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

Lesson plan
Preliminary information


Timetable fit:
We have been concentrating on listening skills and strategies for the CAE exam all year although I have been trying to give the class more practice and awareness of exam strategies since their mock exam at mid-term showed this to be an area to work on for them. There have also been several additions to the class just prior to and after the mock exams were taken in February and I feel that now is a good time to give them an explicit look at some of the features in the listening exam, some tips, and give them some exam type practice in class. The week prior to this class we had a brief look at the content of the Listening section in the guise of a Use of English type task including multiple choice gap fill, error correction and open cloze items.

Level: This class is an advanced class studying at CAE level.

Time: 60 mins

Aims and objectives:

Main aim: To provide input on CAE listening tasks through the vehicle of a listening task itself, i.e. "Loop input", and provide practice in listening for specific information in an exam type format.

Subsidiary aims: To raise awareness of exam strategies for the listening portion of the CAE exam, provide practice in listening for gist, predicting before listening, collaborative speaking and intensive reading.

Assumed Knowledge: A general familiarity with listening task procedures derived from previous in-class practice.

Anticipated problems and solutions:
1. Some of the students in attendance have joined the group recently, and have not had as much exposure to and practice with the listening portion of the exam format as others who have been with the group since October. I suspect that in the warmer stage, where I will ask the students to discuss what they know about it, the newer ones may have little to say and have a difficult time coming up with any tips for others. The solution will be pairing or grouping the newer and less experienced students with the ones who have been in the class longer, as they should be able to provide some of the information that the others may lack. It should be noted, as well, that it is not essential nor even desirable that everyone be completely familiar with the exam format in great detail, as the absence of knowledge should encourage them to listen carefully to others that have ideas and remain engaged throughout the lesson.

2. The recording that is going to be used in the lesson is homemade and the quality may be less than what the students are used to listening to, and therefore this may make it more difficult to understand and follow. The conversation is also quite natural and contains many of the features of natural conversational speech that the students often find difficult, such as topic shift, turn taking, features of connected speech, redundancy, false starts, and colloquialisms.
Although not all of these potentially difficult features are ones that can be compensated for in the lesson itself, I hope to reduce the difficulties inherent in following a recorded conversation on a potentially unfamiliar subject by giving the class the opportunity to activate any background knowledge they do have (collectively) in the warmer stage, and in that way make it easier on them when they listen for the first time, activating their 'schemata', or 'script' to aid their understanding. In the same way, by giving them very general information 'gist' questions to focus on before the first listening, and allowing them to predict associated lexical items, I hope to give them a purpose for listening as well as aids to better follow and understand the conversation.

3. The multiple choice task, which is in exam-style format, may prove to be quite difficult for some of the 'weaker' students as the questioning is purposefully somewhat complicated. And as I have previously mentioned, the conversation is quite natural in speed and in conversational speech features that may make it difficult for the weaker students to easily 'pull out', as it were, the information required to answer the questions. By breaking down the five main topics covered chronologically in the taped conversation into five questions, I hope to make the task reasonably accessible even for the 'weaker' students in the class. Also, by encouraging everyone to predict and underline key words in the time before they listen a second time, I hope to simplify the processing load and improve their chances of success. In the unlikely event that the majority of the class find the taped conversation and listening tasks simply too hard to do, I might have to make adjustments. One such adjustment could be to break down the tape into sections and play each one at a time. This would potentially throw the timing of the lesson off but because the students must come first, I think it could turn out to be the appropriate action to take.

4. In the course of the lesson, there are several different activities that require time, such as pre-listening, while-listening and post-listening activities and there is always the possibility that time management will become an issue. I hope to compensate for this eventuality by allowing reasonable timing for each activity, at times explicitly telling the class how much time they have for each activity, and by providing feedback on an OHT in order to save time.

5. In the second listening task, I am asking the class to follow the flow of turn- taking and recognize which speaker is making which statement. When they check their answers in the transcript, it may be difficult and time consuming to pinpoint the information in the text, having such a large amount of text to deal with. By providing the line number in the transcript I hope to aid the students in locating the information quickly in order to check their answers. As mentioned above, if the listening task and recording prove, or have proven to be much too difficult, at this point. A possible solution could be to break down the recording into sections, pausing after each question, and in that way help the class deal with the unforeseen difficulties.

6. In the final part of the lesson, I ask the class to take on roles and briefly act out a short exchange using information learned in the lesson. Some students may be overloaded by now and not be able to think on their feet. If time allows, I will ask the students playing the same roles to work together and think of or predict a few problems or answers to problems in order to make the brief activity more communicative and with the idea that two heads are sometimes better than one. In the event that time is running too short to allow this kind of interaction, I will simply provide each student with a few problems or prompts to anticipate problems and ask them to get on with it after they have had time to think on their own for a minute.

Aids and materials:
A 'homemade' recording of two teaching colleagues discussing tips and advice for students preparing for the CAE listening exam.

• Two 'homemade' handouts in the style and format of the CAE listening exam, section C, based on the recording.

• A copy of the transcript, transcribed as faithfully as possible, by myself.

• An OHP and OHTs of the two handouts with the answers for feedback purposes.

• Prompts on card for the warmer and post listening discussion.

