How to Teach Listening
Reasons for listening
Most students want to be able to understand what people are saying to them in English, either face-to-face, on TV or on the radio, in theatres and cinemas, or on tape, CDs or other recorded media. Anything we can do to make that easier will be useful for them. This is especially important since, the way people speak is often significantly different from the way they write.
Listening is good for our students’ pronunciation, too, in that the more they hear and understand English being spoken, the more they absorb appropriate pitch and intonation, stress and the sounds of both individual words and those which blend together in connected speech. Listening texts are good pronunciation models, in other words, and the more students listen, the better they get, not only at understanding speech, but also at speaking themselves. Indeed, it is worth remembering that successful spoken communication depends not just on our ability to speak, but also on the effectiveness of the way we listen.
One of the main sources of listening for students is the voice of their teacher. However, it is important, where possible, for students to be exposed to more than just that one voice, with all its idiosyncrasies. There is nothing wrong with an individual teacher’s voice, of course, but there are significant regional variations in the way people speak English in a country like Britain. For example, the ‘a’ of ‘bath’ is pronounced like the vowel sound in ‘park’ in some parts of Britain, but like the ‘a’ in ‘cat’ in others. In grammar, certain varieties of English within the British Isles use ‘done’ in sentences like ‘I done it yesterday’ where other varieties would find such tense usage unacceptable. In vocabulary, ‘happen’ is a verb in standard southern English, but in parts of Yorkshire (in northern England) it is often used as an adverb to mean ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’ in sentences such as ‘Happen it’ll rain’. And if there are many regional varieties in just one country, it is obvious that the different Englishes around the world will be many and varied. Students need to be exposed to different Englishes, but teachers need to exercise judgment about the number (and degree) of the varieties which they hear. A lot will depend on the students’ level of competence, and on what variety or varieties they have so far been exposed to.
How do we listen?
When we listen, we use a variety of strategies to help us pick up the message. Some of these are connected with understanding the 'big' picture, e.g. gaining an overview of the structure of the whole text, getting the gist (the general meaning), using various types of previous knowledge to help us make sense of the message, etc. Listening in this way is sometimes termed 'gist listening' or 'extensive listening'. Other strategies are connected with the small pieces of the text, e.g. correctly hearing precise sounds, working out exactly what some individual words are, catching precise details of information, etc. This is often called “listening for detail”.
When working on listening in the classroom there are two alternative starting points; working on the 'small pieces' (sounds, words and details) or on the 'big pieces (background topics, overall structure and organisation). The former is known as top-down whilst the latter is known as bottom-up.
Top-down and Bottom-up
It used to be believed that listeners built up their understanding of a text by working out what each individual sound was, then adding these up into a word, understanding the word, checking the meaning of that word with the words around them, etc. (a bit like building up a wall from the individual bricks). Although this theory, known as “bottom-up” (i.e. building up the messages from the individual small pieces), may, initially sound appealing, it is virtually impossible to do.
Spoken English probably comes at you too fast to be able to adopt such an item-by-item approach on its own. It seems like that we make use of “bottom-up” skills more to fill in missing gaps rather than as a general approach to comprehension word by word. The alternative theory is that when we listen to a new dialogue, we start processing the text using skills associated with a second theory ('top-down'), i.e. making use of what we already know to help us predict the structure and content of the text, and getting a general overall impression of the message.
Principle 1: Encourage students to listen as often and as much as possible.
The more students listen, the better they get at listening - and the better they get at understanding pronunciation and at using it appropriately themselves. One of our main tasks, therefore, will be to use as much listening in class as possible, and to encourage students to listen to as much English as they can (via the Internet, podcasts, CDs, tapes, etc.).
Principle 2: Help students prepare to listen.
Students need to be made ready to listen. This means that they will need to look at pictures, discuss the topic, or read the questions first, for example, in order to be in a position to predict what is coming. This is not just so that they are in the right frame of mind (and are thinking about the topic), but also so that they are engaged with the topic and the task and really want to listen.
Principle 3: Once may not be enough.
There are almost no occasions when the teacher will play an audio track only once. Students will want to hear it again to pick up the things they missed the first time - and we may well want them to have a chance to study some of the language features on the tape. In the case of live listening, students should be encouraged to ask for repetition and clarification when they need it.
The first listening to a text is often used just to give students an idea of what the speakers sound like, and what the general topic is (see Principle 5) so that subsequent listenings are easier for them. For subsequent listenings, we may stop the audio track at various points, or only play extracts from it. However, we will have to ensure that we don’t go on and on working with the same audio track.
Principle 4: Encourage students to respond to the content of a listening, not just to thelanguage.
An important part of a listening sequence is for teachers to draw out the meaning of what is being said, discern what is intended and find out what impression it makes on the students. Questions such as ‘Do you agree with what they say?’ and ‘Did you find the listening interesting? Why?’ are just as important as questions like ‘What language did she use to invite him?’ However, any listening material is also useful for studying language use and a range of pronunciation issues.
