Pick up the right wavelength

Bryden Keenan

GCSE lessons in listening and reading comprehension are dominated by a testing mode with too little attention to teaching, argues Bryden Keenan.

During the preparations for the new GCSE examination, introduced in 1988, a battle was fought over the weighting to be accorded to the four language learning skills and the ways in which they should be tested. When the decision was reached that they should be equal and that, in order to avoid confusing two skills, all comprehensions should be tested in English, most teachers were happy with what seemed to be a forward-looking move.

The correct decision may have been taken. However, examination boards are not able to legislate on the form that exam preparation takes. They cannot, for example, rule that testing in English is only for the actual paper and should only be practised in class in the last couple of months before GCSE. The results of the 1988 decision have been very different from what the planners probably intended. While key stage 3 lessons are now largely in the foreign language, this is emphatically not the case in key stage 4. Only the best teachers are resisting the temptation to have their lessons overshadowed by the form of GCSE listening and reading comprehension. What is even worse is that lessons in both key stages are being dominated by this testing mode and relatively little teaching goes on.

This is the teacher's book guidance in a popular textbook: "Two children are interviewed about likes and dislikes. They are asked eight questions. Pupils write down the letters A-H and then listen and choose the right number as the children say which ones they prefer. Explain anything that might be misunderstood."

At the end, the pupils will no doubt exchange books or mark their own and the exercise is over. There will be no evidence that listening or reading skills have actually improved at all. If a similar passage or recording is used again soon afterwards, those who scored five out of ten will probably score five out of ten again; those who understood everything and could have answered much more demanding questions will be even more bored, those who understood little will be even less inclined to listen carefully.

Some years ago, I was driving abroad with the car radio on. There was a weather warning to high-sided vehicles on the motorway about strong winds. I was astonished when a comment revealed that my daughter, who was in the very early stages of learning the language, had understood the warning. I suppose the understanding had come from a very few words but neither her teacher nor I would have dreamed of asking her to listen to such a difficult recording. Even if we had, we would probably have ruined the task by asking something like: "What warning was given to high-sided vehicles on the motorway?" A different approach is required, with the main aim being to reduce the reliance on questions. If classes are learning to tell the time, they may be asked to listen to a series of short recordings in which a time is the only focus. Such material is appropriate for testing. Teachers do after all need to have marks in a mark book. However, most recordings used will be more complex. After a first hearing, classes should be encouraged to volunteer anything they have picked out, whether or not the item is one that the teacher particularly wanted as a focus. When all initial contributions have been received and valued, the section of recording can be played again. This time, those who heard little or nothing the first time will hear the initial contributions and the sharper listeners will pick up new information. The process can be repeated as long as it seems worthwhile and classes are not becoming bored. Ideally, the pupils will sometimes be at individual or group listening stations and will decide on their own rate of progress.

The main merit of this way of working is that the teacher is not predetermining the outcome. No detail of the recording is being labelled as too easy or too difficult. If classes are treated appropriately, they will feed back all the information the teacher needs about possible progress. "Yes, I see what you mean, but listen to what the girl says again and see if you can be more precise." "It was something like that, but listen again." The more advanced the class, the more likely is this sort of discussion to be in the foreign language. Moreover, the teacher is leaving open the possibility of being surprised at the listening ability of pupils who do not perform so well on paper.

Target Language Testing is a useful project report which was published by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority in March in response to the national curriculum order's clear and specific statement about the use of English: "Pupils should be given opportunities to take part in activities in the target language that, where appropriate, combine two or more of the four language skills. When a spoken or written response is expected, it should be in the target language, except where a response in another language is a necessary part of the task."

In the circumstances, it would have been unthinkable for examination boards to propose specimen syllabuses bearing any resemblance to those used at present. The report gives thought-provoking hints and guidance to both teachers and examining boards and points to a style of testing which may bring comprehension testing much closer to teaching. It presents a coherent case for the return to favour of multiple choice and truefalse exercises, as long as they are better thought out. Incidentally, the team interviewed students about their reactions to the pilot tests and most had found the listening much more difficult than the reading - probably an indication of the need for more teaching and learning.

The report was published while the project was still incomplete, but here is a development of one of the listening exercises suggested. A recording of the following interview is presented: M. Bonjour, tu peux te presenter?

F. Bonjour, oui, bien sr. Je m'appelle Amandine. J'ai 15 ans et j'habite un village pr s de la ville de Lyon.

M. Et tu as une grande famille, Amandine?

F. Oui, on est 5 ans dans la famille. Il y a mon p re, ma m re, ma soeur et mon fr re. Mon fr re, Stephane, est plus age que moi, et ma soeur, Cecile, est plus petite . . . elle a six ans.

M. Et que font tes parents dans la vie?

F. Mon p re est boulanger et ma m re travaille a la poste du village.

M. Et toi, Amandine, que pref res-tu faire quand tu es libre?

F. Bon, le weekend je sors avec mes copains. On fait un tour de magasins a Lyon. J'adore faire des courses et acheter des vetements.

M. Et le sport. ca t'interesse pas?

F. Un peu. Je vais a la piscine mais pas souvent. Et je fais de la gymnastique au coll ge.

M. Et que fais-tu en semaine?. . . Apr s les devoirs, bien sr.

F. Bof. . .enfin, la lecture me plat . . . J'aime lire les bandes dessinees.

M. Merci de m'avoir parle Amandine.

The listener has a sheet with the "Interview" information which follows, which has been modified from the original SCAA version. The "possible" and "both true and false" columns have been added; questions 2 and 5 are new and question 7 has been slightly altered; a potentially controversial mark scheme has been introduced. The exercise as it now stands can be a test. However, it can also be teaching material for a group or whole-class discussion, with contributors having to justify any opinion they put forward and the cassette being played and replayed as necessary. This could, of course, be a reading rather than a listening exercise.

Interview avec une jeune francaise, Amandine Vous allez entendre deux fois l'interview. Lisez les remarques.

a. Cochez la case VRAI si la remarque est correcte b. Cochez la case FAUX si la remarque n'est past correcte et corrigez la remarque c. Cochez la case POSSIBLE si vous ne pouvez pas savoir d. Cochez la case VRAIFAUX si les deux sont possibles.

Pour une bonne reponse, vous marquez deux points; Pour une remarque corrigee, vous marquez un point supplementaire; Pour une mauvaise reponse, vous perdez un point.

(Vous avez donc interet a ne pas repondre au hasard) Exemple Remarque Vrai Faux Poss VraiFaux Amandine a 14 ans Amandine a 15 ans The same four columns and boxes are then set against the eight questions which follow: Remarques: 1. Amandine habite en centre-ville 2. Amandine a un grand jardin 3. Stephane est l'enfant le plus jeune 4. Le p re d'Amandine fait du pain 5. Amandine travaille a la poste pendant les vacances scolaires 6. Amandine aime faire des achats 7. Amandine est sportive 8. Amandine aime dessiner . . . Which is a very different matter from writing down numbers from 1 to 10 and waiting for the rain in Spain to fall. Bryden Keenan is foreign and community languages adviser in Bedfordshire

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