Learners are much better at giving each other accurate and sensitive feedback than we suspect, and this activity gives them the opportunity to demonstrate it.
Divide the class into groups of three, composed of Student A, Student B and Student C. If your class is not divisible by three, you will need to make one or two groups of four, where some roles are doubled up.
The basic structure of the activity is as follows:
Each learner is going to talk about a topic in turn. While Student A, for example, is talking, Student B will be listening attentively and encouragingly, and Student C will be taking notes in order to give constructive feedback.
Set a time limit – two minutes is enough for most levels although you may want to reduce it to one minute for students at CEFR level A1 and one or one and a half minutes for students at CEFR level A2. It’s generally a good idea to give students a couple of minutes’ thinking time before they speak to give them a chance to plan what they are going to say.
After the first round, the learners change roles so that Student B speaks, Student C listens and Student A takes notes. In the third round they change roles for a final time so that everybody has been a speaker, listener and note-taker.
In each round give all the Student As the same topic to talk about, and change topic from one round to the next. Topics which always work well include me, holidays, my neighbourhood, hobbies, pets, last weekend, my job and food. For higher levels, you can make these more challenging, e.g. my life in ten years’ time, the advantages of ‘staycations’, if I were the mayor, a hobby I fancy trying, dogs v cats, the perfect weekend, and my speciality in the kitchen.
Tell the listeners that they should listen carefully and ask one question at the end.
The first time you do this activity, do a whole-class example with each student having to make notes about what you are talking about. Repeat a second time giving the students a different area to listen for (vocabulary, pronunciation, use of narrative tenses, etc.).
Once you have practised as a whole class, students complete the activity in their groups of three. Each note-taker should be given instructions about one area to give feedback on, (grammatical accuracy, range of vocabulary, different collocations, pronunciation or fluency, etc.). They have to do this once the speaker has finished and has answered the listener’s question. For very low levels in monolingual classes, you may want to let them give feedback in L1 (or a mixture of L1 and L2).
Once the three rounds have been completed, learners discuss their reaction to the feedback they received.
Here are some variations on this simple activity:
1. Everybody is given or chooses their topic at the same time. They have five minutes to prepare before the activity takes place.
2. The speaker chooses the area they want to receive feedback on.
3. Narrow the focus of the feedback further, e.g. listen for the pronunciation of regular verbs in the past simple, listen for topic-related vocabulary, etc.
4. The speaker chooses the topic.
5. The listener plays a more active role and asks questions while the speaker is talking. The listener is also responsible for prompting if the speaker is running out of things to say.
6. The listener is assessed on how well they show interest both verbally and non-verbally.
7. The listener has to say to what extent they agree or disagree with the note-taker’s feedback.
8. The speaker assesses their own performance and the note-taker says whether they agree or not.
9. Give the speaker an image instead of a topic.
10. The note-taker can only give positive feedback. This could also be combined with some learner training on how to give constructive feedback.
Whenever we have done this activity in class, the reaction has invariably been positive once the initial shock of being asked to speak for a minute or two has worn off!
Along with the introduction of the European Language Portfolio has come greater emphasis on shifting the responsibility for language learning from the teacher to the learner, on learner reflection and on self-assessment. This activity is self-assessment disguised as entertainment.
Listening is an activity that can sometimes provoke fear and cause frustration among some learners. This is not helped by the fact that some listenings we do in class are more about testing than teaching. Another major drawback of listening activities is that the content is usually not chosen by the learner.
If we accept that listening is something that has to be practised a lot by the individual learner in order to improve, then surely the following are true:
- Learners should choose what they want to listen to and do it outside class.
- They should listen to enjoy, entertain or inform themselves when practising.
- It would be useful to listen to a series of broadcasts, e.g. a regular podcast, radio show or TV series, rather than only listening to individual items from random contexts. This helps students get into the habit of listening so they can get used to hearing the same voices and also, hopefully, to develop a more intrinsic reason for listening.
We started experimenting with this activity about five years ago and have been refining it ever since. The basic idea, however, was to encourage learners to listen to, or watch, something at home on a regular basis and to enjoy it.
In class tell learners that they are going to watch a series in English as an ongoing outside class activity, and their viewing will be used a basis for an activity in class. Tell them that if it is done regularly, they will notice a difference in their listening comprehension by the end of the course/year. In the next class you are going to ask them which series they have chosen.
Some learners may ask you to recommend something – by all means do so, but the most important thing is that they choose something they will enjoy. They could also watch something that they have already seen in their own language. As a rule of thumb, shorter episodes, e.g. 25 minutes, work best.
As it might be easier for students to be able to access extracts of an English language series on YouTube than on DVD, it may be good to show them a few possibilities in class if possible. Alternatively, students could refer to the ‘Listen & Watch’ section on the British Council’s LearnEnglish site.
If your learners are using DVDs with subtitles, explain how best to watch, if they don’t ask. The goal is to watch as much as possible without subtitles. To develop this ability, encourage them to start off by watching five minutes without subtitles (or with subtitles in English if available). Watch again. Watch a third time with subtitles in their own language to check understanding. Relax and watch the rest of the episode with subtitles. The next time watch six minutes without subtitles. The time after that watch seven minutes, etc. Or they may prefer to watch the whole episode without subtitles, and then watch again with subtitles. If they find their series too difficult or not enjoyable, they should change it for another one.
In the next class ask learners to tell their partner/group which series they are going to watch, and tell them that they should watch at least one episode a week. At this point, it is a good idea to look at some of the vocabulary and language they will need to talk about their series (including correct pronunciation of the word series!).
Have weekly (and positive!) sessions in class where people can talk about what they are watching and their experiences. Ask a different question each week. Questions to discuss could include:
1. Do you watch your series at home or on the move?
2. When do you watch your series and who do you watch with?
3. Would you recommend your series?
4. How much did you watch without subtitles?
5. How many times do you watch your episode?
6. Describe a memorable scene from your series.
7. Who’s your favourite character and why?
8. Which character is the easiest/most difficult to understand and why?
9. Teach your partner a phrase you learnt and the context it came up in.
10. Do you think your listening is improving and how? (Notice that this is the only question that asks learners to assess their listening. Ask it when enough time has gone by for them to see a difference.)
In order to help and encourage learners who are doing this at home, useful roles for the teacher in class could be the following:
- Dedicate class time to practising listening strategies, e.g. focusing on stressed words in order to reconstruct meaning, looking at linking, etc.
- Encourage learners to have realistic expectations about what and how much they will understand (depending on their level) and to celebrate each success instead of criticising every failure.
To finish off, two of our favourite examples come from opposite ends of the spectrum:
The first is Laura, an A2 learner who got completely hooked on Glee. As a result, she has lost her fear of listening – her strongest skill now – and has seen over 20 episodes and counting – in English only! The second success story was Rubén, who went from B2 to C2 in a very short space of time purely by virtue of his near-addiction to the series Friends. He used to watch in English first but the second or third time he would look again at bits he had missed, eventually resorted to the subtitles to find out what had been said. Most classes would finish with Rubén asking me for the meanings of the last two or three expressions he hadn't been able to work out from the latest episode.
By Steve Muir and Tom Spain
Steve and Tom work at the British Council in Alcalá University, Madrid, and blog at www.allatc.wordpress.com