The students are practicing a typical dialogue about making plans. They work in pairs, first rehearsing a scripted dialogue that uses key vocabulary, then extending the conversation themselves with the help of role-play cards. They discuss when they can meet for lunch this week, using the schedules on the cards to determine their availability.
A typical language learning scene—but something is different. One student chuckles, as if what his partner is saying is funny. Another looks openly bored and stares off into space. Another acts nervous or jumpy. Still another has taken an aggressive or hostile posture. What is happening here? The students’ role-play cards, in addition to providing schedules for the information gap, have also directed them to use body language and nonverbals to convey various attitudes or emotions.
Why? What effect does this have on their language practice? Around the room, people are listening more closely to one another. They do not initially understand why their partner is conveying a particular attitude or emotion, or what it might have to do with making plans, so they interact in ways that are more attentive and creative. The communication is more genuine.
From my perspective, there is a strong need in TESOL classes to promote this kind of authentic listening. When classroom “conversations” are merely rehearsals of target vocabulary or language functions, communication tends to become artificial. At some point during the lesson, there ought to be an open-ended element. Only then will the communication be engaging and relational, and only then will the planned task be truly respectful of people and what they have to say.
Listening is, after all, biblically connected with wisdom. Solomon said, “Let the wise listen and add to their learning” and “The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.” The Master Teacher Himself told His followers not to “babble” in prayer—God is not impressed with many words. Good listening can be a concrete way to value others above ourselves. When we teach listening, are we equipping learners with a language skill for negotiating sociocultural transactions for their own benefit? Or can we aim higher, teaching listening as a virtue to be exercised in wise and fruitful living?
Here are three practical ideas for promoting this kind of listening in class: First, as in the opening anecdote, incorporate body language and nonverbals. These can be added onto almost any coursebook task.
A second idea is to use structured discussions. The use of structure (a conversation template) slows things down and promotes genuine listening. For example, a simple small group discussion structure I have used successfully is: (1) Everyone has time to prepare what they would like to say on a given topic. They may jot down notes but not a script. (2) Each learner shares their thoughts in a set period of time, with no interruptions allowed. (3) Each then asks another group member a question that invites clarification, explanation, or elaboration. (4) Each then gives another group member positive feedback, such as “I agree because…” or “Thanks to you, I realized that…” (5) Finally, each learner comments on one way in which the discussion has affected their own original opinion.
My third recommendation is specifically for teacher education classes. When training ESOL teachers with regard to the “four skills,” ask them to read non-TESOL articles or books about being a good listener. Then discuss how to synthesize principles from these readings with standard professional knowledge in order to teach listening more holistically.
 Proverbs 1:5 and 12:15, New International Version.
 Matthew 6:7-8.
 Philippians 2:3.