Listening Skills

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Listening, hearing and understanding native speakers of English is quite a challenge! 

Listening and understanding spoken speech may be quite a challenge for any student. They may read, write, translate and even speak fluently, but whenever they are up against a listening comprehension task they may freeze, hover in uncertainty or even stop reacting. There are a few strategies which have been useful to me over the years, and which I share with my colleagues at any opportunity. Sometimes an EL teacher with decades of experience, who is used to conducting most of the lessons in their own mother tongue, would ask me for helpful tactics to overcome their own problems. It is much easier to work with young people who have no previous knowledge and thus do not suffer from preconceived ideas or misconceptions. No matter the age and level, when it comes to listening I employ the same techniques in the beginning.
    •    Stage 1 is sounds. A question students often ask is this: how many English sounds resemble or are even almost the same as those in their own language? The answer is, NONE. Naturally the ubiquitous /th/ sound in both voiced and unvoiced versions is the easiest example. Depending on our own native speech, we may demonstrate the very open vowel /a/ - Apple, the long /I:/ - sheep, the very soft /r/, the bi-labial /w/ for starters. 
    •    Stage 2 may be pairs, triplets and quartets of individual sounds to show the importance of articulating them properly. You may start with the proverbial pairs like Ship - sheep, Sat - set, go on to Cat - cot  - cut, practice Bad - bed - bet et cetera.
    •    Stage 3 is letting students come up with their own examples. You may turn it into a game or into a short competition, with the one who finds the greatest number of such pairs or more receiving some prize and praise. Then it is useful to let your class listen to same words pronounced by a native speaker, and check that they recognize the words.
    •    Stage 4 is self-recording. Let your students record themselves, then listen to a native speaker and to their own pronunciation. You may help them mark the differences and work at their sounds. Remember that it is very important not only to indicate the areas of concern but also to praise every student. “Your sound /w/ is perfect, now you work at /th/ and you will sound fine!” 
    •    Stage 5 is short sentences practice, with more attention paid to the intonation. Quite often students have trouble understanding an utterance simply because the whole cadence sounds alien. The usual falling tune at the end of a special question (one that begins with an interrogative word) may puzzle a beginner, they may not realize that it is a question and thus misunderstand the whole segment.
    •    Stage 6 is composing dialogues or monologues, with a difference. Make a recording of some short sentences including questions. Leave enough space between short segments for students to react, to answer those simple questions. A single exercise should not include more than ten sentences plus ten answers. Let them listen to the whole recording and decide if they produced a sensible dialogue. 
    •    Stage 7. Use songs, video clips, short stories or poems read by professionals. Turn the texts into cloze exercises, print them out and distribute to students. Let them listen and fill in the blanks. At this stage you may individualize the tasks because you can now gauge your students’  abilities. One student may listen and fill in the blanks for the whole song while another may work at only four lines during the same time space. 
    •    Stage 8. Consolidation. Have a trial run before you conduct a test. Play any recording in full, check that your class understands it. Then give them a test which may include listening, performing a few simple tasks like summarizing, retelling, reproducing just one line or answering one question. 

Useful Tips. 
The World Health Organization lists the following statistics: a number of people hear at 98% capacity. In relation to ELT and education in general, it means that while the children’s hearing demonstrates as fine, they may have trouble understanding a continuous flow of speech. We cannot administer any hearing tests but we can help them by giving them cloze texts and allowing them to use earphones.

To ensure that our students continue working at home, we may take notes about their interests, and suggest that they listen to some stories or watch some videos according to their own preferences. When working with children it is always good to contact the parents and to learn something about their home situation. If the family speak only their own language, we may praise the children’s work at a PTA meeting and thus encourage the parents to support their offspring’s efforts at learning a foreign language. 

I often use a Running Diary. At the beginner level, I suggest that students start a separate notebook or activity book for their own language work. I explain clearly that they are not going to be graded, but each one will receive some bonus points at the end of a term or a year. In this diary, they may write down what they managed to do in English by themselves, if they spoke with their friend, or sent messages, or listened to a song and deciphered the lyrics. There are no quotas for the diary, neither for the amount nor for the frequency of entries. Actually if we allow our students some leeway, they may surprise us with daily entries. Usually such a diary runs for several years allowing the students to compare their own proficiency level through the whole school era.

Last but not least, no matter where I meet my students, I always say Hello in English, and they reply in kind. It teaches them that English is used not only inside but also outside the classroom.

Nina MK, Ph.D.

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