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Teaching listening

ESL classrooms
Being able to listen well is an important part of communication for everyone. For our
students, guided practice by a teacher is one of the best ways to improve this skill. A
student with good listening comprehension skills will be able to participate more effectively
in communicative situations. What follows is an exploration of areas that language
teachers may find useful in their classroom and when preparing listening materials.
Teaching the skill of listening cannot be emphasized enough in a communicative
classroom. For second language learners, developing the skill of listening comprehension
is extremely important. Students with good listening comprehension skills are better able
to participate effectively in class (Brown, 2001).

What are some factors that affect the listening process?

Listening is a demanding process, not only because of the complexity of the process itself,
but also due to factors that characterize the listener, the speaker, the content of the
message, and any visual support that accompanies the message (Brown & Yule, 1983).
The Listener. Interest in a topic increases the listener's comprehension; the listener may
tune out topics that are not of interest. A listener who is an active participant in a
conversation generally has more background knowledge to facilitate understanding of the
topic than a listener who is, in effect, eavesdropping on a conversation between two
people whose communication has been recorded on an audiotape. Further, the ability to
use negotiation skills, such as asking for clarification, repetition, or definition of points not
understood; enable a listener to make sense of the incoming information.

Ilse Candelaria Seplveda Toledano. / Professor: Juan Manuel

Lpez L.

The Speaker. Colloquial language and reduced forms make comprehension more difficult.
The extent to which the speaker uses these language forms impacts comprehension. The
more exposure the listener has to them, the greater the ability to comprehend. A speaker's
rate of delivery may be too fast, too slow, or have too many hesitations for a listener to
follow. Awareness of a speaker's corrections and use of rephrasing ("er. . . I mean . . .That
is . . .") can assist the listener. Learners need practice in recognizing these speech habits
as clues to deciphering meaning.
Content. Is familiar is easier to comprehend than content with unfamiliar vocabulary or for
which the listener has insufficient background knowledge.
Visual support. Such as video, pictures, diagrams, gestures, facial expressions, and body
language, can increase comprehension if the learner is able to correctly interpret it.

What happens when we listen?

Although once labeled a passive skill, listening is very much an active process of selecting
and interpreting information from auditory and visual clues (Richards, 1983; Rubin, 1995).
Most of what is known about the listening process stems from research on native language
development; however, as the importance of teaching listening comprehension has
increased, so has the inquiry into second language listening comprehension. (Rubin,
There are several basic processes at work in listening. These do not necessarily occur
sequentially; they may occur simultaneously, in rapid succession, or backward and forward
as needed. The listener is not usually conscious of performing these steps, nor of
switching back and forth between them. The listener:

determines a reason for listening;


takes the raw speech and deposits an image of it in short-term memory;


attempts to organize the information by identifying the type of speech event

(conversation, lecture, radio ad) and the function of the message (persuade, inform,

Ilse Candelaria Seplveda Toledano. / Professor: Juan Manuel

Lpez L.


predicts information expected to be included in the message;


recalls background information (schemata) to help interpret the message;


assigns a meaning to the message;


checks that the message has been understood;


determines the information to be held in long-term memory;


deletes the original form of the message that had been received into short-term
memory (Brown 1994; Dunkel, 1986).

Each of these steps influences the techniques and activities a teacher might choose to
incorporate into instruction in order to assist learners in learning to listen as well as
listening to learn.

What other process are?

At the same time, two types of cognitive processing are also occurring: bottom-up and topdown processing.

Top-down processing. Refers to utilizing schemata (background knowledge and

global understanding) to derive meaning from and interpret the message.

Bottom-up processing. Refers to deriving the meaning of the message based on
the incoming language data, from sounds, to words, to grammatical relationships,
to meaning. Stress, rhythm, and intonation also play a role in bottom-up
processing. Bottom-up processing would be activated as the learner is signaled to
verify comprehension by the trainer/teacher asking a question using the declarative
form with rising intonation ("You see that switch there?"). Practice in recognizing
statements and questions that differ only in intonation help the learner develop
bottom-up processing skills.

Learners need to be aware that both of these processes affect their listening
comprehension, and they need to be given opportunities to practice employing each of
Ilse Candelaria Seplveda Toledano. / Professor: Juan Manuel
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The purpose should be clear for the student.

