Listening to Advanced Learners: Problems and Solutions
by Scott Shelton
advanced learners and preparing them for the Cambridge Certificate
of Advanced English examination, I often encounter a majority
of students who find the listening section of the test particularly
challenging and difficult. In this paper I will attempt to
outline a framework of what listening entails, identify some
of the more salient difficulties that students typically have
at advanced levels, look at possible reasons for this, and
propose some activities and approaches in teaching that could
enable students to improve in this area.
effectively is a demanding and involved process. One must
be able to deal with different accents or pronunciation, unfamiliar
lexical items and syntactic structures, competing background
noise, and also make a conscious effort to not 'switch off'
or become distracted while listening. All of this must be
achieved and dealt with more or less simultaneously in order
to identify and understand the meaning in any given message.
is often a difference between what we experience in 'real
life' in terms of listening and what students are asked to
deal with in the classroom. In 'real life' we are required
to listen in many different situations and for different reasons.
Penny Ur (1984:2) offers a list of listening sources such
The news on the television or radio
Friends while having an informal chat
Others talking on their mobile phones or in a public
Songs and films
Small talk at a party
Discussing problems at work or at home
On the phone
Attending a class or a seminar
list can go on and on. The point is though, that while we
are required to listen to many different 'texts' in real life
and for different reasons, these situations are not always
present in textbooks and are not always possible to recreate
authentically in the classroom. This puts the learner at a
disadvantage because ample exposure to a variety of situations
where relevant and purposeful listening takes place is an
extremely important element in improving aural comprehension
and recognition skills. Therefore, the kind of listening we
do and the types of tasks we set for learners in class are
important. They need to be of a kind that somehow relate to
learners' needs outside the classroom socially and academically,
as in the case of exam preparation. They should also develop
the skills necessary to understand different types of discourse
which will in turn help equip them to be more effective listeners
in 'authentic' native speaker environments.
(1990:50) breaks down the process used in listening comprehension
into two distinct types, referring to them as 'bottom-up'
and 'top-down' processing. The former is described in Cook's
Discourse (1989) as:
the lowest-level units first, then proceeding to an interpretation
of the rank above, and so on upwards.'
other words, we sometimes need to rely on our knowledge of
grammar, syntax, and lexis, and apply that knowledge when
confronted with an incoming message in order to achieve comprehension.
On the other hand, we might apply a top-down approach to aid
comprehension. This is defined as:
discourse by hypothesizing about the most general units first,
then moving downwards through the ranks below.'
means applying our background knowledge to aid in understanding
the meaning of a message. Richards (1990:51) explains that:
This may be previous knowledge about the topic of discourse,
it may be situational or contextual knowledge, or it may be
knowledge stored in long-term memory in the form of 'schemata'
and 'scripts' - plans about the overall structure of events
and the relationships between them."
and Lynch (1988:22) argue that research has shown that the
assumptions in the 'bottom-up' model are incorrect. They state
would not be able to perceive speech as successfully as they
do if they were in fact engaged in a process of building up
the recognition of words solely by attempting to identify
their constituent phonemes."
instead, argue for an interactive process to explain how we
listen. Amos Paran (1997) explains in an article contrasting
the two models:
views see comprehension as drawing upon both types of processing,
in what is know as interactive processing (Carrell, Devine
and Eskey). Some psychologists claim that when the quality
of the stimulus is good, bottom-up processing is preferred,
and it is only when stimulus quality deteriorates that top-down
processing takes over to compensate ( Eysenck and Keane).'
teaching listening skills, we need to be aware of how these
processes work and guide our students, through the use of
different tasks, towards using a balanced approach if we are
to aid them in improving their listening comprehension. I
believe we can help advanced learners by drawing attention
to these strategies and overtly practicing these listening
skills in the classroom.
Why we listen
we listen for many different purposes in and out of the classroom,
this has an effect on the way we listen. Yule and Brown (1983)
make a useful distinction between interactional and transactional
communication. McCarthy, (1991) in Discourse, defines
transactional talk (and listening) as communication for
getting business done. Interactional communication, on
the other hand, has to do with lubricating the social wheels.
In Listening (1988) Anderson and Lynch describe them as (transactional)
listening when the main purpose is to achieve a successful
transfer of information, while interactional listening is
defined as listening for social reasons, and to establish
or maintain friendly relations between interlocutors.
the list mentioned above in 'defining listening', an example
of 'transactional listening' would be taking notes on key
information in a class or a seminar, whereas an example of
'interactional listening' would be making small talk or perhaps
discussing problems at home or work.
the different purposes that listeners have and how these differences
affect the way we go about listening has important implications
for the language classroom. These implications deal directly
with the way we design listening tasks, ask our learners to
respond to listening material and how we prepare them to listen.
While practice in the areas mentioned above and pointing out
how they can overlap is essential, advanced classes preparing
for high level exams are required to deal with tasks largely
transactional in nature. We therefore need to make them aware
of appropriate techniques in order to increase their chances
for success with these types of exercises such as listening
for key words, or using their background knowledge to aid
majority of advanced learners, in my experience, have many
of the same problems that beginners and intermediate learners
have. They may understand more as a general rule, but still
have gaps in their understanding and experience difficulties
in comprehension in less than optimum listening situations.
Penny Ur (1984) points out several potential problem areas
in her book Teaching Listening Comprehension: See appendix
one for examples.
Hearing the sounds
Understanding intonation and stress
Coping with redundancy and 'noise'
Understanding (colloquial) vocabulary
Understanding different accents
(Not) using visual or environmental clues
to our students
researching information for this paper, I naturally consulted
my current advanced classes. I believe that by listening carefully
to our students and involving them at a personal level, we
can develop the insight necessary to help them improve their
listening skills. By building on what foundation they already
have, and raising their awareness of possible pitfalls that
could impede their listening comprehension, we can help the
advanced learner enormously.
majority of the comments made by my students were related
to the stream of speech (connected speech) and how 'fast'
native speakers speak, difficulties in understanding different
accents, and not knowing (or recognizing) the vocabulary used
by the speaker. It was also mentioned that listening to tapes
was difficult due to the lack of a clear context as well as
the lack of paralinguistic features such as facial expressions
and gestures. Some found it challenging to concentrate on
understanding every word while at the same time attempting
to understand the whole message. Becoming used to 'teacher-talk',
or English spoken too clearly in class, and becoming overly
accustomed to the teacher's accent were both mentioned as
potentially problematic when later confronted with trying
to understand other native speakers and accents.
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