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Grasping the nettle: The importance of perception work in listening comprehension
by Richard Cauldwell
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A common complaint from learners on first visiting an English-speaking country is that their listening skills cannot cope with fast spontaneous speech. Four inadequacies in the teaching of listening lead to this complaint: we rely too much on first language research findings; we neglect perception; we give learners easy and enjoyable, rather than challenging tasks; we use listening activities to serve other language-learning goals. I propose four things: that teachers themselves engage in classroom research in second language listening; that teachers should be provided with the skills of observing and explaining the features of fast speech; that teachers should be prepared for students to be challenged (even frustrated) in the early parts of a listening lesson; that the post-listening phase should be expanded to include aural and oral 'handling' of crucial fast extracts from recordings to improve students' perception skills

Learners, teachers, teacher trainers and university researchers have been stung by casual contact with the nettle of fast spontaneous speech, and have tended to avoid further contact. The legacy of this avoidance includes four problems for the effective teaching of listening. I shall first describe the four problems; I then suggest ways in which we can improve our teaching of listening. In doing so, I shall make reference to the standard listening comprehension class, with four phases: warm-up, while listening, post-listening, and follow-up.

Listening comprehension methodology of the last two decades has been characterised by systematic avoidance of the painful fact that fast spontaneous speech is difficult for learners. We avoid confronting this fact in four ways: we place too much faith in first language research; we rely on, but refuse to develop, learners' perception skills; we focus on what learners can manage, rather than on what they have to master; and we favour follow-up activities such as discussions and writing tasks rather than teaching listening.

Problem 1: Too much faith in first language research

Fourteen years ago, Anderson and Lynch (1988: 21) noted that there was very little research into listening in a second language. Because of this gap in research, applied linguists, textbook writers, and teacher trainers have gone to research in first language listening for guidance. As a result, listening comprehension exercises are greatly (and in my view inappropriately) influenced by what is known about successful first language listening.

First language research has established that successful listening is characterised by:

• listening for a purpose
• making predictions based on contextual information
• making guesses when things aren't clear
• inferring what is meant where necessary
• not listening ('straining') for every word

(adapted from Brown 1990: 148)

Teacher trainers and textbook writers have made appropriate use of some of these findings, and inappropriate use of others. In particular they have taken the last of these points ('they don't listen for every word') and have made it an article of faith. They advocate 'top-down' activities and urge the avoidance of any activity which could be characterised as 'bottom-up'. Of course, we should be careful about this particular issue: we don't want learners to strain so much to hear every word that they cannot understand anything. In my view though, it is a mistake to abandon, as we have, bottom-up activities which introduce learners to the essential characteristics of speech.

From first language research comes the teacher's standard advice in a listening lesson: 'You won't be able to understand every word, and you don't need to'. I find this explanation illogical: the 'reasoning' goes something like this:

1. non-natives don't understand
2. natives understand without paying attention to every word
3. therefore, in order to understand, non-natives should not try to pay attention to every word

The first statement describes the problem which all listening classes address in some way; the second is a research finding; the third is the false deduction. It is not reasonable to deduce from the first two statements that 'improvement in listening skills follows from not trying to pay attention to every word'. In acting (as we do) on this illogical deduction, we confuse goals and methodology: we require learners to simulate the goal of native listener behaviour instead of teaching learners how to acquire progressively native-like abilities in perception and understanding. We have made the mistake of allowing the goal to become the method: we should recognise that the skill of understanding without attending to every word is a goal to be reached, not a means of getting there.

Adopting the goal-as-method procedure conveniently allows us to ignore the fact that native speaker listeners have great advantages over non-natives particularly in terms of perceptual ability, it allows us to avoid grasping the nettle of fast speech. Activities which encourage bottom-up processing, which target learners perceptual abilities, have become taboo

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