Charl Norloff

International English Center, Division of Continuing Education and Professional Studies

Course Context: The course is an Intermediate 3 Listening/Speaking class in a pre-university intensive English for academic purposes program. This is a high intermediate level class in a multi-leveled program (beginning-advanced). The class meets 4 days per week for one hour and fifteen minutes. Students attend 20-23 hours of English (ESL) classes per week which include a reading, writing, and English structure class in addition to the listening/speaking class. The class was taught in two consecutive eight-week sessions in the Spring 2011 semester. There were 15 students in the class in the first session and 13 in the second.

What did you do?

Target of improvement/evidence: I was trying to raise student awareness of the academic behaviors and skills necessary to listen to an academic lecture, take effective notes and later recall information. In the second session, I also worked on raising student awareness of skills necessary to give an effective prepared speech in English.

Students in the high intermediate Listening/Speaking class are working on improving their ability to understand academic lectures and recall information. They are at a level where their conversational and functional listening skills are usually adequate in social and practical situations. They do not have the same competence in listening to academic topics in extended discourse. They have difficulty in listening to an excerpt from an academic lecture (of usually 5 to 10 minutes) and understanding key or main ideas and distinguishing them from specific details such as examples, explanations, reasons, etc. that are presented by the speaker to support the key points.

I want to improve the students’ ability to understand academic discourse through developing multiple strategies. Evidence for this improvement will be better performance on activities which break down the skills of identifying pronunciation, structure, and rhetorical cues while listening to extended academic discourse. Completion of outlines and other graphic organizers in note-taking and recall of information of different academic lectures at a later date where they put together all the strategies will assess whether students were able to use the strategies to improve this academic skill.

I also want to improve students’ ability to give an effective prepared speech. Evidence of this improvement will be in various aspects of formal speaking –delivery (body language, voice, pronunciation, and grammar) and content (organization and development of ideas.) Video-taped three to five minute speeches will assess the students’ success with all these aspects of public speaking.

What did you do?
In each session, I began with an initial survey of the students’ ideas about skills required for understanding academic discourse and their opinions of their own strengths and problems. The survey also included a similar section on speaking skills and activities.

The initial survey included the following items:
List three skills you think you need to understand academic lectures.
List three listening activities that you think would help you improve your listening skill.
List three problems or difficulties you have in understanding a lecture.
List three strengths you have as a listener.
List three skills you think you need to give effective speeches.
List three speaking activities that you think would help you improve your listening skills.
List three problems or difficulties you have in expressing your ideas in English.
List three strengths you have as a speaker.

I made word clouds of skills and activities and shared the word clouds with the students as a starting point to introducing and developing the new strategies for understanding the lectures. In the first eight-week session, I focused on listening and in the second session, I also looks at speaking strategies.

In both sessions, I used an initial listening to identify some of the difficulties the students had in understanding the lecture and taking effective notes. I then broke down the listening task into skills that I think a good listener (an expert) has and focused attention on them in separate listening tasks.

These steps were 1) hearing words that are stressed (louder and longer) to emphasize words and phrases that the speaker perceives of as important or key ideas, 2) hearing connecting words and grammatical structures that indicate transitions between ideas as well as the relationships between ideas, 3) hearing repetitions that signal important or key ideas, and finally 4) putting it all together to ’get’ and sort out the main ideas from the supporting details so that this information can be recorded in a meaningful way using appropriate graphic organizers.

Midway through the eight weeks, I did a minute-paper that asked the students to identify ways in which they felt that they had improved or not and what had helped them most. At the end of each eight-week session, I did another survey.

In the second session, I also focused on speaking. I gave the students a speech assignment that I said would be video-taped. We worked on some of the presentation skills in impromptu speaking and other class activities that I usually do with students. Students were required to do peer evaluations during the speeches by writing down one thing they thought the speaker had done well and one thing they thought the speaker could do better. Following the speeches, each student received the video tape of his or her speech and was required to watch it and complete a self-evaluation. I completed a more extensive evaluation for each student after reviewing the video-taped speeches. All of this is typical of how I handle speeches. What I did differently for this assessment of student learning was that I added discussion of what made a speech effective or not in the class following the speeches to raise awareness of the various components of a good speech. Students, at this point had given a speech and observed those of their classmates. As one of our learning outcomes is participating in and leading discussions, I used the task of examining the processes involved in giving a good speech as the topic of the discussions. Students worked in groups of three to create and then present their lists to the whole class. I shared the ideas in the lists with students in a hand out which also contained my ideas on the skills necessary to give an effective speech so that the students could see that their ideas fit with mine. While not a word cloud, I did use a larger font for each repetition of an idea so students could see which ideas were listed more frequently. (See attachment.) As a next step, I asked students to watch their own speeches again. After students got peer feedback, teacher feedback, and analyzed their own speeches, they reviewed all the feedback including the shared ideas from the discussion groups and created one specific goal to focus on in their next speech. In my feedback on that speech, I focused on that goal and commented on the students’ efforts on that particular goal.

