So…how do we ‘teach’ listening?

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In previous blogs on the topic of listening skills pedagogy (e.g. here) I noted how in UK secondary schools the methods used to teach this pivotal skill are often inadequate. My criticism centred around the following points:

  1. There is little focus on practising phonological processing micro-skills. Yet these are essential as listening involves first and foremost bottom-up processing skills; hence, to develop learners’ ability to effectively and efficiently process the L2 sounds and match what they hear to the mental representation they have of those sounds in Long-term memory is paramount. To facilitate the acquisition of the L2 phonological system I advocated the importance of emphasising phonological awareness from the very early stages of instruction.
  2. Top-down processing skills and strategies are rarely explicitly and systematically taught. Listening comprehension is also about applying inferential skills; predicting what comes next based on the expectations that make up our schemata about a given situation.
  3. Listening comprehensions are over-used with detrimental effects on many learners’ self-efficacy as L2 listeners. Listening comprehensions are tests through and through. As such, there is a place for them in the L2 classroom: as plenaries, after much practice has occurred. A listening comprehension task on a given topic (e.g. environmental issues) should be carried out after the students have had extensive listening practice on that topic which has involved vocabulary, structures, discourse functions, etc, similar to those found in that comprehension task. Otherwise, it will be unfair and will encourage a perception of listening tasks by the students as guessing games. But listening tasks should not be guessing games. Students should come to a listening activity equipped with developed enough listening strategies, phonological processing ability and vocabulary to be able to succeed at it; or we, as teacher, will have failed along with our students. The worst outcome of this practice is usually, in my experience, that the less capable of ‘guessing’ will develop low self-efficacy levels and motivation vis-à-vis listening tasks.
  4. The learning potential of listening texts is often not exploited sufficiently. This is particularly the case for the listening tasks found in textbooks. Typically the teacher plays an audio-track two or three times; the students do a listening comprehension task (e.g. True or False); the answers are marked; finally the class move on to a new task. What has actually been learnt? What happened to the potential of the text for practising other levels of the text or other skills other than picking details?
  5. Listening tasks do not occur in textbooks or schemes of work as part of a well-thought out learning sequence. In his review of the relevant research Macaro (2007) points out that in most UK classrooms listening tasks are rarely effectively integrated with what come before or after; especially in textbooks.
  6. When authentic texts are used by teachers, students are not effectively prepped. Listening tasks invoving ‘authentic’ materials (e.g. youtube videos) are assigned without preparing the students adequately for them in linguistic terms. The assumption made is that it is ‘comprehensible’ input; truth is, often it is not, at least not for all of the students in the class and the logic of the listening task as a guessing game often applies here, too.
  7. Speed of delivery. For the sake of ‘authenticity’, the speed of many published instructional listening materials is native or near-native. However, this is not always pedagogically sound when we are dealing with novice to pre-intermediate learners unless we are engaging in the ‘guessing’ game again. After all, in naturalistic settings people talk to novice non-native speakers more slowly and clearly that they would normally do and often simplify their input. This is done by teachers, too, when they speak to the class. However, this is far too often not done by course-books and it is rarely the case for ‘authentic’ listening texts. My students, in a very recent survey of student opinion I conducted in my school, complained that the listening tracks in the course books and published materials in use were either too easy or too difficult; rarely ‘right’.
  8. Listening is the least practised skill in L2 classrooms – or at least definitely less practised than reading and writing. This is a huge problem as recent research shows that listening proficiency is a strong predictor of language learning success; even higher than aptitude.

2. Teaching implications

First of all, let us consider what effective listening entails. In order to comprehend L2 spoken texts our learners will need to

  1. be able to recognize the words they hear; know where they begin and where they end – as when they do not, L2 speech sounds like a fast unintelligible flow of gibberish. This entails (1) knowing their pronunciation or being able to infer its graphemic form (spelling) based on one’s L2 phonological awareness; (2) knowing their meaning;
  2. be able to identify how the function words perform in the target text, both in terms of grammar and discourse;
  3. possess well-developed top-down processing skills in order to be able to compensate for lack of vocabulary; hence, they need practice in schemata activation and application in real operating conditions.

These are, in my view, the implications of the above discussion for the L2 classroom:

  1. Listening activities (possibly of the kind listed below) should feature in most lessons, the long-term goal being: students listening to L2 audio material for pleasure and/or personal enrichment (at home / in class);
  2. Listening activities should focus on bottom-up processing skills through:
  • Phonological awareness tasks (see my posts on listening micro-skill enhancers and on transcription tasks: here ) ;
  • Word (meaning) recognition tasks. This could start from simple matching tasks (e.g. match picture to word) to translation tasks (e.g. teacher says word/lexical phrases and student writes meaning on mini-board/iPad)
  • Metalinguistic awareness tasks (e.g. identification of what word-class lexical items fall into).
  1. Teachers should practise top-down processing skills through (1) jigsaw listening or ‘predict what comes next’ activities; (2) explicitly modelling of and practice in effective inferential strategies (e.g. using context and key-words identification to infer meaning; contextualized brainstorming before listening). Comprehension tasks can be used here.
  1. Challenging listening comprehension tasks should come at the end of a sequence of listening (or listening + reading/speaking/writing tasks). This is an example of what a teacher could do to prepare a student for a challenging listening comprehension – one would not do all of them, of course, and some of the tasks below may be replaced with reading/speaking or writing activities focusing on the same language items for the sake of variety.