Principle 5: Different listening stages demand different listening tasks.
Because there are different things we want to do with a listening text, we need to set different tasks for different listening stages. This means that, for a first listening, the task(s) may need to be fairly straightforward and general. That way, the students’ general understanding and response can be successful - and the stress associated with listening can be reduced. Later listenings, however, may focus in on detailed information, language use orpronunciation, etc. It will be the teacher’s job to help students to focus in on what they are listening for.
Principle 6: Good teachers exploit listening texts to the full.
If teachers ask students to invest time and emotional energy in a listening text - and if they themselves have spent time choosing and preparing the listening sequence - then it makes sense to use the audio track or live listening experience for as many different applications as possible. Thus, after an initial listening, the teacher can play a track again for various kinds of study before using the subject matter, situation or audio script for a new activity. The listening then becomes an important event in a teaching sequence rather than just an exercise by itself.
Stages of Listening Lesson
Create motivation for listening
Pre-teach only critical vocabulary
General questions on context and attitude of speakers
Checking answers to questions
Functional language in listening passage
Learners infer the meaning of unknown words from the sentences in which they appear
Final play; learners look at transcript
There are a number of reasons for not pre-teaching all the unknown vocabulary in a recording. It takes time – time which is much better spent listening. Very importantly, it also leaves students unprepared for what happens in a real-life listening encounter where, inevitably, there will be words which they do not know and have to work out for themselves. A third consideration is the effect upon the listening process. By pre-teaching all the new words in a recording, regardless of their importance, the teacher encourages the learner to listen out for those words. Result: the learner’s attention is focused upon the language of the text rather than its meaning. It may also be misdirected to parts of the recording which are not strictly relevant to the main argument.
The current policy is to pre-teach only critical words. ‘Critical’ is taken to mean those words without which the recording could not be understood (for example, in a passage about jogging, we would want to be sure that learners knew the verb to jog). In any given listening text, there should be very few such critical items – at most, four or five.
As already noted, it is important to compensate for the limitations of using an audio cassette by giving students a general idea of what they are going to hear. In a real-life situation, they would usually be aware of who the speakers were, where they were and so on. It is only fair to provide some of this information before the listening exercise.
However, the information does not need to be extensive. In fact, there is considerable danger in expounding too much on the context of the listening passage. The more we tell the learners, the less they will need to listen to the recording to extract the answers they need. The criterion should be: what would the listener already know in real life before the speech event began?
This is an important goal of pre-listening, and one that is sometimes neglected. We need to give listeners a purpose for listening. The quality and depth of listening is also enormously enhanced when the listener has the right mental set – in other words, when she has given some forethought to what the listening passage is
likely to contain.
How to create motivation? One way is to write a title for the listening passage on the board, and then to ask the learners to predict what they will hear (see panel below). Once they have created a set of expectations, the goal of the extensive listening phase is to check which of their predictions prove to be correct and which not. The process can even be competitive (Anna thinks there will be something about noise pollution; Enrique doesn’t agree. Let’s see who is right.). Note, by the way, that the interaction exemplified in the panel does more than just create mental set. It also performs the pre-listening functions of outlining context and introducing critical vocabulary.
If questions are not asked until after the recording has been heard, learners listen in a very untargeted way. They are unclear about where to direct their attention; and their ability to answer depends upon which parts of the recording they happen to have paid special heed to. Their responses also become heavily dependent upon memory – and their recall becomes unreliable as the teacher asks more and more questions and as time goes by.
A policy of setting questions before the second play of the cassette ensures that learners know in advance what they are listening for. They can write notes of their answers during listening, and their ability to respond will not be dependent upon their ability to remember what was said. Note the convention in both teaching and testing (a convention that has rarely been questioned) whereby the questions follow the same order as the passage.
The teacher allows learners time to write up their answers, and then checks them with the class as a whole. This is sometimes a difficult phase of the listening lesson. Learners may be slow to respond – partly because they need to switch psychologically from the receptive role of listener to the active one of class participant but often because of a lack of confidence in their replies. Some learners attribute their insecurity to the fact that they do not (as in reading) have the text before them in order to double-check before they commit themselves to an answer. One way of overcoming reluctance is for learners to compare answers in pairs before submitting them to the whole class.
The practice of replaying a listening passage in order to reinforce recently taught grammar has been abandoned, along with other structuralist notions. However, many of the dialogues which feature in published listening materials represent common types of human interaction. They therefore afford useful and well-contextualised examples of language functions such as refusing, apologising, threatening, offering, etc. These functions are relatively difficult to teach in isolation. It is worthwhile drawing attention to any which feature prominently in a listening passage, and even pausing briefly to practise them.
