Monthly Archives: September 2013

Radio Gaga

I’m always telling my students to listen to the radio, so much so that it’s become something of a joke between us and they know what’s coming each time we get into a group discussion about improving listening skills outside the classroom. A while ago and on the spur of a moment, as the laughter was just petering out following one such occasion, I flicked the CD player to ‘radio’ for the first time and tuned in to a discussion programme on BBC Radio 4.

In fact, it was only the tail-end of a programme, but long enough for the students to pick up the gist of things so that a meaningful follow-on discussion could ensue. ‘Gist’ listening, set against that of ‘detail’, which most course-book exercises are concerned with, is a skill somewhat looked over in my experience. Understandably, when one considers the gambit of ‘detail’ questions and tasks that appear in the internationally recognised English exams we all know and love.

But if listening for detail or ‘specific information’ is a survival skill that enables the learner to ‘get things done’ in the real world, then gist listening is an integrating, socialising one, imperative to participating in even the most mundane of conversations in the street, cafe or bar.

‘Listening for gist’, however, is rather a shoddy and unbecoming name for the actual skill in that it assumes no detail is in fact listened for, and suggests a vagueness that is altogether unattractive to the learner (exam candidate) bent upon honing their powers of listening. Further thought might suggest the opposite is true. To capture the gist of a recording, the learner is required to take the initiative in filtering what is heard in order to retain those elements most beneficial to the reinforcement of their understanding. This is done without the help of gapped-sentences or summary completions to indicate precisely what is important in the recording and what the learner ought to be waiting for.

With regard to setting up an interesting discussion with a class, the teacher may be well-advised to reach for the frequency dial before the course-book CD on occasion. With the freedom of each student to listen to a programme excerpt without stricture, different ears will pick up on varying points of interest and give students the opportunity to explain to their classmates exactly what they themselves heard and understood that the others might have missed or taken differently.

The teacher could even select a particular programme online so that it’s featured debate or monologue could be factored into the lesson, or the lesson otherwise built around it. Alternatively, a three-minute listen randomly selected from the static, followed by twelve minutes of discussion, error correction and vocabulary building, can make for an enthusing and productive final fifteen minutes of a lesson.

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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A question of temperature

The optimistic T-shirt-wearers of early summer turned out to be right after all. The weather over the past months has been glorious, and I hope it has contributed to those of our students accustomed to such temperatures to feeling that little bit more at home in Cardiff. It is interesting, however, to hear the experiences and opinions of those from even hotter climes on the topic of our recent, prolonged heat-wave.

Living with extreme temperatures and/ or climates necessitates adaptations to lifestyle and everyday routine that we in the UK might find it difficult to envisage. In countries where heat of 50 degrees plus is unexceptional in summer, air-conditioning wapped up in every room of every building and electing to travel short distances by car instead of walking are essential measures for maintaining health as well as comfort. Enduring 30 degrees in a country where air-conditioning is an extravagance found almost exclusively inside vehicles and where all inside spaces are designed to retain heat is therefore no mean feat for someone who is used to dealing with temperature very differently.

There may be more to the significance of temperature for education than typically assumed. Hot, stuffy classrooms are of course uncomfortable, as are those that are cold, but outside the classroom, differences in ‘ideal’ temperatures are likely to depend upon the activity that one is undertaking. For example, most Brits enjoy a day on the beach all the more under sweltering heat, of the sort that would make many other activities, such as working in an office, unbearable.

One of my comprehensive school teachers used to insist that cold, at least at a level just below that which is considered comfortable, was conducive to learning, and would set the radiators in our classroom accordingly. I’m sure that sort of thing wouldn’t be allowed today, but even if it had been true, the learners would almost invariably have grown up with the same British climate so that an ideal ‘bracket’ of temperature could, theoretically, have been asserted.

As a flip-side to the example described at the start of this post, we once accommodated two Siberian students with private tuition at our school during a bout of unusually cold weather. Incredibly, or so it seemed on first encounter, both claimed that conditions in the UK were far colder than they were used to back home, where all rooms in all buildings are heated to a minimum of 25 degrees. We duly heated their classroom to meet their level of comfort and unexpectedly found ourselves teaching in short-sleeves in mid- winter.

Tristan Francis

Director of Studies

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