The significance of listening in curriculum design is often overlooked in ESL classes in most schools in Canada. In fact, listening has been rightfully labelled as the ‘Cinderella skill’ as teachers tend to allocate as little classroom time as possible to it. Surprisingly, it does not stop at this; a small or no portion of the homework assigned to the students involves listening activities. Listening practice is critical since it reinforces previously learned material, helps build ESL students’ confidence and facilitates the process of acquiring the skill of natural pronunciation; however, students are just expected to pick up this skill as they are not given much formal training on how to acquire it.
Why is listening the forgotten skill?
1. The domination of classic literacy skills
A multitude of factors may persuade ESL teachers to overlook the importance of listening activities. The emphasis put on literacy skills -reading and writing- at the expense of a major receptive skill (listening) can easily push teachers to ignore designing and using listening activities in their instruction. Such a decision can become even more justifiable in the context of one-to-one ESL tutoring programmes where the teachers have a preference for teaching reading and writing as well as vocabulary and grammar.
2. Teacher-centred Instruction
Despite the declared desire for a paradigm shift, much of what is going on in most schools and after-school tutoring programmes is still teacher-centred. This leaves little room for instruction provided through other media. Simply put, in classes where teachers are seen as the sole authority and the sole transmitters of knowledge, listening activities cannot find their way into classroom instruction. This situation is even more grave when the teachers are native speakers of English. Where this is the case, lectures and instruction provided by the teacher is deemed enough. However, this cannot make-up for the absence of some focused meaningful listening activity that can deeply engage students in the act of listening and the more detailed aspects of language. To top it off, teachers’ frequent use of the same repetitive structures and vocabulary due to their idiosyncrasies and the inherent limitations that exist in the diversity of language use opportunities in the classroom restrict ESL students’ exposure to the kind of language that helps them solve problems in a great many other situations that might not be academic by definition.
3. Old learning habits
It is undeniable that a considerable number of students that are assigned to ESL classes or are advised to take after-school English classes have little or no affinity for classes that involve meaningful aural (listening) tasks. More often than not, this leads to a certain degree of reluctance on the part of students to do listening activities which, in turn, can slow down the entire process of acquiring English even when they already live in an English-speaking country.
4. Unequipped Classrooms
Although most schools are equipped with modern whiteboards, the typical school classroom literally has not witnessed significant changes. Just like the good old days, there is still a teacher, kids, books, posters and student work hanging on the wall. This is partly due to the tight budget schools have as well as their limitations of space as most classes have thin walls that are not soundproof. Such circumstances make it difficult to incorporate various listening tasks into classroom activities.
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