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