Listening Using Authentic Video for Overseas
Learners of English
While teaching in the UK this summer, it struck me how advanced the students’ listening skills were in comparison to my year round Spanish students who are of a similar general level of English. I did not find it particularly surprising. After all, who has not complained about the listening tasks in text books being too demanding for our poor students learning overseas. And who has not received the response that coursebooks are often written with the student living in the UK in mind. However, I began to ask myself just why these students should have such abilities. The initial answer to spring to mind is that they have much more exposure to English, of which we will discuss more later, but before looking for answers, there were more questions to be asked.
I chose an advanced class who have particular problems with listening tasks and set about doing some research into why this was so. After an informal chat during which they agreed that the sheer velocity of English and the subsequent intrusion of connected speech was their major enemy, they were given a questionnaire (see Appendix A) incorporating ideas from Parrott’s list of sub-skills (1993). The following is a summary of the results.
All of the students questioned stated that instead of trying to understand every word they just tried to understand the message. When it came to problems perceived and aspects of the skill of listening on which they wanted do more work, guessing the meanings of words from context figured highly, as did understanding specific details. Recognising the attitude of the speaker and understanding the main ideas were also mentioned.
In addition to the problems found in listening, the students were also asked about the situations in which they listened in English outside of class. I was surprised to find that although some students were regularly required to use English in meetings at work, the majority of listening took place for pleasure in the form of watching television or films, or listening to music. This lead me to the decision to focus on video as the listening material in my research as it would have been unfair and redundant, in my opinion, to use a resource without visuals when so many of the above mediums of communication involve visual information. Ur (1984:24) goes so far as to suggest that: ‘the speaker is actually visible to the listener in most real-life situations.’ What is more, video lessons, in my experience, generally prove to be highly stimulating (also supported by Ur 1984). I chose to use authentic video in order to include the fast connected speech mentioned earlier. As Richards highlights:
Materials should aim for relative authenticity if they are to prepare listeners for real listening situations. Many current commercial listening materials are spoken at an artificially slow pace, in prestige dialects that are not typical of ordinary speech.
Although the situation may be changing, it is still not an ideal one. Finally, in view of the types of listening my students were involved in outside of class, this research is concerned with examining one-way interactional texts, meaning texts where more than one speaker is present and the students are effectively eavesdropping.
Features of Authentic Video
The most obvious feature of video is its visual aspect. As long as we are careful not to provide tasks which require the learner to watch and be focused on a worksheet at the same time, the visual aspect can be exploited to assist the listener. Richards (1985) proposed a tentative model of the processes involved in comprehension. The first three processes (determining the type of speech event, recalling ‘scripts’ or schemata and inferring goals) can often be carried out by relying solely on visual clues. For example, if you see two people arguing, you know that this is so and can use your knowledge of arguments to get a general idea of the interaction taking place and the attitudes of those involved, something my learners had listed as problematic. Depending on the co-textual knowledge you may have or further visual clues you may also be able to infer the goals of the speakers, the relationship between them and perhaps even the register being used.
Richards (1985) offered an extensive list of medium factors involved in the comprehension of speech. Here, taking into account the feedback from the group mentioned earlier, we shall concern ourselves solely with phonological and lexical features of authentic oral texts which students should be made aware of.
Richards claims that spoken English contains reduced forms (both grammatical and phonological) and other features of connected speech. Therefore in a typical sample we will encounter examples of elision, assimilation, catenation, intrusion and weak forms. This last factor has particular importance as English is a stress-timed language and as such listeners ‘must be able to interpret words in stressed, mildly stressed, and unstressed forms’ (Richards 1985:195). For my Spanish students, whose L1 is not stress-timed and does not include weak forms, this is inevitably a serious challenge and something I feel should be worked on from the outset (i.e. when vocabulary is first introduced). Also, once a student can differentiate between stressed and unstressed forms, s/he can use the key stressed words as phonological clues as to what the speaker considers central to what they are saying. It should be stressed here, however, that this is not always the case, and work should also be done on recognising negative forms and ‘similar sounding’ tense components, which, although unstressed, carry key information (Richards 1990; Cauldwell 2000).
