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Don't Test Listening, Teach It!

Category: Methodology
Time to do another listening in class. So being trained teachers, we dutifully begin with the lead-in to get students discussing the topic. This builds up their expectations and helps them anticipate or predict what will be said. Of course, this can be done in any number of ways, for example, the students can discuss lead-in questions, pictures, or what they know about the topic. We can pre-teach some of the lexis from the listening and then have them predict what will be said. All of this is well and good.

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Now on to the actual listening in which students are given some sort of task. For the first listening they're often asked to listen for gist by means of comprehension questions, or they can be asked to confirm the predictions they've previously made. The second listening often involves answering more specific question about details of the listening, for example by answering multiple choice questions.

The next stage is the post-listening. If the purpose is to improve the students' comprehension, it's vital that the students spend some time looking at the tapescript. In fact it's often a good idea to let them listen again while reading along so they can notice the pronunciation. Then highlight different aspects of the pronunciation as this will help their comprehension, especially of connected speech. For example, for our students a simple sentence like “How much is it?” may well sound like “How muh chi zit?”, which can really throw them off. For more information about this try googling “English linking”.

Another problem is when students speak a syllable-timed language like Spanish, and are faced with a stressed-timed language like English. In Spanish each syllable and word get equal stress, whereas in English the content words are stressed while the grammar words usually aren't. For example, the sentence, “I got on my bike and went for a ride” would normally have five stressed words, which are the content words (I, got, bike, went, ride). The other words are the grammar words (on, my, and, for, a), which would normally be unstressed and probably have a reduced vowel sound.

So the rhythm or beat of English is very different than that of syllable-timed languages, where the more syllables there are, the longer it takes to say. Look at the following sentences, which have three beats and take about the same amount of time to say.

  1. Dave rides bikes (3 beats, 3 syllables)
  2. It's a healthy habit (3 beats, 6 syllables)
  3. David is passionate about bikes (3 beats, 9 syllables)

This can be pretty tricky for our students both to say and understand, particularly sentence three, which has five syllables between the last two beats (PASSionate about BIKES). By the way, you can hear people discussing and demonstrating this on google or youtube by just typing in something like “syllable-timed stressed-timed”, or for a broader discussion, “English intonation”.

So when looking at the tapescript, ask your students which parts they found particularly difficult to understand, give your own ideas, then raise their awareness of the issues we've discussed and get them practicing it, for example by doing repetition drills.

Also, explain that listening for the content words is a good listening comprehension strategy. You can get them doing this by dictating a short paragraph, or play a short section of a listening, and have them write down the content words, then in pairs they compare their ideas and retell what they've heard using the words they've jotted down. You can also have them reconstruct (rewrite) the text, then compare it with the original, which helps them with many other things as well.

These activities clearly focus on teaching listening rather than just testing. Avoid falling into the testing trap, for example by saying something to your students like, “Oops, you sure messed up on those multiple choice questions. Well, on to the next activity.” Happily, highlighting pronunciation and listening for the content words help. So when you do a listening, besides the lexical focus, don't forget their listening comprehension. Don't just test it, teach it!

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