How do I help learner get beyond “just” listening?
I encourage learners to listen extensively outside class, and extensive listening is recognised as beneficial to language learning. But what about actually developing listening skills? As in, listening with a view to improving both decoding (“translating the speech signal into speech sounds, words and clauses, and finally into a literal meaning” (Field, 2008:kindle loc. 2386)) and meaning-building (“adding to the bare meaning provided by decoding and relating it to what has been said before” (ibid)) skills.
How can I help learners to actively work on their listening outside class as well as during listening lessons? Part of learning autonomously is awareness of a range of task types and their potential learning benefits, and the corresponding ability to pick tasks according to learning goals. Helping learners become able to do this with their listening is something I have begun to work on within my learner autonomy projects.
What activities can learners do to help themselves develop their listening skills rather than just listening?
In this series, I will describe some listening activities I’ve done with learners to help them become more autonomous listeners by giving them something tangible to do with their out of class “listening practice”.
- increase perception of weak forms in connected speech
- develop sense of rhythm and the role of weak forms and word/sentence stress within this
- develop learners’ ability to chunk written language correctly when they read it
- Learners will need a recording that has an accompanying transcript. (For learners at intermediate and below, www.elllo.org could be a useful resource for this; for higher level learners, a possible resource is the BBC “Voices” project )
- Learners should, of course, first listen to their recording for meaning (identify main ideas, key information etc.)
- Once learners have listened for meaning, they can compare what they heard with the transcript and check.
- This done, learners play the recording again and mutter along with the recording, aloud. (For this, it could be worth selecting a portion of the recording rather than trying to do the whole thing.)
- Ensure that learners are aware that initially this will be very difficult. The speakers will speak “too fast” for learners to keep up. However, if they replay and mutter along with a portion of the recording several times, then they will be able roughly match it.
- How do they match it? In order to keep up with the recording and not get out of synch, they will be forced to use the same rhythm and stress as the speaker. This means they will need to stress certain words and shrink others – i.e. the weak forms. NB: The goal of this isn’t to try and get learners to speak in this way: it’s to develop their perception of the stress and rhythm of English, which they can then use to help themselves listen more effectively. However, I think the productive element is important as it helps to increase their perception by making it physical.
- Follow up: Once learners have muttered along enough times to be able to do so relatively comfortably, they could then record themselves reading the transcript aloud, trying to maintain the rhythm they developed during the muttering activity. They could post their recording and a link to the original recording on a collaborative platform e.g. Edmodo and compare each others’ efforts.
- Breaking the activity down: With my learners, I did this as a series of homework activities:The first was to find a recording, listen for meaning, check with the transcript, then do some muttering.The second was to do some more muttering and then record themselves.The third was to listen again to the original recording, with the transcript, and mark all the pauses they heard, and use those pauses to help themselves manage their breathing while muttering and while recording themselves. Then they compared the first lot of recordings with the second lot.Of course this third step could be done earlier: Done in the order I did it, learners benefit from the comparisons they can make, but done earlier, they may benefit from that scaffolding sooner.
- Because learners have to use correct word and sentence stress in order to keep up with the recording, it draws their attention to these. (I found when I tried the activity with an Italian recording, I’d get out of synch and lose the rhythm when I put the stress in the wrong place in a word. E.g. “gentile” springs to mind, and “sapere”, “utile” and “omeopata” – you realise that you keep getting out of synch at particular points, listen again and pay special attention to those points, then try again with the correct pronunciation, and then, with persistence, it works better.)
- Recording yourself and listening to the recording, as well as comparing to the original, can help you pick out weaknesses in your pronunciation, and in doing so become more aware of what you are hearing.
- Listening to, looking at and producing the weak forms helps learners become better able to recognise them through familiarity: it draws very focused attention to how the words look vs how they sound when condensed in connected speech, which is highlighted by the physicality of having to produce it.
Important to remember:
- Bring it back into the classroom: give learners time to discuss at the beginning of the lessons following those when you set this activity as homework.
- Ensure learners know they aren’t expected to speak in this way: Otherwise put, ensure the goals of the activity are clear to learners. When you set the activity, having done your focus on weak forms lesson, encourage learners to make the link between that lesson and this homework activity.
- Scaffold it: You might have noticed that my lesson on weak forms involves some muttering along with the transcript. This means that before I got my learners doing the activities described in this post, for homework, they weren’t starting from a blank page – either from the pronunciation awareness perspective or from the task knowledge perspective (accustomed to using transcripts for listening activities, done similar activities in class, know how to approach them vs. “the transcript is that strange bunch of text that lurks in the back of the course book”!). Hopefully this will have made it less daunting and less confusing; well, certainly my learners all managed to do the task successfully and were enthusiastic about it.
Helping learners develop their listening autonomously is something I will be doing more work on in the future: exploration only began post-IATEFL (using Sandy’s ideas as a way in) and has been sporadic since then (I’m human! There are only 24hrs in a day and some of those are needed for sleeping/eating etc.!) with a burst of ideas emerging very recently through experimentation with my learners and in my own language learning. I’m planning to build on it, and work it into my learner autonomy projects more systematically as next steps, especially during the next set of courses that I teach.
Field, J. (2009) Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge University Press.