Regarding vocabulary, Richards points to phrases such as ‘kind of’ which we use to fill pauses, ungrammatical forms, cohesive devices such as ‘there was this guy’ and discourse markers. I would suggest that the frequency in particular of these discourse markers and phrases used to fill pauses combined with the relatively limited amount of such phrases make them well worth introducing to students. Harmer (unknown) also highlights the presence of colloquial vocabulary. Finally, Richards (1990) mentions redundancy, which in addition to hesitation, includes repetition and false starts.
Task / Response Type
The previous section dealt with features involved in a bottom-up approach to listening. The section on visual clues looked at those of a top-down approach. I agree with Nunan (1991:25) when he says that: ‘successful listeners use both bottom-up and top-down strategies’. Our task as teachers is to provide training and practice in both types of strategy, encouraging the cautious listener to use more top-down strategies and the less reserved listener to use more bottom-up ones. It would seem to me from personal experience however, that our overseas students tend to belong to the former group. This is possibly due to the fact that they simply do not have such a wide experience of needing to extract meaning from messages at the first time of asking as learners based in an English-speaking environment do.
The tasks we set students therefore, should overtly provide opportunities for strategy training and practice and should not simply test their listening capabilities.
When we use authentic video in class, it can be all too easy to forget that the television or film extract we use may be completely alien to the students. Firstly, Parrott (1993) stresses that the material should be interesting to our students. It is also vital that necessary contextual information is provided prior to the listening stage. Is there important background information about characters, settings or co-textual events which is important to the understanding of the sequence? Does this genre of entertainment even exist in this culture? If so, how can we draw on the knowledge the students already have in order to anticipate proceedings? We shall discuss this question after we have chosen our authentic video.
The first question we have to address is ‘What is authentic?’. There is much debate surrounding this notion. Although ‘off-air’ material may be intended for a native speaker audience, the text is, after all, scripted. The uncontrolled language used on unscripted programmes on the other hand, may include such an abundance of the features of ‘natural speech’ mentioned above as to make it too difficult for the learner to understand and as such demoralising. Try recording an interchange between two teachers and the result will almost certainly look staged and less interesting. A well-written piece of ‘off-air’ material seems to be the most satisfactory solution. Soap operas and many films try to reflect the ‘real life’ situation we desire.
The material should also be challenging but manageable so as not to prove demotivating. It should provide comprehensible input containing linguistic features just beyond the learner’s current level of competence in order to facilitate acquisition, according to Krashen (1982).Cauldwell (2000) suggests that we are often counter-productively ‘over-charitable’ to our students, inhibiting their development and consequent confidence.
‘Understanding is partial, and inferencing is crucial.’ (Field 1998:110)
Once we have our interesting, challenging excerpt, we can start looking at some top-down strategy training while exploiting the visuals. As we mentioned earlier, we need to make sure that context is provided and/or elicited by showing a very short clip from the first section of the excerpt. For example, we can learn a lot about a character from a simple picture. This will also act to arouse interest. At this stage, the students should also be told, the type of text being used.
We can then show the first section without sound and encourage the students to infer the speech event, recall scripts (i.e. what type of interchange usually takes place in this situation), infer goals and discuss the attitudes of the speakers and the setting. The students could then role-play the dialogue, predicting what they are going to hear before actually listening to the text with an authentic task.
An authentic task should involve the skills which would be used in the real world, thereby taking meaning from the text. For example, while watching television we are continuously thinking about what will come next. Ask the students to do this after the first section. Alternatively, pause the tape repeatedly to elicit a response, or even allow the students control of the tape. There seems little point in asking detailed comprehension questions which may prove difficult for even a native listener, possibly due to the fact that according to Richards (1985), we delete from our memories the message originally received once we have extracted the meaning and acted on it.
It is important that the teacher’s methodology is transparent all the while. The students should know what type of listening task is required and should know that they will have an opportunity to compare their findings afterwards. Strategies could also be discussed.
Post- Listening Phonological Work
Before listening to check predictions in the second section of the chosen excerpt, Field (1998) proposes that we do some bottom-up, post-listening work with the first section. This provides our cautious listener with the comfort s/he desires, it can present the students with reusable tools and, most importantly, it focuses on the parts of the text where communication broke down.
