Wednesday 28 April 2010

how to teach listening

Teaching Listening Better: Is Listening being taught as well as it could be?
In Listening classes, students are usually given practice in listening but they are not actually taught listening. Practice is not enough.
Research and case studies have told us many things about how listening should be taught. But often, this knowledge has not made the jump into classroom practice. While many classes are based on the idea of giving students lots of practice with English, research tells us that we also need to teach listening.
In addition to giving students plenty of listening practice. We should also break the skill of listening into micro-skill components and make sure that our students are aware of what they need to know to understand how to listen to English.
A Teacher's Checklist
Students need to know and understand:
• how words link together (liaison)
• how vowels weaken (the central vowel)
• how sounds mix together (assimilation)
• how sounds disappear (elision)
• how syllables disappear (ellipsis)
• how helping sounds are used between vowel sounds (intrusion)
• how intonation helps with conversational turn taking (intonation)
• how stress signals new information (prominence)
• how to use grammar to help guess meaning (strategies)
• how to use discourse knowledge to help guess meaning (strategies)
• how to use knowledge of intonation and stress to guess meaning (strategies)
Do your students know all these features of natural English? They should.
Everyone knows that many Japanese say that 'listening' is their weak point with English. There is a very simple reason for this. Most Japanese students have never been taught how to listen to English. They have had practice but they have never actually been taught or given guidance about how to listen to English.
We, along with many of you, want to change this
What do we teach when we teach Listening?
When we teach listening we need to teach not only English, but we also need to teach how it is used. We need to teach both:
1. the language system, (our knowledge of language: grammar and vocabulary etc.) and
2. the use of the language system, (the skills of language use)
The problem with most listening classes, is that they get stuck at number 1. Too many classes concentrate on teaching the language system and miss the skills of language, in this case listening.
Our knowledge of the language system includes our knowledge of words, how these words are properly put in order (syntax or grammar), how these words are said in connected streams (phonology), how these words are strung together in longer texts (discourse) and so on.
Using the language system involves how we apply this knowledge of the language system to understand or convey meaning and how we apply particular skills to understanding and conveying meaning.
The Listening Skills (an all too often forgotten skill set)
Listening skills are often divided into two groups:
• bottom up listening skills and
• top down listening skills
Bottom up listening skills, or bottom up processing, refers to the decoding process, the direct decoding of language into meaningful units, from sound waves through the air, in through our ears and into our brain where meaning is decoded. To do this students need to know the code. How the sounds work and how they string together and how the codes can change in different ways when they're strung together. And most students have never been taught how English changes when it's strung together in sentences.
Top-down processing refers to how we use our world knowledge to attribute meaning to language input; how our knowledge of social convention helps us understand meaning.
These are the skills that listening teachers should be teaching in their classes but all too often are not. (Unless of course you are already using our listening textbook!!!) To offer a quote: "An understanding of the role of bottom-up and top-down processes in listening is central to any theory of listening comprehension" (Richards, 1990:50). We agree.
The Default Method
In most classrooms around Japan, the common way to teach listening is to have students listen to some language tape, then the teacher asks a few comprehension questions. Did the students understand? No? Well ok, play the tape again. Ask the question again. Did they understand? No. Ok, well . . . tell them to practice and one day they'll get used to English and will be able to understand. Practice practice! Practice makes perfect.
Or you might pick out a particular grammar point. This passage uses the present perfect quite a bit, so you might go over some of the differences between the simple past and the present perfect. Maybe write a formula or two up on the board. This is the approach taken by most teachers and it is insufficient.
This might very well be a good grammar lesson but it's not listening. Students need to be told how English works and also how to use their knowledge to improve their skills. Yes practice makes perfect. But instruction can make this process happen much more efficiently. We need to teach our students.
Well known SLA (Second Language Acquisition) expert Richard Schmidt, has put forward a theory called the "Noticing Hypothesis", which states that learners have to notice something before they can learn it. And as such, we need to help our students notice language points. Teachers need to teach.
"There is support in the literature for the hypothesis that attention is required for all learning. Learners need to pay attention to input and pay particular attention to whatever aspect of the input (phonology, morphology, pragmatics, discourse, etc) that you are concerned to learn" (Schmidt: 1995)
An ideal listening class should thus provide both practice and instruction. Students need practice in listening for meaning and also some instruction about how to do so effectively.
