I was thrilled to receive the invitation to share my journey with BELTA Members and my PLN again through video conference. In the presentation I aimed to discuss the role of listening attentively in order to really understand others. In my context of teaching, and I guess that many teachers like me want to use English as the main language in the classroom and create an L2 environment that fosters the need for communication in English, but both teacher and students miss important things during the class interaction, therefore, fail to really understand what each other is really saying. The reasons why that happens might be 1) Learners’ low proficiency level, 2) fail to really listen to one another due to lack of attention or interest in understanding one another. Hear what the other person is saying does not automatically turn in really listening, and therefore, content of that message gets lost. Once I understood that myself, I started making few changes that resulted in better comprehension of what was going on in the class as well as promoting more learning of the language and understanding of what we were saying to one another. I use practical ideas to promote better listenng results, thus more engagement with the learning of English inside and outside the class. (Belta blog)
I thank BELTA board for the wonderful opportunity to share my reflections.
I’ll summarize the points I tried to raise during the webinar as well as adding some thoughts I feel I have left out of my talk. Let me start by defining what listening is. According to Brown, Listening is making sense of aural input and it takes effort to do so. We use our knowledge of individuals pieces of language like sounds, words, grammatical patterns in concert with our knowledge of the topic, situation, and context to arrive at an understanding of what is being transmitted to us. (2011)
If we take into consideration that listening for a language learner, specially for lower level ones, is a tall order and that it involves processing input (decoding) while it is being streamed at the same time that tries to figure out the message in each utterance, we will realise that it is also difficult for learners to participate in conversations even a simple one if they are not able to understand what the other person is saying. What kind of interaction or conversation will they be able to carry out? The usual listening activities, which are not the same as carrying out a conversation tend to focus on top-down process but research shows that fail to recognise words in a stream affects comprehension as well as low vocabulary knowledge.
KNOWING: L1 EXPERIENCE AND LITERACY
Drawing from my own experience as a mother of a bilingual child (Emanuel who is 4 and half now), whose first language is English and secondary one is Portuguese, and also from my studies in Pedagogy with a focus on Childhood Development and Literacy Development (including adult education), I discovered that,
(1) Oral language skills develop to a fairly high level prior to the development of written language, (2) oral and written language share essentially the same lexicon (vocabulary) and syntax (grammar), and (3) beginning readers draw their knowledge of oral language in learning to read. (Sticht and James, cited in Brown 2011)
Because of that I started questioning my own classroom practice and wondering why we rely much more on reading as input than listening even though developing oral skills is mostly desired; and also, what might be the piece of the puzzle missing in order to enhance learning. Here is the list of things that Brown (2011) points out as he reviews the differences between READING and LISTENING as skills.
- Cognates are easily recognized in printing, but their sounds might be quite different;
- Listening also involves understanding all sorts of reductions of sounds and blending of words;
- There are false starts and hesitations to be dealt with;
- We use a lot of pronouns, string together clauses with conjuctions rather than subordinate clauses;
- And in real communication, we rely on gestures and body language to get our point across;
- students can skim a text quickly to get a good idea what it’s about, but listeners can’t skim;
- Listening must be done in real time as words comes rushing at them, there is no second chance unless the listener especifically asks for repetition.
As we can see there are naturally differences in Reading and Listening that goes beyond the spoken and written aspect. So, aren’t we supposed to also work with them differently in class in order for learners to use them effectively outside the class? And how important is to expose learners to spoken language at all times, and teach them whatever it is necessary for them to be able to recognize words when streamed? Is it enough to tell learners to listen to English outside the class even though they can’t really make sense of what they are hearing? Is it enough to just teach them phonetic symbols or to identify the stress in isolated words so they can learn to read them? Even when we know that isolated words behave quite differently when they are in speech?
If we take into consideration research that affirms that it is necessary to know at least 95% of the running words, 98% would be even better, to be able to comprehend a written text and might guess words we encounter accurately, how much would we need to comprehend something we are listening to considerating all the challenges that a learner faces when listening to someone? How can we understand the content of something that is transmitted to us if we can’t decode speech signals while they are being streamed? (Nation, 2006)
After the webinar, I watched Mark Hancock presentation of his book, soon to be published, and I highly recommend it as he reinforces based on research that there is a need to train learners to listen. In his book Authentic Listening Resource Pack, there are lots of practical activities with authentic listening that aims to train learners at the level of B1-B2 to decode. And I also recommend watching Judy Gilbert wonderful presentation at The New School who brings Pronunciation as being an important aspect for developing better listeners. This takes us to reflect about the message.
So if we can’t understand the content, how can we really prevent misunderstanding?
Carol Goodey (2013) discussing the purpose of teaching in her blogpost Listening for Learning as being to use the time we have in class as the time to train learners to become autonomous so that they can use what they learn with us outside the classroom, reminds us the important of teaching for life and not for exams. And I absolutely agree with Carol. By having this as my core principle in my practice, I aim to give learners what they need in order to operate outside the class not according to my own goals for the lessons I put forward to them, but according to their own interests and goals for life. This became also an essential element of my teaching as Carol states below.
An essential element, however, must be that learners develop an understanding of how the language is used in different contexts and for different purposes by reading and listening to what and how things are written or said in that language. (Carol Goodey, 2013)
DECODING AND ENCODING: AN ANECDOTE
Emanuel is bilingual. English is his first language. He understands and interact with any kind of media in English, and although he can understand Portuguese for common conversations around the house, he can’t or do not really bother to speak in Portuguese unless he really has to.
