While Listening - Tackling
the Double Challenge of Note Taking
by Alex Case
student listening to a tape in a classroom has an even more
challenging task. They cannot use strategies such as interpreting
the gestures of the person speaking or asking for confirmation.
Just as much, they must cope with a real lack of shared knowledge
with the speaker- not only as compared to a face to face conversation,
but even as compared to a recent broadcast of international
students can use to cope with lack of knowledge include prediction
of content, guessing unknown vocabulary from context and simply
ignoring unimportant unknown language. In conversation other
strategies include asking for confirmation and avoidance of
might have noticed that 'listening for gist' has not been
mentioned above either as knowledge or strategy. It is precisely
here that the 'standard' model mentioned in the introduction
falls down. A couple of gist questions are a great test of
listening comprehension, but in a standard textbook task it
is often unclear which of any of the above factors are being
taught, practised or improved.
Listening and note-taking provides particular problems of
summarising, writing and listening at the same time etc. and
is something that 'even native speakers find challenging'
(5). The problem might be less all your students are university
students or graduates, as these skills are at least partially
transferable from L1.
in the CAE exam
The note taking in the exam can comprise up to three quarters
of the listening paper, hence the importance of tackling this
skill. The tasks are somewhat unusual in that they consist
of filling gaps in sentences summarising some of the information
from the text, rather than writing whole sentences. In general,
the answers are of three words or less per gap. Specific problems
students have with this part included spelling, missing capital
letters on proper nouns, not changing part of speech to fit
in the gap, being unused to hearing texts only once, being
caught out by the irregular spacing of the answers in the
text, concentrating too much on one answer and so missing
the next etc.
the plus side, the answers are in the same order as the text.
On the minus, students can often be caught out by the irregular
spacing of the information through the text- there quite often
being a long introduction with no information to note down,
for example. Other specific difficulties with the CAE tasks
are that the information from the text often has to be re-worded
to fit grammatically in the gaps. In Part 2 the difficulty
lies more in only hearing the text once. The students are
also supposed to show accurate spelling.
of the problems students have with this part of the exam can
be dealt with by the simple expedient of advice and further
practice. This can be examined by brainstorming problems students
have had with this type of task (see list below). They can
then do another listening and analyse exactly what difficulties
they had and discuss ways of lessening that problem.
simple technique in tackling problems with this task is to
motivate students to expose themselves more to English. A
popular theory on Spanish students' weakness in listening
is the amount of dubbing in the cinema and TV, and the consequent
lack of exposure, for example. One Spanish student of mine
bought a satellite connection and started watching BBC World
whilst studying for the exam, so prompting can work!
obvious approach is just to bring more listening into the
classroom. Even with students who really understand their
need for it, however, using lots of textbook listenings is
likely to produce boredom. You also need to think carefully
about whether what you are doing in class is adding anything
to what your students could do at home. This can be tackled
by varying how you use the texts, the use of video, songs
and relevant materials such as radio news stories, as well
as a very close look at which micro-skill you are aiming to
The advice in the official CAE handbook (6) for preparing
the students for the paper is:
- Practice concentrating on key words
- Examine tapescripts to note similarities and differences
between text and expected answers
- Dictation to practice listening in detail
- Extensive listening to improve confidence in not needing
to understand every word
- Encourage Ss to keep answers short
- Encourage Ss to look carefully at the stem and wording of
the question so that the answer provides an acceptable completion
- Train Ss to be accurate with spelling and check it carefully
possible activity to get students to concentrate on key
words is a kind of dictation where half the class write
down only the verbs and the other half only the nouns and
then in pairs they try to reconstruct the text. Another can
be to make them concentrate on the stressed 'content' words.
A fun activity for this is to set up a list of questions which
students must ask each other. The first time they ask the
question, however, they can only say one word and can only
hum the rest of the question. If their partner answers the
question correctly they get a point. The second time they
can add one more word, but hum the rest etc. This is great
practice for stress and intonation, and understanding how
little you need to understand to cope with the language.
an exam class such as CAE, I think it is best to always take
in photocopied tapescripts and examine them every time
students have real problems with a listening.
dictation, I have found something as 'simple' as a primary
school-style spelling test of difficult words from Advanced
Language Practice (7) went down well with a previous CAE class,
as practise for both this part of the paper and the Use of
English editing task. Another useful thing that can be tested
through dictation is students choosing the correct spelling
of homophones. There is also a host of alternative ideas in
'Dictation- New Methods, New Possibilities' (8). Dictogloss
can be used for more general practice of summarising/ note
taking (9). When using dictation, it's worth thinking about
if you can make it more 'realistic' by dictating things that
native speakers would, e.g. names and numbers. The other problem
with dictation is adapting it to the 'gap filling' format
of the exam.
agree with the advice in the handbook that students need practice
in extensive listening, but more specifically I think
the problem for these tasks is one of still thinking about
one question when you should be listening for the next. I
have recently been playing more texts once only, as I believe
hearing everything twice can actually increase the problem
above ('I'll hear it next time').
students to keep answers short is a simple matter of
good exercise for making sure the answers fit is one
I have found in Cambridge First Certificate Handbook (10).
It consists of an answer sheet filled in but with none of
the answers fitting grammatically into the gaps. Without even
needing to hear the text, students correct the answers. Something
similar could be done with students listening to the text
to correct the answers- e.g. because the answer contains the
wrong key word. Such a task also allows the teacher to break
the students slowly into a task, something the Cambridge First
Certificate Handbook does very well but Advanced books all
too often ignore.
that is not mentioned in the official handbook but I feel
is possibly the most useful to work on is prediction of
content. This takes two forms:
- Prediction before the text
- Prediction during the text
Before listening to the text, students have the opportunity
to read through the gapped text. They should be able to predict
what part(s) of speech the missing information is (e.g. adjective),
if it is a proper noun (name of place etc.) and what topic
area it comes from (e.g. transport). At the most extreme,
I recently completed 60% of a listening comprehension on Salamanca
without listening to it by already knowing the information,
but unfortunately this is unlikely to happen in the CAE.
During listening, it is possible to guess the ends
of sentences, responses in conversations etc. without needing
to hear them. Penny Ur (11) suggests stopping during a text
and having students discuss what could come next. A more structured
version is to get them to decide between multiple choice options
The final thing that needs to be taken into account is simply
that of making listening in the classroom more interesting.
As I mentioned above, over-use of the cassette in the classroom
is likely to produce a negative impact- and paradoxically
this is most true with students who are weak at listening.
Even more than the use of video and song, the most motivating
activities are those which involve students doing the activities
above whilst listening to each other. For example, students
can make notes on an anecdote they are going to tell (max.
20 words) and then make notes when their partner tells their
story. They then cut their notes down to 20 words and compare
with their partner's original notes. Activities like this
are by far the most motivating I have found.
a particular favourite of mine for exam classes is to have
them write the tasks for each other, as it also helps them
get inside the examiners' heads. Going through their problems
with the exam task first (see above) helps them recreate the
same nasty tricks as the examiners produce for their classmates
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