Cauldwell (2000) recommends doing perception work on the more impenetrable features of rapid speech. He says that students should learn to feel comfortable in handling the features of fast speech by being given the opportunity to rehear crucial, challenging moments of a recording, see a written transcript of them and produce them themselves.
Perhaps the troublesome ‘moments’ (or ‘chunks’) could be re-recorded onto an audio cassette, before giving out highlighted tapescripts to compare them with, or they could be reproduced in phonetic script to be matched with the corresponding transcriptions in Roman script. The ‘chunks’ could also be listened for in the text or even dictated by the teacher, before drilling takes place and finally a short clip from the first section could be used for a shadow reading activity.
Items selected for study could include those lexical features mentioned above as particularly typical of natural spoken English.
Guessing the Meaning of Vocabulary from Context
The last area which my students mentioned as problematic was that of trying to guess the meaning of vocabulary from context. Naturally this is more difficult in listening than it is in reading for a variety of reasons. Firstly, a word may not be easily broken down into its component parts. One may only hear an extract once and there is little time to dwell on individual components. Phonology and memory also come into play and the context itself needs to be understood. One solution to most of the above problems is to provide the tapescript (possibly gapped) in the post-listening part of the class. Alternatively, once sufficient work has been done on the meaning of the context, students could choose or be given a single vocabulary item with its pronunciation (both how it is pronounced in the text and other alternative pronunciations) from a specified part of the excerpt to listen for. It should be pointed out to students that guessing the meaning is the aim and as such L1 can be used in the response.
The vocabulary items selected should primarily be key to the meaning of the text. It would also seem suitable in the light of what we have seen so far, that the vocabulary include features of spoken language such as colloquial expressions, discourse markers and cohesive devices.
After the lexical and phonological work, it would probably be motivating for the students to see the section examined again.
We set out to examine ways of developing, through the medium of authentic video, the listening sub-skills of; understanding the main ideas and attitude of the speakers, understanding specific details hidden within segments of rapid connected speech and guessing the meaning of vocabulary from context. We have looked at a mixture of top-down approaches to listening using visual clues and bottom-up approaches in the crucial post-listening phase. This mixture of approaches is beneficial on two levels; firstly because we can reach out to every learner, regardless of learning style and secondly because, as proposed by Nunan (1991), the listener’s attention should be varied, as in ‘real-life’ listening.
We have also discussed the importance of authentic tasks for authentic, challenging and interesting texts.
In 2000, Field and Ridgway published articles debating the importance of strategy training versus that of extensive listening. I think that both are equally important. Encouraging our overseas students to use more strategies which help to provide a global understanding will hopefully take some of the fear out of listening and motivate them (with our help) to use video libraries and so on, thus providing them with more opportunity to listen and encouraging further use of top-down strategies. It is not the same as living in an English-speaking environment, but it is a step closer, and with an ongoing course of bottom-up phonological work in the classroom to support this process, the possibilities seem immense.
Anderson, A. And T. Lynch. 1998. Listening. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Class Profile: The classconsists of 7 female and 3 male Spaniards, who are all in their twenties and thirties. The students have been coming to class for one and a half hours twice a week in the evenings since October and often arrive tired after having been at work all day. They are, however, a lively group who work well together. Alicia, Ramón and Toni were in the same class together last year and are strong, communicative, highly motivated students. Maria also seems to fit in well with this group. Several others have studied at the school before.
The students have a variety of learning styles, although most agree that a variety of learning 'step by step' and learning through exposure is a good mixture. Manuel is probably the weakest student in the class and interestingly he had particularly requested sessions dealing with fast speech and pronunciation. Marina is also relatively weak in a strong class. She tends to work quietly and methodically with Silvia (a strong student on cognitive tasks) although she is not afraid to ask questions. Beatriz is slowly coming out of her shell and is a strong student all round. Monica and Elisa work hard and Elisa can also be quite demanding.
Timetable Fit: In previousclasses we have worked on discriminating among the distinctive sounds of English and the students are familiar with phonemic script.
In a recent lesson one particular extract from a graded listening text proved particularly difficult for the students to understand and in the following lesson we analysed some ‘chunks’ of connected speech taken from it. The ‘chunks’ were transcribed using the IPA and the students were invited to match these to the corresponding phrases, practise saying them and recognise them in spoken text before reading the text along with the audio tape. Work was also done on recognising the reduced forms of words.
