MAGDALENA POSPIESZYŃSKA

 

LISTENING IN FL CLASSROOMS – A FEW RECIPES

(IATEFL 2000 presentation)

 

All teachers of English realize that if FL students were unable to communicate in the language they are trying to acquire, the whole process of learning would be actually worthless. If the learners do not listen effectively, they will be unable to communicate orally successfully. Thus effective listening is one of the most important language-learning abilities and it is, therefore, hardly possible to exaggerate the role of listening skills in communication.

In Poland it is quite difficult to teach listening comprehension as English here is a foreign language and students do not have opportunities to practice the skill in an authentic setting. Only some high schools employ native speakers (mostly Americans working for the Peace Corps Educational Programme) and students there may have opportunities to hear ‘real’ English spoken outside the classroom situation. According to Hubbard et al. (1983:30) “ without actually heaving been taught to listen, a student may be able to express himself orally, but he will never be able to communicate with speakers of English if he is unable to understand what is said to him.”

If our students are to become successful listeners, that is involved and active, they have to establish a certain context for the words heard. In order to do this, the teacher must set a purpose for listening; select and design appropriate language-learning materials and activities taking into account the age of the students, their interests and language ability. How often we (tend to) forget that listening activities are actually to practise the language or the taught material, not to test the students. Listening should not merely consist in switching a tape recorder on and off, or reading a text aloud, and giving a set of True/False or multiple choice questions to the students. Such an approach may discourage students even if the sounds, words or phrases they hear seem familiar to them. Students can still be unable to understand the meaning as they lack certain knowledge about the topic, setting and the relationships between speakers. Regardless of the students’ level it is advisable to orient them to what they are about to hear; introduce the theme, pre-tech some key-words or phrases and tell them what kind of listening passage they are going to hear, a dialogue, a monologue or a discussion.

 

Definition, Purpose and Types of Pre-listening Activities

Listening activities, in general, should consist of some well-structured pre-, while-, and post-listening stages. The pre-listening phase is a kind of preparatory work which: “(...) ought to make the context explicit, clarify purposes and establish roles, procedures and goals for listening” (Rost 1990:232).

In real life situations a listener almost always knows in advance something which is going to be said, who is speaking or what the subject is going to be about. The pre-listening stage helps learners to find out the aim of listening and provides the necessary background information. Jones and Kimborough (1987:2) suggest introducing some preliminary discussion in which students can talk together about their expectations and make predictions about what they are going to hear. The abilities of predicting what others are going to talk about and using one’s own knowledge of the subject to help one understand are also stressed by Willis (1981:134) and Doff (1988:208), the former one called them: enabling skills. According to Doff these enabling skills contribute to building feedback for the whole exercise. When doing exercises in the classroom, he also advises asking students to guess what they are going to hear next, which will improve their abilities and will keep the class actively involved.

Pre-listening work can consist of a whole range of activities, including:

These types of exercise help to focus the learners’ minds on the topic, specifying and selecting the items that the students expect to hear, and activating prior knowledge and language structures which have already been met. If the learner knows in advance that they are going to make a certain kind of response, they are immediately provided with a purpose in listening and they know what sort of information to expect and how to react to it. Such activities provide an opportunity to gain some, even if limited, knowledge which will help them to follow the listening text. According to Yagang (1993 in Kral ed. 1994:194-95) this knowledge not only provides encouragement but also develops students’ confidence in their ability to deal with listening problems. He suggests a variety of tasks (calling them: warm-up-activities) for the pre-listening stage, such as:

Mary Underwood in her book on teaching listening presents a number of activities which can be conducted in the classroom before the actual listening (1989:35-44). One of the most popular and frequently used exercise is looking at a set of pictures and naming the items which are likely to occur in the listening text. This can be done by a question and answer session or by general group discussion. Underwood does not advise giving the learners long lists of unknown words or long explanations, as this will not help to listen naturally, and such pre-listening ‘looking and talking about’ is an effective way of reminding students of the vocabulary which may have been forgotten. In order to practise newly learnt words Underwood suggests providing students with the list of items and thoughts, however, the list should not comprise only the words which may cause difficulties, but it should have some purpose in the total (listening) activity. For example, it can be a list on which certain words or phrases will be ticked, circled or underlined during the while-listening stage. This kind of activity removes the stress of suddenly hearing something forgotten and thus being distracted from the next part of the listening text. Presenting the list in the order in which the words, phrases and statements occur in the text makes while-listening exercises easier, so if the students find the task too easy, the teacher can increase the level of difficulty by putting the list in random order.

