Listening is an important skill for the person who is learning English. Everyone wants to listen to what English speakers are saying at a natural speed and understand it. Everyone wishes to understand English films, TV programmes, music, and announcements.
However, listening is a very demanding and challenging skill for the learners to master. Every non-native speaker has had the experience of talking to a native speaker and not being able to understand what they were saying. Everyone has had the experience of not understanding an announcement at an airport or train station.
Listening is the skill that makes the heaviest processing demands because learners must store information in short term memory and at the same time work to understand the information. Whereas in reading learners can go over the text at leisure, they don’t have this opportunity in listening.
Understanding the listening process can help us to rethink the methods of teaching listening. There are two key approaches to listening: the bottom-up and top-down approach.
Bottom-up processing refers to the use of incoming data as a source of information about the meaning of a message. From this perspective, the process of comprehension begins with the message received, which is analyzed at successive levels: organization of sounds, words, clauses and sentences until the meaning becomes comprehensible. Comprehension is thus viewed as a process of decoding.
Top-down processing refers to the use of background knowledge in understanding the meaning of a message. Background knowledge may take several forms. It may be previous knowledge about the topic; it may be situational or contextual knowledge.
For example, suppose that a learner of English goes to a supermarket in the States and, at the register, is asked by the cashier, “Paper or plastic?” What kind of knowledge is needed to understand this utterance? If listeners cannot use top-down processing effectively and successfully, the message cannot be understood. In short, for fluent listening, both top-down and bottom-up processing is needed.
Spoken English is different from written English. Ordinary speech contains many ungrammatical, reduced, or incomplete forms; it also has hesitations, false starts, repetitions, fillers e.g., ‘uh,’ ‘un,’ and pauses, all of which make up 30-50 % of any informal conversation. Language learners need to be aware of these forms of speech.
In addition, in speaking, we can convey a great deal of information without even saying it: our tone of voice, intonation, facial expressions, and gestures can add to a message. Therefore, it is important for teachers to know the features of spoken English for teaching listening effectively.
Basic skills for listening comprehension
Basic skills include perceiving the differences in intonation and knowing what they mean, perceiving stressed or unstressed words, understanding word boundaries and reduced forms.
What kinds of listening strategies are there? How are they classified? They are generally classified as follows:
- looking for key words
- looking for nonverbal cues to meaning
- predicting a speaker’s purpose by the context of the spoken discourse
- associating information with one’s existing cognitive structure (activating background information)
- guessing at meanings
- seeking clarification
- listening for the general gist
Listening for the gist (main ideas)
In this listening, students are not asked detailed questions. For example, they might just be asked the following general questions: “Where are the speakers?” “What are they talking about?” In short, students have to grasp the main ideas without worrying about the details.
Listening for specific information
In this listening, students are asked more detailed questions, such as “What time did this event happen?” “Who are they talking about?”
Listening to predict
It is impossible for students to catch all the information as they listen. Thus, they have to guess what they cannot understand or what would come next by using many clues, such as speaker’s gestures and facial expressions, rhetorical markers, key words, their own knowledge of the topic, etc.
Using non-verbal cues
Using non-verbal cues means paying attention to paralinguistic signals. Paralinguistic signals include body language, gestures, facial expressions, speaker’s lip movements, settings of where the conversation takes place, etc. Using and analyzing videos will help.
Before listening: Plan for the listening task
- Set a purpose or decide in advance what to listen for
- Decide if more linguistic or background knowledge is needed
- Determine whether to enter the text from the top down (attend to the overall meaning) or from the bottom up (focus on the words and phrases)
Use pre-listening activities to prepare students for what they are going to hear or view.
- assess students’ background knowledge of the topic and linguistic content of the text
- provide students with the background knowledge necessary for their comprehension of the listening passage or activate the existing knowledge that the students possess
- clarify any cultural information which may be necessary to comprehend the passage
- make students aware of the type of text they will be listening to, the role they will play, and the purpose(s) for which they will be listening
- provide opportunities for group or collaborative work and for background reading or class discussion activities
During and after listening: Monitor comprehension
- Verify predictions and check for inaccurate guesses
- Decide what is and is not important to understand
- Listen/view again to check comprehension
After listening: Evaluate comprehension and strategy use
- Evaluate comprehension in a particular task or area
- Evaluate overall progress in listening and in particular types of listening tasks
- Decide if the strategies used were appropriate for the purpose and for the task
- Modify strategies if necessary
Post-listening activities could be integrated with other skills, such as speaking, reading, and writing. In a post-listening activity we can ask students to write a paragraph on what they have listened. Listening can also integrate with reading. Listening to the news of an accident may encourage students to read related articles and either write or talk about them.
Students should listen to a variety of authentic materials
The purpose of language learning is that the learners can use the target language in the real world, not just in the classroom. Teachers should use more authentic texts (e.g., video and film, radio broadcasts, television programmes) in all levels of foreign language instruction in order to involve students in activities that mirror ‘real life’ listening contexts. Authentic language and real-world tasks enable students to see the relevance of classroom activity to their long term communicative goals.
How to teach them
Authentic materials, such as films, TV programmes, real conversations frequently contain fast speech, redundancy, ungrammatical utterances, etc., which tend to confuse and de-motivate students. However, this can be solved by choosing appropriate materials which are challenging and interesting, and by assigning tasks which involve listening for gist, listening for main ideas, etc. In a radio commercial, for example, students could name the product. Or after listening to a weather forecast on the radio, students could discuss what clothes to wear when they go out. Activities like these make students feel they are learning English for a meaningful purpose.