Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Listening: What’s the aim? (Part 1)

In home-made ESP courses, listening tends to be the neglected skill. It’s easy to make text-based lessons – just find something on the internet and turn it into a lesson. Easy peasy. Speaking is also easy to do – as long as you’re happy with spontaneous discussions. Role-plays are a bit harder to set up, but they’re still a piece of cake. Writing … well, you need to come up with some tasks, but after that, the students do all the work for you. 

But listening … that’s a different matter.

For many years, my preferred technique for incorporating listening into home-made courses has been SLTTTSE – Students Listen To Their Teacher Speaking English. Somehow, by some sort of osmosis, students get better at listening by interacting with their teacher. 

Actually, it’s not such a crazy idea – we do learn by doing, and in many ways a teacher is infinitely better as a source of practice than an audio CD, because the teacher is interactive. That means students can learn real-life strategies for dealing with communication breakdowns (e.g. “Sorry, could you speak more slowly, please?”, “Sorry – I didn’t catch that last word” and “What?”). Those techniques won’t get you very far with a CD. 

And that's how I've always justified it to myself as a teacher.

But I got caught out with this technique earlier this year. I was doing reports at the end of a course I was writing and teaching for a group of students from the National Audit Office, and I needed to give a mark for “listening”. So I used one from a BEC Vantage practice test book. Not especially relevant to their jobs, but at least it’s a scientific (?) assessment of their listening skills, which is what I wanted. 

Most of the students did quite badly – it seems I hadn’t prepared them during the course with the listening skills they needed to complete the task. And afterwards, one of the students said to me, “Jeremy, it’s so nice to hear real English for a change. Can we do more of this?

And she was right. I don’t speak real English – I speak teacher English. (Of course the actors on the CD weren’t speaking real English either, but you get the point.) 

So it made me think again about how I should be integrating listening skills into my home-made courses. (I keep saying home-made, by the way, because the published courses I’ve worked on have always been stuffed full of listenings, for reasons that I’ll make clear later.)

As I see it, there are five valid aims for listening activities. The best activities should achieve (or at least support) more than one of these aims.
  1. To provide listening practice.
  2. To teach listening skills.
  3. To provide an interesting topic for discussion.
  4. To present useful language in context.
  5. To serve as a model for speaking activities (and, by extension, for real-life situations).
Now you know why I called this posting ‘part 1’. There’s plenty to say about each of those aims, so here I think I’ll confine myself to 1 and 2 (even though in ESP I think the real meat is in aims 4 and 5).

So … listening practice. As I said above, it’s not unreasonable to assume that students get better at listening if they get lots of practice. It’s not very systematic, and it’s not really teachable or measurable. At the end of your lesson, you can’t tell whether your student is any better as a result of your lesson than before, which may or may not be a problem (depending on how you have to report progress). But it’s still a valid aim.

And if that’s your only aim, there are all sorts of ways to achieve it. SLTTTSE, for example, or BEC Vantage practice tests, or indeed listenings from regular course books. (Obviously you wouldn’t want to photocopy pages from those books – here at the British Council we have class sets of 12 copies available for such activities.) There’s also the internet, of course – YouTube being the obvious example, but also many news sites (e.g. BBC) often have short films to accompany topical stories. The list goes on … listen to songs, watch films or TV programmes, with or without subtitles, etc etc. You don’t me to tell you that.

But the point is, it’s not very systematic. It’s important and it’s hugely better than nothing (or than SLTTTSE by itself), but I think we can go beyond that. That’s where the other aims come in.

And what of aim 2? By listening skills, I’m referring to micro-skills that we can try to focus on in our lessons, which may be a bit more measurable than just ‘listening practice’. They fall into three broad families:

Top-down processing: The idea here is that if you know enough about the context / topic before you listen (contextualisation), and if you can relate it to your own knowledge / experiences / attitudes (personalisation), you can understand a huge amount, even if you miss plenty of individual words. The brain fills in the gaps.

That’s why we do so much pre-listening work – discussing the topic, relating it to our own ideas, predicting based on pictures and titles, etc. And it’s also why we tell our students not to get hung up on the meanings of difficult words, but instead to try to get a general understanding.

It’s also one reason why pre-teaching vocab may be valid. It’s a way of doing a bit of predicting and avoiding the hang-up issue at the same time.

As teaching techniques to enable students to understand a particular listening text better, these are all invaluable little tools.