Task 1: vocabulary building activities (in which the vocabulary in the target listening comprehension task are presented and practised)

Task 2: phonological-awareness-enhancing skills (e.g. the same words in Step 1 are gapped and have to be completed whilst listening; gap-fill with missing words to fill in; partial transcription tasks)

Task 3: Word recognition tasks – match words with picture/English word;

Task 4: Listen to short sentences and translate;

Task 5: Listen to a set of sentences and Identify key grammatical / discourse features (e.g. spot the adjectives or categorize the verbs heard in tenses)

Task 6: Jigsaw listening of a text similar to the listening comprehension (both in topic and structure);

Task 7a: listening to the target comprehension task one or two times, with transcript on screen (students can ask questions about words. You can set a limit to the number of words they can ask about);

Task 7b (alternative to 7a): partial transcription task using the target comprehension task;

Task 8: Students carry out listening comprehension (no transcript available);

Task 9: Transcript shown on screen and vocabulary building and/or reading comprehension tasks carried out on text to consolidate any interesting/useful lexical items.

5. In order not to ‘waste’ the full learning potential of a listening track, one could use it to address various levels of the   text, e.g. (after pre-listening vocabulary activities targeting potentially challenging words):

  • Firstly, by gapping the transcript of text (taking out words or phrases) and asking the students to fill in the gap (multiple-choice) – transcript projected on screen;
  • Secondly (after removing transcript), by carrying out a jigsaw listening activity;
  • Thirdly,by noting down as many verbs as they can identify in the text (specifying the tenses they are in?)
  • Fourthly, by listing a few ideas/facts contained in the text (in English or TL) in random order and asking the students to rearrange them in the order in which they occur in the text;
  • Fifthly, by doing a true/false/not mentioned comprehension;
  • Vocabulary recycling follow up may ensue.
  1. In order to lessen cognitive load and facilitate retention of the target vocabulary the listening texts used in the same lesson or sequence of lessons should recycle the same lexis. Narrow listening, whereby the students are exposed – through different activities – to four or five (short) texts on the same topic and containing more or less the same lexis, may be very valuable in this respect. It helps the students understanding by recycling the same language material; when the texts are made increasingly (slightly) more difficult, it facilitates differentiation for teachers; it increase retention through recycling. It goes without saying that the input should be pitched at the right level (comprehensible input).
  1. Teachers should expose students to TL speech/narrative uttered at a speed which is accessible to the students they are teaching. Hence, if using audio-tracks or video, they may want to produce them themselves with the help of native or expert speakers. I do it all the time and it is not that time consuming. Narrow listening could come in very handy in this respect; the four or five target texts could be recorded at different speed, starting from fairly slow and becoming increasingly faster from text 2 onwards.
  1. When using authentic listening texts/videos teachers should prep the students thoroughly by presenting and practising extensively any new vocabulary contained in the text or any other element (e.g. cultural references) which may pose a serious cognitive challenge.

In conclusion, L2 teachers should emphasize listening much more than it is currently done in the typical MFL classroom. Also, serious thought should go into the selection and sequencing of listening tasks.When selecting a listening comprehension and planning listening activities one should ask oneself the following crucial questions:

  1. Am I actually teaching listening skills through this task or am I merely testing students on their inferential ability?
  2. What skills am I teaching: top-down / bottom-up or both? How?
  3. How can I make sure that as many of my students as possible will succeed at the task I am planning? What are they going to find difficult about this task and how am I going to prepare them for these challenges?
  4. How can I exploit the full potential of this text for learning?

Although all of the above questions are pivotal, I do believe that the third one is by far the most important. Far too often, for reasons that have often baffled me, listening tasks are unfairly constructed to ‘trick’ students in getting the wrong answer. Sentences like ‘I have a cat but not a dog’ seem to have been put in just to disorientate the learner. For what learning gain? To discriminate which learner picks up on the negative and which one doesn’t ? Teachers and textbooks need to get out of this listening-as-a test mentality. Listening being possibly the most difficult set of skills to develop we need to ensure that students do well at and enjoy it. In this day and age, when so many free videos and audio-materials are available on the internet, we need, more than ever, to develop self-efficacious listeners who autonomously seek opportunities for practice; this can only be achieved if learners experience success frequently in our lessons.

More on listening in my article “Listening – the often mis-taught skill”  and in the book I co-authored with Steve Smith “The language teacher toolkit”

17 thoughts on “So…how do we ‘teach’ listening?

  1. Both this and the ‘rethink our approach to reading’ are must reads for beginning and experienced teachers. We do have to be strategic about why we do things to give students the keys to unlock the murky world of learning languages. Thank you!

  2. I was influenced by a certain Heather Rendall on how to help pupils develop listening skills. She argued like you do that it is not about catching learners out. I took this advice to heart and changed my approach.

    Another thing to point out, purely practical of course, is the quality of the listening materials in terms of clarity. I once was at a school back in the days of tapes where copie of copies were used on very dubious machine as well. Once we replaced machines and only ever used a copy of a master, the listening results improved dramatically. Obviously with digital recordings this is not so much the case.

  3. Hi, thanks for your posts, which provide great food for thought! Just wondering whether you could point me in the direction of the research you mention above, regarding listening proficiency being a strong predictor of learning success, please? Thanks a lot.

  4. Thanks for your fab articles which are Never too theoretical and offers such Great i deas. I enjoyed The Teacher’s toolkit. We need to make SLA more accessible to teachers and their Craft . In Italy language improvement courses for in service teachers should be mandatory as exposure to correct pronunciation is key (phonological awareness as you’ve rightly pointed out ).

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