If only minimal vocabulary is pre-taught, listeners have to learn to cope with unknown words in the passage. Here, they are gaining experience of exactly the kind of process that occurs in a real-life encounter, where there is no teacher or dictionary on hand to explain every word in an utterance. It is usually assumed (perhaps by analogy with L2 reading) that the way in which an L2 listener deals with an unknown word is to work out its meaning from the context in which it occurs. If one accepts the assumption, it is appropriate to
give listeners some controlled practice in the process of inferring word meaning, similar to the practice given to readers. The teacher identifies a number of useful words in the recording which may be new to the class and whose meanings are relatively clearly illustrated by the context (one or two sentences) within which they occur. The teacher then writes the words on the board, and replays the sections of the listening passage which contain them. Students suggest possible meanings.
That is the principle; my experience is that it often does not find its way into practice. Although many teachers recognise the value of this kind of inferring activity, they are reluctant to engage in it. The reason is simple: even with a counter on the cassette or CD player, it can be quite complicated and time-consuming to locate a number of short pieces of text. In fact, the solution is simple as well. It is to pre-record the target sentences on to a separate cassette or CD so that they are easily retrieved for the inferring exercise.
Paused play has generally been dropped. It was often used as a way of practising intonation patterns – and was thus part of the unsatisfactory mixing of language and listening goals which has already been commented on. It was also criticised on the grounds that learners could repeat what they heard without necessarily understanding anything – the kind of parroting associated with behaviourist drilling. My personal belief is that paused play can still serve some purpose, as a way of checking whether learners can divide up short sections of connected speech into individual words. However, one has to recognise that it does not fit in well with current communicative approaches.
There is sometimes a final play during which, for the first time, the students are given a transcript of the listening passage. This is a valuable activity, since it allows learners, on an individual basis, to clarify sections of the recording which they have not so far succeeded in decoding. It may also enable them to notice, for example, the presence of short weak-quality function words which they would otherwise have overlooked.
Audio and Video
Video is an extremely useful resource for listening, especially now that we can share film clips on sites such as YouTube and VIMEO. But students can also watch video clips from DVDs, Computers, mobile devices and IWBS.
Video is richer than audio: speakers can be seen; their body movements give clues as to meaning; so do the clothes they wear, their location, etc. Background information can be filled in visually.
Some teachers, however, think that video is less useful for teaching listening than audio precisely because, with the visual senses engaged as well as the audio senses, students pay less attention to what they are actually hearing.
A danger of video is that students may treat it rather as they treat watching television e.g. uncritically and lazily. There may well be occasions when it is entirely appropriate for them to watch video in a relaxed way, but more often we will want them to engage, not only with the content of what they are seeing, but also the language and other features.
Four particular techniques are especially appropriate for language learners, and are often used with video footage:
Play the video without sound: students and teacher discuss what they see and what clues it gives them, and then they guess what the characters are actually saying. Once they have predicted the conversation, the teacher rewinds the video and plays it with sound. Were they right? A variation on this technique is to fast forward the excerpt. The students say what they think was happening. The teacher can then play the extract with sound, or play it, again, without sound, but this time at normal speed.
Play the audio without the picture: this reverses the previous procedure. While the students listen, they try to judge where the speakers are, what they look like, what’s going on, etc. When they have predicted this, they listen again, this time with the visual images as well. Were they correct?
Freeze frame: the teacher presses the pause button and asks the students what’s going to happen next. Can they predict the action - and the language that will be used?
Dividing the class in half: half the class face the screen. The other half sit with their backs to it. The ‘screen’ half describe the visual images to the ‘wall’ half.
Some guidelines for listening skills work in class
Keep the recording short: two minutes of recorded material is enough to provide a lot of listening work.
Play the recording a sufficient number of times. (This is one point that teacher trainers and supervisors often comment on when they observe teachers’ lessons: the teachers did not give the students enough opportunities to hear the recording. The students found the material a lot more difficult than the teacher realised.)
Let students discuss their answers together (perhaps in pairs).
Don't immediately correct answers with or facial expressions; throw the answers back to the class: What do you think of Claire’s answer- do you agree?
Don't be led by one strong student. Have they all got it?
Aim to get the students to agree together without your help, using verbal prodding, raised eyebrows, nods, hints, etc. Play the recording again whenever they need to hear it, to confirm or refute their ideas, until they agree.
Play little bits of the recording (a word, a phrase, a sentence) again and again until it's clear.
Give help if they are completely stuck - but still with the aim of getting them to work it out if at all possible (e.g. There are three words in this sentence or Listen to what she says here) rather than giving them the answers.
Consider giving the students control of the recording - to listen when and to what they wish.
Don't cheat them by changing your requirements halfway, i.e. don't set one task, but then afterwards ask for answers to something completely different!
Don't let them lose heart. Try to make sure the task is just within their abilities. It should be difficult, but achievable. The sense of achievement in finishing a task should be great: 'It was difficult, but we did it!'
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Harmer, J. Essential Teacher Knowledge, (Pearson Education, 2012);
Harmer, J. How to Teach English, (Pearson Education, 2007);
Scrivener, J. Learning Teaching, (Macmillan Education, 2005);