What happened?

I felt that the initial surveys revealed that the students initially really weren’t able to break down listening and speaking into specific skills that could be addressed with targeted strategies and tasks. The largest word in our initial word clouds for both skills in both sessions was ‘vocabulary’. While vocabulary is very important, students’ ability to listen and speak well depends on more than that. It is an over-simplified view of what it takes to learn to listen and speak, especially in academic settings. They also used the words ‘listening’ and ‘speaking’ which also didn’t get at specific s.

On the one-minute paper at midsession, most students said they felt that they had improved their academic listening skills and mentioned that the class activities were useful though few were able to identify specific strategies that helped them. I also did a final survey at the end of the class asking which listening activities were most helpful, but I realized the question was too broad and again, students did not identify specific strategies but rather stated that listening to academic lectures, including visiting a class on campus, were helpful activities.

I tried each session to spend more time on raising awareness and reflecting on what helped and what didn’t with the students. I believe that, as the session progressed, the students became more aware of the fact that there are multiple strategies at play in understanding academic discourse and taking notes in ways that improve later recall. However, my attempts to verify this were not as successful as I’d hoped. Other than anecdotal evidence and improved listening scores for some students, the students were not able to express their ideas in ways that suggested they ‘saw’ the skills in more specific term.

I feel that my attempts in the second session to break down the speaking skill into strategies that would contribute to more effective formal speaking proved more successful. The process of identifying what made an effective speech in post-speech discussions helped the students identify and clarify skills required in ways they couldn’t at the beginning of class. I believe this helped them when they were asked to identify and focus on one goal to work on for the next speech.

What difference did it make?

I do believe that the students became more aware of layered strategies at play in both academic listening and speaking if for no other reason than I was focusing attention on it and using it as a topic of discussion in class as well as asking them to think about it from the beginning of the class until the end through the surveys and one-minute papers. I think the clearest evidence that this was happening was in the second eight-week session when students were able to identify an appropriate goal and show improvement on that goal from one speech to the next. Several students made it a point to ask me after class if I thought they’d achieved their goal. They were clearly thinking about a more specific strategy than they had been in the first speech. As one student put it on the SOQ (Student Opinion Questionnaire) evaluation of the class (the IEC’s FCQs) –“I think her class schedule was well organized. For example, after presentation, she gathered advices from classmates, and then give another presentation.” Thus, I think the students are going forward with more awareness of the steps involved in improving their overall listening and speaking skills.

How did the classroom assessment (feedback gathering) help you make adjustments mid-course?

As stated above, I spent more time in class discussing the meta-skills that I believe are a threshold concept in language learning. In many ways, it is easier for students to grasp this in speaking activities than in listening because in speaking activities, there is a ‘product’ that can be examined and speaking is often referred to as an ‘active’ skill whereas listening is considered a ‘passive’ skill. Therefore, when I applied techniques to make individual strategies more transparent in the speech assignment, there seemed to be more meta awareness of skills by students who spent more time discussing the skills and reflecting on them and then made adjustments in how they handled the next speech through goal setting. I plan to continue to find ways to raise student awareness, help them reflect on what they are doing, and have them set goals for themselves as a regular activity in my classes.

What did you learn? What’s next?
What worked? What did you learn?

I think what worked best in my class was engaging the students in discussion of what we were doing and raising their awareness of why it was useful in improving their listening or speaking skill. Awareness of the strategies and processes involved in engaging in specific tasks may be a threshold concept in language learning. Students who are identified as having ‘aptitude’ for languages may naturally understand this and utilize these strategies. The bottleneck comes into play when students, who are unaware of the processes involved, passively participate in classroom activities without actively focusing on how best to learn and do not know how best to take advantage of the tasks.

It’s important to help students break down the skills required to improve their language ability. What seems obvious to us as language instructors, i.e., experts, is not necessarily transparent to students. I think that adding in a reflective component to all language skill instruction in listening, speaking, reading, and writing, is one way to help students acquire behaviors that will lead to better language acquisition. Raising their awareness of strategies we think are important in the process can contribute to making them more receptive to and able to take advantage of those strategies. This past semester showed me that the students were willing to examine their own processes and seemed to perceive of the tasks involved in doing that as useful. I learned that, with guidance, students will think critically about what they are doing to learn the language. I need to provide opportunities for this in my language classes.

Sharing with colleagues?

The workshop provided all of us who attended with the opportunity to reflect on how we teach and assess students. I thought the ideas about threshold concepts and bottlenecks was worth sharing with our colleagues, so I created a handout with some of my notes. We shared ideas from the first workshop with the whole faculty during an assessment in-service we held in February. (See attachment.) Now that we have completed the workshop, we will put our reports on our IEC network for other faculty to read. We also plan to submit a proposal and present what we did and what we learned in the workshop in a presentation at our local ESL conference in the fall.


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