Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Learning to Listen
By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
For years (and years and years), whenever I had to teach “listening”, I just popped the CD into the machine, pressed play and hoped for the best while the students scrambled to fill in the gaps, answer the questions or match the cards. I always had the sneaking suspicion that I could, and in fact, should, be doing a lot more to support my students’ listening development, but aside from listening practice and more listening practice, I was not sure what else to do. In spite of my many years of teaching and the confidence I feel helping students with speaking and pronunciation, I felt like a neophyte when it came to teaching listening. So, imagine my relief when, as the Speech, Listening and Pronunciation Chair elect, I was tasked with organizing an Academic Session at TESOL on teaching listening for the 2013 TESOL Conference in Dallas. It was actually Helen Solorzano who organized the session, and all I had to do was show up, take credit, and learn!
Top Down Strategies – Check!
So, here’s what I learned: it turns out that what I have been doing for all these years was, in fact, “testing” listening and not teaching it at all. I needed to back up a bit and think about listening as speech processing. Dr. Steve Brown spoke about how listening is a combination of top down and bottom up strategies. Stronger listeners make more use of top down strategies, which means they pull from their general knowledge about the context and the topic to make inferences about the listening. Happily, a lot of texts on the market encourage students to do this by including pictures and warm up questions designed to activate students’ prior knowledge about the topic. As a result, even in my very primitive approach to teaching listening, I did occasionally manage to expose my students to top down listening strategies.
Bottom Up Strategies – Yikes!
However, Dr. Brown also reminded us that teachers also need to help students develop their bottom up listening strategies, as well. In fact, even though less competent listeners rely mostly on bottom up strategies, more competent listeners can benefit from them, too. Teachers tend to focus only on top down strategies, which may be to the detriment of both our strong and weak listeners. So what are these mystical bottom up strategies? Well, I’ve actually been teaching them all along, just not in connection to listening. Dr. Brown pointed out that a robust vocabulary and strong pronunciation and grammar skills result in strong listening skills.
What was that Word?
Apparently, students need to know 98% of the words in a text, listening or reading, to interact with it easily. 98%! Obviously problems arise when students don’t know words. Misunderstanding of a text can be caused when a student replaces an unknown word with a known word, or when a student hears a smaller word instead of the bigger word (“miss” instead of “dismiss”, for instance), or when he/she gets stuck on one meaning of a word when the speaker means another (for example, when a speaker says “in this fashion” and the speaker understands “fashion” as in clothing). As a result, Dr. Brown insisted that there must be an oral component to any vocabulary lessons so that students know what words sound like, not just what they look like. Obviously to help students access the listening they need to do outside the safety of the ESL classroom, I need to be shoveling vocabulary at them as fast as they can learn it!
What did you Say?
As well, students need a strong understanding of English pronunciation norms to be able to phonologically process listening texts. They need to be familiar with concepts such as the strong and weak forms we rely on in English to make meaning. In natural speech, we also delete, assimilate, and blend sounds. How confusing is that? This really struck a chord with me because I will never forget the story told to me by one of my students. When he had just arrived in the US, he felt confident with his listening abilities. He had practiced with cassettes in Korea and considered himself to be an intermediate level student. However, when he went to McDonald’s, and the server asked him, “ulthtbefurereurtugo,” he was totally confused and frustrated. Rightly so! He could have read, “Will that be for here or to go” and understood it easily, but when it was spoken, it bore no resemblance to the ESL tapes he had so diligently listened to. The bottom line is that students need pronunciation lessons to develop their listening skills and, according to Dr. Brown, the connection between pronunciation and listening needs to be made more explicit in the classroom.
What did you Mean?
Clearly, for many of the same reasons, a strong foundation in English grammar makes listening texts more accessible for our students. First, they spend less time thinking through the grammar choices of the speaker (“Hmm, -ed means the past tense, so he must mean this happened yesterday …”), and they have more time to focus on the message. Now, if you are reading this particular blog, chances are you already appreciate the importance of grammar in the overall linguistic development of your students. Me, too! However, what I am doing more of now is both making sure students know what the grammar I am teaching sounds like (even the reduced forms) by finding examples (short and sweet) of the target grammar in a recording. I also like the idea of pointing out target grammar structures in listening transcripts after the main listening task has been completed, so that students can see and hear them at the same time. My students will not only know the past forms of modals, they will understand them in natural speech. Well, that’s the goal anyway.
I left the session at TESOL feeling empowered. Now, I can actually begin to teach my students to listen!