Adrian Tennant takes a look at the issues surrounding teaching listening, gives advice on how teachers can help their students and provides some practical ideas for the classroom.
When we ‘teach’ listening in class there is a fairly standard approach, which involves setting the topic, pre-teaching some vocabulary, setting some gist questions, playing the audio, checking the answers and then setting an intensive task (comprehension questions, true/false, complete the table, fill in the blanks, etc). But, is this really ‘teaching’ listening, or is it, at best, practising and nothing more? To me, it all seems rather superficial and product-orientated. In other words, it suggests that the reason to listen is to answer the questions, and if the students can’t answer the questions, it means they didn’t understand the audio.
To my mind, this seems to be wrong. Firstly, the purpose of any listening activity shouldn’t be simply to answer some questions – it should be to develop a specific skill. Secondly, if a student can’t answer a particular question, it doesn't necessarily mean they are bad at listening, or even that they didn’t understand most of the audio. It simply means that they couldn’t answer that question. In fact, there may be other reasons they couldn’t answer the question. For example, they didn’t understand the wording of the question or they didn’t hear the part where the answer was, and so on.
Listening in the classroom is usually a very artificial activity in that it almost always relegates the student to the role of ‘eavesdropper’. The student is overhearing a conversation or listening to a monologue without any active participation. Of course, we do experience this kind of listening in real life. For example, we might overhear a conversation on the bus (but then we are rarely tested on what we heard with a series of comprehension questions!) or we might be listening to the radio. However, we also experience many other types of listening, and these are often either neglected in the classroom or dealt with within another skill.
Practicing and teaching listening
There is a time and a place for the type of listening where the focus is on answering comprehension type questions, but this is not ‘teaching’ listening. It is listening comprehension and listening practice. It is essential that we differentiate between practicing and teaching, and it is also necessary that we try and go beyond the superficial in our classrooms. One of the problems is that as teachers we like our students to always get the correct answer. And, as such, we will pre-teach vocabulary to help comprehension, grade the questions and ask the particular students we think will have the right answer, etc. This is even more likely when we are being observed: if a student is unable to answer a question correctly, the observer will often comment on the fact, as though it is a problem either with the teaching or with the ability of the learner. But teaching is not about everyone getting correct answers – it is about developing skills and learning.
This is why I refer to a student's brain as a ‘black box’. It is impossible for the teacher to know what is actually going on in a student’s brain, and although questions help, they do not necessarily indicate whether learning is taking place or not.
So, what can we do?
The first thing we can do is start thinking about what listening means to us in our everyday lives. What are the different situations in which we listen to things? What do we listen to? Why do we listen? What are the skills we employ during these different ‘listening’ situations?
Then we need to think about what exactly we can ‘teach’ to enable our students to cope with the same situations when they encounter them.
But can’t our students already listen?
I’ve often heard the sentence: ‘But we don’t need to teach our students to listen – they can already do this in their own language!’ Although this might be true to some extent, listening is not necessarily the same in every language, and students often don’t think about ‘how’ they listen in their own language. Therefore, they are unable to easily transfer the skills from listening in their own language (L1) to listening in a second language (L2).
How many times have you seen students struggle with a listening task? Of course, it might be the actual language (the vocabulary and grammar) that is the problem. It might be the speed of the audio. But it could equally well be that students don’t know how to process the information they are hearing.
It might also be worth pointing out that when students complain that something is too fast for them, what is often happening is that they are ‘shutting down’ and not processing the information in the way that they would if they were native speakers (or listening to their own L1). Therefore, what students need is to be directed (possibly through a task) in order to process the information in the most effective way.
An example task could be:
- How many people are speaking?
- What do you think they are talking about?
- What words did you hear that helped you identify the topic?
- Can you think of any other words that you might hear when people are speaking about this topic?
- Listen again and see if you can hear any of these words.
- Discuss your ideas with a partner.
What makes listening tricky?
There are a number of particular ‘features’ of listening that make it a tricky skill. Firstly, it takes place in ‘real’ time. This is one of the arguments for repeating audios a number of times. However, this does not accurately reflect either real-life listening or the way in which listening (even classroom listening) is processed. Listening naturally includes redundancy (when information is repeated either with the same words and expressions or in a slightly different format), yet we often fail to exploit this fact when teaching the skill in class. We need to help our students deal with the real-time element and use the redundancy to help process the information being conveyed.
