Getting our students listening and understanding


A couple of weeks ago, I published a short blog on some of the reasons why extensive listening is such a neglected area of TEFL, even though extensive reading is now an area of major interest to academics and teachers.

Semiramis Receiving Word of the Revolt of Babylon (1624)

In this blog, I will look at some of the ways that teachers might highlight the importance of listening comprehension to their students and find suitable strategies to help them on their way to better understanding.

For the few of us old enough to remember when audiolingualism was all the rage in schools, the language lab was an essential part of our foreign language education. We would sit in booths and listen to dialogues selected by our teachers on headphones and repeat appropriate (or not such appropriate) responses. The problem was that this relied on repetition and memorisation and was - at least for me - tedious. There was no opportunity to express independent thought, of course, no real communication. And this was not something that could be rehearsed at home either.

In the less developed world, where the cost of providing language laboratories was prohibitive and even a stable electricity supply could not be relied on, teachers had to resort to dictation. In many cases, they still have to do so.

There are several drawbacks with this, of course. First, students are only exposed to a single teacher's speech patterns. Next, there is no spoken interaction: students often merely write down what the teacher says and then their scripts are corrected. In effect, it becomes an exercise in grammar and spelling, not in listening and communicating. Finally, listening is often made the subject of assessment, so that learners are tested on their understanding. This can feel much the same when they are asked to read from a passage in their textbooks in front of the entire class. Sadly, not much has changed in terms of teaching methodology since Charlotte Bronte wrote her first novel, 'The Professor' (which was only published after her death in 1857 after the success of 'Jane Eyre'). Here, an English teacher shames a class of Flemish youth by having them read from a book and then looking at them in horror at their lack of ability in the language. Perhaps we no longer deride our students' efforts in this cruel way but the pedagogical technique remains the same.

One of the main difficulties faced by language learners is that they do not get to choose what they want to read or listen to and so are not engaged with listening. They do not have much real reason to be so, if they only have to answer questions on a spoken text in which they have no interest.

Another challenge is overcoming their lack of confidence in their listening skills. For this reason, we need to be careful about testing them all the time. Poor marks may only exacerbate their low self esteem in this area. We should also try not to set too challenging tasks for them. It's important that they succeed and, for this to happen, it may be necessary to give them listening texts below their ability or, at least, below the level we think they ought to have attained. One of the main issues with students who lack confidence is that they are afraid of guessing unfamiliar vocabulary from its context. With greater belief in themselves and their linguistic competence, they are not so frightened of making mistakes if their guess about an unknown word turns out to be wrong.

So, what can we, as teachers, do to get students listening? The most obvious strategy is to make listening circles where they are surrounded by their peers - hopefully people who can be relied upon to be supportive and encouraging (although this is by no means always the case). Gentle pointers from friends are not so threatening as when they are made by a teacher for all to see and smirk at.

Another well-rehearsed teaching strategy is to get students to research an area that they want to read about or watch or listen to before they are ever faced with the listening text. Preparing the ground does much to reduce anxiety and to make a subject more interesting because it is more familiar.

And finally, we need to offer students as much control as possible over their choice of listening material, whether that is about crime, sport or science. Students who enjoy listening to a story will return to others. Listening no longer seems like a chore if it's exciting and informative, if we can associate with the characters featured and share their predicaments and environments.

Students should be prepared for the fact that a single hearing is unlikely to yield perfect comprehension. They might need to return with their groups to a passage, story or article again and again until they fully understand what is going on. Of course, if the text has failed to ignite their interest, this will quickly become a bore. But, if they are engaged, they will want to grasp the whole story.

And that brings us to the last issue I would like to discuss in this blog: is it better for learners to listen to three or four different takes on a situation or to repeat their listening of the same text a number of times. This, of course, depends on how similar the levels of difficulty are, whether they repeat the same vocabulary and if such a variety of material is available. Research tends to support repetitive reading but I will leave you to make your own minds up about that.

Listening texts read at slow to normal speeds are available free of charge on Read Listen Learn, you can sign up free here

Mark Bartholomew, Co-Founder of Read Listen Learn