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Teaching Listening

Teaching Listening

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Published by: mehdimajt on May 28, 2010
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Introduction: “Language skills are fundamental to literacy development – they are the foundation that underpins understanding, speaking

and listening, communication of ideas, reading and writing” (Thompson & Evans, 2005). Since language skills are the basis of learning any language, there is no doubt that there are different arguments about the reasons behind teaching them and the ways to teach them too. Nowdays, a body of research exists about the teaching of skills which indicates the paramount importance attributed to the four language skills. In this paper, the focus is going to be on the listening skill as it is the first and most frequent skill to appear in both language learning and language acquisition contexts. What makes the teaching of listening an interesting issue is the fact that listening to an L2 not only allows learners to understand spoken messages in the L2, but also exposes them to a more authentic oral input. Rost (2000) define listening as “a complex process that allows us to understand spoken language” (p.7). In another detailed definition, Howatt and Dakin (1974) describe listening as an ability that “involves understanding a speaker’s accent or pronunciation, his grammar and his vocabulary, and grasping his meaning”. Brown (2006) advocates that “Listening is perhaps one of the most important skills we have, yet it is one of the least recognized”. Listening as other aspects of language teaching and learning underwent various important influences. In the beginning, listening was neglected since the written form of language occupied the central role. During the late nineteenth century, the elaboration of a psychological theory of child acquisition made listening part and parcel component in language learning. (Rost. 2000) In the 40s, pioneers of audio-lingualism highlighted the importance of oral skills with a great emphasis on intensive oral-aural drills and extensive use of language laboratory. Based on the behaviorist approach which states that learners can be trained to change their learning habits, the audio-lingual method stressed the importance of the listening skill as a tool to enhance language mastery for learners can be trained to be good listeners. The notion of communicative competence proposed by Hymes (1971) made the listening skill more important. Rost (2000) comment on Hymes (1971) stating that

“what is crucial is not so much better understanding of how language is structured internally, but a better understanding of how language is used” (p.8). Writing and reading provide learners with knowledge about how language is structured; on the other hand, listening and speaking give learners the opportunity to experience the L2. Also some second language acquisition (SLA) theorists have emphasized the importance of listening in facilitating second language acquisition.

Perspectives in teaching listening: Listening is a complex activity because it encompasses a number of processes and proceedings. Richards in this area examines listening from two perspectives: 1) Listening as comprehension 2) Listening as acquisition Listening as comprehension: Listening as an oral skill is complex to teach. Brown (2000) explains this complexity stating that activation of prior knowledge is essential for the improvement of learners’ comprehension. In other words, listening comprehension is composed of three main components:

Schemata: defined as mental representations of our experience that are available to help us understand new experiences.

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Scripts: that is, learners’ ability to contextualize their guesses. Listening comprehension processes: this includes two dimensions of processing listening comprehension which are bottom-up (in Brown (2000) terms it means “using the information we have about sounds, word meanings, and discourse markers like first, then and after that to assemble our understanding of what we read or hear one step at a time”, and top-down process through which learners make use of their knowledge about language and the world.

Listening in general terms is not a simple activity that is carried out in one step. However, in a typical listening activity there are three stages. (1) Pre-listening stage is usually in the form of a warm-up where learners make use of their prior-knowledge

to make the task easier. (2) While-listening stage is where learners exploit listening strategies (listening for the gist and listening …) to understand the task and perform well. Lastly, (3) post-listening stage during which learners “demonstrate their level of listening comprehension by completing some tasks” (Brown. 2006)

Listening as acquisition: The teaching of listening occupies a central role in the acquisition of L2. SLA research considers listening activities a "linguistic environment" which provides learners with a comprehensible oral input (Krachen ….). Furthermore, advocates of SLA see that the acquisition of L2 takes place through listening. In the mid-70s, “modified input” or “accentuated input” in SLA were introduced as strategies used by L2 teachers to motivate learners acquire the L2 in a nonthreatening atmosphere. Cf. Parker and Chaudron, 1987; Long and Larsen-Freeman, 1991 highlight the usefulness of Linguistic adjustments or sometimes referred to as “child-directed speech” or “foreigner talk” whereby L2 learners are offered a learning experience that is similar to their acquisition of L1.

