Teaching listening

Teaching English can be looked at from many different angles. One useful way is to look at the teaching process as the teaching of various language skills. There are, in general, four language skills, each based upon the modality of emphasis. These are the Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing skills.
Generally speaking, it is emphasized that people first learn listening, then speaking, then reading and writing. However, in real life situations of language communication, these skills are interdependent in many ways, even though they can be learnt and taught independently to some extent.
 Listening is necessary to develop the speaking skill. The students listen to oral speech in English, then separate into segments the stretch of utterances they hear, group them into words, phrases, and sentences, and, finally, they understand the message these carry. Listening prepares the students to understand the speech of the native speakers of English as they speak naturally in a normal speed and normal manner.
There are three approaches to listening: interactive (listening to a message and doing something as a consequence) and one-way communication or non-interactive (just listening and retaining the message, in activities such as conversations overheard, public address announcements, recorded messages, etc.) and self-talk. Listening to radio and watching TV and films, public performances, lectures, religious services, etc., generally reflect non-interactive listening. Responding to the commands given reflects interactive listening, which, in fact, is equally widespread in communicative situations. Self-talk is also an important process by which internal thinking and reasoning is carried out. All these three modes or approaches to listening may be included in our listening comprehension training.
In the classroom, students listen in order to repeat and to understand. In listening to repeat, students imitate and memorize linguistic items such as words, idioms, and sentence patterns. This is an important beginning task and focus of listening exercises. However, it is listening to understand that is real listening in its own right.
Students listen to understand as part of using English for communication purposes. In listening to understand, students are involved in the question-oriented response model of learning or in the task-oriented model of learning. In the question-oriented response model, students are asked to listen to a sentence, a dialogue, a conversation, a passage, or a lecture and they answer questions in the form of yes/no statements, choice questions, and short answers. In the task-oriented response model, students are asked to listen to a passage and accomplish the task described in the passage through interaction with others or by themselves.
Remember that research indicates that most students have difficulty with listening skills, even when listening to their native language. Among other factors, because of the phenomenon of stress (some syllables of a word may by stressed while others may not be), most learners of English have difficulty in mastering the correct placement of the primary and other stresses in English. (This could lead to misunderstanding the meaning of a word, phrase or sentence.) As a consequence, listening proficiency in English is to be cultivated with great care.
Simple Principles of Teaching Listening Comprehension
First of all, the teacher should be clear about the goals in teaching a lesson for listening comprehension. These goals must be made explicit and explained to the students so that the learning process becomes meaningful to them.
Secondly, he should plan for a careful step by step progression in the material and, in teaching the same in the class. He should give direction to the students as to what they should listen to, how to listen, when to listen, and where to listen.
Thirdly, he must insist on active overt student participation. He should provide some written or physical response. Listening is done silently, but needs to be demonstrated through some other overt manifestation.
The lessons in my classroom are organized in such a way that there is a need for the students to develop concentration while listening and for remembering (and reproducing) what they have listened to. This does not mean that the teacher should clutter his lesson with facts, figures and details. Even with very little details, we may be able to create a need to listen intently, if the material is based on a communicative need.
Listening, thinking, and remembering go together. They are not separate acts. In the beginning, the student may tend to focus on these as independent items. The teacher should organize his lesson and its presentation and teaching in the class in such a way that listening, thinking, and remembering are all integrated in listening comprehension.
I use the cassette recorder as often as I can, because the cassette recorder gives a chance for students to listen to a variety of voices apart from the teacher’s. It is a simple way of bringing native speakers’ voices into the classroom. In countries where there are only a limited number of native speakers of English and when even these may not be readily available to model English before the class face to face, recorded materials become more useful for listening to dialogues, interviews, and discussions. Students, however, will have greater difficulty listening to the cassette recorder, because face to face listening provides them with more clues. Nevertheless, the cassette can be stopped and played back several times. Focus should be on exposure to the speech of native speakers in contexts that are relevant to the second language learner’s goals in learning English.
A generally followed format of listening comprehension lessons in my classroom includes the following:
·         Select the teaching point for the listening comprehension lesson.
·         Introduce the topic before the class begins to listen to the passage. In this manner the teacher   brings the students’ attention to focus on the material to be listened to.
·         Give one or two guiding questions before students begin to listen to the passage.
·         Divide the listening into stages, such as listening for the main idea only at the first instance, then answering some guiding questions. This may be followed by a second listening in which students listen for details.
·         Divide the passage into several sections and check comprehension after each section.
·         Students listen to the passage and complete the set task.
·         Presentation of feedback on the performance of the students.
·         Asking the students to read the passage once again so that they may follow the passage more fully.
More often than not, a well graded listening comprehension lesson selects the teaching points (that is, the material to be listened to) from all the components of language. Listening does not focus only upon the sounds in isolation or in combination, even though such training to discriminate between various sounds of the English language may be necessary at the beginning level. It may begin with the discrimination of sounds and may proceed to the discriminations of sounds in combination, words, phrases, clauses and sentences. It focuses on the discrimination of various intonation patterns, and grammatical structures. However, the ultimate goal of listening is to listen for information.
A Few General Suggestions
A few general suggestions for the selection and presentation of listening comprehension exercises may be in order here. As already pointed out, the teacher should select his teaching points for listening comprehension from various language components. While the presentation is made, he should help students focus their attention on the presentation. He may alert the students to what they are going to do. He may also give them written material to complete the task before they listen to the passage.
This will help them understand what they are expected to do after listening to the passage. Are they going to answer comprehension questions? Are they going to draw pictures or other physical response activities, or are they going to do problem solving exercises? Are they going to involve others in doing physical tasks, or are they going to tell the answers (oral answers)?
While asking students to listen and complete a set task, the presentation is given in normal speed and intonation. The speed is not reduced. However, the exercise is read over again, if demanded. The length and difficulty of exercise will decide the number of repetitions.
Feedback on the performance of students in listening comprehension exercises is better done by a general talk after the session. Sometimes the students themselves check their answers. The teacher discusses the progress with students so that they will know how well they are progressing in listening to native English.
Remember that listening is an important skill which facilitates the mastery of other language skills. Continued exposure to native English speakers both in face to face communication and audio-visual means will help foster the listening skill. The unstressed vowels and the process of vowel reduction make listening a difficult process to master. If students have a better listening skill they are more likely to have a better pronunciation.

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