"Classroom data from a number of studies offer support for the view that form focused instruction and corrective feedback provided within the context of communicative programs are more effective in promoting second language learning than programs which are limited to a virtually exclusive emphasis on either accuracy or fluency". (Lightbrown & Spada)
What Listening Teachers Need to Do
Give students practice in listenings which ask students to interpret and understand meaning, together with listenings which teach learners about how English is actually spoken. That is,students need practice in listening for meaning and instruction about how to do this, (a focus on form).
Such an approach has been the recommended method for teaching listening for years and yet the "Practice makes perfect plus a little grammar" approach is still common. We want to change this!
You've read our views. We'd now like to hear your views. Send us your comments and we'll post them here. Let's start a dialog and move our teaching forward. Help us to make things better.
A Teaching Method Supported by Second Language Acquisition Research
We've put together an annotated bibliography on teaching methods for listening. A read through these books and articles would certainly give the listening teacher a sound awareness of many of the issues facing them when teaching in the classroom. Another suggestion might be to use our textbook, Top-Up Listening. This is a book written by teachers, all with advanced qualifications in education and years of experience. Furthermore this book has been edited and tested by editors with advanced teaching qualifications in and years of experience. Top-Up Listening teaches listening in accordance with all that we know about teaching listening. In short this book teaches listening they way listening is supposed to be taught!
Lastly if you are interested in information on teaching listening or resources for further study send us an email.
Teaching listening skills is one of the most difficult tasks for any ESL teacher. This is because successful listening skills are acquired over time and with lots of practice. It's frustrating for students because there are no rules as in grammar teaching. Speaking and writing also have very specific exercises that can lead to improved skills. This is not to say that there are not ways of improving listening skills, however they are difficult to quantify.
One of the largest inhibitors for students is often mental block. While listening, a student suddenly decides that he or she doesn't understand what is being said. At this point, many students just tune out or get caught up in an internal dialogue trying translate a specific word. Some students convince themselves that they are not able to understand spoken English well and create problems for themselves.
They key to helping students improve their listening skills is to convince them that not understanding is OK. This is more of an attitude adjustment than anything else, and it is easier for some students to accept than others. Another important point that I try to teach my students (with differing amounts of success) is that they need to listen to English as often as possible, but for short periods of time.
I like to use this analogy: Imagine you want to get in shape. You decide to begin jogging. The very first day you go out and jog seven miles. If you are lucky, you might even be able to jog the seven miles. However, chances are good that you will not soon go out jogging again. Fitness trainers have taught us that we must begin with little steps. Begin jogging short distances and walk some as well, over time you can build up the distance. Using this approach, you'll be much more likely to continue jogging and get fit.
Students need to apply the same approach to listening skills. Encourage them to get a film, or listen to an English radio station, but not to watch an entire film or listen for two hours. Students should often listen, but they should listen for short periods - five to ten minutes. This should happen four or five times a week. Even if they don't understand anything, five to ten minutes is a minor investement. However, for this strategy to work, students must not expect improved understanding too quickly. The brain is capable of amazing things if given time, students must have the patience to wait for results. If a student continues this exercise over two to three months their listening comprehension skills will greatly improve.
Teaching Listening
Listening skills are vital for your learners. Of the 'four skills,' listening is by far the most frequently used. Listening and speaking are often taught together, but beginners, especially non-literate ones, should be given more listening than speaking practice. It's important to speak as close to natural speed as possible, although with beginners some slowing is usually necessary. Without reducing your speaking speed, you can make your language easier to comprehend by simplifying your vocabulary, using shorter sentences, and increasing the number and length of pauses in your speech.
There are many types of listening activities. Those that don't require learners to produce language in response are easier than those that do. Learners can be asked to physically respond to a command (for example, "please open the door"), select an appropriate picture or object, circle the correct letter or word on a worksheet, draw a route on a map, or fill in a chart as they listen. It's more difficult to repeat back what was heard, translate into the native language, take notes, make an outline, or answer comprehension questions. To add more challenge, learners can continue a story text, solve a problem, perform a similar task with a classmate after listening to a model (for example, order a cake from a bakery), or participate in real-time conversation.
Good listening lessons go beyond the listening task itself with related activities before and after the listening. Here is the basic structure:
• Before Listening
Prepare your learners by introducing the topic and finding out what they already know about it. A good way to do this is to have a brainstorming session and some discussion questions related to the topic. Then provide any necessary background information and new vocabulary they will need for the listening activity.
• During Listening
Be specific about what students need to listen for. They can listen for selective details or general content, or for an emotional tone such as happy, surprised, or angry. If they are not marking answers or otherwise responding while listening, tell them ahead of time what will be required afterward.
