The Missing Element: Someone Who Listens

EFL/ESL/ELT, learning English, pre-intermediate to advanced A2-C2.Tutoring, pair work, learning on one’s own

A link is missing in our educational system: "People who listen." By this, I mean either teachers or assistants working privately with one student at a time or classmates showing real interest in what their partners are saying.

Studies conducted in France show that levels in English (especially oral English are not improving. It is true that the government added English to the curriculum in primary schools a few years ago as previously there was no teaching at all for this age group. However, this has not led to better speaking skills especially as most primary school teachers do not speak English or have an insufficient level.

As for junior high school students, competency in spoken English has decreased in spite of the Internet and recent technological innovations. A teacher interviewed on the news explained the argument of most colleagues: "This decline is the result of the suppression of teaching positions. We need more teachers."

Other reasons for this decline

I agree with this statement to a certain degree but wish to take it one step further by asking two fundamental questions.

  • Why in this day and age is the proficiency of students in many disciplines especially foreign languages on the decline?
  • Why with all this profusion of knowledge available to everyone can we not help students master acceptable speaking skills in several foreign languages?

The missing link or element

The rise of the Web 2.0 with a profusion of easy-to-access and easy-to-fuel sites, blogs and social networks points to a significant need for self-expression. People—especially young people—want to be heard. They want to voice their opinions. They don’t want to sit silently listening to a teacher or even to one student speaking at a time. They want others to listened to what they have to say. Yes, that is what is missing: someone who has the time to listen and show interest in what the student has to say.

Would we accept what students go through?

Who among us, adults, wants to spend a whole day listening passively to a manager, a department head or even a prominent lecturer? One or two hours would be OK, but not most of the day. We all need to communicate. We all have reactions to what we hear, in particular, information that contradicts what we believe or have learned elsewhere. We need to interact with others. It might be a neighbor or the person sitting next to you on a bench. Putting "voice" to an interior reaction allows us to analyze and cement our ideas, which helps us remember them.

Individualizing education

We should try to introduce "tutorials," one-to-one sessions with teachers, coaches, assistants, or volunteer teachers whenever possible. We should encourage any arrangement that will let the maximum number of students express their thoughts and make the learning process an "oral" activity.

More important than preparing what you are going to say to a class is anticipating reactions and allowing your students all possible opportunities to express themselves. The primary concern should be the learner: If an exercise or activity can be conducted WITHOUT the constant intervention of the teacher, then the latter should remain silent.

Here are some solutions:

  • If students can use a key to correct their work, favor this solution.
  • If students are supposed to memorize a text or poem, have them recite to a partner and never to the whole class in front of the teacher.
  • Give precise instructions in both oral and written form when assigning tasks.
  • Get used to working in a noisy classroom. It is far better than functioning in an ultra quiet atmosphere of boredom.
  • Help students prepare ahead of time for a presentation—thus avoiding teacher corrections during the talk.
  • Have your students ask each other questions so that they are practicing interrogative forms instead of only making statements.
  • Favor activities where students can prepare outside of class, but be sure to always go over their presentations ahead of time to avoid intervening while they are speaking in front of all their classmates.
  • Give students the possibility to present the same information several times over to different classmates through the use of "charts of rounds" or other means of rotation.
  • Give "individual" and "private" corrections whenever possible.

Avoid certain techniques

  • Do not conduct an exercise with the entire class unless you are giving a brief explanation or the students are supposed to respond to your questions together as a group.
  • Never force students to answer "teacher questions" spontaneously one after another —this method drastically reduces STT (Student Talking Time).
  • Never point out the mistakes of a specific student in front of the entire class.

When is the teacher supposed to correct?

Teachers often seem a bit perplexed when I first explain this technique called "Intensive Student Talking Time." They inevitably want to know a what point the teacher is supposed to correct the students. They seem to think that if the students are doing everything on their own and are just being coached or encouraged from the sidelines, they will not improve. They seem to believe that only the teacher’s words will help students overcome recurring errors. Actually, students can learn just as much from their classmates as from the teacher. And when you are capable of explaining something to someone else, then you have truly mastered the subject!

Avoiding embarrassment

There are many ways to point out a student’s mistake. Teacher correcting in front of the entire class is one—but it often creates embarrassment. And the student who feels humiliated by the teacher in front of classmates has little chance of remembering what the correction was. If, on the other hand, the teacher moves around the room and discreetly corrects students privately, this procedure will prove to be far more useful and yield better results. The teacher will hear students say, "Yes, of course. Now I understand." Very rarely would a student say that same sentence after having been corrected by the teacher in front of everyone else.


So trust your students to correct each other and even teach their fellows. A classmate with a detailed key can pick up most mistakes if that person is paying strict attention to what is being said. And this is an excellent way of giving the "silent" or "listening" partner a reason to concentrate and to speak up when necessary.

An inspiring video

If you want to see a remarkable video about children teaching each other, I recommend Sugata Mitra’s inspiring TED talk "A Hole in The Wall".

Best wishes,
Marianne Raynaud

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