Other, popular pre-listening activities are: reading a text or reading through questions. As far as the former activity is concerned it is not recommended to give the students a written transcript of a listening text (Underwood 1989: 35-44), instead the students can read a short text and then check certain information and facts while listening. The latter exercise is based upon the principle that many listening activities require students to answer some questions after they hear a text, so it is quite helpful for the learners to see the questions before they begin listening, as they know what sort of information they have to look for. In order to revise the language already known it is recommended (ibid.) to propose an activity in which learners label a picture or pictures using the vocabulary already taught. Even if the students are able to complete all the labels before they hear the text, it is still a good activity as they listen and check whether they were right. What is more, this activity is suitable for pair or group work as it can generate a lot of discussion. Another good pair/group work exercise is completing a chart before listening. This activity can make students feel more personally involved if they are to fill in a chart with their own views or preferences and they can compare their opinions and judgements with others. For more advanced learners Underwood (ibid.) suggests predicting and speculating before listening. Although predicting what precisely the speaker will say next is a while-listening activity, predicting and speculating in a more general way can be a pre-listening activity. The students can be told something about the speaker/speakers and the topic and then try to indicate predict what they are likely to hear in the listening text.

 

Nature, Purpose and Suggestions for While-listening Tasks

While-listening activities can be shortly defined as all tasks that students are asked to do during the time of listening to the text. The nature of these activities is to help learners to listen for meaning, that is to elicit a message from spoken language. Rixon (1986:70-1) points out that, at the while-listening stage students should not worry about interpreting long questions or giving full answers, but they should concentrate on comprehension, whether they have understood important information from the passage. That means that students can focus their attention on listening itself, rather than on worrying about reading, writing, grammar or spelling. The aim of the while-listening stage for students is to understand the message of the text not catching every word, they need to understand enough to collect the necessary information. While-listening exercises should be interesting and challenging, they should guide the students to handle the information and messages from the listening text.

During the while-listening phase students usually respond somehow to a listening text. They indicate appropriate pictures or answers to multiple-choice questions, complete a cloze test, fill in the blanks of incomplete sentences or of a grid, or write short answers to the questions etc. Yagang (1993 in Kral ed. 1994:195) gives a number of suggestions for this stage:

