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Practical activities for balanced listening instruction (Part 1)

This is the first part of a summary of an excellent webinar about teaching listening by Beth Sheppard from the University of Oregon. She makes the central case that we tend to teach "listening for comprehension" (a product approach) rather than teaching the process of listening (the process approach). The contrast is neatly summed up as follows:

Product approach: students listen to learn. The goal is to understand the message.
Process approach: students learn how to listen. The goal is to get students to improve their listening technique, learn something about the language and to allow teachers to diagnose where students are having difficulty.

Beth introduces her topic by summarising the importance of listening. Research shows that students spend up to 50% of their time listening in L2 lessons. Listening is hard, it's not passive and it causes anxiety when it's perceived by students as hard. For many years we neglected the teaching of listening, but in recent years its value has been more recognised. How can we make it more enjoyable and successful?

For teaching listening to be balanced, Beth proposes a model of four types of listening instruction:

1. Language-focused tasks – focus on specific linguistic aspects, e.g. phonemes, vocabulary, chunks and grammar.
2. Meaning-focused – comprehension questions and much more.
3. Strategy-building listening – learning how to cope with listening.
4. Fluency-growing listening - easy listening to build proficiency.

Many teachers report that they usually emphasise the second of those categories, meaning-focused listening. Do you? Beth suggests that we would do well to focus more on the other three areas - my impression is that she particularly values the first. 

In this post I'll deal with this first area, language-focused listening:

Language-focused listening

Take the following utterance:

"For the next 30 days"

You can analyse this in terms of its phonemes/syllables, its words/chunks, its syntax and its intonation. Language-focused tasks could focus on each of these four areas. Here are some ways of doing this:

1. Dictation

Not traditional set-piece dictation, but building in dictation to a range of activities. She recommends dictating at normal speed, varying difficulty by choice of language and length of utterance. Before tackling a listening you review key words by dictating them in easy contexts. You can practise difficult sounds. Spelling and punctuation don’t matter for this, she says. Focus problem areas for students, e.g. tricky vowel sounds in French.

2. Repetition

Repetition is often thought of as a speaking task, but it involves listening. It's possible to repeat short chunks (e.g. four syllables) without knowing the meaning of what you are hearing, but with longer chunks you need to know the meaning to repeat successfully. Do repetition to focus, for instance,  on tricky words in the listening passage or intonation patterns. Do some repetition at the pre-listening stage.

3. Anticipation activities

Stop reading mid-sentence (or even mid-word) to get students to focus on a problem area (vocab, syntax or sounds). Students can write down the rest of the sentence and feed back to the teacher or discuss what might follow in groups/pairs. As a pre-listening task you could get students to complete sentence starters relevant to the passage in question, e.g.

Try it for the next 30... (days? hours? weeks/)
Think about something you've.... (always.../never.../ often.../past participle)

4. Language spotting

"Raise your hand when you hear the word ______." (vocab spotting)
"Write down every word you hear that begins with “f”." (phoneme spotting)
"Write down all the past tense verbs you hear." (grammar-based)
"Circle the key points in the transcript which the speaker makes." (meaning focused – how is emphasis achieved)

5. Transcript correction

This is familiar to most teachers and involves, for example, gap-filling or correcting errors. Beth reminds us that gaps should have a purpose, e.g. grammatical, morphological or phonemic. 

6. "Tiny questions"

This is when you take a sentence from the passage and ask questions based on it. The students may have to infer answers from the vocabulary or grammar used.

Note that in all of these examples there is an intensive focus on the detail of the listening text and that tasks may involve some interactivity with fellow students or the teacher.

For more "micro-listening" activities similar to the above I suggest you have a look at Gianfranco Conti's blogs, e.g. here. I can also recommend using the webinar as part of departmental development. Teachers should find it interesting and very useful.

In the nest post I'll summarise what Beth says about the other three areas of listening instruction.


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"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

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"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

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We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
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