We are super excited about the launch of Trio Listening & Speaking as it gave us a chance to try out some new ideas for building skills with the invisible language that we hear and say. The following article written for the Oxford University Press Newsletter lays out some of the ideas that informed Trio but could be used in any speaking/listening class.
LISTENING AS A PROCESS
Ask English language learners about their comprehension, and they will often say, “People talk too fast!” Unfortunately, we cannot just slow down. If we separate out and pronounce each word individually, our speaking no longer sounds like the language in a natural conversation. In real conversations, people speak in chunks, and the rising and falling intonation of English, the missing, reduced or linked sounds and stress patterns require a different kind of support.
So what do learners need to develop their listening skills? According to John Fields, they need a process. Fields asserts that too often we treat listening exercises as a test. When we have them listen and answer questions, they may answer correctly or incorrectly, but we do not have information about why or how. Instead of testing, we should be working on the subskills of listening so that students can build their abilities.
Fields identifies several areas for development of these subskills: Decoding, which involves matching a sound to a word or phrase, listening for meaning such as gist or for information, which might also include listening for discourse features or sign posts as a speaker shifts from one idea to another, and finally listening for the underlying meanings and intentions of speakers, which is called pragmatics.
To prepare students for comprehension, the first, decoding, is essential. Sometimes learners know a word, but they do not recognize it in spoken form. Students can benefit from micro-listening exercises that help them with audio recognition. They can listen to a word alone and then in a phrase and then perhaps a longer speech act. This is very helpful for words that link such as eat_out or are reduced as in come ‘ere (here).
There are many micro-listening activities that can help with decoding grammar as well. For example, learners might listen to an utterance to determine whether it is an affirmative or negative statement. For example, they might listen to decide if the speaker is saying I know or I don’t know, which can be an important phrase to comprehend. Or they might listen to discriminate between present and future, e.g., they go vs they’ll go.
Decoding can also be done in conjunction with written words. Because English spelling can confuse students, it may be helpful for them to read and listen at the same time. This often results in an “ah ha” moment as the sound and spelling come together. Learners can also be given a list of words. As they listen, they can mark the words as they hear them. As this is a skill development activity, multiple listenings are encouraged.
When students are ready for a longer listening, there are several additional activities that can help them build meaning. They can start by gathering information about the context, which includes the place, the speakers’ relationships, their feelings, and their purposes. A teacher can show a picture and ask learners to answer questions related to that picture. It might be people shopping at lower levels, or it could be a business meeting at higher levels. Once the context is set, learners can then listen to a longer passage and check their predictions, noting down any key words they heard.
A second activity is to have learners compare two summaries of a talk and decide which summary is correct. The instructor can experiment, sometimes giving the two summaries ahead of time and other times after. It is also possible for listeners to compare a text to a listening and find differences or similarities.
Another subskill is to direct learners to listen for signal markers. These are the words and phrases that frame parts of a talk. In more formal talks, a speaker might say, First, second and third to mark sections of a talk. Learners can listen for these markers and match them to topics in a word bank. Next, they can listen and fill in details*. This activity tends to be more helpful than a list of multiple choice or true/false items because it helps the learners break the passage into sections.
While these academic signals are fairly easy to identify, people also use expressions and phrases to organize casual conversation. A speaker might use an expression that is common in the culture, such as Anyway… to signal discomfort and a desire to change the topic, or And another thing… to bring up a related point or You are not going to believe this, to signal that he wants to tell a story. Well, I’m so glad I saw you is a common way for a person to show that she is ready to close the conversation. By identifying these signals in a spoken text, learners can learn the pragmatics or intention of the speakers. Such activities can serve a dual purpose because they give students language that might be useful when engaged in conversations.
Finally, learners can do communicative tasks related to the listening. They can process the information from the listening by responding to a passage. They can support a position, agree or disagree, or compare the information from the text to other information. By reworking the content of the listening in new ways, learners will have the sense of accomplishment that comes from understanding and using language in a meaningful way.
Fields, John (2008) Listening in the Language Classroom, Cambridge University Press.
Savage, A. & Ward, C. (2017). Trio Listening & Speaking. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
This post was originally published in Oxford University Press: Teaching Adults Newsletter
* Trio Listening & Speaking, Oxford University Press has many activities that incorporate signposting in this way.