Secondly, unless students are aware of the purpose of the redundancy it can often cause problems in itself. Students need to be made aware of the fact that redundancy occurs in natural speech and of why it occurs. Then they can use it to help them.
Thirdly, background noises, speed of speech and the fact that people often speak at the same time or overlap (i.e. someone cuts into another person) will all cause problems. Students need to face these problems and talk about them in order to find ways of dealing with them whenever they occur.
Finally, what often makes the task of listening particularly tricky is the view of many students and teachers that it is a passive skill. There appears to be this idea that you can just let the monologue or dialogue ‘flow’ over you and take in what you hear. However, in many cases in real life, listening is not passive. It involves the listener in a meaningful engagement, often with the speaker, and is a co-constructed activity. Unfortunately, most classroom listening activities are not like this and thus do not really prepare our students for ‘real’ listening.
So, what should classroom listening be like?
To start with, listening needs to be ‘taught’. It needs to be seen as an active skill in which students take part and in which there are opportunities to interact, negotiate, discuss and become part of the event rather than being an ‘eavesdropper’. The majority of real-life listening involves all of these things and yet learners are often denied them in the classroom. As teachers we should start trying to bring to life the listening activities our students undertake.
At lower levels in particular, listening tasks should focus on helping students feel competent and believe in their ability. This means that it is essential to move away from a product-orientated (answers to questions) approach. When students feel there is a need to understand every word, whether or not that is necessary to achieve the task, they will never become ‘good’ listeners. Ultimately, teaching listening should be about just that: ‘teaching’ not testing. If the focus is just on getting the correct answer, then we are failing our students.
Some practical ideas
What did you hear?
Play a piece of audio and ask students to note down who was speaking, what they were speaking about and any other things they think they heard. Emphasize that there are no ‘correct’ answers and that you want them to write down what they think and/or hear. Put students in pairs or small groups and ask them to discuss their ideas. Play the audio again, if necessary. Discuss the ideas as a class, asking people to explain why, but trying not to make judgements as to whether their ideas (answers) are right or not.
Rationale: It is extremely interesting to find out what students actually hear rather than focusing attention on what they should hear according to a set of predetermined questions. The activity probably needs to be used two or three times with different pieces of audio before students start to feel comfortable and realize that they are not being tested (i.e. you really aren’t looking for correct answers).
Choose an audio from a coursebook. Play the audio once, and then tell the students you want them to write some questions about the audio. They will ask other students these questions. Play the audio a further two or three times (more if the students ask) and get them to write their questions (this could be done in pairs or small groups). Finally, swap the questions around and play the audio again so that the students can answer each other's questions.
Rationale: This activity gets the students to focus on what they think is important in a listening text and not what the coursebook or teacher feels is important. It is quite interesting to compare the questions the students write to those in the book.
Add a third
Choose a coursebook dialogue (between two people). Play it and get the students to think about who the people are and what they are talking about. Then ask the students to think about the dialogue and imagine what it would be like if there was a third person involved/speaking. Get the students to turn to the transcript and rewrite the dialogue adding the third person (this can be done working in groups of three). Finally, ask a few groups to read out their new dia(tria)logue.
Rationale: Coursebook dialogues are often ‘neat’ in a way in which real-life conversations aren’t. Getting students to add a third person also demonstrates a deeper understanding of the material than standard comprehension questions ever could.
We often interrupt
Choose a dialogue from a coursebook, e.g. a phone conversation. Read the first line of the dialogue. Ask the students to take on the other role, but without referring to the transcript. Once they have heard your line they should respond. Continue the process, either by using the next line of the coursebook dialogue – this then forces the students to readjust their thoughts – or simply by responding to what the students have said. Finally, if you want, you can get everyone to look at the original transcript.
Rationale: Most coursebook listening activities put the students in the position of eavesdroppers. This is actually a very unnatural state of affairs in most real-life listening. One aim of this activity is to make the listening activity much more realistic by making the listener take on an active role.
In this article we have only really scratched the surface in terms of the complexities of teaching listening in the classroom. A few key points I’d like to come back to are:
- We should ‘teach’ listening not simply practise or test.
- Teaching listening means focusing on the processes, not just on getting answers right.
- As teachers, we really need to think about what listening entails, not simply playing a piece of audio and leaving it there.
- Finally, listening needs to be seen as an active skill, not simply a receptive one.