But he loves playing with language and the other day he was repeating an utterance he heard from his father which he found funny. But the funny thing was that I couldn’t really make sense what he was saying. When my husband explained to me that he had heard him recording a funny message to the family to post in whatsapp and that he picked it up but couldn’t really pronounce it properly, I realised that he was not only having trouble picking up the sounds accurately, but also starting to get behind in Portuguese.
LEARNING TO SPEAK, LISTENING TO UNDERSTAND
There was no use repeating the whole set of words to him over and over again and ask him to repeat it. Some of the phonemes were really off and on his own he was not going to pick it up. So, I divided the set in two, then worked on each set, first by segmenting it into syllables and then blending them together again. Simple as it is. It gave Emanuel practice with the phonemes like the /r/ and /b/ that were terrible off. Once he could pronounce the syllables, we could then work on saying the whole set again with the appropriate stress and intonation. I tested Emanuel by asking him to repeat after me in the following day, then in two days and then days later. At all times he could speak much better. The quick exercise paid off. This experience also made me reflect more seriously about the way Emanuel is developing both languages.
Most students do not bother to watch movies or their favorite TV series in English alone because they can’t process the aural input easily and have said that with the subtitles in English it is helpful. Even so, they still don’t process the written and aural input as fast as they should to enjoy the stories. So they opt to put the subtitles in Portuguese which is a waste of time as reading and listening are two different processes and you cannot focus on both if they are in different languages, that is not to say that we don’t hear a thing or two in English. If we are fluent we do or if the scene is slow and speech is short they might. I have talked to all my students and they all agree that they hardly pay any attention to what they say. Even higher level learners do not bother watching it in English only with at least subtitles in English which could be great a tool to connect spoken to written language. And if they don’t, they don’t because they don’t really feel confident that they can deal with natural spoken language even if they have achieved higher levels of proficiency. Something that made me rethink how listening and pronunciation are worked in class.
ACTIVE LISTENING AS LANGUAGE TOOL
I have used active listening in class, not only to solve conflicts with students regarding task choices or during feedback session, but also as a language tool. By restating or paraphrasing, I have a chance to check my own understanding of what learners are trying to say and give learners a more accurate version of their ideas or opinions in various tasks in class. It makes corrective feedback less threaten and more natural as it becomes part of communication and also as a communication repair tool. So, for me restating and paraphrasing is really important especially when the people in the room are not proficient enough to express themselves with easy, or when we lack the words or find difficult to put them together, it is easy to misunderstand and lose face in front of others. I don’t shy away to use the board whenever it is necessary to make spoken language visual when I write the sentences on the board. This also gives us a chance to work on accuracy in order to understand the message and learn how to communicate better, not to learn grammar rules. It is grammar in action.
CHANGES I’VE MADE: PRACTICAL IDEAS
The practical ideas I have mentioned are the ones that my learners thought of as useful to train their ears to connect spoken to written language by practicing it actively. They are:
Listen and Transcribe
Read and Look up
Read, Look up and Say it
In my next post (follow-up post published), I will share them in more details and refer back to other blogposts.
Here is a compilation of links with articles, blogposts, books and videos that gives us plenty of theoretical basis and practical ideas.
MY OWN CONCLUSIONS
Although L1 acquisition differs to L2 in many instances, one thing is true, when someone learn to read and write, he or she had already developed their spoken knowledge of the language whereas second language learners will have to learn spoken and written language all at once to be able to perform well in all skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening). And the fact that we over rely on printed materials where students focus on reading most of the time complementing it with vocabulary and grammar exercises, and listening doesn’t really become a source of input but practice compensation estrategies (top-down) and testing comprehension makes me think that might be a reason why learners fail to sediment knowledge of grammar and vocabulary. I’m quite aware that I might be making a broad statement here, but I can’t ignore the fact that without activating my aural memory, I seem not able to respond to aural input as fast as I should. And if that is true, then what happens when I can’t is that I will have to make an effort to search in my mind for other sources where language knowledge might be stored which will slow down my response and can become really frustrating, to say the least.
As though my webinar was supposed to focus on listening, comparing reading and listening was paramount to establish the thin line between the two as it is seem in practice, and the fact that more often than not the reason why written texts are used more than spoken ones seems to be that they are more teachable than listening and that perhaps we expect that one skill will develop and transfer to another without any need to really intervene. However, the time spent on too much reading (most time silently) will not in practice help learners develop their ability to listen to spoken English. Unfortunally most learners don’t even succeed in recognising enough of the input to feel capable to extract meaning from it (Field, 2012). And I have noticed that the same can be said for reading because of lack of vocabulary and too much trust on top-down estrategies and excessive use of comprehension questions and multiple answer or true/false activities that narrow the options. It helps higher scores, but does not really tell much regarding understanding. Thus, understanding how students are getting to their answers becomes really important not only for the teacher but for the students themselves as they can visualise the process of understanding. Again Carol Goodey blogpost offers an insightful view of how reflection can be an useful tool for learners and teachers.
So taking John Field (2012) argument that listening in real context is different from listening we use in class, basically because there is no enough input or all the cues involved in real life communication to compensate for the low-proficient language speakers. I realised then that like the child that uses language as the mean to communicate and understand the world around them, so do learners insist to use L1 instead of L2 because they also have this need. However in class we do not stress understanding and communicating as the purpose of our classes, on the other hand we focus on teaching the language as our main purpose. And chances to use L2 with others who do not share the same language is rare for my learners, understanding becomes a much more powerful purpose in and out of class and I try to create this need for understanding when they are talking to me as well as making it as meaningful and real as possible whenever we have the chance. Be it a grade they got, a competition they won, a trip they took, or a movie they saw… anything is an opportunity to create real interaction through English and anytime is the time for learning.