Helping our EFL learners develop effective listening skills
By Joanna Nifli (MA TEFL/CELTA certified EFL instructor) http://joannanifli.com
Listening may be one of the passive skills in language teaching and learning but it should not be considered as passive at all. The listening process should be viewed as an active process that is not only engaging for our students but also fosters their communicative skills. We need to carefully examine and detect the various listening strategies and skills that we want to focus on when giving out a listening task to our language classroom. These should be based on our learners’ specific needs, their level of English and their L1 background. Below you can find the main skills and sub skills related to the listening process as well as some listening strategies that can help our language learners master this receptive skills in the target language.
Listening as a purposeful activity
In real life, listening mainly serves functional purposes. When we listen ‘naturally’, we listen for a reason, for a purpose. We then either retain (or skip) the information, we use it to interact with others or we take some other sort of action. Our listening tasks must serve these same functions. We must design these activities with a ‘purpose’ in mind, that will trigger our students’ interest and make them ‘tune in’ and focus on the listening task in order to achieve something. This sense of purpose will greatly enhance their motivation levels and will make them eager to participate in the lesson.
Communicative tasks need to come with a real purpose. In order to engage our learners and make them more involved in the listening task, we first of all need to keep in mind what happens in real life conversations and what the communicative purpose of the task is. Below is a model of what happens after listening and understanding that is useful to keep in mind when designing listening activities.
- Pre-teaching: focus on the ‘3 types’ of knowledge that help listeners ‘decipher’ the spoken message
Anderson and Lynch (1988:33) describe the kinds of knowledge we need in order to understand a spoken message.
Anderson and Lynch (1988:33)
In our quest to help our learners develop effective listening skills these 3 types of knowledge can also be the ones we might want to focus on at the pre-listening stage.
When constructing a listening task, it is important to keep this information in mind in order to adapt the activity to our students’ specific level and needs. Listening tasks that are too difficult to process may not be effective. We must examine the degree of contextual and linguistic knowledge our students have and decide whether or not we need to activate our learners’ schemata and introduce certain key elements during the pre-listening stage or to adapt our materials in order to address their needs. In exam oriented classrooms for example listening activities should provide adequate practice for the upcoming language tests, whereas with adult learners (who learn the TL for communicative purposes) the focus should be shifted to real-life listening tasks.
Sub-skills involved in listening
Many language researchers consider as a ‘skill’ in listening the ability to use the ‘schematic’ ‘contextual’ and ‘systemic’ knowledge of the world to achieve understanding of a spoken message. For teaching purposes, we often choose to focus on the ways in which our students use particular aspects of these types of knowledge and try to help them extend and develop this understanding of the world. The particular aspects are the ‘sub-skills’ in the overall skill of listening.
There is an enormous number of sub-skills which go to make up the overall skill of listening and individual writers all seem to describe them in slightly different ways. Most experts distinguish between ‘bottom -up skills’, which involve the recognition of small bits of language, such as sounds and words, and ‘top-down skills’, which involve using larger scale clues, such as knowledge of the topic a speaker is talking about and the setting s/he is speaking in, in order to make deductions about what is being said. Sometimes these are called ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ skills and we use a combination of both types of skill to process and understand spoken messages.
Below is a list of micro/macro skills that are usually being practiced:
The importance of strategy teaching
Field (1998) describes listening strategies as efforts to compensate for uncertainties in understanding. These could include making inferences, realizing where misunderstandings have occurred and asking for clarification. L2 listeners should need these strategies less and less as they get more familiar with the language and more competent at listening skills, although even very proficient native speakers will need to rely on them occasionally. If we are going to use authentic materials in the classroom, strategy teaching becomes even more important as there will be more gaps in understanding, since students will be dealing with listening texts and tasks which haven’t been carefully graded for their level.
Listening strategies come under the bigger heading of communicative strategies which include speaking strategies as well. It is important to remember that many of these happen internally and are difficult to access. Vandergrift (1996) considers listening strategies as ‘conscious means by which learners can guide and evaluate their own comprehension’. He divides these strategies into metacognitive (selective listening, monitoring), cognitive (making deductions, using one’s own knowledge on the subject) and socio-affective (asking for clarifications, cooperating with others). Keeping these in mind, it is important to make sure that the listening tasks we give to our students are designed to help them use such listening strategies and will consequently boost their overall communication skills.
Anderson, A. and Lynch, T. (1988) Listening. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Field, J. (1998). ‘Skills and strategies: towards a new methodology for teaching listening’ in ELTJ 52/2, pp. 110-118
Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Longman.
Scrivener, J. (1994). Learning Teaching. Oxford: Heinemann
Ur, P. (2012). A course in English language teaching. Cambridge University Press
Van Dijk, T. A., & Kintsch, W. (1983). Strategies of Discourse Comprehension. New York: Academic Press.
Vandergrift, L. (1999) ‘Facilitating second language listening comprehension: acquiring successful strategies’ in ELTJ 53/3, pp 168-176