Adrian Tennant looks at common listening issues and provides practical hints and tips for putting students at the centre of listening tasks.
This article focuses on a number of key issues in listening, including getting feedback from students about successful listening, getting students to listen to each other, finding out what students hear, teacher talk and gist listening. Each issue is dealt with separately and is followed with a task or two to give practical guidance for the classroom.
How do I know if the students understand?
In many situations in real life when we are listening to something or someone we have the opportunity to give immediate feedback. For example, when someone is talking to you or when you are on the phone. Of course, this isn't always the case – for example, if you are listening to a lecture or the radio. However, apart from when students are listening to each other, there is little opportunity for such feedback in many listening activities in the classroom. The tendency is for students to listen to a text and then answer a number of questions or complete a chart or some other such task. The problem here is that it isn't until the listening has been finished that we actually get any feedback from the students as to whether they could understand what they were hearing. By this time it's too late. All we can do is to repeat the listening text, which is hardly a satisfactory solution.
So, what can we do in order to remedy this lack of 'immediate' feedback? Well, here are a few practical ideas.
Living tape recorder
Draw some audio controls on the board (play, rewind, stop). Check with students that they understand what these symbols represent. Explain that you will play (or dictate) a listening text. The students should write down the text. While you are reading it students can shout, 'Stop!' at any point. You will then 'stop' until you are told to continue ('play'). If a student wants you to repeat a particular part, they should shout, 'Rewind to XXX.' You will then go back and continue from that point until you are told to stop.*
This activity allows students to dictate the speed at which they listen to a particular text. It allows them to focus on individual words when they need to and gives them the confidence needed to develop their listening skills. Of course, it is important that you don't overuse the activity or students may become lazy listeners!
Act it out
Read out (or play) a set of instructions that students have to 'act out'. For example, stand up, touch your left ear, walk to the window, draw a circle in your notebook, etc. It's quite clear from their response whether they have understood or not.
Although at first glance this appears to be only suitable for young learners or low level classes, if you think carefully about the instructions, it can be adapted for other classes as well. The beauty of the activity is that it is immediately clear whether students have understood (you can even see the ones who are copying and therefore don't really understand what they are hearing).
And the next word is …
Choose a piece of audio. Tell the students the topic of the audio. Play a short section and then click on the pause/stop button. Ask the students to predict the next word (they can do this by whispering their ideas to the student sitting next to them). Click play and let the students hear the word. Don't make any comments at this point. Play another section and repeat the process. Do this with the whole of the audio. At the end ask the students how successful they were in predicting the next word. You will be able to tell from the students reactions how well they are doing.*
Predicting vocabulary based on the topic is a skill that we all employ in our first language before and while we are listening. It is also important NOT to check or comment on the accuracy of their predictions while the activity is going on. The aim is not to get it right, but rather to concentrate on the content and vocabulary in order to make it possible to guess.
* Thanks to Paul Seligson for reminding me of these ideas.
My students won't listen to each other! What can I do?
This is a complaint that is often heard, especially in multilingual classes. However, even in monolingual classes students often complain that they shouldn't be listening to each other (I can speak better than X, I don't want to hear their mistakes, I want to hear 'real' English speakers, etc.). But one of the best sources of listening material is for students to listen to each other. Teachers often say to students that most of the people they will use English with are non-native speakers and so it is good to hear each other. Teachers also point out how good it is for students to speak as much as possible (and most students accept this). But, if they are going to speak a lot, who is going to listen? Other students, of course! It is therefore important to try and make listening as important as speaking when students are doing pairwork.
My topic is …
Ask students to think about a topic they are interested in e.g. a hobby, favourite film, a friend (this can be set for homework if you want). Ask one student to speak (you can set a time if you want e.g. three minutes). The other students should listen and write down at least two questions they want to ask. When the student finishes speaking, the other students should ask their questions. Note: In large classes this can be done in groups.
Different or the same?
Put students in pairs. Ask them to talk to each other about a topic, e.g. last weekend. Set a task, e.g. find three similarities or find three differences. This then focuses their attention on what their partner is saying rather than it simply being a monologue followed by a second monologue.
My students don't get the correct answers. What can I do?
This is a common problem and is caused as much by the idea that getting correct answers equals comprehension. Of course, it's true that this is sometimes the case – but not always. Students may get the answers correct through guesswork, or the task/questions being too easy, or copying, and so on. Even if they do get the answers right, it might not mean that they understood much more of the listening. How do we know whether students understood other parts of the listening text that weren't focused on in the questions/task? We don't!
It is equally true to say that just because a student isn't able to answer a question correctly, it doesn't automatically mean that they didn't understand. Yes, they may not have understood that particular part, but what about the rest?
Choose a piece of audio from a coursebook. Play the audio once, and then tell the students that you want them to write some questions about it. 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.
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.
Is it wrong for the teacher to talk a lot?
No. One of the problems here is that many training courses and books on 'how to teach' talk about TTT (Teacher Talking Time). They speak about how the more a teacher talks, the less opportunity there is for students to talk. However, this tries to turn what is quite a complex situation into a simple quantity one. For the time being let's not focus on aspects such as QTT (Quality Teacher Talk) versus TTT, or whether the percentage time students and teachers speak is necessarily complementary (i.e. the less a teacher talks automatically means students will speak more). Instead, let's look at a different aspect of Teacher Talk – that is, TT as a source of listening.
Every time a teacher talks they are providing their students with a listening opportunity. Therefore, if they give their students a reason to listen to them, then this can only be a benefit.
Teachers telling personalized stories can often be an excellent source of listening for the students. This idea works well if you teach a class at the same time as a colleague is teaching a similar level/age group of students. Divide the two classes into half (group A & B). You take all the group A students (half your class and half your colleague's class), and your colleague takes all the group B students. Both of you tell a short anecdote, lasting two to five minutes. Get students to take notes and then compare them in pairs or groups. Repeat the anecdote if necessary. Then get all your students back with you and send your colleague's students back to their class, so they have all their students. Now pair them up so that in each pair one heard your story and the other student listened to your colleague's. Get the students to retell the stories to each other.
My students always try to hear every word! What can I do?
As we've already seen in Top-down and bottom-up listening, students often want to or at least try to hear every word – it doesn't matter how much we try to dissuade them. However, if the listening text and/or the task are designed well, this problem can be tackled face on.
What's the message?
Choose a text, e.g. a listening from a coursebook. Read the text out, but only say the stressed words – i.e. the unstressed words should not be said at all, but you should leave gaps where they would be (one practical way to do this is to say them in your mind!). Ask the students to write down what they think the message is – not every word, but the topic, subject or instruction.
Fill in the blanks
This is an extension of the above task. In this case you want the students to reconstruct the complete text – even the parts they haven't heard! Repeat the process from the What's the message? task, but at the end ask the students to write out the complete text, including what they think the unstressed words are – they can do this in pairs.