LISTENING SKILLS DEVELOPMENT.
Nina MK, Ph.D.
When dealing with children, it is useful to remember that listening and hearing are two very different skills.
• According to medical data, a percentage of children have 98% hearing. What does it mean, in terms of listening to a recording or any speech in a foreign language? While the 2% do not show any hearing impairment, they may act as an obstacle to some pupils’ understanding of a dialogue or a longish speech. A few unfamiliar sounds may be mentally blocked, thus rendering the whole recording incomprehensible. What helps: using the earphones when possible.
• Young children dislocate or injure their necks easily. If you see a child in a neck-brace, do not expect any good results for a listening task. In fact, it may be better to arrange a different kind of testing while the pupil experiences this acute discomfort.
• Teenagers and children of any age in general may have a growth spurt, usually during the long summer vacation when they are more active physically. This may result in the changes to the blood supply to their brains, and consequently they may seem inattentive or not listening, while in reality they just cannot cope with the health problems.
• ALL children, especially adolescents, are skilled at closing up their ears to anything we adults say. They may not listen to us, or to a recording, or even to a visiting native speaker, because they are not yet adept at switching from one activity to another, and at controlling their moods.
What can we teachers do, then, to help our students develop their listening skills, using the new technologies? Here are a few well-tested methods.
• There are help sites for every age. After running a few simple tests, we can gauge our class’s ability to listen and hear, and choose the appropriate level. We may start with something simple if needed, and progress to a higher level gradually. Thus, I used Voice of America audios with students of any age, including adults: one may listen to a recording read at 2/3 of the normal tempo, and then play it at the usual speed.
• If the class in general can hear and understand well enough, with only an occasional help needed to clarify an unknown expressions, but one or two pupils experience marked difficulties, we may let the whole group do some follow-up exercises while we devise a few individual tasks for those who lag behind. It is very important to remember that if a person cannot distinguish or reproduce all the words heard, it does not mean they are slower or in any way worse than others.
• All the educational sites today offer audio and video clips to use at a lesson. We can also find anything we need at YouTube and other similar sites. The problem we face, then, is that of the abundance of suitable materials. We may ask pupils what it is they would wish to hear. My primary school pupils asked me if we could listen to “real British children”, while adolescents immediately mentioned music.
• After giving a listening home task to my students, I suggest that they allot one for me too, which is actually perceived as fun. My students would record themselves at home, and compare the results with the audios that are included into the teaching sets. During school break, I would watch an episode of “Winx” or some similar fare, to be able to share my impressions with the class later.
• When I confess to teens that my appreciation of modern music had stopped with The Beatles, they are always very eager to choose a singer or a song for me. Thus, there was a month when we all listened to Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”. We used The Free Dictionary site at my suggestion, to understand the meaning of the title. Though the students usually know the adjective “deep”, they do not notice that here, it is used as a noun, nor can they explain its meaning.
• Not all of us have the opportunity to bring in a real live native speaker into our classroom. Nor do all the people who consider English their mother tongue speak it well, not to mention the many varieties of spoken English that we come across today.
• Alternately, not every person in real life speaks the way we EL teachers do. I first understood it consciously in my university student years. An American neighbour at our students’ dormitory told me proudly that after a month of regular communication with me, she was confident that she now could conduct a conversation in Russian. Then my sister, who speaks very fast by nature, came for a visit, and I could see my neighbour’s face fall: it turned out she did not understand a word!
• How definitely NOT to conduct a listening exercise. How many times should pupils listen to the same recording? If we check with any textbook and international examinations requirements, we will notice that the answer is, twice. We all know the format: listen for gist, listen for some specific information, answer the questions, continue or make up your own dialogue.
• Now imagine a university teacher who plays a short clip from “Seinfeld”, a US 1990’s show. Please note that for the young people, that era is about as remote as the Stone Age; in other words, it is quite boring. She pauses after two minutes and asks if anybody can reproduce the dialogue. One hand rises, to signal that one student can do it. The teacher ignores him or her, and plays the same segment again… and again… an even dozen times. Yet no other hand rises. It is clear to me that the choice of the audio material is unfortunate: it is too boring, too complicated, and completely outside the students’ experience. Yet the teacher continues doing this every week, without any marked progress.
• We teachers try to do the best we can for every student. Both those who lag behind and those who are ahead of the class need individual exercises, varied approaches, special attention and yes, our own time.
To sum up: naturally we EL teachers can and should incorporate all the modern technologies into our lessons. Listening for me is a must, an everyday integral part of any class, unless it is to be devoted to a grammar test or something equally specific. It is the best way to begin any lesson, even if we only play a very short audio as a warm-up activity. It immediately creates a special atmosphere, reminding our students that they are going to deal with a foreign language. Many of us cannot bring in a native speaker into our classroom, and introduce our pupils to real live speech. But practically all of us can find anything we need on the web. We should just decide which sites, which materials suit our aims, what may attract our students, and use whatever works.