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A Less Painful Approach to Improving Listening

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Good listening skills are crucial for success in a foreign language. In a normal day, for example, listening is typically used twice as much as speaking, and a full four to five times more than reading and writing. Most students will quickly say that listening is difficult, if not admit that this is their weakest skill.

The perceived problem that listening is difficult comes down to two main points.  The first hinges on how teachers use activities specifically for listening. Most listening-focused activities involve a scripted monologue or dialogue. The students jump right in. They listen once or twice to the tape, then answer comprehension questions.  Because this approach feels very much like a test, with right and wrong answers, the negativity, fear, and sense that "I'm being graded!" gets translated to the skill as a whole.

(You may be wondering at this point: Don't communicative activities also involve listening? And you're absolutely right, because they do. Unfortunately, students don't always make the connection that communication = speaking + listening. To put it another way, speaking activities simply aren't considered listening activities by students.)

The second reason stems from the fact that the pace, choice of vocabulary, phrases, and grammar, and the inflection or intonation is completely determined by the speaker. The listener has only one chance to catch the meaning of a word or phrase. Comparisons can be made with reading, because the writer similarly determines the language. But students can easily re-read passages, consult a dictionary, and generally work at their own pace.  There aren't any (or at least, many) re-dos when listening.

So what can you do to focus on listening in a lesson, but also give English learners greater confidence when it comes to the skill?

Step 1: Prepare for the listening task with some activities.

Before students listen to a passage, get them ready. First establish the purpose and/or subject of the monologue or dialogue. In other words, the students won't begin completely unprepared. They will know the topic and the reason for the passage, which will allow them to focus on other assigned tasks from the start.

Follow this with a brief discussion. Ask students questions, which they can talk about in pairs or groups. This also prepares them for the activity. A discussion will give them some background ideas, thereby gearing up their thoughts towards the upcoming content. They will be better able to focus their attention on specific points.

Step 2: Explain the listening task.

Explain to the students what they need to do. If, for example, you want them to listen to a passage, jot down a few ideas, and pair up to talk about what was heard, then explain these instructions clearly. ("First listen to the tape, but don't do anything.  Just listen. I'll play the tape a second time, and you should write down any information you think is important. You'll get into groups of four after that, and talk about what you heard.  Finally, I'll play the tape once more to confirm your group's notes.") If necessary, demonstrate the activity step by step, too, especially if the worksheet has a set task, such as filling out a weekly schedule based on the conversation. Lastly, ask a few confirmation questions to determine everyone understands, as in: "What's the first step?" and "When should you take notes?"

This seems like a simple step. But if the directions aren't fully understood by everyone, some people won't be able to complete the task as described. (Have you ever asked "Does everyone understand?" only to find out that half the class then did the activity incorrectly?) Maybe some students misunderstood the instructions, and so listened for the wrong information. Or maybe others didn't answer the content questions at all, instead thinking they would have the opportunity to do so later. Whatever the reason, always explain, demonstrate, and confirm the instructions, so as to guarantee everyone fully and correctly participates in the next step.

Step 3: Do the task.

This step involves reading the passage aloud by the teacher, or playing the CD, tape, or video. Students listen for specific information, to then do something with that information (e.g., answer questions, fill out a schedule, etc.). With more difficult passages, it's perfectly all right to let students listen once, but not take any action apart from becoming familiar with the accent and intonation, the type and purpose of the piece, and to just catch the gist of it. Play the tape again, and everyone will listen for specific words, answer questions, take notes to summarize--whatever tasks you've set for them in step two.

Step 4: Confirm and discuss the listening task.

Ask the class what they thought of the monologue or dialogue. Was it difficult or easy? Why? If possible, pass out the script for everyone to confirm the information. Alternatively, you can write the script on the board, dictate it slowly, or have students come together and compare their answers. These points allow the students to evaluate their success, comparing what was heard against what was actually said. Follow this with a chance for students to ask questions on specific words or passages, or even re-read difficult portions of the script.

At the end of a listening activity, give students the chance to reuse the information that they just heard in combination with other language skills. You could have everyone discuss specific questions in pairs or groups, or debate the information. If they just listened to a dialogue, allow the students to write a similar conversation or act one out in a role play. Learning gets reinforced when students use one skill along with others.

By employing these four steps, students have ample time to prepare and understand the task ahead. They can also better complete the task, confirm their answers, and reinforce the material with additional exercises. Some of the sting and test-like atmosphere of traditional listening exercises gets lessened.


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