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!