Listening Test? Or Learning to Spy?!?

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have had a few criticisms to make of assessment this year, both in general terms and in terms of the kind of assessment I am asked/expected to do (see Another Failure for the Exam-Based System and Testing Times if you haven’t come across them before).

My main problem with the whole system is the fact that across the globe young learners are being put under unnecessary pressure through standardised testing. Despite all the talk about formative assessment, portfolios and so on, exams are still used to dictate grades. Indeed, ‘alternative assessment’ is often something just thrown on top of the existing system rather than being used to change/replace assessment as it should (sweeping generalisation I know but certainly the case in Turkey).

(I am aware, of course, that I risk self-contradiction due to the fact that I am running a series of blog posts on getting my students ready for the Cambridge Flyers exam. I actually find the Cambridge YLE tests to be preferable to a lot of other exams out there. The main problem with them is, as mentioned above in regards to alternative assessment, they are often used in addition to existing tests (especially in-house ones) when they should, in my view, be used as replacements.)


…for the purpose of creating listening test material - Image by sparktography

My main problem with the assessment I am asked to do is the listening test. First of all, it seems ridiculous that the students are given a KET listening test when they are preparing to take Flyers in the summer. Secondly, the style of the KET test strikes me as a bit old-fashioned - it’s full of radio announcements, making appointments and ‘street conversations’ between adults (that’s one good thing about Flyers listening - at least one kid is usually heard in the recording). It reminds me very much of the kind of listening tests I used to have when learning French at school - very much under the assumption that the person taking the test will visit a country where the foreign language is spoken. I thought we had moved past that point now (especially in English) and accepted that most non-native speakers of English will spend their ‘English lives’ interacting with other non-native speakers. Why then does the ‘listen to John talking to the chemist about his sore finger’ exam question still exist?

While thinking about the appropriacy of the contexts used for these test questions, another inadequacy was brought to my attention by one of students. We had just finished a test in which one of the sections featured a woman calling a music school to get information about lessons and I was collecting the papers when a particularly creative boy remarked “we are like secret agents”. Intrigued, I asked him to explain….


Inside this inconspicuous black van is a crack team of non-native speakers who all aced their Cambridge tests  - Image by Ped-X-Ing

“Because we are listening secretly to other people’s telephone calls!” came the reply.

Not only did I find that incredibly funny and surprising to hear from an 11 year-old EFL student but it also struck me that it was true. With tests and textbook exercises like these, we are not really teaching our students the skill of listening - we are teaching them to gather information covertly by listening in to people in private conversation about personal issues such as illness, problems at home or plans for the weekend! We are, in fact, unwittingly training the spies of tomorrow with the top brass of the US and UK armed forces tracking those who get top marks in IELTS or TOEFL listening for potential recruitment:


Image by Secretary of Defense

“We’ve been monitoring your progress ever since you took Starters kid - we need your skills to track a rogue agent’s phone calls….”

(Or, to look at it another way without the big brother paranoia, we are equipping future gossips and eavesdroppers with vital life skills… or training future tabloid editors!!)


…so I can practice for my listening test - Image by nikos providakis

That’s one of the many ‘real world’ things that I think gets forgotten in the language classroom sometimes - listening is not an activity we do in class. It is an integral part of everyday conversation and interaction. And yet, a lot of class time is spent ‘simulating’ an experience students are only likely to have when listening to the radio (is The Archers still on?), watching TV or snooping on someone! Our time would be much better spent working on more authentic interactional experience where our students have to listen, comprehend and formulate responses/keep the conversation going.

But I guess that can’t be tested easily with an A/B/C/D answer sheet. Until that changes, our classrooms will have to remain that much more removed from reality….


  1. Interesting thoughts and ideas. I would have cracked up if my students had said they were secret agents.

    As far as reality in the classroom in relation to listening exercises, I must say that it is difficult for us to opine regarding the type of exercises that are on the tests and book because it would be hardly feasible to get the language we would like to expose the students to through a Skype call for instance. The target of listening exercises is something that we must then ask ourselves. WHY are our students listening?

    1. Hi DKW,

      That is exactly what I'm questioning here - the target of listening activities. The vast majority of the time it seems to be the classic 'listening comprehension', a very passive aim and one that is not actuallly used that often in everyday language use. The fact is that when we do 'speaking activities', the students are also listening and doing so in a way that is much closer to most real life interactions.

