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Monday, January 19, 2015

The Listening Skills Dilemma

I am about to pull my hair out. Seriously, I'm at my wit's end. Today I did a needs assessment with my beloved morning class (90% Chinese, 100% over the age of 55). They are almost in tears, they so badly want to improve their listening skills. And yet, when I try to get them to set aside their electronic dictionaries and pencils for a block of listening / speaking time, I feel like I'm dealing with toddlers. They are sneaky. They apologize. They laugh. They look sheepish. But they do not comply.

The same thing happens when they repeatedly revert to their L1--a problem that comes with the fact that it is such a homogeneous group. We have voted on it. THEY decided they wanted to ban L1 from the class, except for occasional, brief and discreet whispers to a classmate: "How do you say X in our language?" But do they stick to that rule? Heck, no. The minute my back is turned... no, not even. Right in front of me they just babble away in the L1.

One source of this challenge is clear to me. Given the generation and culture of origin of the majority, I assume they have been inexorably steeped in the grammar-translation method of second language acquisition. We have talked about that. I've offered myself as an example since I've studied languages as diverse as ASL, Demotic Greek, Latin, Japanese and Farsi. They nod in agreement when I say the grammar-translation method was apt and sufficient for my Latin studies, given the goal of being able to translate Ovid. Do they think this method rendered me able to order a beer in Latin or ask where the bathroom is? Of course not. We laugh.

In summary, I've given sermons about forging neural pathways (they are educated enough for this level of analysis) until I'm blue in the face. I've offered cute quotes like, "Do the uncomfortable until it feels comfortable." I've given testimonials from my own history as a successful polyglot. Nothing ever works for long.

Today I am starting over. I have decided I will do whatever it takes to get buy-in. I will try to work with instead of against the barriers. We must solve this problem. Below will be my journal where I will keep an account of what works and what fails.

12 January Tricked groups into making oral presentations without looking down at paper by surprising them with the assignment and not allowing them to bring paper with them to the front of the class. Of course they did just fine, and it was much more engaging than when they know about a presentation ahead of time and spend all night MEMORIZING their parts (gah!) or read from paper (double gah).

13 January We are seeing eye-to-eye regarding over-dependence on dictionaries. We made a compromise: dictionaries were allowed for the first 20 minutes after I had passed out the text (the needs assessment itself). After break, no dictionaries were allowed, only conversation about the questionnaire. Almost everyone cooperated, and I gave violators a choice between tucking the machines away in a satchel or letting me put them on top of the file cabinet. At the end of class, they were smiling. They said they liked the tactic and want to continue down this road.

14 January I want to sell them on the notion of guessing the meaning of words from context, so I'm giving them this text, "The Shillybog." We'll see how it goes.

15 January The activity re guessing the meaning of words from context went over very well. They get the point of it. On Monday we start our new project called "Kelly's Listening Boot Camp." The idea is that I am their personal trainer whose goal it is to help them develop and exercise the listening "muscles." It's my job to inspire and motivate while providing ways for them to strengthen these underdeveloped faculties. It won't always be fun. It may often be uncomfortable. But hopefully the end will justify the means!

Here are the text and discussion questions I'm using to kick off Listening Boot Camp on Monday.

It is my hope that I can help the learners build a tool box of strategies for improving their listening, including improving prosody through practice with the stress-timed nature of English (making the stressed vowel in content words longer, stronger, clearer), and in turn listening for content words in others' speech and realizing that catching every word is unnecessary. We will have many gambits for restoring faltering communication posted around the classroom, such as "Can you speak more slowly?" and "Can you say that using different words?" Thus we emphasize that communication is a two-way street, always able to be repaired when both parties take ownership of it.

I'd love to hear your ideas for my dilemma. What else can I do? How can I help these students with their listening skills? (Click the purple # Comments: link below.)

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