Teaching and Testing Tastes of Listening and Speaking
Bishnu Kumar Khadka
Vice-chair of NELTA Surkhet
Like in the previous years, the teachers who have been teaching English at the secondary level in Nepal have already examined the listening and speaking abilities of those students who have appeared in the so-called iron gate examination-SLC. The result is due to be published in a few weeks. Perhaps, most of the students will have very good marks of listening and speaking in their mark-sheets irrespective of their actual listening and speaking abilities, because both the students and their subject teachers expect the monitors to assign very good grades. It is because the marks students get in practical examination can also be of very high importance for the divisions they deserve. This is why it is not a matter of surprise for the monitors to give full marks in the listening and speaking tests, no matter how they perform in the practical examinations. In other subjects-accountancy, health population and environment education, science and even computer science students deserve twenty-five by twenty-five without carrying out specific projects or tasks. Thank god, the teachers of the English language require their examinees to listen to the tape and appear in front of them!
My Reflections as a teacher
When I began to teach English some five years back, like many other enthusiastic novice teachers of English, I was proud. I thought I had done the best job, because I could make all the students understand the text. What I would do was to go thorough reading texts and translate each and every line into Nepali from English and ask the students whether or not they had understood. The students would also reply that they had understood. Their affirmative nodding made me feel happy. I also did not think the other ways, because that was how I was taught while I was studying at schools and even colleges. I am deadly sure that teachers in govern-funded schools in Nepal have been doing so, for the one or another reasons, such as students do not understand if teachers teach them in English only or there are more than one hundred students in their classes and so on.
My happiness lasted until I began to think critically on my own teaching. When I was in my third year of teaching, I began to ask a number of questions such as-‘ Do I really help my students in learning English?, Why do I practice teacher centered techniques of teaching though I know that in order to facilitate learners in learning language I should adopt learner centered ones?, Why are there such incompatibilities? and so on. Having pondered in the answers of these questions, I thought that I should change my teaching activities in the classrooms. Since then, I have been trying my best to play the role of a facilitator or co-worker of students. But I faced and even have been facing a lot of challenges. For reading lessons, I ask students to read in groups or individually. While students busy themselves reading the texts, I go around them and support if they have some challenges. Once they have finished reading the given texts and doing the exercises, I ask them to go for the next lesson. Often some of the students say to me, “Hami lai yo path padhaunuhunna sir? (Don’t you teach us this lesson, sir?). Students have stereotypical feeling that if a teacher goes in front them and tells everything in Nepali then only they think that they have learned and the teacher has taught.
In my contexts, teaching English means teaching reading and writing skills only. For these two skills also, learners are confined to the texts or exercises given their text books. Theoretically, I know that teaching language means teaching all language skills and aspects, but practically, I cannot help confining myself in teaching reading and writing only. Listening and speaking are the primary or natural skills of language and therefore teaching and learning of these two skills equal to preparing learners to understand others who use English and make others understand by using English. Despite the importance in real life communications, these two skills are often neglected in our classrooms, may be because we can mange students get good grades even if they perform very poorly in the practical examinations.
My Reflections as a monitor
After getting the monitor training provided by District Education Office for conducting listening and speaking test, I and Parbati, my life partner got the responsibility to conduct the test in one of the SLC examination centers of Surkhet. When we reached the exam center, the administrative personnel of the examination were eager to welcome us and most of the students were waiting there without having lunch. No sooner did the students see us, they hurried to say ‘Namaste’. I found them to be eager to return their homes. They did not seem to be worried about their practical examinations at all. I thought that the test I and Parbati were going to administer had no face validity, because it did not appear to be like a test to the students.
While conducting the listening test, first of all, we gave them a set of instructions on how the students were supposed to take the test. Having distributed question papers and answer sheets, we played the tape. The students looked at us without considering the questions. After playing the tape for the first time, we asked them to write down the answer of the first question and after five minutes we again played the tape for the second question and finally, we played for the third time for proving students with an opportunity to review their answers. But to my great surprise, most of the students had not written the answers of the listening text; rather they were just looking at one another’s face and waiting someone to do something for them. I asked them to write the answer soon considering the time. They shared their inconveniences that they had not listened to any listening texts during their school life and they didn’t understand anything about the text. They said to us, “How could we write the answers if we have not understood the text?” Their question reminded me of my own ELT classes without any practice of listening and speaking skills, meanwhile I missed my students who were expecting high marks in the listening and speaking test. Then, we read out the scripts for the students slowly so that the students could answer the questions.
After completing the listening test, we immediately started to take the speaking test. I asked simple questions starting from the name, address, number of the family members, name of English teacher etc. but most of the students found these questions difficult to respond in English except their names and their English teachers’ names. There were few students who tried to respond in English. When I asked them to describe the pictures, then most of the students started to look at my face rather than at the pictures. I created a fun during the time saying that, “I am not as handsome as the man in the picture “. I asked you to describe the picture not my face. Therefore, please describe the pictures given to you. Most of the students nodded their heads and some of them tried to describe in English and some others replied in Nepali too. I was in moral crisis to circle the marking score because both the students and teachers had expected me to assign high marks in the test. When I checked the answer sheets of the listening test, their scores were very low. Since I was familiar with their listening abilities, I had assigned high scores in speaking test disregarding their performances so that they would get at least pass marks in aggregate. One thing for sure is that they will certainly curse me when the result is out.
Here, my serious concern is not for their performances but for the lack of practice of listening and speaking. Both teachers and students know the fact that they should teach and learn these two skills not only because they are very essential for genuine piece of communication but also for the practical examinations to be administered at the end of an academic session. Undoubtedly, the result of the poor performances in listening and speaking is caused due to the lack of exposure in these skills. Of course, it is we teachers who have to manage the necessary exposure to our students. If we don’t provide exposure and only test the learners in these two skills, it is a kind of injustice to the students. How do we expect the learners to demonstrate their performances in listening and speaking skills without providing them ample opportunities to get exposure? Did we achieve the goal of communicative competence as envisioned by the secondary level curriculum of English?
Testing of listening and speaking skill should be considered as integral parts of teaching learning process and these skills need to be tested on regular bases and the tests should reflect the real life listening and speaking events. These two skills often go together except in very few situations. Therefore, these two skills should be taught and tested in an integrated way. For example, we can make our students listen to the news, sport reports, chatting at a party, hearing announcements over the loudspeaker, interviewing, hearing speech/lecture etc. and let them speak about what they have heard As our present secondary level curriculum suggests, we need to test our students in the use of language functions and this can be done best if we give them situations and ask them to perform in them. If the goal of teaching and learning English is to enable the learners to use English, teaching and testing activities should also be geared towards it.
It is the fact that language is for communication; language means primarily speech and speech means listening and speaking. If we don’t teach listening and speaking, then how can we enable our students to make the users of language? If the students cannot produce single simple utterances in English having been taught for ten years, it is a matter of shame for us. It’s high time to think what we have done so far to support learners in learning English. Therefore, it is mandatory to give due emphasis on teaching listening and speaking in our EFL classrooms. The provision of testing of listening and speaking should not be made just the formality; rather they are to be made an integral part of teaching.