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Teaching and Assessing Listening for ELs

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Why is explicitly teaching and assessing listening for ELs critical in all classrooms? What tools and activities can be used to practice listening in a culturally responsive and engaging way for all students? What do authentic conversations and listening comprehension activities sound like, and how can educators more effectively encourage these in their students?

Listening is inherently tied to language and is learned differently than skills like writing or reading. Multilingual learners need a specific approach to instruction and assessment in order to be successful at listening for meaning and to ultimately be able to engage in authentic academic conversations.

We dive into the topic of teaching and assessing listening and cultural responsiveness with Theresa Blanchard and Paul Hernandez from Sanger Unified School District in California. These two educators have designed and implemented successful strategies to help their students succeed in a variety of ways. Listen to the full episode on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts, and read our biggest takeaways from the conversation below.

4 Strategies for Teaching and Assessing Listening for ELs

Explicitly model and teach a few key techniques for active listening.

“We need to teach and show students how to listen, and it sounds odd, but listening is one of those skills that you need to be locked in or focused the entire time. So what we do is we deliberately teach just a few skills that they can use in any classroom, anywhere in life really.” - Paul Hernandez

Paul and Theresa emphasize that integrating listening into the existing curriculum is not enough; these skills need to be intentionally modeled and taught at every grade level. A few examples of listening skills to be demonstrated and used as classroom norms include:

  • Deliberate note taking while listening to a video or audio passage (these notes could be structured as a scaffold or learning tool, or unstructured as students become more experienced)
  • When we’re listening, we are trying to catch the main idea, a few key words or points, and the vocabulary
  • Constantly reinforce that in listening, unlike other tasks like reading or writing where you can take breaks when you want, you need to be actively engaged the entire time so you don’t miss important information

Support transition into higher level reading by anticipating common challenges.

“A lot of teachers don't know how to support academic language development or how to teach listening, especially for multilingual learners, because in early grades, a lot of the texts and stories are typically shorter. They're very engaging, there's usually a lot of visuals or illustrations to support their comprehension and new vocabulary.” - explains Theresa Blanchard

However as students progress to higher grades, the texts become longer and more academic, and it is important to build listening stamina and good note-taking skills. Strategies like chunking the amount of information students listen to or process at a time, and allowing students to listen to or engage with material multiple times will help students to better comprehend meaning. Theresa also mentions the activity called text reconstruction, which involves several rounds of listening activities for an audio sample:

  • First round, students listen only, without taking notes
  • Second round, students listen again and take take notes
  • Third round, students compare notes and discuss findings with a partner
  • Finally, together partners reconstruct what they have heard in their own words

Monitor progress to measure growth and find specific areas for improvement.

“Receptive skills, such as listening, can be very difficult to assess, because we often ask students to talk or write about what they've heard after they've listened in order to measure their comprehension. So there's always this connection,” -  Theresa Blanchard

Theresa goes on to explain how their district has found ways to specifically track growth in listening for ELs. On top of state language development tests, they have created something called a “Language Matrix”, which they’ve embedded in Ellevation Platform for their teachers. 

“We actually push out a form to teachers every trimester at the elementary grades to give them a chance to reflect on what they notice about their students' speaking and listening skills. So the Language Matrix is a crosswalk between the ELA speaking and listening standards, and there's six of those, and then the ELD standards and proficiency levels,” - Theresa explains.

In this way, they equip educators with a more standardized rubric for the listening grades that end up on report cards, and can use the data to set goals and measure progress throughout the year.

Deepen and extend listening opportunities through authentic academic conversations.

For multilingual learners, authentic opportunities for speaking and listening are largely beneficial for their language skills and confidence.

In the episode, Paul and Theresa give detailed explanations of opportunities in their district for these authentic academic conversations, such as having EL students:

  • Write and produce their own podcast - even using their iPhones or tablets to record and edit
  • Create scripts for, record and edit their weekly school announcements
  • Help livestream and report on school and community events
  • Give partners two difference primary learning sources and have students teach each other about their materials (harnessing the information gap concept by Jeff Zwiers)

Paul shares that the biggest takeaway from implementing such activities with his students has been the palpable difference when the focus is on real language and having real conversations.

“As a teacher, you can just hear it. I don't know how to really explain it, but when you get into your classroom and they turn and talk or they're in a group and it's a real conversation, it just sounds different. It's like one of those moments where you know your students are truly getting something out of the activity.” - Paul Hernandez

Download the full episode transcript here.

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