Practical suggestions of new ways to teach listening.

I'm an English from China. Most students in China feel listening to be the most difficult skill for them to acquire. As my students are future teachers of English, they are anxious to know more about the nature of listening and how to teach it. I attended some teacher training courses offered by the British Council a few years ago, but I find my knowledge of teaching methodology is very much out-dated. In order to satisfy my students' needs as well as my own, I am writing to ask: are there any new ways of teaching listening?
Lu Zhang

There are a number of orthodoxies propagated about the teaching of listening and the treatment of listening on teacher training courses. These include:

  1. Use plenty of recorded material.
  2. Prepare the learners for listening by setting the scene, introducing the characters, pre-teaching vocabulary etc.
  3. Before the learners listen, set a listening task which directs them to an overall 'gist' understanding of the passage.
  4. Check the answers to this task, playing the recording again if necessary.
  5. Set a further task, or tasks, which direct learners to a more detailed understanding.
  6. Only use the tapescript (if there is one!) as a last resort.
  7. Make the recording, and the tasks, as 'authentic' as possible.

There's a lot to be said for these approaches, and they've certainly been very helpful in spreading a concern for supporting the development of learners' listening skills, rather than just testing them. But they shouldn't be accepted unquestioningly, or used to the exclusion of other approaches. Let's have a bit of a critical look at them, one by one.

Suggestion one: use plenty of recorded material 

There are certainly plenty of good reasons for using recordings. It's a way of bringing different voices into the classroom: male and female, different ages, different accents, different voice qualities and so on. It means you can present dialogue as well as monologue. If the recording isn't scripted and rehearsed, it means you've got 'authentic' material – see suggestion 7 below. A recording can be played as many times as you like, and will sound exactly the same every time. These can all be advantages. 

But there are also some disadvantages and limitations. In practice, the range of accents on commercially available listening material is fairly narrow. In particular, accents which are close to British and American standard ones predominate, and non-native accents are neglected, which is a serious shortcoming in view of the fact that most learners of English nowadays are more likely to interact with other 'non-native' speakers than with 'natives'. Ideally, listening work in the classroom should try to equip learners with the flexibility to deal with a wide range of accents. 

Recordings are particularly suitable for practising the kind of listening where the listener has no opportunity to interact with the speaker: listening to the radio, listening to public announcements at airports, stations etc., or eavesdropping on strangers' conversations. But this probably only accounts for a small proportion of the listening that most people actually do. More typically, listening happens in the context of interactions such as conversations and meetings, where both (or all) the participants act both as speakers and as listeners, and, in the listener role, have the opportunity to give feedback to the speaker, or to interrupt the speaker to signal understanding, lack of understanding, need for repetition or reformulation, etc. 

This suggests it would be helpful to give learners more opportunity to listen to 'live' voices – visitors to the class, if feasible, or, most obviously, the teacher. This, of course, goes against recommendations to 'reduce teacher talking time'. But the teacher's voice is a neglected resource in providing listening practice in which the speaker can continuously monitor the listeners' interest, attention and apparent comprehension, adding any necessary repetitions, reformulations and explanations, and where the listeners can give the speaker signals both non-verbal (e.g. nodding, frowning) and verbal (e.g. "I see", "So, do you mean .....?", "I'm not sure what you mean by .....") – so that the listener is not just a passive, more or less successful, receiver, but understanding is mutually constructed.

Even for the 'eavesdropping' kind of listening, it would probably be more helpful, and more realistic, to make more use of video recordings rather than purely audio ones, since we can usually see people we're listening to – whether we're listening to them 'live' or on film or television. The visual component provides a wealth of information about the setting, the characters and the relationship between them, without which a listener is severely disadvantaged. In fact, by depriving learners of this visual information, we're actually contributing to their feeling that listening is inordinately difficult.

Furthermore, there can be a substantial loss of acoustic information in the processes of recording and, especially, playback, and this can also add considerably to the difficulty of listening. Of course, listeners do sometimes need to deal with less-than-ideal acoustic conditions, but it seems unfair to add too much too soon to the difficult task that learners have to face when they start listening to a foreign language.

Suggestion two: prepare the learners for listening by setting the scene, introducing the characters, pre-teaching vocabulary etc.

This makes a lot of sense, particularly because it helps to compensate for the lack of a visual element, and because when we listen we normally have some prior knowledge, expectations and predictions about what we're going to hear. In other words, it helps listeners to establish a 'schema' which they can use to interpret what they hear. On the other hand, though, there are also occasions when we start listening without the benefit of such a schema, and have to patch together our understanding of what we're listening to as we go along. For instance, we might switch the radio on at random and hear something that sounds kind of interesting, although it isn't immediately apparent exactly what's going on. Or we might ask someone a question and receive an answer so completely at odds with our expectations that we can't immediately interpret what we're being told. It would seem useful to prepare learners to deal with this kind of situation. In the classroom, this might mean letting them listen for a short time without any preparation, then asking questions like "Who / Where are the people?", "What are they talking about?", "What are they doing?", etc., then letting them hear a bit more before asking the same questions again, and so on; the purpose of the questions, then, is to help them piece together their understanding bit by bit, on the basis of the gradually accumulating evidence of what they hear. 

Suggestion three: Before the learners listen, set a listening task which directs them to an overall 'gist' understanding of the passage.

