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Teaching Listening to Advanced Learners: Problems and Solutions
by Scott Shelton
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Looking at problems

One problem that students have is distinguishing individual sounds and word boundaries in the stream of speech. As mentioned, some of my current advanced learners profess problems in this area. Linguistic features such as elision, (a feature of connected speech by which a consonant sound is left out in order to facilitate articulation e.g. the disappearance of 't' in 'last chance'), assimilation (what happens when nearby sounds influence each other causing them to sound more similar e.g. the 'd' to 'b' assimilation in 'good morning')1 and the overall phenomenon of weak forms in spoken English can cause a great deal of comprehension problems, even for advanced learners, if they are not exposed to them regularly through awareness raising, receptive and productive activities.

Because I am a speaker of North American English, and most of what they hear on classroom cassettes is a British accent, my students get pretty consistent exposure to both of the major accents in spoken English today. Penny Ur (1984) points out that:

"We must remember that the English many of our students will need to understand may very well not be spoken in a native accent at all…what we can do is try to give them a reasonable familiarity with the two most useful accents (American and British) and give them some practice in coping with both of them."

I might also add that we should give them exposure to other varieties of English in accordance with their immediate and specific needs as well.

Another problem for learners, whose exposure to spoken English is limited to the classroom, is becoming over accustomed to one type of discourse, whether it be natural conversation or spoken prose. Lacking exposure to different text types, learners may find it more difficult to understand one or the other. I always try to ensure that my classes get both informal conversations between teacher and student and between the students themselves whereas formal spoken prose can be delivered either by myself, or through the use of tape and video. Lacking in cultural knowledge of the target language also presents problems for the non-native listener, as shared knowledge is important in order to be able to carry out effective predictions and utilize a top-down process to aid understanding. McCarthy (1991) states:

"Active listeners, like active readers, are constantly predicting what the message will be, based on the evidence of their real world knowledge and the type of discourse they are engaged in."

Anderson and Lynch have this to add:

"Gaps in our knowledge of the L2 culture, of the associations and references available to native users, can present obstacles to comprehension."

I have noticed that this lack of 'shared cultural knowledge' is often a source of difficulty for my advanced students especially because the listening texts provided for class work and exam practice are often extremely culturally biased. It is for this reason that they often cannot make appropriate guesses based on key words and contextual situations, such as the weather or gardening, where the lack of shared cultural knowledge sometimes creates a crucial gap between listening and comprehension.

Providing help

In class there are several ways in which we can help advanced learners improve listening comprehension.

Materials can be graded in order to facilitate understanding and pitched at the correct level of difficulty to stretch and challenge comprehension.

Task-oriented exercises should be used to ensure that the learners' listening skills are developed and not simply tested which is what often happens when a procedure is not fully employed. Effective tasks help to engage learners' interest, provide a purpose for listening, and can be supported by visual as well as environmental clues. Ur (1984:25) suggests:

"Listening exercises are most effective if they are constructed around a task. That is to say, the students are required to do something in response to what they hear that will demonstrate their understanding"


Wood (2002) describes a basic task-oriented procedure as follows:

1. Provide a lead-in to the task. (Pre-listening introduction to topic, discussion, using visual stimuli).

2. Pre-task work. (Looking through the worksheet, work on key lexical items, developing prediction, and so on.)

3. Set a clear, achievable task. (Check that students understand the task either by demonstrating or concept checking.)

4. Play the tape or offer the material 'live'. (Ensure that the students are aware that they should not be trying to understand everything they hear, only enough to be able to do the specific task.)

5. Task feedback. (Check if the students have been able to do the task and give an immediate response to performance. Do not ask additional, unfair questions at this point.)

6. Could they do the task? If yes, then conclude, lead on to follow up activities, and review what has been done. If not, repeat step four or even go back to step two and listen again. Assess the difficulty of the task for future reference.
An example of follow up activities might be a personalized response to the text, relating the theme to 'real world' issues, or using the theme as the basis for a class questionnaire.

Students should be given exposure to a variety of aural input such as everyday conversation, announcements, storytelling, interviews, TV and radio news, English language songs, and so on. I also like to give my classes 'live' listening, which comes in the form of anecdotal asides or prepared monologues with which they are encouraged to interact with through the teller (either another student or myself).

Training students to predict something of the content of the text that they are going to hear is also important. The Cambridge CAE handbook (2000) mentions this and other ideas for preparing exam students. It mentions the need to help them learn to focus on key words and use that information in completing gap-fill questions. It goes on to suggest going through the transcript after listening where a variety of activities can be employed. I like to use transcripts for noticing important language features such as linking devices and discourse markers, linguistic features of connected speech and vocabulary for follow-up work such as differentiating between formal and informal registers, or working on text cohesion by looking at forward and backward references. Jigsaw listening tasks can provide a communicative purpose for listening, give rise to turn taking, and promote negotiation of meaning.

Dictation is a favorite as well, providing useful practice in listening for detail as well as features of connected speech. In Grammar Dictation (1990) activities are presented which practice listening for key information words later used as a base for speaking and collective grammar practice while students discuss their notes and attempt to reconstruct the text, maintaining meaning and coherence. I have found this to be an excellent integrated activity that benefits advanced learners in not only listening but in grammar, speaking and writing as well.

It is also important to give extensive listening practice. Making students aware that they do not have to understand every word in order to identify specific information, gist and attitudes between speakers, can build confidence and provide meaningful practice for both exam and 'real life' situations

Conclusion

Listening to and understanding what others are saying, then, is not a passive act as it was long considered to be. It is a vigorous, demanding process, which involves, not only understanding different accents, pronunciation and intonation as well as semantic implications (lexical and grammatical), but also engaging in activating background knowledge and making educated assumptions. In this light, we need to ensure a balance of mediums and task types are used in the classroom. We also need to create and maintain motivation making certain that students have every chance at success with whatever approach or medium is being used.

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