, broken windows and of course the never-working sockets.

To my mind, this is putting spoke in wheels. Somebody wanted to prove that they were serving the country’s well-being, innovating education by being the vanguard of themselves.

The reality is down; why should we turn our eyes up and jump over it?

Let’s not speak in riddles… This is the fact of the matter:

- The conditions in schools are precarious.

- The average class in secondary education is 30 to 33

- The substandard attainment recorded every year in national exams is alarming.

- The rate of school dropouts is soaring

- School equipment is seedy-looking

- Internet rooms have been hijacked by the administration and transformed into classrooms

- Violent friction at school involving all parties – teachers, administration and students- is common place

In this hellish misery, the school atmosphere is gloomy and tense. The expectations of students and teachers are low; their relationships are intoxicated and communication between them is barred.

Priority should be given to the urgent daily necessities not to the fantasies of some whimsical high officials who have never left their comfortable seats and air-conditioned offices to see closely the vicissitudes of the education systems.