My approach to working with listening, as a skill many language students struggle with -and more especially so students whose primary language is syllable timed (as opposed to stress timed)- has been gradually shifting towards focusing more on the process rather than on the product. In other words, prioritising teaching listening over testing listening.
I find that a lot of useful classroom time seems to be devoted to the pre-listening tasks of setting the topic and pre-teaching some vocabulary. Nothing wrong with that but all things in good measure. Warming things up and activating schemata are totally relevant tasks. However, they can’t really take over the actual listening practice. As for pre-teaching vocabulary, there are many studies that show that pre-teaching more than 4 words is counterproductive. Pre-teach too many words and the attention will be driven to those isolated trees in the forest and the whole picture of the forest will be lost. In addition, there is no guarantee that those target words will be recognised in connected speech, with the pressure and demands of decoding in real time, particularly when met for the first time.
And then the passage will be played twice. And then understanding will be checked. And then we will move on.
But are we doing anything about what wasn’t understood? Is there any trouble areas evidence being collected in order to provide feedback, just as feedback is provided in speaking practice or writing activities? How can we possibly help our students understand better is nothing is done about it?
John Field in his seminal book Listening in the Language Classroom, provides a lot of food for thought in this matter. This book is a must for anyone interested in delving a little bit deeper into listening as a process and coming up with strategies and courses of action in order to help students be better listeners. He also posits that listening is a very active skill, as opposed to traditional views of listening as a passive skill together with reading.
I adapted a listening feedback sheet from this book by simpliflying it a bit in the hope of making it a little bit more user-friendly for both teachers and students. The idea is for students to, once they have listened to a passage and understanding has been tested, find the listening transcript (provided by the textbook or teacher) and then answer the questions in it. Then the teacher can gather this information and go back to the listening passage and play and replay bits and pieces to have a look at what obstacles lay in the way. Then the teacher can model pronunciation of those words in context for the students to repeat and drill and get to grips with it. The many underlying reasons why students may not understand something may be not knowing the words themselves or this may be a result of areas of connected speech such as assimilation, linking, elision, intrusion, rhythm and stress. Other conflict areas may be speed of delivery or even messy speech. Media players allow changes to speed settings. If a listening passage is too difficult, it may be a good idea to slow it down. And viceversa, once a student is acquainted with it, it may be a good idea to speed it up. Just like muscles get trained, ears can equally be trained!
Here’s my adapted version of John Field’s listening feedback sheet.
You may consider setting this up as a routine and allowing five minutes (it only take five minutes really!) for the students to reflect on the listening process. My recommendation: regardless of the length of the passage, narrow it down to one to two minutes of speech time and focus on that. Just a small sample will do so that you are in a better position to do some remedial work afterwards.
Does this makes sense to you?