Teaching Listening

A classroom activity...

Teaching Listening

Listening is a difficult skill to teach, and we too often end up just testing it in class. Here are a couple of videos to give you a bit more insight into how you can really incorporate teaching listening into your classroom practice.
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Teaching listening 1 - top down

Hi and welcome to another teacher training video from ELT-Training.com. I'm Jo Gakonga.

This month we're going to continue with our theme of teaching receptive skills and look at teaching listening. I've split this video into two, but don't miss the second one because actually I think it's the most interesting. In this first one, we'll look at the process of what's called ‘top down’ listening and in the second we'll look at some strategies for helping your learners with ‘bottom up’ listening.

So let's make a start. As I've mentioned before, receptive skills consist of both reading and listening, so a good question to start us off is this… Are reading and listening similar skills? If not, what are the differences between them. Right, just pause me for a minute and have a think about this. Well there are obviously a lot of differences between them… one’s on paper; we learn to do these things in our first language differently; we can get information a lot more quickly from reading…

But let's focus on the things that cause problems for language learners. One of the main ones is that the written language is much more standardized than the spoken languages… spelling is largely regular, but accents can vary quite a lot. We also have problems of weak forms, so ‘where are you going’ becomes ‘where-are-you-going’ and other connected speech issues like that.

In the written form as well, the word boundaries are really obvious… the spaces between them. But this isn't true in speech… words often get pushed together, they blur into each other. You might not think that's true, but if you listen to what you say closely, you'll see that it is. The other major problem for learners of course is that written text is permanent so you can go back and look at it again, but not so with speech… it's here and it's gone, it's very ephemeral, so this can be really difficult for learners. They're struggling to follow and process that language in real time and it's difficult and this can cause anxiety I think sometimes.

So let's look at the things that help us to understand when we listen. These fall into two categories… There's our background knowledge of something that's… the topic… how it fits into what we know about the world, the genre of the text, all that kind of thing. And then of course there's our knowledge of the language itself… so the sounds, the vocabulary the grammar of the language. So these two things respectively are often called top down processing and bottom up processing.

Let's start by looking at top down. Let me give you an example of how this might work. So if I don't know you and I come up to you and smile and hold out my hand and say ‘Ninaitwa Jo Gakonga. Unaitwa nani?’, you probably guess (even if you speak no Swahili at all) from the context, probably from my name, that I'm introducing myself and I'm asking you for your name. So this is an example of top down processing. You probably don't know any of those words except my name, but given the context, you'd probably guess what I was saying.

Top down processing makes use of what you already know… the situation, the structure of the language, the content of what it's going to be. This can be in the form of scripts similar to the one I looked at before, but also something like this… so if you walk up to this store, you can probably predict how the conversation’s going to go… Can I help you?… I'd like some oranges potatoes whatever… How many would you like?... Half a kilo… How much is that?... etc etc. So it's a buying transaction script. It's probably pretty similar all over the world. So this will help you with your listening comprehension, because you can use your knowledge of these kinds of scripts to help you to understand what's said, because you're expecting what's going to be said.

The other way that we use top down processing is our content schemata. We've mentioned this before. So it's all about what you know about the world. If I say ‘horse’, you know a lot about horses. So you can use this knowledge about horses and what you know they do, what they look like, to help you predict what might be said about them.

So, clearly, this is really important. This top down processing is very important. And it does make life much easier for learners if they've got an idea of what they're going to listen to. But it does raise this question… are we really teaching listening? Or not… are we just practicing it? One answer to this, to give more of a focus to actually teaching listening skills, is what we call bottom up processing. And I'll show an example of what I mean by this now.

This sentence is a very famous one by Chomsky. And he devised this sentence as an example of something which is grammatically correct, but really doesn't have any meaning. So you understand all of those words, I assume. So you can process it from the bottom up, you understand all those things. But it still doesn't make any sense, because there is no top down meaning to process… it just, it's senseless.

So what problems are there with this bottom up processing? And how can we help our learners to improve their skills in this area? If you're interested in that, then just click on the video link below and I’ll tell you some more about that. See you then.

Teaching listening 2 - bottom down processing

Hello and welcome again. In the last video on teaching listening we looked at the differences between reading and listening and we looked at top down processing.

In this video we're going to have a look at bottom up processing and give you some practical ideas for how you could implement this in the classroom.

So what are the features of a listening text? What do we actually hear? Well first sounds… and those are made up of phonemes (such as /s/ /t/) and morphemes (such as /ɪŋ/)… and then the next level of course is words… and then the level after that is groups of words… so these might be collocations, chunks of language, sentences then obviously… and then the whole text.

