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Grasping the nettle: The importance of perception work in listening comprehension
by Richard Cauldwell
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Problem 2: Too much hope in listening out for 'stresses'

Listening exercises are also characterised by the hope which often appears in the following words of encouragement: 'Just listen to the stresses, they'll be in the most important words, then you'll understand'.

There are three problems with this view: first, very often, 'important' words such as negatives are often unstressed, and so-called 'unimportant' grammatical words such as prepositions and pronouns are stressed; second, research indicates that it is difficult to pick out stressed words in a language which is not your own (c.f. Roach, 1982); third, the concept of stress is loosely defined and fails to distinguish between word-level stress, and stresses associated with higher order phenomena such as tone units.

Problem 3: Too much help

Although many listening comprehension recordings boast that they are 'natural', few of them are truly so. Many (though not all) are scripted and artificially slow. The reasons for this can be found in statements such as the following from Penny Ur:

Students may learn best from listening to speech which, while not entirely authentic, is an approximation to the real thing, and is planned to take into account the learners' level of ability and particular difficulties. (Ur, 1984: 23)

I myself find nothing wrong in what Penny Ur says here but I would argue that listening comprehension materials are often over-charitable in leaning towards 'the learners' level of ability' and not taking account of the level of ability required to understand spontaneous fast speech. The gap between the learners' level and the target level (fast spontaneous speech) is a gap that we as teachers and materials writers must help learners bridge. But we cannot help them bridge this gap if we continue with our charitable focus on what learners can manage at their current level.

In recent years, listening materials in main course textbooks at upper-intermediate and advanced levels have featured spontaneous speech, and this move is a good one. However, the methodology (crudely, give the answers, and move on) has remained much the same, and teachers are not trained to explain what the features of fast spontaneous speech are.

We have to help learners cope with speech which is above their current level, and to arrive at a description of 'above current level', we need a description of the topmost level - a description of the features of 'difficult' (fast spontaneous) speech. We need such a description for use in teaching so that we can have an equal focus on both where our learners are, and where they have to get to: this description should form part of teacher training - it should be part of every teacher's tool-kit.

Problem 4: Rushing to the follow-up

We offer too little help in the post-listening phase. My impression is (and this is backed up by research by Field 1998) that of the four phases of a listening lesson it is the post-listening phase which has the least amount of time devoted to it. The first - warm-up - phase (with contextualisation and personalisation) and the fourth - follow-up - phase (often a discussion or writing task) have the most time devoted to them. It is at this point that avoidance is at its most obvious worst, and the reasons for it can be found in the standard training of communicative language teachers.

Our training predisposes us to obey a communicative imperative which demands rapid movement to the next activity to keep the variety, interest, and motivation high: we are anxious to see and hear learners enjoying social interaction in English. We prefer this high level of social 'buzz' to staying with and helping learners through the difficulties of a recording: when there might be silent private struggles to perceive and understand the acoustic blur of speech.

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