As I have already discussed in a previous blog, foreign language instructors ‘teach’ listening skills through comprehension tasks that mainly involve identifying words or details they need to answer a closed question (e.g. true or false?). In addition, they often model to their students ‘inference strategies’ which involve paying selective attention to keywords in the text in order to, based on their knowledge of the context or para-textual features (e.g. photos), use them to reconstruct or ‘intelligently guess’ the text’s meaning. Although some of the above does address bottom-up processing skills, in my view most of the focus tend to be placed by teachers and textbooks, whether consciously or not, on top-down processing skills (using background knowledge to infer new information).
Whilst the skills just alluded to above are very useful, one important set of listening skills seems to receive very little emphasis in many MFL classrooms, despite being pivotal in the process of reconstruction of the meaning of any spoken text: phonological decoding or parsing skills, the ability, that is, to interpret the L2 sound system, which enables learners to make sense of what they hear – where each word starts and ends, for instance, which is crucial, as one of the reasons why a foreign language sounds ‘faster’ to a beginner L2-learner is that they cannot draw the boundaries between each word they hear and consequently speech sounds like a continuous unintelligible flow.
The ability to effectively decode the phonological level of foreign language speech will hinge on how accurately the foreign language sound system has been encoded in our Long-term Memory. This is because, as we listen, we match the sounds we hear to the most approximate existing versions of those sounds in our brains. Hence, focusing our learners on this level of the language, through listening activities, ‘kills two birds with one stone’: on the one hand, we enhance their understanding of how the target language is pronounced thereby modelling good accent, on the other we enhance their understanding of target language speech.
In fact, our students’ failure to comprehend aural target language input is often due less to lack of vocabulary than to the inability to decode sound; often the students do recognize the word in writing, but not when it is uttered by a native speaker, especially when it seems to ‘blend in’ with the rest of the sentence. Requiring students to engage in comprehension tasks involving the understanding of sentences or short passages without ensuring that they are proficient in the target language sound system is not only pedagogically wrong, but also unfair to our students and may end up engendering low levels of self-efficacy and motivation vis-à-vis listening skill practice.
In previous blogs I have already argued for the importance of focusing beginners on this level of the language and of emphasizing pronunciation as much as possible from the very early days of instruction in order to facilitate speaking and listening fluency development. Thus, I will not elaborate on this point any further.
8 Micro-listening enhancers
I call the activities I use to work on this listening-skills subset ‘Micro-listening enhancers’ (please note that this is my personal jargon, not one used in the Applied Linguistics literature). The following is a list of some of my favourite ‘Micro-listening enhancers’ for use with beginner students. The reader should note that these activities are not always applicable to all foreign languages (I mainly use them in teaching French and English). One particularly useful application of these activities is with students who need remedial pronunciation instruction.It should also be noted that the content of these activities should be semantically related to the lesson focus and not include just random words (as some of my examples below may seem to suggest).
Broken words: the students are given words with missing letter clusters (missing ‘bits’ may be provided aside) . Ideally, the instructor will remove more problematic sounds or sounds which are the focus of a specific lesson. The words chosen should belong to the same semantic field
Example (French) : man_ _ _ ; ch _ _ _ ; _ _ _ mpignon; b _ _ re; v _ _ ;
Options: oux – cha – oi – in – ger – eu – ie – eux
Spot the ‘foreign’ sounds : in this activity, the students are provided with a list of words or a sentence, and as they hear the teacher or the recording, they have to highlight any sound that does not exist in English, by underlining/circling the relevant part of the word. This activity is very useful in order to enhance learner awareness of how the graphemic (written) system and phonemic (sound) one relate to each other in the target language.
Example: sœur ; père; famille; grandparents; moins ;
Spot the silent letters : the students are given a list of sentences like the one below and hear them uttered by the instructor. The task is to highlight the letters that have not been pronounced by the teacher – as they are silent in the target language.
Example: je suis étudiant dans une école internationale en Malaisie
Listen and re-arrange : This activity is for absolute beginners. Students are provided with series of four or five words or short sentences. The teacher will read the words in a different order to the one given to the students who need to rearrange the words accordingly.
Example: (student’s series) Chambre, Lit, Armoire, Tapis, Mur
(teacher’s series): Mur, Armoire, Chambre, Tapis, Lit
Spot the mistake: students are provided with series of words like the one above. The teacher pronounces all the words correctly but one. The task is to spot the mistake in each word series
Minimal pairs: This is a classic. The teacher pronounces two words containing very similar sounds or which students may mistake for homophones and the students need to spot the correct spelling.
Example: moi / moins ; bon / bonne ; achète / acheté
Rhyming pairs: The students are given a list (on paper/whiteboard/google classroom) of five words all with different endings, chosen based on their difficulty or simply because they contain sounds they may need to pronounce during the planned lesson. The teacher then reads out six or seven words (the extra one or two are distractors), five of the words rhyming with the five words provided initially (see example below). The task is for the students to identify which words rhyme with which.
Example: (student’s words) moi – ville – famille – travailleur – brillant
(teacher’s words – which the student cannot see) bois – mille – peur – soleil – ailleur – dur – jouet – cédille – mer – souriant
Gapped sentences with multiple choice: this is a classic word recognition task. The teacher utters sentences and the students need to fill in selecting the correct word from a choice of three or four provided aside. Using tongue twisters for this kind of activities can make it more fun. Songs can be used too, as motivation enhancers
In conclusion, working on the phonological level of the target language can help learners across two dimensions of language acquisition: speaking, by promoting better pronunciation and listening, by developing more effective bottom-up processing skills (the ability to decode sounds). The above activities can be fun and should be staged before the students engage in listening practice or conversation to ‘warm them up’, so to speak, and/or to go over problematic sounds which may affect the intelligibility of the aural input they will be processing or of the oral output they will be producing. I have used them over the years with success and my students reported benefitting greatly from them. Teachers should ‘get creative’ and come up with as many activities as possible, which, like the above ones, enhance students’ L2 phonological awareness. (For more listening enhancers: https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2015/08/18/more-micro-listening-enhancers-for-the-foreign-language-classroom/ ).