One of the most popular while-listening exercise is marking/checking the items in pictures. A picture is presented to students during the pre-listening stage and during the while-listening stage they are asked to mark/check/tick/circle etc. certain things in the picture. This is a very simple exercise, but it should not be rejected by teachers due to its apparent simplicity. The aim here is not to test students’ abilities to make correct sentences based on the listening passage but to assist concentration on the text. This type of activity is good for helping learners to focus their minds on listening itself as they do not have to write down words. Among other activities are identifying people or things, marking errors or choices, checking details, marking items and pictures indicated by the speakers; e.g. students listen to a description or a short dialogue and decide (from the given selection) which picture is the right one. Another possibility is to give students different sets of pictures, while listening they decide which set ‘goes with’ the story. Another possibility is to arrange pictures in the correct order according to the listening text. Underwood (1989:53) points out that it is important to have a series of pictures which cannot be easily put in order without listening, though the students may try to solve this exercise during the pre-listening phase. Younger learners and students at lower levels may be involved in an exercise where, presented only with a basic draft of a picture, they must draw or colour certain things following the instructions. A very popular exercise is the one during which students follow a route on a plan or map (e.g. a road). During the pre-listening stage the students may try to mark the quickest way from A to B and then while listening check whether they were right. This type of activity could also be a good vocabulary practice if the teacher introduces the lexis of a hotel, hospital, airport, school etc. There is also a wide range of information gap activities which may require grid, form or chart completion. Usually these are used for listening about train/plane/bus timetables or likes/dislikes and hobbies. Making a list (a shopping list, or a list of places to visit) is another useful while-listening exercise. However, this one requires students to listen and write at the same time and may pose difficulties to the learners with limited listening experience in a foreign language or to those with spelling problems. It may happen that students are not familiar with the words, so they would not know how to write them. Underwood (1989:62) recommends in such a case introducing the words and phrases at the pre-listening stage. Two, very favoured – especially among teachers – while-listening activities are True/False and multiple-choice questions, but they seem rather to test than teach. Usually students panic because of large number of such questions and they are afraid they will not be able to answer all of them during the listening time; though they always have 50% with true/false, and 25% - provided there are four answers – with multiple-choice questions, chance to ‘tick’ the right solution. Text completion, on the other hand, is a very well accepted task among students, especially if it takes the form of songs or poems completion. As it is rather difficult for the learners to concentrate on writing while they must keep up with listening to the lyrics at the same time. Underwood (1989:65) suggests first completing of the text during pre-listening phase. The teacher should bear in mind that no matter which activities they choose, they must provide the students with immediate feedback either by giving the right answers by themselves or by asking the students to check and talk the solutions over in pairs or in groups.

 

Description and Ideas for Post-listening Stage

The post-listening stage comprises all the exercises which are done after listening to the text. Some of these activities may be the extensions of those carried out at pre- and while-listening work but some may not be related to them at all and present a totally independent part of the listening session. Post-listening activities allow the learners to ‘reflect’ on the language from the passage; on sound, grammar and vocabulary as they last longer than while-listening activities so the students have time to think, discuss or write (Rixon 1986:64,97 and Underwood 1989: 78). There are e few tasks which teachers may do in the classroom after listening to a text (Pierce 1989:43):

Post-listening exercises should be interesting and motivating. Before a teacher chooses a certain activity he/she must consider how much language work they wish to do with the particular listening passage. How much time they will need to do a particular post-listening task; whether the post-listening stage will include speaking (discussion), reading or writing (ticking, writing short notes, dialogues or essays) and whether they want students to work individually, in pairs or in groups (Underwood 1989:80). Many post-listening activities are the prolongation of the while-listening work but in such a case the while listening stage should be a ‘matrix’ for the post-listening tasks which are usually more complex and require more time o write, read or speak, since there is not much time for ‘reflection’ during the while-listening stage. Yagang (1993 in Kral 1994:195) proposes the following typology as far as different kinds of post-listening exercises are concerned:

 

Conclusion

Students have to learn how to listen just as they have to learn how to speak, and therefore they should be exposed frequently, from the earliest stages of language learning, to listening comprehension activities. Rost (1994:142) claims that not only does listening create the right conditions for language development, but it can also provide enjoyment and stimulate cultural interests. Via movies, radio, TV, songs etc students may somehow ‘participate’ in the target culture, appreciate the beauty of the language – sayings, proverbs, colloquial expressions. However, teachers need to prepare learners psychologically for the listening activity, telling them that they will not be able to understand everything they hear, and that they should not panic because of this. Bruton (1997:14-15) argues that students need to listen to prepare themselves for their future listening. They need to listen in order to know how to produce. The better students understand what they hear, the better they will take part in spoken interactions.

“Listening should be looked upon not as an appendage, but as an integral part of the total package of learning, sometimes leading to and sometimes emerging from other work” (Underwood 1989:93).

