Whether you’re an English teacher or a teacher trainer, you probably focus a lot of your energy and technique on getting your ‘subjects’ to speak. Your goal may vary considerably from one occasion to the next; you may be trying to get them to practice a language point, to make a comment on the topic of the day so that you can move on to the reading task, or, if you’re a trainer, you may be getting a trainee to make what you hope is a relevant comment on a lesson in teaching practice (so that you can move onto your agenda?). Whatever your goal, and however you prompt your subject(s), one factor that is going to have a major impact on their response has nothing to do with how you set things up; it’s rather how you listen. In short, if you are able to listen genuinely, if the quality of your listening is ‘authentic’, the quality and sophistication of your ‘subjects’’ response will be enhanced.
The implications of this last statement are significant, because what learners, trainee teachers, and teachers-in-training produce orally plays a vital role in the learning process. The articulation of knowledge, observations, opinion and feeling in a social context (i.e. a context where the speaker is not alone—and speakers are never alone, even when talking to themselves) combine with the ensuing response to stimulate the cognitive processes that move the learner beyond their current level, towards grasping, knowing and noticing more. Our role as teachers is to set those forces in motion.
Some years ago research was done on the effect of eye contact on students’ speech. The context was oral testing of English, and interlocutors were told to either minimise eye contact with the students being tested, or to consciously maintain eye contact. There were no other instructions, such as smile, nod, make encouraging noises—it was just about eye contact. Well, guess what: the quality, sophistication, accuracy, length, depth, etc of the students’ speech was significantly better when the interlocutor maintained eye contact. I suspect the interlocutors did some of those other things too, made those gestures and noises suggesting engagement, when in ‘high eye contact mode’. I also suspect that you don’t need research to convince you that human beings are likely to be more committed to articulating themselves when they’re getting ‘interested’ signals from people around them, even when speaking their mother tongue. If you reflect on your own efforts to use a foreign language, you may well have had the experience where those around you seem uninterested or at best only politely interested in what you were saying, and your own speech deteriorated and petered out.
The trouble is, many of us are in fact not very good listeners, and perhaps worse yet, many of us think we are, but we’re not really ‘doing’ it—and when it comes to listening, you can’t fool anyone. People KNOW when they’re not being listened to. You can’t fool them with forced eye contact and (token) remarks of Really! and That’s interesting! This is a bit disconcerting, because there’s almost an implication that it’s a talent rather than a learnable skill. I would say that some people are naturally good at it, and we can learn a lot from them, but I also believe that anyone, with some practice, can become a better listener. And if you’re a teacher, your students will benefit significantly (and I’ll bet that some will notice and comment on the change… in you).
So how does one go about developing this skill? It’s something you can do all the time, both in and out of classroom, and here are some ideas how.
- Think of someone whom you regard as a good listener—the best listener you’ve ever known. Try to identify what it is they do that’s different from what most people do. How do they make you feel listened to?
- When you ask a student a real question (rather than a ‘testing’ question), and they answer minimally—as many language learners do, particularly in group classes—draw them out. Ask them to elaborate. Say ‘Tell me more’, and wait patiently. They need to believe they have the space to tell you more.
- When a student says something, notice your own internal agenda developing (Oh, I need to move this lesson on… Should I correct that error?… The other students are bored, I’d better interrupt… What the hell am I doing here…?) and drop it, ignore it… and focus entirely on the student and what they’re saying.
- When someone speaks, and finishes, wait a bit longer than you normally might before uttering a sound. Use those few moments to notice whether you’ve taken in what they said. Ask yourself how you would respond to a non-student if they had said the same, if the context were not the classroom, and see if that takes you somewhere new in terms of response.
- Combine your best powers of empathy with the golden rule (‘Do unto others…’): If you were in the students’ shoes, how would you want to be treated by the teacher?
It may have struck you that my 5 ideas are not really of the ‘practical idea’ type, but rather focus on where your head’s ‘at’ and some subtleties of behaviour. And that’s where some of the most dramatic change can start: inside your head, in the way you think, and in subtle changes in your behaviour.