Is it fair to include a listening section as part of our exams?
By María de la Lama
It’s not an uncommon practice for English teachers when preparing exams to include a listening comprehension section. In many tests, listening comprehension receives the same weight as any grammar or vocabulary section. But, is this a fair practice? Can we evaluate listening comprehension in the same way that we evaluate grammatical or lexical knowledge? The answer depends on whether our students’ listening comprehension skills have been developed during the course, a development that implies a systematic training throughout the course with a practice that goes beyond the automatic playing of CDs to students . Listening as a receptive skill requires the training of more complex cognitive skills that cannot be developed with our overused listening exercises to get main ideas or specific information.
There are two important factors that need to be considered in the development, and hence evaluation, of listening skills: the teacher’s understanding of what it is implied in developing good listening comprehension skills and what our students need to reach this goal.
Regarding teachers, a good first step would be banishing from their daily teaching practice the oversimplification of the listening practice reduced to promoting the ability of listening by getting the main idea or specific information. In order to develop good listening skills in our students we must consider that there are other micro skills that need to be worked in class, such as recognizing stress and rhythm patterns as well as cohesive devices; distinguishing word boundaries or reconstructing and inferring situations, goals and participants, just to mention a few.
Regarding our students, if we want to include a listening section in our exams or tests it is worth considering whether we have given them the needed strategies to deal with this challenging skill. Information such as what to do before, while and after listening to a text is a valuable practice. Thus, before listening students should predict, activate their background knowledge of the topic, and most importantly, remember that the understanding of every single word of the text is not necessary to complete the task successfully. In the same token, while they listen they can be taking notes, focusing on content words and paying attention to contextual cues.
If students have had the chance to develop sound strategies to deal with listening texts and received thorough training aimed to develop important micro skills, then their performance in this skill can be graded in exams.
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DE LA LAMA, MARIA, Licenciada en Educación, cuenta con una maestría en Lingüística Aplicada y Bachillerato en Lingüística, ambos obtenidos en la Universidad de California, Davis. Posee además un MBA por la Universidad del Pacifico. Actualmente se desempeña como Directora del Centro de Idiomas de la Universidad del Pacifico.