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Teaching Listening at Upper
Intermediate Level
by Sam Smith
- 3

How do we teach listening?

A typical listening lesson nowadays will probably consist of:
1. A pre-listening task or warm-up to set the context.
2. Extensive listening for gist.
3. A second listening to answer more detailed questions or a more detailed task.
4. Review of task or questions.
5. Either inferring vocabulary or examining functional language. (Field)
6. Or using the tape as a springboard to another skills task. (White)

(Field 1998) (White 1998)

John Field points out that while this reflects a noticeable positive change in ELT methodology, i.e.
· seeing listening as a skill as opposed to for new language
· it is relevant to real life through activating a context, the trend to use more authentic material, highlighting conversational features and employs a task rather than questions
· it provides motivation by focusing on expectations that can be checked as opposed to relying on memory
it does not go far enough (Field 1998), a point also maintained by Goodith White (1998) and Richard Cauldwell (2000).

What is wrong with the way we teach listening?

One of the 1st things to notice about this model is the small amount of emphasis placed on post-listening. (Field 1998) (White 1998) (Cauldwell 2000) We spend so much time preparing learners for listening, which in itself is not a bad thing as it activates back-ground knowledge, expectations and predictions, that we don't have time to do much more than see if the students got the answers right or wrong and no time is spent on finding out why and where they went wrong. We are essentially at best practising and at worst testing listening and not doing any teaching.
We should actively teach micro-skills or sub-skills and strategies.
Richard Cauldwell compares listening to reading, i.e. in reading, the words are available for inspection for much longer, whereas in listening, the skill of perceiving sounds and holding them long enough to take in their meaning is essential to understanding. He suggests that learners must re-hear and spend time on the crucial answer bearing parts that should be chosen for meaning and be perceptionally challenging. (Cauldwell 2000)
John Field suggests dictation of sentences containing features of connected speech such as weak forms, contractions, elision, assimilation and catonation to practice identifying words in continuous speech or words in stressed or unstressed positions. (Field 1998)
See appendix 1 for Jack Richards' list of micro-skills.
See appendix 2 for some other ways of practising them suggested by John Field.
Similarly we should actively encourage learners to employ successful strategies, ways of coping when they don't understand everything.
John field proposes getting students to just write down as many words as possible from a short listening passage and decide how certain they are about each one, then form guesses about links between the words based on the speaker, situation and topic and share these ideas with a partner. These guesses should then be checked by listening again and listening to the next part of the passage. (Field 1998) Learners are therefore becoming more aware of how much they do understand and also inferring more from other clues.
A similar idea is dictogloss, where again students write down as many words as they can (after first processing the text for meaning) before using grammar, vocabulary, context and real world knowledge to recreate the text before comparing the original with their own version.
Some further good ideas for raising learners' awareness of strategies are proposed by Gail Ellis and Barbara Sinclair in their excellent book 'Learning to Learn' such as ways of inferring what you don't hear from words you do and from visual clues, making sure you are aware of your reasons for listening, predicting what you'll hear by for example, reading the news headlines before watching the news, being aware of discourse signals such as ' I just wanted to say...' and generally being aware of your strengths and weaknesses as a listener and what to do about it. (Ellis and Sinclair 1989)
Another idea, and a very important one in the case of my students, is that we should not be afraid of using authentic materials containing features of real, fast, connected speech. By relying on course-book materials, we are not helping students who will eventually be faced with the real thing, we are just lulling them into a false sense of security. We should be prepared for frustration from learners when they don't understand and be ready to help them understand through using techniques like the ones above. (Cauldwell 2000) Teachers should also be aware themselves of the features of natural speech such as weak forms and assimilation, elision, catonation and redundancy and noise and colloquial language and be ready to help learners with it. (Cauldwell 2000)
We should also be aware of learners' difficulties as opposed to native speakers' ways of listening. As Richard Cauldwell points out, there is a falsity to the idea that, as native speakers don't have to understand every word, learners should be encouraged not to try, we are confusing the goals with the methodology. He suggests letting learners take control of the tape recorder. They can thus focus on what they need to as opposed to what we think they need to and the teacher will be surprised by what they observe. (Cauldwell 2000) I have since done this myself and can definitely go along 100% with what he says.

A Conclusion

What I will try to do with my students as much as possible is:
· Use authentic materials that exhibit features of natural, fast, connected speech.
· Try to teach speech features and know enough about them myself to be able to do so.
· Actively teach micro-skills and strategies.
· Let my students have more control over how they listen.
· Not be afraid of learners' frustration and try to help them with their problems and not hide from them.


Michael Lewis : The Lexical Approach, Language Teaching Publications, 1993
Michael Rost : Listening in Action, Prentice Hall, 1991
Penny Ur : Teaching Listening Comprehension, Cambridge University Press, 1984
David Nunan : Language Teaching Methodology, Prentice Hall, 1995
John Field : Skills and Strategies : Towards a New Methodology for Listening, ELT Journal Volume 52 / 2 April 1998, Oxford University Press
Goodith White : Listening, Oxford University Press, 1998
Richard T. Cauldwell : University of Birmingham, 5th November 2000
Gail Ellis and Barbara Sinclair : Learning to Learn English, Cambridge University Press, 1989
Michael Rost : Listening in Language Learning, Longman, 1990
Anne Anderson & Tony Lynch : Listening, Oxford University Press, 1988


Sam Smith, 31, originally from Bradford in the UK, has been teaching for 5 years, in Ukraine (2 years), Poland (1 year) and Spain (2 years) and also at summer schools in Folkestone and London. He currently lives lives & teaches in Madrid.

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