Z is for Zero Uncertainty

31 07 2011

Mr Grumpy Blogger

Here is a listening sequence that could be from any current coursebook:

Pre-listening: 1. What do you know about garden gnomes? Have you ever had a garden gnome? Have you ever lost a garden gnome? Etc. Scrum down and talk to your mates. [This is the ‘activating schema’ stage]

2. Here are some words you’d better know: toadstool, abducted, postcard, package tour, gnomic… etc. [= Pre-teach some vocab that may or may not be crucial to an understanding of the text]

3. Here is a picture of a man looking at a postcard showing his garden gnome in St Peter’s Square. Here he is again, being interviewed. What questions is he being asked? What answers is he giving? [= Activating predictive skills so as to make listening to the ensuing interview more or less redundant]

Listening

1. Listen to this [pretend] interview with a [pretend] person whose [pretend] garden gnome was nicked, and do this task.

Put the interviewer’s questions in order. (The first one has been done for you).

  1. And how does this story end?
  2. I hear you lost your gnome. Tell me about it. (1)
  3. So what did you do?

[= easy gist listening question – so easy you don’t actually have to listen to the text to do it]

2. Listen again, and say why these words are mentioned: Red Square; front lawn; the Great Pyramid of Cheops. [= deeper level processing – and this is as deep as it gets]

Follow-up

Imagine you are a garden gnome who has been kidnapped and sent abroad. Write a postcard detailing your adventure. [= er, follow-up]

Why do I have problems with this kind of sequence?

Well, apart from the naff content and the scripted nature of the text (why are 90% of all coursebook listenings still scripted?), I really can’t figure out in what way learners are any better off after the process than they were before it.

Can we say, hand on heart, that this very superficial treatment of spoken texts has improved their listening skills one jot? For a start, by activating their top-down processing skills (world knowledge, predictive abilities, etc) and by setting only the easiest of gist checking questions, the learners have been so cushioned against having to engage with the language in the text at anything but the most superficial level that it’s very difficult to see how such a sequence prepares them for real-life listening at all, let alone teaches them anything new about the language.

This is like looking at the target language from 30,000 feet. But that’s where the learners are already. They’re very used to not really understanding texts, so why should they want to not really understand them in the classroom, too?

While it may get students into a text (and compensate for the lack of visual information, in the case of audio-only listening tasks), an over-dependence on top-down processing (i.e. using background knowledge, non-linguistic and contextual clues, etc) may delude both learners and teachers into thinking that linguistic information can safely be ignored. Or that having no more unanswered questions about a text (a state that Frank Smith calls ‘zero uncertainty’) is not a realistic, nor even a desirable, outcome.

As a second language user, I hate having unanswered questions. I hate being in the cinema at an Almodóvar film surrounded by cackling Spaniards, and not getting the joke. I hate missing the plane because I misheard the announcement and went to the wrong gate. I don’t like 50% uncertainty, or even 5% uncertainty. I crave zero uncertainty.

Students transcribing (photo courtesy of Eltpics)

So, how would I improve the sequence? Simply by the addition of further layers and layers of questions that probe and probe and probe at the learners’ emergent understanding, until not a word has been by-passed, not a discourse marker ignored, not a verb ending overlooked, and not a question left unanswered. And the sequence would culminate in a word-by-word transcription task – not of the whole text, necessarily – but of a decent-sized chunk of it.

But, to withstand the weight of so much probing, I would need a text that was of much more intrinsic interest, educational value, and linguistic capital than one about abducted garden gnomes!

Reference:

Smith, F. (2004) Understanding Reading (6th edition). Lawrence Erlbaum.