Sunday, 9 June 2013

Practical guidance on training students to cope with authentic spoken English

This was the title of a recent British Council Teaching English seminar presented by Sheila Thorn and what follows is a summary of what she had to say.

Sheila began with a question:

Why are listening comprehension exercises in coursebooks not representative of informal spoken English heard outside the classroom?
  • They are scripted - usually because coursebook writers are trying to introduce a language point.
  • They are outdated - language changes so quickly.
  • The speed of delivery is artificially slow.
  • Turn-taking - in authentic speech, people talk over each other all the time.  It's normal!  In coursebook listenings, everyone takes turns nicely!
  • There's a lack of hesitation.  Generally, there are no pauses, no fillers, and everyone speaks in full, accurate sentences.
  • The accent - coursebook listenings are usually delivered in standard English.  There isn't a range of accents.
  • They are recorded in sound studios, so there is no background noise.
  • The people speaking are often actors, so are not as natural as people off the street would be.
  • They rarely use non-native speakers of English.
  • Listening in coursebooks is mainly for modelling purposes so students hear clear examples of structures and vocabulary.
A quote from Michael Rost:
'There is a distinction between learning to listen in the L2 and learning the L2 through listening.'
Coursebooks are all about learning a language through listening, but it is better to learn to listen in an L2 as a specific skill.
Critique of the traditional listening comprehension approach
  1. It's non-communicative.
  2. It's teacher centred.
  • A lot of listening comprehension is testing, not training.  You're seeing how much students understand, but you're not training them to listen any more effectively.
  • It's negative reinforcement.  It's always the same students who get things right and the same students who get things wrong.  Students start to feel that they're just rubbish at listening and it's difficult to break through that.
  • It's boring!  Just listen and answer questions - boring!!  The texts are bland; nobody dies, nobody's on drugs!
  • Listening is intangible.  Unless you've got the tapescript, it's just in the air - you can't grab hold of it.  Therefore, it's difficult for the teacher to work out why a student found it difficult.  Even when students get the right answer, the teacher doesn't know if they got there for the right reasons.
  • The focus in traditional listenings is on the product - the things that were said, not how they were said.  It's better to focus on the process of listening rather than the product.
  • It's over-reliant on top-down processing.  Telling students just to listen to the main words doesn't really help because those small words give meaning about time, aspect, etc.
  • Just exposing students to more listening doesn't really help, either.  They won't just pick it up through osmosis!
The challenges of spontaneous speech
Spontaneous speech is easy for us as native speakers.  It's automatic.  For language learners, though, it's rather more difficult.  As Gillian Brown says:
'Every consonant and every vowel will be affected by its neighbouring consonants and vowels and by the rhythmic structure in which it occurs.'
You don't get dictionary-like, carefully articulated words in a stream of speech.  Something happens to them.  Ellision causes problems for listeners.
Some solutions to the problem
  • Use short, authentic listenings on a regular basis.
  • Practise listening for word recognition - can students hear individual words in a stream of speech?
  • Do lots of de-coding practice.
  • Do intensive listening activities on short pieces, rather than extensive listening (traditional listening comprehension) on longer pieces.
  • Even tracks just a few seconds in length can generate a lot of language activities.
  • With both word recognition and de-coding, follow the communicative approach.  Get students in pairs or small groups to work collaboratively on authentic recordings.
Gapping key lexical/content words in a stream of speech is highly effective. 
  • Can students recognise words that you know they already know in a stream of speech?
  • Can they recognise functional or grammatical words?  For example, even if they don't hear the ending of a word, can they work it out from context?  For instance, 'She promised to help her with her homework.'  Do students know from context that they need to put the 'd' ending on 'promise' even if they can't hear it?
  • By gapping contractions, we can make students aware of how often they feature in natural speech.
  • We can use gapping to practise real life minimal pair discrimination.
  • We can gap unknown words whose sounds conform to spelling conventions.
  • We can dictate short authentic extracts and compare the citation form of a word with how that word sounds in a stream of speech.
  • We can use instant dictation, as advocated by John Field.  Lots of listening comprehension tests a student's memory.  We are asking them if they can remember what they heard.  In fact, when we're listening, the last ten or so words are still in our active brains - they haven't been processed yet, they are still easily accessible.  So, with instant dictation, play an authentic listening, pause it at random and ask students to write down what they think the last four or five words were that they heard.  This way, we can see how effectively students are listening and they will improve with practice.
  • Take an authentic listening into class.
  • Don't give any set-up or ask any questions.
  • Play the listening.
  • Ask students - 'How much did you understand?'
  • Get them to give you a percentage.  (These percentages should be recorded by the students and used to show their progress over time.)
  • Get them to tell you what they think they understood.
  • Be non-committal.
  • Write the points up on the board.
  • Play the listening again.
  • Ask students to write down all the words they heard which they think were important.
  • Get students in pairs or small groups to construct meaning from the ideas and the word lists.
  • Play the listening again and give feedback on how close they were to understanding the meaning.
You could go on to a traditional comprehension exercise if you like, but this kind of activity reflects what happens in authentic listening.

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