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The role of the teacher and the learner in the development of strategies and sub-skills to facilitate and enhance listening comprehension by Nicola Holmes
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'A conventional listening comprehension lesson simply adds yet; another text to the learners' experience; it does little or nothing to improve the effectiveness of their listening or to address their shortcomings as listeners..., no attention is paid to what may have gone wrong in the process of listening. Hence the likelihood that, confronted with a similar text next time, learners will use the same unsuccessful techniques. They will not have improved as listeners.' (Field, 199&, p 111)

Field's description is one which rings painfully true to myself and, I am sure, to many other second language teachers and learners. All too often listening proves a source of frustration and demotivation to the teacher and to the learner as, as Sheerin comments, repeated failure can result in panic and a very real psychological barrier to effective listening'. (Sheerin, 1987, p 129). After witnessing the debilitating effect this process can have on so many students, I felt compelled to explore possibilities of rendering it more enjoyable and more productive. The accompanying lesson constitutes a very conservative first step towards raising awareness and promoting discussion of strategies to cope with difficulties in listening. I hope, however, that I can use it as a starting point for a more thorough and principled long-term focus on listening strategies and skills, through which my students will be able to gain both in confidence and competence as the course progresses.

There have been many attempts to categorise 120th strategies and sub-skills involved in listening comprehension (see Ur, 1984; Richards, 1985; Rost, 1990; White, 1998 and Field, 1998 for a few examples of how this has been done). It would be difficult; to explore all of these in detail here. Instead I have chosen to focus on a few of the strategies, (or, in Field's words 'techniques'), which it would appear important for students to develop. I will then explore the role of the teacher in developing appropriate listening tasks and, finally, the importance of effectively integrating learner training into the listening syllabus as a whole.


Listening Strategies for the Second Language Learner

White defines strategies as 'efforts to compensate for uncertainties in understanding', which 'could include making inferences, realising where misunderstandings have occurred and asking for clarification'. (White, 1998, p 9). As Field comments, these strategies are usually already employed by the learner, albeit unconsciously, in Li listening and reading situations. As such they may appear too obvious to merit detailed attention. However, Field defines the teacher's goal as being 'to ensure that they are transferred into L2 and applied in a controlled way', a process which, surprisingly enough, does not appear to be automatic on the part of the learner. (Field, 1998, p 117). White concludes that strategies can only really be taught effectively by interrupting the listening process and getting students to reflect on what they have just been doing'. (White, 1998, p 9). Thus,
in the accompanying lesson, I have incorporated an overt post-listening focus on the following, in the form of a guided student discussion: preparation, predication, inference of the meanings of unknown words and/or the overall meaning of the listening text, and approaching the listening task in a relaxed and calm manner.

Preparation, prediction and inference of course overlap, and, as in the development of reading skills, form part of the more general activation of the listener's individual schema or world knowledge. As Nunan comments, '... meaning does not reside exclusively within the words on the tape recorder or on the page. It also exists in the head of the listener or reader. Successful listeners or readers are those who can utilise both 'inside the head' knowledge and 'outside the head' knowledge to interpret what they hear or see. (Nunan, 1998, p 18). Furthermore, these are once again strategies we clearly already employ in Li listening, but also, as Field remarks, are of prime importance in real-life L2 situations, outside of the classroom, 'where understanding is partial and inferencing is crucial'. (Field, 1998,p110)

Prediction activities focusing on different contexts, discourse types, attitudes and vocabulary are already a common feature of pre-listening tasks in most modern coursebooks. However, Field comments on the danger of not completing this process by checking and revising the hypotheses made, believing the failure to do this to be 'the source of much breakdown of understanding in foreign-language listening, when guesses become treated as certainties instead of being weighed against the evidence as it comes in'. (Field, 1998, p 117). This has implications in terms of the emphasis placed on post-listening activities, which I will discuss later. However, Vandergrift also proposes an interesting way in which the formation, justification and checking of hypotheses might be incorporated into the while-listening stage of a lesson, even without prior preparation, with students noting down their 'guesses' and 'reasons' during the first listening and discussing and refining these with other students prior to checking them during the second listening. (Vandergrift, 1999, p174/176)

Sheerin also proposes that the teacher should assist students to develop their own special schema for the second language culture, raising their awareness of those culture-specific factors which could prove vital to adequate comprehension in the second language. (Sheerin, 1987, p 127)

The final strategy included in my list for discussion, namely approaching a listening task (be it a real-life or a classroom task) in a relaxed, calm and confident manner is one which is clearly influenced by the teacher's attitude to and method of teaching listening comprehension. As such, a discussion of this will form part of the exploration of the teacher's role to follow.

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