 

Findings

In January 1998 I questioned 90 secondary school learners (Pospieszyńska 1998: 46-79) in order to find out if there is any influence of listening stages upon their comprehension of spoken texts. I tried to check whether these activities can contribute to lowering students’ tension and fright, and whether they may help them to prepare themselves for the outflow of the foreign language. I wanted to demonstrate that pre-, while- and post-listening activities make the overall listening task more interesting and motivating. The results of the experiment are presented below:

Students’ opinion about pre-, while- and post-listening activities

YES*

%

NO*

%

  1. these exercises contribute to lowering tension and fright

62

69

28

31

  • due to these exercises I understand more and learn better
  • 81

    90

    9

    10

  • without these exercises it would be more difficult to comprehend the text
  • 76

    84

    14

    16

  • without these exercises the whole activity would be boring and would not have sense at all
  • 60

    67

    30

    33

  • due to these exercises the whole activity becomes more interesting and motivating
  • 67

    74

    23

    26

    * More than one opinion could be chosen

     

    In total, 90 students were questioned and they could indicate more than one opinion from the five given. The results of the experiment seem to prove that pre-, while- and post-listening exercises are helpful in the process of the acquisition of a listening text. Eighty one students out of 90 understand more and learn better due to the above mentioned activities. The teacher may influence the understanding of a listening text through the selection of varied listening activities, as seventy six students admitted that without pre-, while- and post-listening exercises it would be more difficult to comprehend the text. The findings seem to indicate that appropriate listening activities contribute to students’ eagerness and willingness to listen (sixty students out of ninety become more interested and motivated due to these exercises) and reduce students’ inhibition and anxiety (62 students admitted that these tasks contribute to diminishing tension and fright). Finally, sixty of the surveyed learners enjoy the listening tasks due to interesting pre-, while- and post-listening activities. This seems to indicate that the more actively the learners are involved in the above mentioned activities, the greater the chances that they will understand better. If they understand better they become more interested and, in the same way, less inhibited and stressed.

    I interviewed the students to find out what their expectations, complaints and opinions were, so that their teachers could learn about the learners’ preferences and wishes about listening tasks. The whole research was conducted in order to give a clear picture what the teachers really do during the listening tasks and what their students’ opinions, preferences, comments and suggestions were. Summarising the information gained both from the teachers and their students I informed the teachers about the outcomes so that they could have a genuine outline what kind of pre-, while- and post-listening tasks their learners’ find particularly interesting and motivating. Knowing their learners’ likes and dislikes they should try to arrange their listening sessions in such a way that they could meet the students’ expectations, making the lessons more vivid and stimulating (Pospieszyńska 1998:40-107).

     

    Bibliography

    Bruton, A. 1997. “Why listen”. English Language Teacher Professional. Issue Two, January, pp. 14-5.

    Doff, A. 1988. Teach English. A training course for teachers. Trainer’s handbook. Cambridge: Teacher Training and Development.

    Hubbard, P. et al. 1983. A Training Course for TEFL. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Jones, L., V. Kimborough. 1987. Great Ideas. Teacher’s Manual; listening and speaking activities for students of American English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Kral, T. (ed.). 1994. Teachers Development. Making the Right Moves. Selected Articles from the English Teaching Forum 1989-1993. Washington DC: United States Information Agency, English Language Programs Division.

    Pierce, L.V. 1989. “Teaching Strategies for Developing Oral Language Skills”. In A Forum Anthology Volume IV. Selected Articles from the English Teaching Forum 1984-1988. January, pp. 41-7. Washington DC: United States Information Agency, English Language Programs Division, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

    Pospieszyńska, M. 1998. Listening Stages as the Key to Success in Developing Listening Comprehension. Unpublished M.A. thesis, written in UAM Poznań.

    Rixon, S. 1986. Developing listening skills. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

    Rost, M. 1994. Introducing listening. London: Penguin.

    Rost, M. 1991. Listening in Action. Activities for developing listening in language teaching. Hertfordshire, UK: Prentice Hall International Ltd.

    Underwood, M. 1989. Teaching Listening. New York: Longman.

    Willis, J. 1981. Teaching English through English. London: Longman.

    Yagang, F. 1993. “Listening: Problems and Solutions”. January, pp. 189-96. In Kral (ed.).


    Uploaded 3 February 2001