This sounds simple enough. But of course there are some problems for learners… so what problems do they have? Well one of the big ones is with connected speech. English has some serious problems with this.

So I'm going to give you a word… this is an English word I promise you… and I'd like you to tell me what it is… /ə/… now that is an English word and of course I'm sure you understood that it was this word… ‘a bottle of wine’.

Okay, I'm going to give you a different English word. This one says … /ə/…it's not the same word, it's a different word and it is an English word and I'm sure you understood that it was this word… ‘I should have got up early’… … /ə/… 

I'll give you another English word, a different English word… and guess what it says? … /ə/…. This time I'm quite sure that what you heard was this… ‘are you coming?’

And I've got another one for you and guess what this one says. Yes, it says… /ə/…and this time I'm sure that you understood that it was this word… ‘it's a great place’. 

So you can see that this is a real problem for learners. Lots of English words, especially common function words such as prepositions, articles, pronouns, auxiliaries… these have weak forms and they might sound very different to what a learner expects to hear. So they're expecting to hear ‘of’ or ‘have’ or ‘are’ or ‘a’… and actually what they hear is … /ə/…

So you know this is difficult of course.

There are other problems with connected speech. Look at this word. What do you expect to hear? … ‘hand bag’. But what you actually hear is… ‘hambag’. With this one you (have to imagine there’s twice as many), it's not ‘ten bottles’… it's ‘tem bottles’. It sounds like a /m/ sound… ‘tem bottles’, because your mouths getting ready to say the /b/ sound.

So things like this cause trouble for learners because they're not hearing what they're expecting to hear. Things like this are used as jokes, but actually, the way the word boundaries lie is much closer to this… than it is to that. Try this one out. This is a fairly accurate portrayal of what's said. But clearly it makes no sense. But if you stop me a minute and try saying it a few times to yourself, you might hear something different.

In 2009, John Fields published this book and it's one I'd really recommend. But it's based on research that he’d done into bottom up processing and he suggests an approach that gives learners intensive practice exercises to improve this. Now I can't show you all of these things here, but I'll give you a flavor of it and give you some ideas. One of the best tools for this is just simple dictation. Remember this isn't about spelling, it's about improving people's listening skills and making them more aware of what they're listening to. If you regularly dictate short sentences like this to learners, it can really help to raise their awareness of those connected speech issues, especially with common function word sequences.

Where are you from?... | weər ə ju frɒm |

I couldn't have done it better myself |ˈaɪ ˈkʊdnt həv dʌn ˈɪt ˈbetə maɪˈself |

Could I have a bit of butter /kəd ˈaɪ həv ə bɪt əv ˈbʌtə /

These kinds of things, help them to understand that these exist, so they won't be so thrown by them. You can also raise awareness of word boundary issues this way. So, ‘come along with me, it's a long way’. They sound the same, but they're not.

‘My sister's got a terrible teacher, she doesn't teach her anything’. So again, these two things sound the same. But they're not. 

‘She won't be long. She doesn't belong’. 

Another useful exercise, and one that's great fun, actually, is to dictate a short sentence and ask the learners to try to guess how many words there are… to count how many words there are in that sentence?

Here's one example. ‘How much longer is it going to take you?’ … nine words.

Another example… ‘I suppose we'll just have to wait and see’ - wait’n’see all comes together.

You can see that they're going to have trouble to listen to these things. But it does help. If you get them to listen on their own, then confer with a partner and try to guess and try to reconstruct the sentence, and then give it to them, they usually find that quite entertaining. The secret with this kind of work, of course, is little and often. If you do too much of it, it can really get tedious. But a short burst of it on a frequent basis is interesting and fun. And the learners will start to notice that they benefit from it, because they'll start to understand more about these connected speech issues. We'll make a difference if you include a bit in each lesson.

So what's the best strategy for improving your learner's listening skills. There are lots of different opinions on this. Some people feel that extensive listening to things that learners like is the best way forward, to motivate them to want to listen. Others think that these bottom up strategies that we've just been talking about are important. And others think that actually we should just develop better language skills. If they've got more vocabulary, they'll be able to understand them all.

As is often the case, I think all of the above are important, and they're all part of the picture. So how you do this practically in class and how you mix these things together, of course, will depend on you and on your learners. But it is worth thinking about how those things do fit together in your strategies of teaching listening and not just practicing it perhaps.

Well, I hope that's been of some interest and has made you think about how you teach listening skills. Try some of those short exercises out with your learner's and see how it goes. I hope it works well for you.

Thank you very much for listening, and I'll see you next time.

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