Teaching listening – a summary of three articles

Posted: January 5, 2017 in ELT methodology, Listening
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In a few days’ time, we’re starting an Electronic Village Online session on teaching listening. The session syllabus was heavily influenced by the following three articles:

Nunan, D. (2002). Listening in Language Learning. In Richards, J. and Renandya, W. (eds.) Methodology in Language Learning. An Anthology of Current Practice. Cambridge University Press.

Field, J. (2002). The Changing Face of Listening. In Richards, J. and Renandya, W. (eds.) Methodology in Language Learning. An Anthology of Current Practice. Cambridge University Press.

Hill, D. and Tomlinson, B. (2003). Coursebook Listening Activities. In Tomlinson, B. (ed.) Developing Materials for Language Teaching. Bloomsbury.  

Over the past few years I’ve been finding that I’m re-reading these three articles again and again. I’ve decided to collate the ideas and suggestions for classroom tasks and approaches that are offered in these three articles in one post. There are very few additions of my own, and they are in grey italics.

First of all, why teach listening? Here are the aims that Nunan, Field, Hill and Tomlinson mention:

  1. To provide input for the learner, as listening is necessary for language acquisition.
  2. To help the learners cope with the listening that is similar to the listening they will experience outside of class.
  3. To develop the learners’ awareness of the processes underlying their learning, so that they will be able to take greater and greater responsibility for that learning.

Collated below are some of the implications of these aims on listening instruction that the authors mention. The authors don’t suggest that we replace all our listening with these activity types – only that these activities are necessary.

  1. To provide input for the learner, as listening is necessary for language acquisition.

Language acquisition is maximized when the input is cognitively and/or affectively engaging and when the tasks promote multidimensional representations of the text – visualizing, inner speech, making connections to already known and affective response (Hill and Tomlinson, 2003).

Implications for listening instruction:

  1. What to listen to? To facilitate language acquisition, we need to use sources of input that have relevance to the learner, and which have affeсtive appeal and have the potential to engage the learner both cognitively and emotively. The learners need to have some control over the content of the lesson, and bring something to the task.
  2. Who to listen to? Not only coursebook CDs: other learners talking about something engaging (e.g. telling jokes/anecdotes), the teacher, guest speakers (e.g. other teachers, learners from other classes, invited speakers – in person or over phone/skype, etc) and materials chosen by the learners.
  3. What tasks facilitate intake of language from listening texts?  Tasks that don’t encourage concentration on ‘micro-features’ of the text (e.g. not comprehension questions focusing on specific details). The tasks that involve the learner in the listening event either as an interactant of a listener with a need or purpose. Tasks that to help the learners use mental processes that go beyond simply decoding and understanding what was said: imagining visually what we heard; using inner speech to repeat some of what we hear; connecting what we hear to our lives and to our knowledge of the word; responding affectively to what we hear.

Sample task 1 (Nunan): The learners listen to someone describing his/her work, and then collaborate to create a set of questions for interviewing this person.

The idea to interview a ‘mystery guest’ reminds me of a Facebook post I recently saw: a friend of mine had organized a Skype event for his secondary school students with students from Norway. One of his students got particularly excited by the event and said that, before this event, foreign people for her were very much like ‘aliens’.

Sample task 2 (Hill, Tomlinson): the learners listen to a story and retell the story to someone who hasn’t listened to it. This task is especially good for lower levels, because it focuses on what the learners did catch, and thus builds listening confidence.

The task in which different learners listen to different texts is called jigsaw listening. One very simple to use source of material for such tasks is Youtube videos that offer lists, e.g. ‘Top 10 places to see before they disappear‘ or a number or tips, e.g. ‘3 Tough Job Interview Questions And Answers’). A sample lesson might go like this: after a warmer, the learners listen to the beginning of the video for gist, to understand the overall topic, e.g. that they’re going to focus on tough interview questions. They they try to guess the content of the video, e.g. what questions the speakers will be talking about. They then split into three groups and each group listens to the answer to one question on their own devices, e.g. mobile phones – if necessary, replaying the bits of the video (in order to make sure that the learners listen to exactly the portion of the video they’re supposed to, use TubeChop.com). Finally, in new groups of three (one learner from each group), they share the tips they listened to, and discuss whether they agree with them.

Sample task 3: a teacher’s story. This was an approach a groupmate of mine Cecilia Lemos tried for her Delta Module 2 Listening LSA. The teacher tells a real story that happened to him/her. The learners compare what they understood in pairs, and then ask the teacher to repeat the parts they missed and/or to expand on some part of the story.

Sample task 4:  I tried to encourage visual imagination using the following activity. First, I asked the learners to imagine a rose and share what their rose looked like. Then they nominated a few more objects, imagined them and shared the visual details in pairs. After that, we listened to a story (e.g. this story from StoryCorps) – first for gist, and then line by line. After hearing each line the learners shared not only what they caught, but also the visual details of how they saw the scene in their inner eye. 