  2. Bunch of Spooks in your class - what a fantastic comment! And I thought my students were astute.... This is actually one of the reasons I've always liked the IB programme as they see listening as something which is generally integrated with speaking i.e. they test listening in a conversation (if your reaction is totally weird then you didn't hear/understand the question/previous comment properly). But yes, in the meantime we have these 'spy' style listening exercises. But we have to remember the class is quite simply 'fake' and unless we move the entire class to an area where they can practise realistically we just have to make the best of what we've got. The idea of language villages is one which is used a lot over here (with older pupils running the shops/hospitals etc) and does count for an oral/aural grade but the main form of testing is, quite simply, the standard cd 'radio' or 'telephone' style fragments you mention above.
    Surely in an age of flip cameras, TBL etc it must be easy to video the kids having genuine conversations and use that as a portfolio proof of competence? (i.e. replacement for a mc test!). I suspect many teachers have one foot in the (digitally enhanced)future and their schools/governments are still firmly rooted in the (analogue)past.

    1. You are spot on with your comment about governments and schools Louise! I would say, however, that many teachers are stuck in the past as well. Doing listening any other way than classic comprehension exercises creates difficulties in marking, assessing etc. Rather than embrace the challenge, most teachers are content to stick with the familiar...

  3. Hi Dave,

    Even though I agree with pretty much everything you said, there seems to be one part I still can't agree - call me a purist, perhaps. The things I agree with is the fact that we should, and are able to, come up with tons of more realistic listening tasks, and technology allows us to help students set up activities that really demand effective communication, with negotiation of meaning, clarification of ideas and so on. However, as Louise said, many teachers still have to face yet another problem: fighting off admins whose solely job is to perpetuate an ancient system of learning and teaching.

    How about getting students to interact with other classrooms of English learners, and - this is the point I'm not so sure I agree with - why not getting learners to interacting with native speakers as well. I'm pretty sure this is completely different from the unrealistic tasks sometimes(?) presented by coursebooks. Yet, I still believe learners should be given the opportunity to have to listen to and understand native speakers of the language. Unfortunately, in many places around the world, their only chance of listening to a native speaker, and actually practising listening to a native speaker is by listening to those tapes and old recordings. There are schools in which the English teachers themselves can't speak the language and where students haven't got access to the Internet (or even computers) and cable TV is a distant reality. I'm sure this is completely different from what you said, and I apologise in advance for going off-topic, but I do believe it's important for learners to expose them to native speaker models even if, in today's world, their chances of interacting with NNESTs is much higher.

    Coming back to the part that I feel most strongly about, and the one I couldn't agree more, I also believe that our time can be much better spent by actually helping them communicate than simply listening to a tape and checking T or F for a listening passage and moving on to the next grammar part of the lesson.

    Cheers all the way from Brazil!


    1. Hi Henrick,

      'Native speaker models' are probably what the majority of NNESTs would highlight as the benefit of listening exercises but that opens a whole other can of worms - accent? pronunciation? setting?

      There are two main things I object to about the listening materials I have used over the years. First of all, there is the heavy emphasis on listening passively with the skill of comprehension completely isolated. This neglects the fact that listening is most often an integrated part of conversation. Second of all, the obsolete use of 'listen to Sarah telling her neighbour about a party she went to', a situation many of our students will never find themselves in!

      And don't get me started on the misleading information designed to 'trick' students into giving the wrong answer...


  4. The fact that you suggest we are "teaching them to gather information covertly by listening in to people in private conversation about personal issues" shows an insight to EFL listening practice I hadn't really thought of: listening is actually part of a larger process, including processing and reacting appropriately. It's not so passive, unless perhaps we're watching TV or in my context, listening to a lecture. Truer words were never spoken, Dave. Carry on!

    1. Hi Tyson,

      The most useful 'listening exercises' I have used in class were in an IELTS prep course I did a few years ago. As the exam is designed for students who want to go to the UK or elsehwere to study, listening to lectures, university annoucements etc is potentially useful (there is, however, the fact that many students who take the IELTS test these days are not planning to go aborad to study but rather some misled employer/governemnt department has decided it's necessary but that's another rant for another time). Beyond that, the recordings are often not much use unless our students are going to be watching soap operas!

      I especially object to young learners having to decipher conversations about small town life in England when they live in big cities or remote areas thousands of miles away or having to listen to annoucements and note down the hotline phone number when, in the real world, it's probably all internet addresses these days (yes KET, PET and FCE - I'm talking about you!)


Post a comment

Thanks for commenting! Your comment will appear after Dave has approved it. :-)