Real Life Listening: Teaching Listening in TEFL

The subject of an excellent Penny Ur book, Teaching Listening Comprehension, listening is the most commonly used communication skill, yet the least explicitly taught in many classrooms.  Listening is a skill often taken for granted and overlooked by teachers, so I hope that this article (and part book review) will help you and your students reach those learning goals a little easier.

What is Listening Comprehension?
Before we start, it is important to know what listening comprehension is. Listening comprehension is everything from speech perception and word recognition (think baby sounds and first words), up to inferring implied meaning and intention (think compliments with sarcastic tones).  But this level of comprehension takes years to develop, and can be very difficult to teach.

Listening Activities Should Reflect Real Life Listening (RLL)
To make listening tasks meaningful, they need to reflect real life listening (unless you are specifically preparing students for listening test).  To make your listening activities reflect real life listening (RLL), we must consider the characteristics of RLL.
Firstly, we almost always have a purpose for listening, whether learning something in a lecture, or finding out gossip, there a purpose.  And this gives us an expectation of what we will hear, like a saucy story about your best friend’s partner’s granny, or an answer to a question you just asked.  
Once we get our expected response, we always respond.  It can be an obvious physical or verbal response like clapping or asking a follow up questions, or not so obvious such as an emotional response.

Visual and Environmental Clues in Listening
A characteristic of real life listening that really helps us are visual and environmental clues.  When facing the person we are listening to, we can often tell a lot about what they are saying from their body language or facial expressions.  Our surroundings always help us to add context to help our listening comprehension.
Finally, in RLL, it’s important to consider how English is heard as opposed to seen.  Colloquialisms, pace, pitch, tone, formality and so on, all change how individual words may be heard.  Spoken prose can be vastly different from written prose.

Common Listening Problems in ESL Students
Now that we’ve considered RLL, let’s look at some common problems faced by students learning a second language.
To start, simply hearing the sounds is difficult.  Hearing a sound like 'th' in (thing), which doesn’t exist in several languages, forces the listener to attribute it to the closest known sound they have; in Chinese this is /s/, in French, it’s /z/. Homophones and homonyms (saw – bear/bare) are more obvious obstacles, and then there’s intonation and stress.  My favorite example to use is, “Did you steal my red scarf?”.  If you change the stress to a different word it can change the question entirely.  

Listening to Every Word is Often Unneccessary
Redundancy and noise are also difficult problems that learners have to overcome. Redundancy is when a speaker uses too many words.  In native listeners, we are quite good at tuning out until we hear what we need to, kind of like scanning texts, the rest of the information is redundant.  The same thing happens in listening, but for second language learners, all languages included, there is an innate desire to understand every word that is heard, which can be very difficult, and often unnecessary.  This is why instruction giving is so important to plan.

Colloquial Speech in Listening is an Additional Problem in ESL Listening
Noise is when a word isn’t heard, either due to a background noise, the listener not knowing a word, or too many words being said too fast.  You may have just been teaching the sentence “I don’t know.  Where do you think he could be?”, but it may sound more like “I dunno.  Wej’thinkeeknbee?” when said in a colloquial manner.
Colloquial language is another problem and something all teachers should be acutely aware of.  Usually colloquial language is unplanned, jerky and spontaneous, delivered at a tremendous speed and varies in tone, pitch and speed.  Not to mention that we regularly leave letters out (comfortable, vegetable), or even whole words (where you going? What you doing?).  Being aware of this will help you and your students and is something that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Listener Fatigue and Accents
Listener fatigue and accents can also cause problems, however the latter is an important element of learning English and more exposure to different accents, but not too often, will help students in the long run.

Teacher Tips for Planning Effective TEFL Listening Activities
Remembering what you have already read, here are some tips for planning an effective listening activity.
1. Focus listening around a task:  this helps to make sure students have a purpose to listen.  It could be a TPR response, ticking a box, following directions, but be careful not to make it too writing intensive.
2. On-going learner response:  as we learned earlier all listening requires a response.  On-going responses in the classroom work much better than a few questions at the end, which could make it a memory test and not a comprehension exercise.
3. Motivation and success:  One of the biggest factors in motivation is success. Make sure the task is challenging but not too difficult.  Once a student succeeds they will be motivated to go again.  Provide opportunities for students to complete written answers, or listen a second or third time if it will help successful completion.
4. Simplicity:  Be wary when using additional environmental or visual clue that you don’t stimulate too many senses at once.
5. Feedback:  Give it immediately or as soon as possible.  Students will quickly forget what they heard if you give feedback a day later.
6. Visual materials:  invaluable in setting the context and will likely provide heightened motivation and interest.  You can also throw in some acting or miming instead of the usual audio recording.  
If you would like to learn more you should definitely pick up Penny Ur’s Teaching Listening Comprehension and for even more classroom ideas, try out Simple Listening Activities by Jill Hadfield.

by Grant Fraser

Grant Fraser

Grant is from Scotland and has been living and working in Suzhou, China since 2011 teaching English to young learners. He is keen to share his experiences and ideas with other teachers throughout China and the rest of the world. If you would like to contact Grant please click here

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