In the first ten minutes of this class the students will be prepared to anticipate the content of the text through activation of schemata. They will take part in a role play in which A has hidden something from B, B has found it and A is inventing stories to explain themselves. I will also explain the aims and stages of the lesson to the class.
The students will have the opportunity to provide written feedback in their learner diaries at the end of the class.
Their homework will involve finding an extract from a song or film which contains a chunk of connected speech and presenting it to the class in the next lesson. This will also increase exposure to the target language.
In the future I plan to further heighten the students’ awareness of aspects of fast connected speech in post-listening sessions throughout the year. I also aim to continue to introduce and encourage students to use other compensatory strategies as appropriate to the individual’s learning style. For example, I plan to do some work on sentence prominence and extracting meaning from key words. I also plan to use dictagloss as a vehicle to raise awareness of how syntactical knowledge can be used to help with listening.
ii) To raise students’ awareness of some aspects of fast connected speech as an aid to listening (stage 3)
ii) To highlight some features of natural spoken English, such as ungrammatical forms and the discourse marker, “What happened there was..”. (stage 3)
iii) To encourage students to predict outcomes from a listening text (stage 4)
Lesson Rationale: Why Listening?
From the initial needs analysis sessions it became apparent that many of the students use English in their daily working lives and, apart from report writing, the most common uses are in meetings and in dealing with customers. Many also expressed a desire to focus particularly on the skill of listening this year, either because they find it ‘difficult’ or because they use it for personal reasons such as listening to songs, watching films or travel. It also became apparent in the early weeks of the course that listening is a skill in which a large number of the students have weaknesses. This is not surprising considering the lack of exposure they have to English, living in Spain.
Why focus on fast connected speech?
When further informal research was carried out in the classroom as to what they had found particularly difficult about one particular listening, the unanimous answer was that the speaker had talked very quickly. They went on to say that this led to words blending into one another. Cauldwell (2000) suggests an extensive post-listening session to familiarise students with some of the features of fast spoken English which make listening tasks difficult. This is obviously not an overnight solution to the problem, but rather a process of gradually raising awareness in different areas over a long series of listening exercises of which this lesson is just one. Cauldwell suggests that students should be allowed to bridge the gap between what they hear and a written transcript and finally to include the opportunity to practise imitating the speaker at the same time and at the same speed.
Why activate ‘real- world’ knowledge?
Among many others, Richards (1985) suggests that students find listening tasks more difficult if they enter them ‘cold’. For this reason I have decided to familiarise the students with the co-text through some information about the characters involved and what has happened prior to the sequence we will be watching and to ask them to predict the goals of each speaker. We will then watch the clip without sound to give the students the opportunity to identify the discourse type and recall scripts before watching to compare. At this stage I will also encourage the students to guess the meanings of some particular words from the context in which they are provided. This is another aspect of listening which the students have said they would like more practice in. After the shadow reading activity the students will, time permitting, have the chance to watch the clip again with the focus this time on the authentic task of enjoying it before predicting what they think will happen next in order to facilitate understanding of a second clip. I hope this variety of task types will provide something for everyone, regardless of individual learning styles.
I have chosen to use video so that the students are provided with the visual clues we use in real life. I have chosen an extract from the soap opera ‘Eastenders’ because it is an authentic and challenging text including ungrammatical language and colloquialisms.
Assumed Knowledge: The students are already familiar with phonemic script and have used it to analyse chunks of connected speech before. Generally, the students are an imaginative lot, but it is probably worthwhile making sure that Manuel and Marina are not working together when it comes to recreating the dialogue after watching the silent clip.
Anticipated Problems and Solutions: The students may find it difficult to come up with ideas for the dialogue they will be asked to produce after the silent watching. For this reason I have included a similar role-play at the beginning of the class and will make sure that the students all know the goals of the two characters through eliciting or providing the information myself.
The students may find it difficult to guess the meaning of their word from context and so I will offer to repeat the clip and have them discuss their ideas in pairs.
The students may have trouble ordering the chunks of connected speech, especially those in the middle of the dialogue. I have therefore chosen the section in the middle of the dialogue to use for shadow reading.
The lesson procedure
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