But I’m not just talking about these as teaching techniques. Can we teach them as a life-skill? Something they’ll start doing more outside the classroom as a result of our lesson? Well, yes and no. I think most top-down processing is done subconsciously – you don’t usually decide to predict something or to relate it to your own experiences. It’s difficult to decide not to get hung up on something. It should come naturally.

But sometimes it’s difficult to spot something that should be obvious. Some people do need to be told not to get hung up on every word, or to read the questions on the exam paper before the recording starts. So for some students in some situations, I think this is a valid life skill to teach.

Bottom-up processing: This is the opposite set of skills – the idea that you hear particular patterns of sound waves, which your brain turns into phonemes, which are then assembled into words, which in turn are processed as chunks of language with meaning. If you think about it, there must be a lot of this going on. If top-down processing fills the gaps, bottom-up processing provides the gapped text itself.

Can we teach it? Yes, I think we can. Most obviously, we can do things like dictation exercises (and related activities where students write what they hear). Not much fun, perhaps, but good for bottom-up skills. Especially at lower level, we can work on helping students break down a continuous stream of noise into discrete words. But at higher levels, I think it’s more a question of building up their vocabularies – a huge job.

Communication strategies: These relate to the idea that real-life listening is usually more active than classroom activities. I’ve already mentioned a few phrases for dealing with communication breakdowns, but there’s lots of work we can do here on clarifying and checking information, active listening skills, asking the speaker to speak differently, etc.

We can also teach (or at least advise on) psychological techniques, e.g. the fact that it’s actually acceptable to ask for clarification, that it’s better to look a bit silly by asking questions than to look like an idiot by failing to understand an important instruction or by attending a meeting where you have no idea what’s going on. Easier said than done, of course, but simply by telling students that they’re not the only one with these crises, you’ll take the first steps towards breaking down the barriers.

Anyway, I guess that’s enough for now. I’ll deal with the other three aims soon, but for the time being, I’ll summarise by saying that (a) STTTSE isn’t enough by itself and (b) listening for the sake of listening practice is fine up to a point, but we can be much more systematic. That said, even the techniques I’ve suggested won’t guarantee quick results. There’s no quick fix, but at least we can try.


  1. I don’t speak real English – I speak teacher English.

    I was gobsmacked when one of my students was turned down for a senior management position because 'his English wasn't good enough'. We sat down together after this debacle and talked it through.

    It turned out his interviewer had a pronounced Essex accent (surely a disadvantage for someone working in HR globally!), spoke at 120mph and was firing questions at him non-stop. His frequent 'sorry, could you repeat the question please?' was taken as 'poor English language skills'.

    In subsequent lessons, we started focusing on how to deal with questions in quick-fire mode; I dropped my studied, slow, clear pronunciation and reverted to my lower middle class West London accent.

    [My student is still in the same company, but has since been promoted!]

  2. ESP listening materials are getting easier to come by on the web now. For me the question of whether to pre-teach vocabulary is maybe the number one issue here:
    (a) is it part of "listening skills" even if the words are presented written down?
    (b) is it top-down (with a lot of context and eliciting) or bottom-up (plain pre-teaching with synonyms or definitions)?

  3. Michael:

    Thanks for this. Sounds like the interviewer was the one with the problem, not your student (although that's not much of a consolation). But your story is a good reminder to us that by helping our students (i.e. speaking slowly and carefully), we may not be helping at all. So we need to balance short-term listening skills (helping them to understand a particular piece of language, such as a teacher's question) with long-term listening skills (helping them to survive in the real dog-eat-dog world).


    Well, it's certainly much easier to find listening materials than in pre-YouTube days, but it can still be tough finding really relevant sources. That's something I want to cover in my follow-up posting.

    As for pre-teaching, (a) I don't think it makes much difference if the words are presented written down - I imagine most teachers would include some spoken interaction as part of the pre-teach (if only to check the answers), so the words would be presented orally/aurally too.

    (b) Good question. I've always thought of it as a top-down thing - a chance to predict before they listen. It's also connected with communication strategies: in a conversation you could stop and ask for an explanation (and in non-confrontational situations you'd probably know a lot of shared vocab already), but on a CD that's not an option.

    It's related to what I said above in answer to Michael - the distinction between getting them to understand a given text (short-term, bottom-up) and teaching them skills that will help them in the real world (long-term, top-down). So you could argue that pre-teaching is a bit top-down and a bit bottom-up, but in terms of long-term skills development, it's best to think of it as a top-down skill.

    (By the way, did you follow the link in my original posting to an article on pre-teaching. Well worth a look.)