• A tape recorder

Class profile:
This class is an advanced class, which is studying at the CAE level. There are a total of ten students on the register and the majority of them come regularly to class each week. They are largely young professionals who come to class directly after work with the exception of one student, Beatriz, who is a first year university student. The class has gone through some changes in terms of students since the holiday break in December. There are four newer students in the group and six who have been in the class since October. Of the latter, Jose Maria, Emilio, and Julia have decided to take the CAE exam in December and Jose Antonio, Teresa, and Beatriz have signed up to take the exam this June. Of the others, Diego and Carmen joined the group just as we were doing Mock exams at the end of February. Rafael, and Elena, have just recently joined the group, Rafael just before Easter break and Elena just afterwards.

The three students that will be taking the exam this June are among the stronger ones in the class overall, although some of the newer additions are of a comparable level, only lacking in areas that are specific to classroom practice, such as writing skills and syntactic or lexical knowledge.

Jose Antonio and Theresa got married on the fifth of April and I think they will be on their honeymoon when this lesson takes place. Beatriz is the youngest of the class, being eighteen, and although she is quite fluent in spoken and written English, she still lacks range in lexical areas, especially in distinguishing between formal and informal registers. She is a good listener however, and I expect that she will enjoy a lesson based on listening skills. Jose Maria did quite well on the listening section of the mock exam and claims to find understanding spoken English easier than working with syntax, lexis, and speaking. His attendance has been spotty due to his obligations as a university professor of Economics. Emilio, on the other hand, has a hard time understanding spoken English. He is aware of this problem and claims that among other things, it is mostly because of lack of exposure. He does much better in the areas of syntax, lexis and writing. His pronunciation is sometimes difficult to understand but he does not generally have difficulty in expressing himself verbally. In his work, he has something to do with Spanish linguistics and speaks French as well. Diego is an all around good student at this level and did quite well on the mock exam for not having attended many classes prior. His major weakness is writing though I think that will improve as he completes more class writing assignments. Carmen joined the class on the very day of mock exams and was not able to finish it as it was quite a lot for her first day. She is very motivated however, and has made quite a lot of improvement. She is originally from Peru and has a very clear North American accent. Her weak areas are lexis and (written) syntax. Julia is the weakest student in the group and has problems in most areas. She is motivated though and has made improvements, especially in the areas of lexis and written work. She reads much slower than the rest and often only understands spoken instructions and listening tasks partially. The other two students I really do not know well enough to make informed comments on, except that Rafael is a good all around student with pronunciation as his possible main weakness and that upon joining the class, Elena felt that this level is a bit high for her. I think that Elena will improve quickly once she gets used to using English again. In general the class is motivated, participate fully in the lessons and attendance is generally good.

Lesson rationale:
As I have mentioned elsewhere, the class is mixed in terms of level of listening comprehension, some find it reasonably easy to understand spoken English and others find it especially difficult. As a general rule though, everyone cites listening comprehension as tested on the exam as rather difficult and an area that they would like to have constant practice in. As I have said, there are three students in class who are taking the CAE exam in June and the majority will likely do it in December. Therefore, I felt that everyone would benefit from a lesson based on listening and in concrete, some of the skills necessary to do the exam Listening Section better. I chose to present the lesson in a way that would not only provide listening practice in general, but also provide 'loop' input, in such a way that they will be receiving useful information for the exam tasks via the very type of exam tasks they need practice in. They will also have these tips to refer to after the lesson from the very task sheets they will be using.

They will, in this way, also be exposed to different accents to mine via an authentic, native speaker conversation on a topic relevant to their needs. As mentioned in the background research assignment for this class, this is desirable if learners are to become 'fluent' listeners of English and accustomed to accents other than their teachers'. This is especially relevant in preparing for the CAE exam, as they are much more likely to encounter British accents than those of North Americans.

The activities that they will be taking part in throughout the course of the lesson, as I have designed it, should aid them not only in becoming accustomed to exam type tasks, but also give them practice in the areas that are important to achieving success in these tasks. Activities such as, predicting content and key words and reading through the material before listening are essential strategies for the exam. Discussing topic areas prior to and after listening are also good classroom practice, as it enables the students to 'tune in' and remain engaged throughout the lesson.

By having the class engage in both of the task types that they may be required to do in Section C of the exam, I hope to give them relevant practice that not only prepares them for this eventuality, but that also guides them towards strategies for doing these tasks better. I will be asking them to confirm their answers to the second task by searching for evidence in the transcript and in this way, give them additional practice in skimming and scanning reading skills. I also hope that as a by-product, they will notice language structures that may add to their acquisition of language overall.

In terms of listening practice, the class will be provided with practice in listening for gist as well as for specific information. The idea being that after having done the different tasks, they will be able to refer back to them in the future as an aid to further listening tasks they will be doing in class, as well as in the listening section of the exam itself.

Because I do not want to only test the students, I am allowing them to listen to the text a total of three times. This is more than they will be able do in the exam or in most classroom practice. I am allowing this in order to practice various exam strategies and skills, such as, listening for gist, predicting information, listening for specific information for multiple choice questions and listening for directly stated information. I feel that giving them ample opportunity to listen will not only aid them in full comprehension, something very important in this lesson if they are to benefit fully from the tips and advice stated in the text, but also give them the opportunity to practice various listening skills.

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