Listening is one of the four main language skills along with reading, writing and speaking.
Whilst in reading and writing we talk about sentences, the spoken (or heard) equivalent is an utterance.
The Components of Listening
Listening is often confusing for an English learner. There are a number of reasons for this partly because of the various parts which go to make up listening:
Layers of Sound
Unlike reading in which the learner is given a single text to follow, in real-life situations we speak over each other, at different volumes and speeds and often with frequent interruptions. The written equivalent is having two or three texts mixed up with some writing bigger and some smaller and sentences interrupted by comments and other sentences!
While written English is pretty much the same the world over, there are a myriad of accents in spoken English which can make it even more difficult for the learner to follow a conversation. The written equivalent is having different handwriting plus having the same words spelled differently depending on who is writing them!
Intonation is the way in which a sentence is sounded. We don’t speak in monotone but raise or lower the pitch of an utterance as we speak. The most common example is when we make a simple question.
With a falling intonation this is a simple statement.
it’s time to go ↓
But with a rising intonation it becomes a question.
it’s time to go ↑
Stress in an utterance gives prominence to certain words and changes the whole meaning. As an example say these sentences with the bold word stressed and you will hear different meanings.
He speaks Mandarin.
That is, not his sister or his friend, but him.
He speaks Mandarin.
That is he speaks the language but maybe he can’t read or write it.
He speaks Mandarin.
That is he speaks Mandarin but not perhaps Japanese or Korean.
And then there is the mechanical process of speaking itself. The mouth forms different shapes to produce different sounds. When we speak fast it’s common to find the mouth taking shortcuts so rather than pronounce every single syllable or word as it would be if it was spoken on its own, we link words together, fade out sounds or miss them completely.
NB The technical names here are liaison (linking sounds), assimilation (mixing sounds), elision (losing sounds), ellipsis (losing syllables) and intrusion (adding new sounds to help link words) to name a few.
Can Listening Be Taught? Yes. A lot of listening ability comes with practice and exercise, but there are a number of points which, if you explain them to your class, will help them understand how to listen and what to listen out for and why an error might be made.
There is no one-stop solution however in the classroom there are a number of strategies a teacher can use to help students listen well.
- Once we have an idea about the problems a learner faces, we can better find solutions and effective methods of teaching. Thus it is important to explain to your class how the written sentence can differ from the spoken sentence because of the reasons above. When students know that in certain situations articles, for example, are almost not spoken then they learn to “hear” this in an utterance.
- Many students are bound to the written word. When doing a listening exercise, have all books closed so students only listen rather than try to match the sounds to words on the page.
- Encourage the use of the IPA to help explain precisely how a word is spoken.
- Introduce accents into the class. Keep this simple but have students listen to a “neutral” text and then the same in an accent. Then have them point out and analyze the differences in pronunciation.
Listening Activities – Why Listen?
Native speakers listen, in general, for two main reasons.
- Specific information.
An example of listening for specific information would be to find out the departure time of a delayed plane over an airport PA system. An example of gist listening would be listening to a friend tell you a story about something which happened during their lesson.
This being said, listening activities in your class should use the same motivation. There must be a good reason for your students to listen and you need to give it to them. There is, for example, no point in just asking them to listen to a story for no reason. They need to know why they are listening.
So, don’t run a single “listening” lesson as it’s not realistic and if you walk into class announcing that, “today we’re doing listening,” you will probably not be greeted with great enthusiasm.
Instead, look at a genuine activity a native speaker might indulge in and base the lesson around this. For example, prepare a lesson where the class needs to listen to a spoken timetable and collect some information; or play bingo where the class needs to listen explicitly for certain numbers.
In other words, set a task and then run the tape.
Breaking from Reality
Normally we only get one opportunity to hear something. With learners, of course, you can make it easier by allowing two or even three plays. But remember, if the students can’t “hear” something after that time, then you need to work out why they can’t. Perhaps the speaker is speaking too fast or they’re using an unusual word. Don’t just tell your students the answer and forget it; rather, take a note of what went wrong and cover that point in the next lesson.
With beginners you need to make sure the speaker is very clear and slow. As your students get more practice you can increase the speed of delivery to a more normal rate.
Volume – if you are using a CD or iPod in the classroom then set the volume to be loud enough for everyone in the class to hear properly and clearly. Check with the person farthest away from the source to see if they can hear it before starting the exercise. Also, try turning the treble up and the bass down for clearer spoken sounds.
Finally remember also that listening is also hard for native speakers so have patience with your class because whilst native speakers will occasionally come across a word they do not understand whilst they are reading, they are more likely to mishear something (known as a Mondegreen) or ask for something to be repeated so they can understand it fully.