I have commented before in this blog that listening is the skill most neglected by teachers because so few of us really understand how to go about teaching it. All too often, a listening comprehension exercise turns into an assessment one, where the emphasis is on marks rather than enjoyment and understanding.
Inevitably, students approach this element of language learning with a sense of impending failure. What's more, the materials featured in textbooks often focus on family outings or the like which may well appear juvenile to (young) adult learners.
In this post, I will examine why extensive listening is essential to language learning and what we can do to promote it in and out of the classroom.
In the first place, anyone who has conducted a listening exam will hear the complaint that the sound equipment was not working properly: it was too quiet; there was outside noise; the sound was distorted; and, most commonly, it was played too fast. But our lessons can help combat all this. As Ridway (2000) notes, listening comprehension classes should be just that, not listening incomprehension. We should be choosing listening resources that our students can understand - Krashen's concept of 'comprehensible input'.
This is vital because materials, if chosen sensibly, can help our students improve word recognition (even at the lowest linguistic levels) and help them decipher word boundaries. Slowly but surely, they will become more attuned to the language and so deal with texts spoken moire quickly until they reach normal or near-normal speeds.
Learners can, as Nation and Newton (2009) argue, develop a network of linguistic information which enables them to "build up the necessary knowledge for using the language." They can move from deciphering sounds to words and phrases and, in the end, whole passages.
So, what characteristics should listening materials have? First and foremost, they should be meaningful and, differently, enjoyable to students. As a fellow teacher commented on a recent blog of mine, even the most reluctant language learner will struggle through text detailing the rules of a new game on the Internet. The point here is that she is motivated to do so because the text provides meaning to her and is of interest.
The next criterion for the teacher is that around 95% of the text will be comprehensible. We might remind ourselves of the five-finger rule here when reading. Hold up five fingers and put one down every time you come across a word that you can't grasp the meaning of. If you can't reach the end of the page with at least one finger still standing, then the book is probably too hard for you. Why should we regard listening as any different?
Of course, as students grow in confidence and in familiarity with the language, they will arrive at that best of all possible worlds where they can pick their own texts.
Given though that teachers select a text, what then should we do with it? Well, Renandaya (2012) suggests, we can encourage students to draw elements from it on paper that they can later explain. They might also predict what is coming next in that well-rehearsed favourite exercise of language teachers the world over. Then, of course, students might re-tell the story to peers who listen and check the accuracy of the account.
Of course, none of this might be possible on a single listening. Dupuy (1999) advocates "narrow listening" or listening to the same recording as many as four times to make sure students have really understood.
Others argue that for more advanced listeners, different takes on the same news item might be a less monotonous way to develop their skills (although current research would not seem to be on their side).
Whatever, we do, the most important maxims seem to me that the texts must be: meaningful, interesting and comprehensible - rather than capable of assessment.
Mark Bartholomew, co-founder of Read Listen Learn
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English stories and articles for reading and listening practice
Extensive reading and listening helps you learn and practice English. Listen and read to improve your English skills.