• After Listening
Finish with an activity to extend the topic and help students remember new vocabulary. This could be a discussion group, craft project, writing task, game, etc.
The following ideas will help make your listening activities successful.
• Noise
Reduce distractions and noise during the listening segment. You may need to close doors or windows or ask children in the room to be quiet for a few minutes.
• Equipment
If you are using a cassette player, make sure it produces acceptable sound quality. A counter on the machine will aid tremendously in cueing up tapes. Bring extra batteries or an extension cord with you.
• Repetition
Read or play the text a total of 2-3 times. Tell students in advance you will repeat it. This will reduce their anxiety about not catching it all the first time. You can also ask them to listen for different information each time through.
• Content
Unless your text is merely a list of items, talk about the content as well as specific language used. The material should be interesting and appropriate for your class level in topic, speed, and vocabulary. You may need to explain reductions (like 'gonna' for 'going to') and fillers (like 'um' or 'uh-huh').
• Recording Your Own Tape
Write appropriate text (or use something from your textbook) and have another English speaker read it onto tape. Copy the recording three times so you don't need to rewind. The reader should not simply read three times, because students want to hear exact repetition of the pronunciation, intonation, and pace, not just the words.
• Video
You can play a video clip with the sound off and ask students to make predictions about what dialog is taking place. Then play it again with sound and discuss why they were right or wrong in their predictions. You can also play the sound without the video first, and show the video after students have guessed what is going on.
• Homework
Give students a listening task to do between classes. Encourage them to listen to public announcements in airports, bus stations, supermarkets, etc. and try to write down what they heard. Tell them the telephone number of a cinema and ask them to write down the playing times of a specific movie. Give them a tape recording of yourself with questions, dictation, or a worksheet to complete.
Look for listening activities in the Activities and Lesson Materials sections of this guide. If your learners can use a computer with internet access and headphones or speakers, you may direct them toward the following listening practice sites. You could also assign specific activities from these sites as homework. Teach new vocabulary ahead of time if necessary.

Teaching Listening
Listening is the language modality that is used most frequently. It has been estimated that adults spend almost half their communication time listening, and students may receive as much as 90% of their in-school information through listening to instructors and to one another. Often, however, language learners do not recognize the level of effort that goes into developing listening ability.
Far from passively receiving and recording aural input, listeners actively involve themselves in the interpretation of what they hear, bringing their own background knowledge and linguistic knowledge to bear on the information contained in the aural text. Not all listening is the same; casual greetings, for example, require a different sort of listening capability than do academic lectures. Language learning requires intentional listening that employs strategies for identifying sounds and making meaning from them.
Listening involves a sender (a person, radio, television), a message, and a receiver (the listener). Listeners often must process messages as they come, even if they are still processing what they have just heard, without backtracking or looking ahead. In addition, listeners must cope with the sender's choice of vocabulary, structure, and rate of delivery. The complexity of the listening process is magnified in second language contexts, where the receiver also has incomplete control of the language.
Given the importance of listening in language learning and teaching, it is essential for language teachers to help their students become effective listeners. In the communicative approach to language teaching, this means modeling listening strategies and providing listening practice in authentic situations: those that learners are likely to encounter when they use the language outside the classroom.
Goals and Techniques for Teaching Listening
Instructors want to produce students who, even if they do not have complete control of the grammar or an extensive lexicon, can fend for themselves in communication situations. In the case of listening, this means producing students who can use listening strategies to maximize their comprehension of aural input, identify relevant and non-relevant information, and tolerate less than word-by-word comprehension.
Focus: The Listening Process
To accomplish this goal, instructors focus on the process of listening rather than on its product.
• They develop students' awareness of the listening process and listening strategies by asking students to think and talk about how they listen in their native language.
• They allow students to practice the full repertoire of listening strategies by using authentic listening tasks.
• They behave as authentic listeners by responding to student communication as a listener rather than as a teacher.
• When working with listening tasks in class, they show students the strategies that will work best for the listening purpose and the type of text. They explain how and why students should use the strategies.
• They have students practice listening strategies in class and ask them to practice outside of class in their listening assignments. They encourage students to be conscious of what they're doing while they complete listening tape assignments.
• They encourage students to evaluate their comprehension and their strategy use immediately after completing an assignment. They build comprehension checks into in-class and out-of-class listening assignments, and periodically review how and when to use particular strategies.