When the learning objective of a language class is explained to students, they can better
focus on specific vocabulary acquisition, grammar practice, listening for different purposes,
and so on. This clear explanation by the teacher of a lesson's pedagogic goals will help
learners to further develop specific objectives in a shorter amount of time. For instance, by
informing students that the lesson will be about giving directions, they can consciously
focus on remembering the vocabulary used in that activity.

Listening activities sequences.

This progression of activities allows the learner to use what they know, to go from being a






1. warm-up activity
2. listening comprehension activity
3. controlled practice
4. open-ended listening/speaking activity

A handout that is filled with too many activities may contribute to the learner feeling
overwhelmed and unable to focus on the particular purpose of a listening activity. In
addition, a worksheet that does not show examples of the response expected by the
question may also lead to the student feeling confused and frustrated. This may also result
in an inaccurate indication of the level of a learners listening comprehension skills as a
consequence of their not being able to understand the worksheet, rather than because of
the listening activity itself.
If a teacher always uses the same teaching methodology, they may become predictable
and, perhaps, less interesting for their students. It is important to vary techniques in order
to challenge students. A variation on the "fill in the missing word listening activity" could be
to use the same listening materials, but to set a pair work activity where student A and
student B have the same worksheet where some information items are missing. The
Ilse Candelaria Seplveda Toledano. / Professor: Juan Manuel
Lpez L.

students must ask each other for the missing words in a song. That way, the students have
to practice effective communication by accurately forming the correct question necessary
to find out the missing word from their partner. To confirm that their answer is correct, the
students then listen to the song.
Another technique that can be used in a long listening activity is to assign students
different comprehension questions. After listening to the activity and taking notes to answer
questions, students then swap information to complete the "whole class chart," correlating
what each student has heard to arrive at the big picture. If there are any questions that
remain unanswered during the first or second hearing, and following the information swap
activity, the whole class can listen to the tape again. The students will then try to find the
answer to the questions that have not been previously understood, rather than the teacher
providing the answers straight away. These techniques involve group work and problem
solving. They also instigate further communication and facilitate listening comprehension

The Use of Authentic Listening Materials

Linguists like Porter & Porter (1987), Brown (2001), and Mangubhai (2002) recommend
the use of authentic text to help students further develop their communicative skills. The
use of authentic listening materials is an important factor to take into consideration when
designing listening comprehension materials. By using such listening materials, the learner
is given the chance to develop the skills needed to comprehend and to use language that
is commonly found in real situations.
With the use of authentic listening materials, students learn to comprehend double
meanings, predict meaning, make allowances for performance errors committed by other
speakers, deal with interruptions, and so on. It is important, therefore, to take the
opportunity wherever possible to expose students to examples of real language usage to
help them become more communicatively competent.
The use of authentic materials stimulates and motivates learners to comprehend the
content of an oral text because the practical benefits of understanding such authentic
language material are obvious. Some examples of authentic listening materials are
Ilse Candelaria Seplveda Toledano. / Professor: Juan Manuel
Lpez L.

listening to a telephone message for the purpose of understanding a cancelled

appointment, or listening to songs to learn more about well-known bands that sing in
English. Such material is relevant to the students' life and areas of personal interest. By
using authentic listening materials, students are motivated to improve their level of
comprehension as they feel that they can achieve a level of proficiency that has meaning
and adds value to their life when speaking English as a second language.

It is important to maintain an interactive and communicative approach for teaching English

as a Foreign or Second Language. However, it is also important to vary the students'
learning focus by concentrating on the skills needed to become proficient in a second
language. Listening comprehension is such a required skill.
When designing lessons and teaching materials to further develop listening
comprehension skills, students need to be motivated and stay motivated. This is best
accomplished by determining the suitability of the listening materials, the techniques used
in classroom teaching, and the use of authentic materials.

Ilse Candelaria Seplveda Toledano. / Professor: Juan Manuel

Lpez L.


Brown, D. (2001). Teaching by principlean interactive

approach to language pedagogy. Addison Wesley Longman: New York.

Mangubhai, F. (2002).

Methodology in teaching a second

languagestudy book. University of Southern Queensland: Toowoomba.

Porter, D. & Roberts, J. (1987). Authentic listening activities In

Long, H. &

Richards, J. (Eds.) Methodology in TESOLA book of readings.

Newbury House: New York. (pp.177-190)

Ilse Candelaria Seplveda Toledano. / Professor: Juan Manuel

Lpez L.