Listening Lessons that Matter

Over the years, EFL teachers have often neglected teaching listening as they felt it was a skill that could only be acquired; not taught.  More recently, teachers understand that listening comprehension is crucial to language skill development and have aimed to help learners transfer their L1 listening skills to their L2. As such, they have focused on teaching the subskills of listening to help learners process information for gist, specific information and/or detail. To develop these subskills students often passively listen to recorded material on cds, tapes, or video.

Though the aforementioned strategies may help students to manage certain listening challenges, they still treat students as passive over-hearers of language. This material may be formal or informal, conversational or academic, but still doesn’t change the relationship the learner has with the listening. We are not passive over-hearers in most listening contexts but are active participants. Most listening occurs in the course of conversation. Each participant in a conversation switches roles and becomes alternatively speaker and listener. Students must be taught to be active participants in the listening process rather than passive over-hearers.

Passive listening  lessons can also be demotivating. Unless one carefully chooses the length, level, topic and quality of your listening track then students can be frustrated. Students will often complain that the track is of poor quality, there is disruptive ambient noise, or the text is too long and complicated. No matter how interested one student is in the topic, another might find it boring. While teachers should never fully abandon these passive listening classes, how can we include lessons that help students listen in a more practical and engaging manner.

With interactive listening lessons, listening develops through face-to-face communication and is part of an active process. We stress the clear link between listening and speaking and highlight that effective comprehension doesn’t necessarily require perfect comprehension. Students are then able to build personal listening strategies to help them identify and control challenging listening situations. Learners can practice interactive strategies for entering and exiting conversations, clarifying, turn taking, interrupting and using confirmation questions to name a few.

This is not to imply that a listening program needs to be made up of interactive listening lessons only. Students still need to practice subskills in more traditional listening lessons but teachers should not forget that, more often than not, listening is part of a give and take process. By including interactive listening lessons in our programs, we help students be more prepared in these situations and also build variety into our classes.

One popular activity that can be adapted to have students practice listening more interactively is the Running Dictation. In a running dictation students must transfer a written text in a kind of relay. A ‘reader’ reads the original text to a ‘runner’ who then shares what they been read to a ‘transcriber’. It’s always a dynamic activity and students often enjoy noticing the difference between the original and what they have transcribed. This can easily be made into an interactive listening activity by providing learners with gambits they can use to control the live listening process. Students should ask for clarification, confirmation and repetition as necessary.

Another activity that can be adapted in a similar fashion is the old information gap. In these activities learners work to complete a task or solve a problem and must work with their partner to fill in the gaps. As students engage with and work to understand each other asking for repetition, clarification and repair misunderstandings. Students must also be aware of when their partner is finished so as to become aware of turn taking in English.

Teachers can also tell students personal stories. But rather than answering typical comprehension questions students will be encouraged to participate in the process in order to maximize understanding.  Students are encouraged to interrupt appropriately to ask follow up questions. In the end they can try to rewrite the story including as many important facts as necessary and compare their versions with the original.

Finally, it can be surprisingly beneficial for students to learn how to backchannel appropriately so they are able to maintain conversations with native speakers by showing their interest and excitement at what they are listening too. I will often get students to simply choose an exciting story from their life to share with a group of classmates. I give the listeners in the group gambits so they are able to signal their interest in and understanding of the story they are being told.

So as we can see, an optimum listening program would contain a balance of passive lessons with more active ones so that students are not only effective listeners of recorded material but are also effective listeners within live conversations. In this way they will truly transfer their L1 listening skills into their L2.