  1. Help the learners cope with the listening that are similar to the listening they will experience outside of class.

Listening outside of class is listening to authentic materials – that is, materials that haven’t been graded to the learners’ level and in which they can’t be expected to understand everything. Moreover, most authentic materials are unscripted (i.e. the speakers speak spontaneously), and such speech is normally more difficult phonologically than scripted materials found in most coursebooks.

Implications for listening instruction:

What to listen to? The learners, even at lower levels, need to listen to authentic materials at least occasionally

The learners also need to listen to the type of input they’re likely to listen to outside (e.g. being taught to do something they need/want to do; listening for information, e.g. weather forecasts; listening to radio/TV for enjoyment).

Finally, they also need to do some listening interactively (e.g. teaching somebody else to do something and listening to their questions and requests for clarification; taking part in discussions with friends about topics that interest them, etc).

What tasks help the learners cope with authentic materials?
Principle #1: grade the task, not the listening text.  
Principle #2: the goal is not for the learners to arrive at ‘correct answers’, but to (1) equip the learners with listening strategies, and (2) to diagnose the source of listening difficulties in order to do remedial practice.

Sample task 1 (Field, focus: an authentic level activity for lower levels – an example of grading the task not the text). The learners listen to a recording of a real-life conversation between a fruit vendor and a customer. The task is to write down the vegetables mentioned.

Sample task 2 (Field; focus: listening strategies). The learners listen and write down the words they understand. They form and discuss inferences, listen again and revise their inferences, and then check them against what the speaker says next. This procedure reflects the effective L2 listening strategy (less effective L2 learners might see the need to guess something as a failure, or might not be accustomed to revising their inferences).

Sample task 3 (Field; focus: phonetic features of the target language which are likely to cause decoding problems for L2 listening). The teacher plays a sentence from the listening text, for the learners to transcribe. The teacher and the learners analyze which words are difficult for the learners to catch, e.g. weak forms (/wəz/ for ‘was’, /tə/ for ‘to’). Later he/she plays a series of very short extracts that all contain the problematic feature, for the learners to transcribe. The learners write them down, compare their understanding and then listen again. The discussion phase is necessary to make listening a less isolating and more interactive activity.

Sample task 4 (Nunan; focus: learning to listen interactively): The teacher takes a coursebook monologue and edits out one side of the conversation. The learners listen and write the second side of the conversation. After this, they compare the resulting conversations in pairs.

  1. Develop learners’ awareness of the processes underlying their learning, so that they will be able to take greater and greater responsibility for that learning (Nunan).

Implications for listening instruction:

To take an active part in their learning, first of all, the learners need to be aware of the instructional goals. Secondly, they need to be taught and learn to flexibly adopt a variety of listening strategies.

In real life we normally have some idea what we’ll hear about – so when they listen in class, the learners need to prepare for listening tasks (e.g. be given the topic and predict what they’ll hear, to activate schemata and raise motivation to listen).

In real life we also very rarely listen to ‘understand everything’. We might be listening for enjoyment with no task (although we might choose to retell the most interesting bits to a friend). We might listen selectively, assessing if the extract is interesting or relevant, and ‘zooming in’ and ‘out’, i.e. listening to more relevant parts a lot more attentively. Changing ‘the mode’ of listening is a separate skill that needs to be practiced. 

Suggestion 1 (Hill, Tomlinson): the learners analyze what they do when listening experientially (e.g. to television) in the L1. They’re then encouraged to try listening in the same ways when experiential listening is appropriate in the L2.

Suggestion 2 (Nunan): get the learners to listen to the same text several time, each time with a different (increasingly difficult) task. E.g. they listen to a news broadcast reporting a series of international events. Task 1: gist (identify the countries). Task 2: match the places with the list of events. Task 3: listen for detail, discriminating between specific aspects of the event, or comparing the radio broadcast with newspaper accounts of the same events and noting factual differences or the differences of emphasis.

_______________

Finally, here’s a sample lesson plan that I find very inspiring. The plan comes from the article by David A. Hill and Brian Tomlinson and it incorporates work on all three aims listed above: it encourages the learners to concentrate on their feelings in relation to the text, use visual imagination and provide a lot of the content themselves; it incorporates the use of authentic materials; finally, it includes a focus on listening strategies. 

Lesson plan (spans two lessons).

In the first lesson the learners are told that they’re going to plan their visit to a country. They look at some photos and then listen to information about the country, deciding what they find interesting and what they want to do. They mingle to find people who want to do similar things and work together to plan their visit, listen to the extract again and revise their plans. For homework, they imagine their trip to the country – some things went very differently from the information in the listening extract!

In lesson 2, in the same groups they tell each other about their imagined trips and prepare a presentation about their trips and all the problems they encountered. After listening to each other’s presentations, the learners listen one more time to the extract and spot all the ‘wrong’ information. In new groups, they write a better script with information about the country and record a new extract. They listen to each other’s extracts, give each other constructive criticism and scores out of 20 and determine a winner.

Finally, the learners go mentally through both lessons, reflect on all kinds of listening skills they needed to use in the activities. The skills are boarded, after which each group focuses on one skill to prepare a presentation: describe the skill, give examples of when it’s useful and give advice on how to develop and use the skill. Finally, the learners give the group a listening task which involves using the skill.

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