In this article I would like to focus on two key areas of developing our students' listening skills.

Making listening an authentic experience - listening article

 

  • The type of listening tasks we choose
  • The way we prepare our students before listening

 

I would like to challenge some accepted beliefs about the way we prepare our students to listen and the types of tasks we give them in an effort to encourage teachers to adopt an approach to dealing with listening texts that approximates more closely to an authentic experience.

  • Types of listening tasks
  • Preparing students for listening
  • Making listening more authentic
  • An authentic approach
  • Some problems with an authentic approach
  • Conclusion

 

Types of listening tasks
Comprehension check questions are by far the most common type of listening tasks our students are given in class. Look at almost any language course book listening activity and you will find these. Sometimes they will be multiple-choice questions, sometimes true/false statements and sometimes open wh-questions. In many ways there is nothing wrong with this, but how often do we really do these kinds of tasks in our everyday lives? Do you sit down to watch TV or listen to the radio with a set of questions in front of you? I very much doubt it. As such these types of activities aren't developing our students' abilities to understand and process what they've heard in any meaningful kind of way.

Preparing students for listening
Over many years I have taught lessons that so thoroughly prepared students to listen for the sole purpose of getting the correct answers to a set of prescribed questions that they could hardly fail to get a question wrong. I prepared the students by thoroughly pre-teaching all possible unknown words, checked that the students understood the context of the listening and then made sure that they had predicted the possible answers to all the questions. Results were generally good, so what's wrong with this?

Well the problems begin the moment the students step outside the classroom into the real world. They are surrounded by a vast range of spontaneous and unpredictable language. They have no control over the range of vocabulary they may encounter or the kind of things they will hear or need to respond to. This is why many times, even higher level students who do very well in the classroom find it so difficult to cope when faced with a 'real' situation. We simply haven't taught them in a way that will help them cope with this.

Making listening more authentic
Firstly we should select tasks that are 'authentic', by which I mean real tasks that real native speakers would do if they were listening to a similar text. In the course of my daily life I never listen to anything for the sole purpose of answering true/false questions or multiple-choice questions or any other kinds of questions. These are all sound means of testing ability, but we don't improve our students' ability by testing it, we only ascertain their level of development.

As I said 'authentic' tasks should be ones that resemble as much as possible the original purpose for which the text was intended. If we listen to a train announcement we do so in order to make sure we know the time of the train we want to catch, if we listen to someone giving directions we do so in order to be able to find a destination. As teachers and designers of teaching material we should try to bear this in mind when we set tasks for our students. The purpose of the text should define the task we assign our students and in so doing we develop our students' abilities to understand and process what they hear rather than just achieving a score.

Below are a few suggestions that link types of text to possible tasks:

Listening text Purpose Possible task
A lecture Gather information Take notes and produce an essay/summary
Plane announcement Check time and place of departure Find correct place on airport map
The news To be informed about current affairs Express opinions on what you have heard
Fictional story Entertainment Decide if you believe it
Directions To find a destination Draw/follow a map
Gossip Entertainment Pass the gossip onto someone else
An anecdote Social
Give advice
Music Entertainment Decide if you like it

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An authentic approach
Language is a constantly developing form and when we listen in our native language we still hear words that are new to us or that we may not fully understand. This doesn't however lead us to check lists of unknown words in dictionaries or learn word lists before we listen. We have evolved a process of deducing the meaning of new words. This is a process we also need to develop in our students. By constantly pre-teaching and preparing students we are undermining the development of this process. Students need to be challenged and to struggle to find meaning for themselves, with our guidance and support, in order to develop this ability.

To make this happen we need to do less pre-teaching and more developmental and post-listening work so that students' first listening to a text is as close as possible to an 'authentic' experience. We can then use this first listening experience diagnostically to assess the problems that they are having and what we need to do to overcome those problems. We can also gauge the degree to which they are succeeding with their listening and build on this.
 

Some problems with an authentic approach
Students can easily be demotivated when faced by tasks that are very challenging, particularly the first few times, but if you show them that you will gradually lead them to an understanding of the text, they will gradually start to relax more about dealing with more difficult texts. And once you have shown them a few times that they can gradually understand a challenging text, then, in the long run they will develop a much greater sense of achievement and experience far less stress when dealing with challenging situations in the real world.

Many students expect us as their teachers to make things easy for them and to help them. This is also our instinct on seeing our students struggling, but we must try to resist this urge to do the work for them and help students to see that by doing the work for them we undermine their potential to achieve for themselves.