The idea of this is to support and direct learners' listening, and the comments about preparation for listening under 2 above are relevant here. Also, gist understanding doesn't necessarily precede detailed understanding; the 'gist' sometimes only emerges from a prior understanding of details. Teachers often tell learners that they don't have to understand everything, just the main points or the key words, but it could be argued that you sometimes need to understand everything in order to know what the main points or key words are! And in any case learners, as listeners, might find a different interest in listening from what the teacher or materials writer thinks is the 'gist'. 

Suggestion four: check the answers to this task, playing the recording again if necessary.

Re-playing a recording – perhaps several times – is fine as a pedagogic device. But remember that outside the classroom people sometimes only have one opportunity to hear something, and have to be satisfied with whatever understanding they can glean from that single exposure. On other occasions, they can request a repeat listening from a live speaker, but with the expectation that the speaker will not merely repeat, but clarify, paraphrase and simplify.

Suggestion five: set a further task, or tasks, which direct learners to a more detailed understanding.

As with any teacher-imposed or materials-imposed task, there's a risk of disrespecting the learners' own motivation and interest in what they're listening to. Very often, they will be able to come up with their own listening tasks – and very often these will be to do with language rather than content (see 7 below).

Suggestion six: only use the tapescript (if there is one!) as a last resort.

In L1 listening, it's unusual to read a transcript of what we listen to - whether before, during or after listening. And clearly learners need to gain experience and confidence in listening without the support of the written word. But this is a gradual process, and there's no reason why that process shouldn't include, especially in the early stages:

  • listening once, then using a transcript to clarify points of confusion before listening again.
  • reading before listening, to establish understanding of content, before listening to what that content actually sounds like.
  • reading and listening simultaneously, tracking the relationship between the spoken and written forms of the language.

Suggestion seven: make the recording, and the tasks, as 'authentic' as possible.

The notion of 'authenticity' is a complex one and has been widely commented on from various points of view. Some points that seem relevant here include the following:
• A recorded (or written) text loses its authenticity when it's exported out of the context in which it was created. For example, a conversation in a restaurant may be authentic for the participants in that conversation, but not for a group of language learners listening to it in a classroom thousands of miles away and years later.

  • Authentic recorded material is particularly likely to suffer from poor recording quality.
  • Even if the technical quality is fine, it may be too culture-bound for learners, or simply not interesting.
  • Even with very careful preparation and unambitious listening tasks, some learners may perceive authentic recordings to be inordinately difficult, and this can have a devastating effect on confidence.
  • Tasks that simulate out-of-classroom listening activities may not necessarily seem very relevant or motivating to learners. If you're in Britain or Canada for example, and you're weighing up a number of alternative activities for the coming weekend, then listening to a weather forecast, paying attention to the outlook for your particular region and making plans accordingly is a real listening activity. But if you're in China, you might not feel fully enthusiastic about imagining yourself into that scenario. You might think it's more interesting to listen out for the tense forms and modals used to describe a current weather situation and make predictions; this could actually be a more truly authentic task for someone who's listening as part of the process of learning the language. In other words, it might be more interesting to pay attention to language rather than content.

One aspect of language which is particularly crucial to listening skills is pronunciation, but this receptive side of pronunciation is still rather neglected in comparison with the productive side. This is perhaps where recordings – recordings of speakers with different accents – in conjunction with transcripts, can be particularly valuable, in providing material for the study of what spoken English actually sounds like: regional variations in vowel sounds, the compression and reduction of unstressed syllables, elision and assimilation, intonation patterns and so on.   

More fundamentally, it could be questioned whether it's necessary to teach learners to listen at all. After all, they've developed more or less efficient listening skills in their L1, so if they learn English – the vocabulary, grammar and so on – won't they be able to transfer their L1 listening skills to English? Well, yes ..... but some people need quite a lot of practice and encouragement to make this transfer happen. In particular, they tend to approach any instance of listening to English in the same way – by trying to understand everything in detail – rather than choosing from a menu of possible listening strategies according to what's appropriate: listening for gist, listening for one specific bit of information, listening for someone's mood or attitude, listening to identify someone's accent, listening for the exact words someone uses to express a certain idea, etc.


So, by way of conclusion, I'd make the following recommendations:

  1. Devote plenty of time to listening work. Yes, it is difficult. And it's doubly important because it gives practice in listening skills and provides raw material for language input.
  2. Make plenty of use of 'live' listening, with natural speed, delivery and pronunciation but tailored to the learners' interests in terms of content, and graded to some extent in terms of linguistic complexity. Give learners practice in using 'active listener' signals, and being effective conversational participants.
  3. Gradually introduce some recorded material. It should be naturalistic, but whether it's actually 'authentic' is probably less important than whether it's interesting and accessible to the learners. Use video where possible and appropriate.
  4. Give learners plenty of preparation and support for listening, especially in the early stages, but also gradually begin to give them some practice in 'jumping in at the deep end' and listening without any preparation.
  5. Give them practice in listening for different purposes: sometimes for understanding, sometimes for language input, sometimes for pronunciation study – i.e. purposes relevant both to their interests as learners of English and to their needs as prospective users of English.

 You can read more on this topic in my article 'Listening In', in English Teaching Professional 16 (2000) and in the chapter on listening in Bowen & Marks: Inside Teaching (Macmillan 1994)

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