Written by: Svetla Tashevska – New Bulgaruian University, Sofia
Download: Presentation in MS PowerPoint .PPT format
It is not uncommon for EL teachers in Bulgaria to avoid testing listening comprehension for a variety of reasons. In this workshop participants are invited to consider some techniques which are not very demanding from the point of view of test construction, and are interesting and motivating for the learners. The activities are most suitable for lower levels of language proficiency but can be adapted to higher levels, as well.
NB The material below accompanies the Power-point slide file of the same name.
1. Lead-in
(Slide 1)
Although listening in life is part of oral interaction, accompanying speaking, there is room for testing the listening skill separately from speaking, the more so that there are real-life situations in which no speaking is required: eg. listening to a lecture, listening to the weather forecast or another radio/ TV programme, listening to airport announcements.
(Slide 2)
How often do you use published tests?
Do you use tests of your own design? How often?
Do you include tasks for listening comprehension in your classroom tests?
If yes, what kind of tasks do learners do in the listening part of your tests?
If not, why not?
It seems that the disadvantages of teachers designing their own listening comprehension tests outweigh the advantages.
(Slide 3)

  • recorded material – not easily available
  • difficult to select appropriate passages
  • difficult to design test tasks

(Slide 4)

  • you know your students best -> cater for your particular students’ needs, help them gradually develop their listening skills better – based on their level/ starting from where they are (not where an impersonal, international student is)
  • can use their own and their students’ creativity in making/ doing the test

(Slides 5 & 6)
When people listen there is nothing to observe/ to judge by that comprehension is taking/ has taken place. Problems may arise for the listener because of the transient nature of the spoken word: the listener cannot go backwards and forwards over what is being heard as they can in a written text.
So, the job of the test designer is to set such listening tasks which will reliably demonstrate that students have successfully understood the relevant information.
Is that so difficult, though? We are going to consider some techniques for testing listening and decide after we have experienced and analysed them, if this is so.
2. Experiencing: exemplifying some techniques in close up and what they test
(Slide 7)
Luckily, the learning exercises we use to develop listening skills in class can easily be used or adapted for use as testing tasks in a test.
To construct valid test items of listening we should try and avoid making the student’s performance dependent on other skills, like  reading (e.g. reading long multiple choice options, reading a summary) or writing (e.g. writing an answer to an open-ended question). The best way to achieve this is through use of visual material.
Some examples:
True/ False
(Slides 8 & 9)
Picture + spoken statements
[Ss hear]

“1. The lorry‘s on the left of the motorcyclist.
2. The car’s traveling in the same direction.
3. A dog’s running in front of the car.
4. A little girl’s running after her mother.
5. She’s holding a doll.  … “
(Heaton, 1988:71)

Multiple Choice
(Slides 10, 11 & 12)
A set of three or four pictures + a spoken statement
[Ss hear]

“2. Danny can’t run as fast as Claire.
3. Tom wishes his sister could play tennis with him.
4. The switch is so high that Kate can’t reach it.”
(Heaton, 1988:72-73)

[Ss hear]

“Circle the letter of the picture that illustrates this situation: You have a box with two small balls in it. One ball is made of wood, and the other is made of iron. A powerful magnet is put on top of the box.”
(Madsen, 1983:134)

Picture dictation
(Slides 13 & 14)
An incomplete picture, a blank page – not important how well/ badly the S can draw; minimal demands on the other language skills
An incomplete picture (a simple line drawing)
(Slides 15)
[Ss hear] “

1. Draw a table and two chairs in front of the cafe.
2. Draw two traffic lights on the opposite side of the road.
3. Draw a zebra crossing between the Oxford School and the cinema.
4. Draw a lorry traveling in the opposite direction to the car just before the junction.
5. A policeman directing traffic is standing in the middle of the junction. Draw him.
6. Although there’s only one tree at the side of the office building, there are two trees on the opposite side of the road. Draw them.
7. Some people have complained about the danger of crossing the road between the cafe and the cinema. A pedestrian footbridge has now been built at this point. Draw it.
8. A man who has been cleaning the windows of the second floor of the office building opposite the cafe has forgotten to take his ladder away. It’s still leaning against the window on the extreme right of the front of the building. Draw it.”
(Heaton, 1988:78-79)

