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Listening and hearing

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Listening and hearing are two different skills. People may listen but not hear and they may hear but not really listen. This refers not only to EL lessons but to life in general. I am sharing some techniques which help my students understand spoken English better, and help me plan my lessons during the pandemic. I can also share some of my very short videos.


Nina Koptyug

Listening and hearing are two different skills. The former is what we acquire while learning a language; the latter depends on the inborn abilities. Some people hear better than others; lots of humans have the capacity to hear at 98%. Compared to 100% a 2% difference may not seem too big, but it is definitely not negligible. In terms of studying a new language and identifying new sounds, this may mean that while our students can hear perfectly well, they may lose the thread or even not understand a dialogue or monologue. In other words, they listen, hear and repeat individual words and sentences well but get lost when they are confronted with a continuous lengthier utterance. Teachers are not medics; we cannot diagnose our students’ physical ability to hear. We can help them cope with any problems using several techniques. Here is an incomplete list of the exercises I have been using during the pandemic which produced good results both at in class and online lessons.

I began to create very short videos which I share with students of any age. How? For instance, I made a three-second video (yes, that’s 3 seconds) saying loudly and distinctly: “This is a fountain. That is a very large slide”. Young children watched it 20 times on a loop; they were ready to watch 100 or 1000 times. Some of them have never seen a fountain; others have never seen such a large inflatable slide. For older children, I introduced a modification into my video: first I said the same words in Russian, then in English, and then I asked them to raise their hands when they heard either language. This simple trick made them listen and concentrate, they were very goal-oriented.

Other videos are 10-20 seconds long. Why do I create such short clips? First, we should always remember that kids have a short attention span; two, if they like it, they will watch it on a loop many times, automatically absorbing new words, constructions. Later on they will have no problems connecting images with the required vocabulary. For instance I place my two helpers, toy Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and position whatever I need for any current topic un the middle, between them. Food, toys, household items, books, gadgets always go well. I do my own voiceover, speaking in two squeaky voices, one really high, one rather lower: “I am Minnie – I am Mickey”. Soft toys of various animals help with such topics as Pets, Nature, and sounds themselves.

Teenagers and adults enjoy those videos too. Music, video clips, human interest stories, amazing animals are very good aids. I cannot even count how many times we watched a short video of a Florida alligator climbing over a fence! If the existing commentary is too complicated, I again make my own voiceover, speaking slower, enunciating every word.

Using any kind of recording including our own ones during a lesson helps us to save our own energy. We can run it many times as needed, change volume, pause. It is important to remember that the younger our students are the better they can hear; it does not mean that they necessarily understand everything. I learned it thanks to my own children. Once when they were watching a short cartoon for a zillionth time, I remarked good-naturedly on the mouse squeaking something unintelligible. My then three-year-old replied absently, “Yes, she says “Come up and see me sometime!” My young students would repeat whole sentences – and then ask me the meanings of the words they did not know yet. Occasionally they may confuse a similar-sounding word with the one in their native language. For instance “baton” means “a loaf of bread” in Russian.

Whatever the age and level of my audience may be, I always start a listening exercise by allowing them to listen first without my help. The next steps will depend on what I see. If they understand nothing, my work is clear. We may use any “Fill in the blanks” exercises or even distribute printouts (or screenshots if we are working online) with the whole text and work through it with them. Then we may let them listen again checking with their text. Then we can proceed to texts with gaps to be filled. Finally we may progress to no text at all, just listening.

When there are obvious difficulties in understanding any listening activity, any recorded speech, this is what invariably helps. I use some examples from my own experience working with Russian and American students. For instance when I was teaching groups of adult American students Russian, they felt quite confident while speaking, reading, writing and translating. They asked me to teach them how to understand a song. We listened, and I saw their faces lengthen. They managed to understand only three words! I played a similar song in English and asked them to help me understand a tough passage. None of them could get all the words in their own language. This simple illustration helped all of us realize that listening to real live speech, to a recording of a dialogue, and to a modern song are completely different things. Even one’s mother tongue may sound incomprehensible sometimes.

To all my colleagues at teacher refresher courses, I cite the same example, that of “Lady Mondegreen”. I strongly advise teachers to check it online and have a laugh. The problems we encounter are nothing new, they are universal. Never get discouraged if an exercise fails. If we don’t try, we do not succeed.