• They encourage the development of listening skills and the use of listening strategies by using the target language to conduct classroom business: making announcements, assigning homework, describing the content and format of tests.
• They do not assume that students will transfer strategy use from one task to another. They explicitly mention how a particular strategy can be used in a different type of listening task or with another skill.
By raising students' awareness of listening as a skill that requires active engagement, and by explicitly teaching listening strategies, instructors help their students develop both the ability and the confidence to handle communication situations they may encounter beyond the classroom. In this way they give their students the foundation for communicative competence in the new language.
Integrating Metacognitive Strategies
Before listening: Plan for the listening task
• Set a purpose or decide in advance what to listen for
• Decide if more linguistic or background knowledge is needed
• Determine whether to enter the text from the top down (attend to the overall meaning) or from the bottom up (focus on the words and phrases)
During and after listening: Monitor comprehension
• Verify predictions and check for inaccurate guesses
• Decide what is and is not important to understand
• Listen/view again to check comprehension
• Ask for help
After listening: Evaluate comprehension and strategy use
• Evaluate comprehension in a particular task or area
• Evaluate overall progress in listening and in particular types of listening tasks
• Decide if the strategies used were appropriate for the purpose and for the task
• Modify strategies if necessary
Using Authentic Materials and Situations
Authentic materials and situations prepare students for the types of listening they will need to do when using the language outside the classroom.
One-Way Communication
• Radio and television programs
• Public address announcements (airports, train/bus stations, stores)
• Speeches and lectures
• Telephone customer service recordings
• Help students identify the listening goal: to obtain specific information; to decide whether to continue listening; to understand most or all of the message
• Help students outline predictable sequences in which information may be presented: who-what-when-where (news stories); who-flight number-arriving/departing-gate number (airport announcements); "for [function], press [number]" (telephone recordings)
• Help students identify key words/phrases to listen for
Two-Way Communication
In authentic two-way communication, the listener focuses on the speaker's meaning rather than the speaker's language. The focus shifts to language only when meaning is not clear. Note the difference between the teacher as teacher and the teacher as authentic listener in the dialogues in the popup screens.
Strategies for Developing Listening Skills
Language learning depends on listening. Listening provides the aural input that serves as the basis for language acquisition and enables learners to interact in spoken communication.
Effective language instructors show students how they can adjust their listening behavior to deal with a variety of situations, types of input, and listening purposes. They help students develop a set of listening strategies and match appropriate strategies to each listening situation.
Listening Strategies
Listening strategies are techniques or activities that contribute directly to the comprehension and recall of listening input. Listening strategies can be classified by how the listener processes the input.
Top-down strategies are listener based; the listener taps into background knowledge of the topic, the situation or context, the type of text, and the language. This background knowledge activates a set of expectations that help the listener to interpret what is heard and anticipate what will come next. Top-down strategies include
• listening for the main idea
• predicting
• drawing inferences
• summarizing
Bottom-up strategies are text based; the listener relies on the language in the message, that is, the combination of sounds, words, and grammar that creates meaning. Bottom-up strategies include
• listening for specific details
• recognizing cognates
• recognizing word-order patterns
Strategic listeners also use metacognitive strategies to plan, monitor, and evaluate their listening.
• They plan by deciding which listening strategies will serve best in a particular situation.
• They monitor their comprehension and the effectiveness of the selected strategies.
• They evaluate by determining whether they have achieved their listening comprehension goals and whether the combination of listening strategies selected was an effective one.
Listening for Meaning
To extract meaning from a listening text, students need to follow four basic steps:
• Figure out the purpose for listening. Activate background knowledge of the topic in order to predict or anticipate content and identify appropriate listening strategies.
• Attend to the parts of the listening input that are relevant to the identified purpose and ignore the rest. This selectivity enables students to focus on specific items in the input and reduces the amount of information they have to hold in short-term memory in order to recognize it.
• Select top-down and bottom-up strategies that are appropriate to the listening task and use them flexibly and interactively. Students' comprehension improves and their confidence increases when they use top-down and bottom-up strategies simultaneously to construct meaning.
• Check comprehension while listening and when the listening task is over. Monitoring comprehension helps students detect inconsistencies and comprehension failures, directing them to use alternate strategies.

Developing Listening Activities
As you design listening tasks, keep in mind that complete recall of all the information in an aural text is an unrealistic expectation to which even native speakers are not usually held. Listening exercises that are meant to train should be success-oriented and build up students' confidence in their listening ability.