(Slide 16)
Mr Peanut version of the incomplete picture (Heaton, 1988)
A blank page, laid lengthwise
[Ss hear]

The quickest way
Draw a line across your page from left to right – draw the line across the middle of the page.
Above the line there are waves.
In the top left-hand corner there is a sailing boat.
Draw a man lying on the sand in the bottom left-hand corner.
Top right-hand corner – there is a swimmer in the water.
The swimmer is shouting, “Help! Help!”.
Make a dotted line from the man on the sand to the swimmer.
What’s the quickest way for the man on the beach to reach the swimmer?”
(Rinvolucri & Davies:56-57)

(Slide 17)
Key – sketch drawing of The quickest way (Rinvolucri & Davies)
Extended communication (not based on visuals)
(Slide 18)
Using a social/ business context
[Ss hear – spoken at normal speed, with contractions, natural-sounding pauses, hesitations, …]

“Check in here?
Yes. Can I see your ticket, please?
Here it is. I’m going to L.A.
Smoking or nonsmokng?
Nonsmoking. And can I get an aisle seat?
All right. That’s 8-D. Put your bag on the scale, please.
I’ll check it straight through. Here’s your boarding card. That’ll be gate A-16. They’ll be boarding in about an hour.
Oh, is it late?
About twenty minutes.
And, uh, is it a breakfast flight?
Yes, it is. Have a good day. Next, please.” (Madsen, 1983: 141)

Some typical items:

(1) What time of day is it?
A. Morning     B. Afternoon   C. Evening
(2) What is the customer doing?
A. Buying an airplane ticket.  B. Checking on someone’s flight  C. Checking in at an airline terminal
Avoid small details!
e.g. What gate number is the customer going to?
(Madsen, 1983:141-142)

Other techniques, not involving visual material:

  • Multiple choice (verbal material)
  • True/ False/ No information (verbal)
  • Short answer
  • Completion
  • Note taking
  • Partial dictation
  • Information transfer:
  • drawing a route on a map/ sketch
  • labeling pictures
  • completing a form, a graph or a table
  • picture dictation

3. Some practical advice for designing listening comprehension tests
(Slide 19)
When designing multiple choice items:

  • use as much visual material as possible to avoid interference of other language skills;
  • keep the stem/ the question short ;
  • use three (instead of four) options;
  • keep the language of the options simple;

(Slides 20 & 21)
When writing items for extended listening (e.g. to a talk):

  • focus on the most important points from the content – the general meaning and intention of the message;
  • avoid testing memorization of unimportant or irrelevant points;
  • space out the items throughout the passage (keep the items well apart from each other): we should not punish the students for not being able to answer a subsequent item because it ‘comes’ too soon after the previous one;
  • pay attention to signposting (signaling that certain information is about to be heard in the passage, e.g. After considering these two factors, …; My last point is …): it is only fair that students should be warned by key words (in the test item and the passage) about that;
  • give sufficient time to students to look through the items before they listen to the relevant excerpts: familiarization with the items will compensate to some extent for the lack of extra-linguistic features which help comprehension in real life situations
  • some experts do not exclude allowing/ accepting responses in the students’ mother tongue in some circumstances (perfectly understandable when there is someone who does not speak English but is part of a project team, for instance, and needs to understand certain information which we interpret for him/her)
  • (after Hughes, 1989)

4. Conclusion
(Slide 22)
The best listening tests for your students can only be designed by you, their teachers!
(Slide 23)

  • Heaton, J. B. (1988), Writing English Language Tests, 2nd edition, Longman Handbooks for Language Teachers, London & New York: Longman
  • Hughes, A. (1989), Testing for Language Teachers, Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Madsen, H. (1983), Techniques in Testing, Teaching Techniques in English as a second Language, Oxford American English, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press
  • Rinvolucri, M. & Davies, Dictation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press