Demystifying Receptive Skills – Quick wins for your classes

The single most requested training I get from MFL teachers relates to listening skills. Colleagues often feel this is the most difficult skill to prepare pupils for, possibly because it is easy to misunderstand the myriad of micro-skills that make up “listening”. For pupils it is also difficult: it often triggers anxiety and leads to feelings of inadequacy and giving up.

Train students for a marathon

One of the most effective things we can do to increase our pupils’ proficiency in listening is to start seeing the process akin to running: it would take a novice runner time and dedication to be marathon ready. The same applies to preparing students for a listening assessment such as a GCSE exam. We need to start training them early and demand constancy; spend less time testing and give them more opportunities to practise all the micro-skills required. Long gone are the days when pressing the play button from the front of the class and asking pupils to answer true or false or comprehension questions was deemed enough. To run a marathon successfully you should mix tempo and interval running, include strength workouts, etc. To complete a demanding listening assessment successfully you should train your students to interpret the stream of sound, to get better at phonological decoding, holding chunks in working memory, etc. Aiming at what Dr Conti explains as automatisation of the micro-skills our brain needs to extract meaning from any utterance we hear.

Don’t be afraid to create your own texts and exploit them fully for language improvement, moving away from traditional comprehension questions. Create a variety of activities based on the same passage, pre-teach some of the language, repeat more than twice and approach the whole thing as training, not as if every listening exercise done in class was “race day”.

Training takes time and there are no quick fixes overall for an up to now neglected skill such as listening. However, receptive skills can improve dramatically if you teach distractors explicitly and give your classes opportunities to practise spotting and dealing with them.

Some common distractors and “little words” in GCSE papers that need to be taught and practised:

  1. Different person

A question might ask what does she do in her free time but the audio starts with a girl saying what her friends like doing, or her brother… Expose pupils to this type of exercise (write your own script if you need to) to train them to wait and extract the exact information required.

  • Quantifiers/qualifiers

The text indicates a number/quantity but preceded by “more/less than”, “around”, “about”, “almost”. These “little words” are required for an accurate answer that will translate into marks. The answer “50 km” will not be valid if the text indicates “almost 50 km”.

  • Negatives

Do all of your students know words such as “jamais”, “nie”, “tampoco”? Make sure you include all the possible negatives in your regular recall activites. These words need to be understood no matter what the context.

  • Introducing opposites or contrast

Make your pupils very familiar with any ways of indicating the opposite or when a difference is introduced; words such as however, but, although, on the other hand, etc. can hold the key to an answer.

  • Precision

If the question requires pupils to identify the most/least of something or the favourite/least favourite, etc. make sure they understand the requirement for precision. For example, often a list of activities might be given in a positive manner, but only one will be described as “his favourite one”.

  • A compilation of what AQA calls “little words” can be found here.

Teach explicitly tricky words such as the difference between “un poco” and “poco” in Spanish.

Different types of questions and preparing students for them: recall, process, inference

It is important that as a teacher you recognise there will be different types of questions in receptive skills assessments with varying levels of difficulty for the learner: recall, process and inference. It is also important that you expose pupils to all of them and practise strategies designed to upskill.

If you want to train students on answering questions requiring inference, try some of the following based on either an audio or reading text:

  • Was it a good or bad experience? How do you know?
  • How were people feeling about …? How do you know?
  • Read lines… (or listen to the first extract). What can you imply?
  • Are there any comparisons expressed?

Above all, keep in mind that upskilling in receptive skills is a training process (similar to marathon training!) that requires time and lots of practice.  

Mariu Hurriaga is United Learning’s MFL Subject Advisor with responsibility for raising standards in more than 50 Secondary MFL departments, in both Academies and Independent Schools. Previously, she taught Modern Languages (Spanish, German, French) and Latin at a variety of schools and was Head of Department for 15 years. She is also an examiner for GCSE and A-level.