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Knowing the demands, knowing the learner

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Last updated 28 May 2013 13:30 by NZTecAdmin

Developing an awareness of the demands of listening and speaking tasks can help you to understand the challenges that particular tasks may pose for some learners. By comparing the demands of a task and the strengths and needs of learners, you can identify some specific approaches and activities that may help learners cope with task demands. In addition, you may identify ways to reduce the challenges of listening and speaking tasks.

Most learners will not need to be assessed formally for listening and speaking. Observations and discussions will show that most learners are very well able to engage in listening and speaking for the purposes of their courses or workplaces. Some learners will need to be assessed against specific listening and speaking criteria (see the box below), and a small number of learners may require closer observation and/or assessment of their listening and speaking skills.

In most teaching, learning and working situations, the listening and speaking that occur during interactions provide the best opportunities for noticing the strengths and needs of learners. It is through our interactions with peers, workmates, managers, the public, clients and others that we reveal our personal and professional knowledge, skills, attitudes and willingness to communicate. Observing learners in group discussions and in their regular interactions is an easy and effective way to gain information about learners.


See the appendices for detailed information and procedures that can be used for diagnostic assessments of listening and speaking. These will probably be of most use to tutors who need to assess learners against specific listening and speaking criteria, for example giving a short talk or presentation, participating in a meeting.


You can consider the demands of tasks and the needs of learners in a variety of ways. For example:

  • Familiarise yourself with the progressions in the Listen and Speak to Communicate strands.
  • Go through your course material and consider the kinds of oral tasks your learners need to do, or those they engage in most often. Think about the way course material is delivered (for example, listening to lectures, participating in group discussions, listening to or giving spoken instructions and explanations, giving short presentations, greeting, thanking or farewelling guests).
  • Consider the listening and speaking required in the workplace or other settings (such as giving or following instructions, explanations, requests; taking part in discussions; taking or leaving phone messages; dealing with the public).
  • Consider the socio-cultural contexts in which learners are expected to operate and how this may impact on their ability to engage comfortably or easily in interactions with others. This will not always be obvious so it is important that tutors do not make assumptions or set inappropriate or unrealistic expectations.
  • Find out something about the learners’ listening and speaking experiences, behaviours, habits, strengths and needs through discussions with groups and individuals (see also the survey in Appendix C).
  • Read through the steps and notes of the Interactive Listening and Speaking progression. The notes in this progression will help you to understand the ways in which interactive skills develop.
  • Observe learners interacting socially, in the workplace, in class or whexerever you see them. Over time, it is usually apparent who the confident and competent speakers and listeners are, and who may hold back. The reasons for holding back may not be immediately obvious, but you may notice patterns over time. Remember too that a person who appears confident in one situation may struggle in a different context.
  • Use the Discussion checklist (Appendix A) as you observe learners. See “Observing discussions” for more information and an example of one tutor’s use of this.
  • Use the indicators below to help you decide if a learner should be referred to a literacy specialist or support tutor for assessment.
  • If you are working with learners whose skills may not yet reach the first step on the learning progressions, see Starting Points: Supporting the Learning Progressions for advice, for example for developing listening vocabulary.

Indicators of listening and speaking issues

There are some indicators that might alert tutors to specific issues some learners have when they are required to listen, speak or interact verbally with others. There can be many good reasons why learners act in these ways, and they may have nothing to do with low verbal skills. You should also consider your own ways of interacting and the expectations you have of learners: it may be that changes on your part will enable learners to feel they can communicate more readily.

Take note of learners who:

  • rarely or never volunteer in group situations
  • appear to have low self-esteem or confidence, particularly in a new situation
  • are confident in practical tasks but quiet in discussions or meetings
  • are reluctant to deal with people they don’t know, in person or on the telephone
  • say they understand and nod in agreement but don’t do what is expected of them
  • look blank or puzzled when you explain things but don’t ask for help
  • constantly check instructions with their peers or workmates, particularly those who speak their own language.

Some learners may need help with spoken English. This might be indicated if they:

  • can’t use the right technical terms used in the course or industry
  • are hard to understand
  • watch people carefully for hand or body gestures, to get clues about what is being said
  • have difficulty answering questions or need prompting to speak
  • often ask people to repeat what they’ve said or to talk more slowly
  • never volunteer answers
  • are isolated because of language or cultural differences.

If you have identified areas of need from these indicators, look through the activities in the section Knowing what to do to find ways you can support learners. You may also find suitable activities inStarting Points: Supporting the Learning Progressions. There are a number of ESOL resources available that can provide advice and suggestions for working with learners who are new English speakers.

Observing discussions

A discussion about a topic gives you an opportunity to observe the ways in which learners in a group interact with each other. As well as the indicators described above, you can use a checklist to guide your observation, such as that in Appendix A. This can reveal information that you can then use to:

  • teach specific listening, speaking or interaction skills
  • change the ways in which you set up discussions
  • provide support to learners who are reluctant participants
  • make decisions about the way you manage group teaching times.

When you set up such discussions in the context of a teaching/learning situation (for example, in class) in order to gain information about the learners, you should be outside the circle as an observer. You may want to explain to the group that you’d like them to talk while you observe, and you could invite one or more of the learners to sit outside the group with you to observe the interactions.

Carrying out the observation

  • Choose an opportunity when a discussion is required for learning, or set a specific topic. Alternatively, you may wish to observe a discussion that has occurred in a social, work or community context.
  • Let the learners discuss freely without intervening. If the conversation flags, wait. It will often resume. Only if essential, you could ‘seed’ the discussion with prompts according to the topic such as:
    • What are some ways other people might deal with this?
    • How comfortable do you feel about dealing with this?
    • What do you think is necessary for effective communication?
  • Make notes (with examples where possible) on the discussion checklist as you observe.

Allow the discussion to move to a natural end and notice how the learners close it. Thank the participants and give them feedback on your observations, keeping this positive and evenhanded. If others have observed, ask them to give feedback. The learners in the discussion may want to share their observations too.

Encourage the learners to think about and discuss the listening and speaking demands of their course or workplace. Explain that you will be making use of the information that you have gathered as you plan your teaching.

See also the description of this process in Appendix C.



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