Types of listening and tips to develop them: Listening is an activity that we do on a daily basis. In fact, there is not one way of listening to people. Listening for gist, listening for details, and listening “between the lines” are the main types of listening activities via which learners can develop their listening strategies. Listening for gist is when the purpose of the listener resides in identifying the message without paying much attention to the words. Simply put, it is an opportunity for learners to go beyond simple language drills. Listening for details or listening for specific information is a listening activity where learners are supposed to detect and recall key words and ideas in a listening passage. Listening for details to some extent is a critical listening in a way that learners retain relevant points and reject irrelevant information.

Listening between the lines or “active listening” requires an advanced level in L2 because the listener is supposed to identify the speaker’s intended meanings. In other words, the listener constructs meanings according to the levels of discourse (ex. Emotional overtones: anger, excitement, and happiness, etc). The variety of types of listening makes it difficult for L2 teachers to decide about which listening activity to integrate in their teaching. According to “(Field 1998) (White 1998) (Cauldwell 2000) “We spend so much time preparing learners for listening, [but] we don't have time to do much more than see if the students got the answers right or wrong and no time is spent on finding out why and where they went wrong” (Smith.2010). In order to help learners develop their listening abilities, it is advisable to teach them teach micro-skills or sub-skills. As there are various types of listening, each type encompasses a number of subskills; thus, it is not an easy task for teachers of the L2 to incorporate all the sub-skills while teaching listening (see the appendix for sub-skills and tips to develop the listening skill).

The teacher as a listener: Throughout this paper we understand that learners need to be good listeners to ease the learning task for themselves. In their turn, teachers are also required to be careful listeners in the classroom. Schultz. K (2003) puts it forward that teachers can sustain a good rapport with their learners through listening; put differently, learners tend to imitate their teachers in doing things with the language; consequently, learners’ active listening habits are acquired not only from the listening courses, but all over the learning period. Teachers as educators are thought to be good listeners. For this to happen they need to have enough knowledge of listening strategies and use them to respond to their students. The underlying assumption here is that listening is to be considered as a means to teach language and not only a skill that is taught in language classes; Juan & Flor (2006) raise awareness to the fact that “the teaching of listening seems to become a means to an end rather than an end itself” (p.122) (a skill on its own right). This implies that teachers share responsibilities in developing learners’ listening performance.

Schultz (2003) depicts language classrooms as the teacher’s territory where teacher talking ratio (TTR) dominates. On the other hand, in real life situations listeners are invited to be active listeners by reflecting on what they hear which in the classroom is affect by TTR. According to Schultz (2003), "many classrooms are dominated by teacher talk; few are the democratic spaces filed with dialogues". Juan & Flor (2006) argue that when teachers create an environment that supports both listening and speaking in the classroom. Language learning becomes an easy task for learners are exposed to a comprehensible input and given the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of what they are taught. Conclusions: The ultimate goal of this paper is to emphasize the importance of listening as a generator of L2 acquisition. The different types and processes in teaching listening reflect the extent to which it is not an easy task for teachers to teach listening; added to this, learners find a number of difficulties in listening to an L2. In a different way, “anyone who has learnt a foreign language knows how tiring it is listening to and interpreting unfamiliar sounds, lexis and syntax for long stretches of time” (Ur. 1984, p. 19). By the end, it is up to teachers to accustom their learners to a more authentic input; that is, a language they hear outside the classroom.


Howatt. A & Dakin. J. (1974). Language laboratory materials. Techniques in Applied Linguistics. Edinburgh Course in Applied Linguistics. Vol. 3. London: Oxford University Press. Juan,E. Usó, Flor, A. Martínez. (2006). Current trends in the development and teaching of the four language skills. Studies on language acquisition, Vol.29. Walter de Gruyter. Carter, Ronald & Nunan, David. eds. (2001). The Cambridge guide to teaching English to speakers of other languages. Cambridge University Press. Schultz, Katherine. (2003). Listening: a framework for teaching across differences. Teachers College Press. Ur, Penny. (1984). Teaching listening comprehension. Cambridge University Press. L2 Acquisition: The role of listening. Retrieved on 25/05/2010: http://www.latcomm.com/articles/l2listeningacquisition.html

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