Conclusion
I have for some time been adopting this approach, and while it does have its initial drawbacks for students that come from an educational culture that puts emphasis on testing and teacher dependence, if as teachers we are prepared to persevere, in the long term I have found that the students do understand, appreciate and benefit from a more authentic listening experience.

Nik Peachey, teacher, trainer and materials writer, The British Council

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Comments

Hi,I use songs in my class. When I played my favourite, Bryan Adam's "18 till I die", it got immediate appraisel in the class. And, when I play Madonna's "Frozen" all of my students were able to understand and got interested.I found simple songs in which singer's language is more clear attracts my students and they are getting interested in English songs. In a community where people don't 'imagine' to listen English songs my students started listening it and I've also found that its enhancing their listening skills too.Now, I'm using English dialogues as practice but to do more practice I use songs. My theme is "when students are tired entertain them in English." That's how lesson can go without hassle and over-burden over students.

Actually I think it's very important to make students get to like English music and it really helps out a lot. English texts are quite important too, but I definitely believe that listening alongside with speaking are vital to success in this language learning.

Listening in fact is one of the most important keys to language learning. So I believe we need to work at doing what we can so the learners don't just listen but they actually improve their listening skills!!

I agree with Nik about the importance of authentic material. I would go even further though and say the material has to be engaging for the students you are teaching. By engaging I mean it has to have the potential to "suck you in" a bit like a video game might. This way the learner brings all of themselves to the table, not just their ears! :-)

Authentic is a criteria, but whether it is the most important criteria is moot. Something can be authentic but be dreadfully boring or insipid. What I believe is far more important than authentic is engaging. Engagement is a key criteria in any learning activity.
If I am not engaged, because I want to be, than what quality of attention or effort will I bring to the task at hand? Sure, I can be pressured to do it overtly or do it because everyone else seems to be doing it.
To learn a skill ( and that is what language is) we need to bring all of ourselves to the task and we need to be in charge (as much as possible) so we search for (within our field of awareness) what we need to do in order to master what we want to do. Once we notice something new, learning can start to happen. This post explains this in a bit more detail. http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/how-to-learn-a-language/

I totally agree with the view of using authentic material in class. After all, that's the purpose of learning English: to use it in situations outside the classroom environment. What is authentic material though? Is it any text produced my native speakers? And what about all those non-native speakers who use English in their everyday communication? Don't they use and produce language in authentic situations? The definition of authentic texts comes closer to considering any text produced for use outside the classroom, either from native or non-native speakers. Authenticity plays a pivotal role in teaching listening, yes. What about language difficulties though? The use of graded texts would help more L2 learners develop their skills and work as a motivational factor. Some would say grade the task, not the the text. How successful would listening be if you feel don't understand a word? I think a combination of authentic and graded texts would be more suitable to help our students improve their listening and increase their motivation.

Thanks Nik, I have only just read this articile even though you wrote it some time ago.
I agree entirely with the idea of using authentic listening material and your observations about the fact that we often ask our students to jump through hoops to prove their comprehension when, in real life we tend to listen for a couple of bits of specific information that interest us. However, I don't think that using authentic texts necessarily make it more difficult for students, because it is the task design rather that than the choice of materials that will determine their success, so all the more reasonn for concentrating on this aspect.
Another aspect of listening materials that I find anachronistic today is that we ask our students to listen to a recording without any visual clues, let alone any clues that a normal 'listener' would have because they are involved in the context by interacting, be it passively, with the speaker. Most real life listening is done with the speaker in front of us so surely video would be a more appropriate medium for delivering listenings to students? Then there's the Cambridge Assessment listenings, with which I work daily, preparing my students for the First and Advanced exams. Again, there are no visual clues and the material is most unnatural and tightly scripted with none of the repetitiion, clarification or rephrasing that goes on all the time in everyday speech. Acted out by strictly mother tongue speakers sporting a wide variety of improbable regional accents, they are quite unique and don't seem to reflect anything authentic at all. I would like to give a sample of a Cambridge Advanced listening to some mother tongue pepole with no experience and see what mark they score. I'm pretty sure they would not obtain full marks, even after listening twice (why two times? - nothing to do with real life again).
We do seem to have created an artificial world of listening activities which, unfortunately can be crucial in determining a student's level and therefore influence their chances of making progress with their studies and/or career.

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