Out of the four (Speaking, Listening, Reading, Writing), I have always found listening skills to be the most challenging - not only for me to teach, but also for my students to develop. The most obvious reason is that, as the Latin proverb goes, ‘verba volant, scripta manent’: spoken words quickly ‘disappear’ from our minds, written words are permanent, in front of our eyes, as tangible evidence. However, this is only part of the problem, at least when it comes to language learning/teaching.
Listening - an undervalued skill (slide 1)
For a long time, listening materials were used in the EFL classroom as a means to an end. They were only used as tools to teach other aspects of the language (e.g. vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation), but listening was never considered a skill within its own right that needed to be taught. As a receptive skill, it was perceived as passive and assumed that it could be learnt automatically. At the end of the day, the listener is passively receiving the information, so any communication issues (e.g. misunderstanding, misinterpretation) are down to the speaker, right? Errr...not quite. Communicating, like tango, takes two - both parties (the speaker and the listener) should take on their fair share of responsibility to ensure a clear exchange of ideas/information.
Manipulating listening materials (slide 2)
Unlike a reading text, audio is not as easy to manipulate. Imagine this scenario:
Now imagine the same situation happening during a listening lesson. There are only so many times the listening section can be played before everyone gets bored senseless.
This also means that, when it comes to listening, it can be more difficult to become independent learners. Think about something more effective than the usual ‘Watch films and TV programmes in English’…
Listening - an essential skill (slide 3)
As children, we develop our listening skills while acquiring our native language. The ability to select, block, and analyse specific sounds is necessary in our everyday lives, especially when we are in an unfamiliar environment. Although these skills can be applied when speaking a foreign language, they aren’t often transferred naturally from L1 to L2. For this reason, and contrary to old beliefs, it is important to incorporate ways of teaching listening in language lessons. However, this isn’t easy and it requires careful planning. It is well worth doing though, because weak listening leads to communication insecurity, with a knock-on effect on spoken fluency.
When putting together a listening lesson, the main challenge is to create materials that teach, not test, the learners’ abilities. Let’s analyse this.
A ‘standard’ listening lesson (slide 4)
Take a look at the following format of a ‘standard’ listening lesson.
The pre-listening stage often includes:
The extensive listening stage is often better known as ‘listening for gist’: just one or two questions that check (test???) the students’ general understanding of what they hear. Something like Where is this happening? What are they talking about? Do the speakers sound happy, sad, or angry?
The intensive listening stage often includes:
Depending on the lesson aims, a range of post-listening activities can be designed to further develop vocabulary and functional language, or practice other skills with problem-solving tasks.
Common issues for L2 students (slide 5)
Yet, despite well-structured lessons as the one described above, learners often struggle to understand spoken language, and might express their confusion with comments like:
The students might not be able to pinpoint it, but behind each of these comments, there is an individual language issue to be addressed.
This has made me realise that frequent exposure to spoken language (authentic or not) is not enough to help learners improve their listening skills. First of all (ah!), we need to help them lay the foundations for their learning, like we would do for other skills. Take writing, for example. You wouldn’t expect students to produce a well organised essay without showing them its structure first, would you? Similarly, we have to consider the ‘building blocks’ that support their listening skills.
(slide 6) There are some factors that are language-related, like pronunciation and vocabulary. To be addressed, however, these have to be broken down into ‘teachable’ and ‘achievable’ chunks, depending on our learners’ needs. There are also other factors that are out of the learners’ control, but can hinder their understanding of the spoken language.
Listening strategies (slide 7)
By regularly addressing the factors above in their lessons, teachers keep up their end of the bargain. But what strategies can learners apply to their listening practice in and out of the classroom?
Reflection point (slide 8)
Take a closer look at your listening lessons. What do you hope your learners will achieve? If they include a lot of comprehension questions, the end result might be different from what you originally had in mind.
If your objective is to teach, rather than test, listening skills, think about what changes you need to implement in your lessons. Consider:
Click below for the slides - Download, adapt and use!