Construct the listening activity around a contextualized task.
Contextualized listening activities approximate real-life tasks and give the listener an idea of the type of information to expect and what to do with it in advance of the actual listening. A beginning level task would be locating places on a map (one way) or exchanging name and address information (two way). At an intermediate level students could follow directions for assembling something (one way) or work in pairs to create a story to tell to the rest of the class (two way).
Define the activity's instructional goal and type of response.
Each activity should have as its goal the improvement of one or more specific listening skills. A listening activity may have more than one goal or outcome, but be careful not to overburden the attention of beginning or intermediate listeners.
Recognizing the goal(s) of listening comprehension in each listening situation will help students select appropriate listening strategies.
• Identification: Recognizing or discriminating specific aspects of the message, such as sounds, categories of words, morphological distinctions
• Orientation: Determining the major facts about a message, such as topic, text type, setting
• Main idea comprehension: Identifying the higher-order ideas
• Detail comprehension: Identifying supporting details
• Replication: Reproducing the message orally or in writing
Check the level of difficulty of the listening text.
The factors listed below can help you judge the relative ease or difficulty of a listening text for a particular purpose and a particular group of students.
How is the information organized? Does the story line, narrative, or instruction conform to familiar expectations? Texts in which the events are presented in natural chronological order, which have an informative title, and which present the information following an obvious organization (main ideas first, details and examples second) are easier to follow.
How familiar are the students with the topic? Remember that misapplication of background knowledge due to cultural differences can create major comprehension difficulties.
Does the text contain redundancy? At the lower levels of proficiency, listeners may find short, simple messages easier to process, but students with higher proficiency benefit from the natural redundancy of the language.
Does the text involve multiple individuals and objects? Are they clearly differentiated? It is easier to understand a text with a doctor and a patient than one with two doctors, and it is even easier if they are of the opposite sex. In other words, the more marked the differences, the easier the comprehension.
Does the text offer visual support to aid in the interpretation of what the listeners hear? Visual aids such as maps, diagrams, pictures, or the images in a video help contextualize the listening input and provide clues to meaning.
Use pre-listening activities to prepare students for what they are going to hear or view.
The activities chosen during pre-listening may serve as preparation for listening in several ways. During pre-listening the teacher may
• assess students' background knowledge of the topic and linguistic content of the text
• provide students with the background knowledge necessary for their comprehension of the listening passage or activate the existing knowledge that the students possess
• clarify any cultural information which may be necessary to comprehend the passage
• make students aware of the type of text they will be listening to, the role they will play, and the purpose(s) for which they will be listening
• provide opportunities for group or collaborative work and for background reading or class discussion activities
Sample pre-listening activities:
• looking at pictures, maps, diagrams, or graphs
• reviewing vocabulary or grammatical structures
• reading something relevant
• constructing semantic webs (a graphic arrangement of concepts or words showing how they are related)
• predicting the content of the listening text
• going over the directions or instructions for the activity
• doing guided practice
Match while-listening activities to the instructional goal, the listening purpose, and students' proficiency level.
While-listening activities relate directly to the text, and students do them do during or immediately after the time they are listening. Keep these points in mind when planning while-listening activities:
If students are to complete a written task during or immediately after listening, allow them to read through it before listening. Students need to devote all their attention to the listening task. Be sure they understand the instructions for the written task before listening begins so that they are not distracted by the need to figure out what to do.
Keep writing to a minimum during listening. Remember that the primary goal is comprehension, not production. Having to write while listening may distract students from this primary goal. If a written response is to be given after listening, the task can be more demanding.
Organize activities so that they guide listeners through the text. Combine global activities such as getting the main idea, topic, and setting with selective listening activities that focus on details of content and form.
Use questions to focus students' attention on the elements of the text crucial to comprehension of the whole. Before the listening activity begins, have students review questions they will answer orally or in writing after listening. Listening for the answers will help students recognize the crucial parts of the message.
Use predicting to encourage students to monitor their comprehension as they listen. Do a predicting activity before listening, and remind students to review what they are hearing to see if it makes sense in the context of their prior knowledge and what they already know of the topic or events of the passage.
Give immediate feedback whenever possible. Encourage students to examine how or why their responses were incorrect.
Sample while-listening activities
• listening with visuals
• filling in graphs and charts
• following a route on a map
• checking off items in a list
• listening for the gist
• searching for specific clues to meaning
• completing cloze (fill-in) exercises
• distinguishing between formal and informal registers

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