Fostering Listening: simple changes

In my last post, a recap of BELTA Webinar that occured last Sunday, I shared my journey with teaching listening or more especifically the reason why I’ve come to believe that listening is a language skill to be developed from as early as possible in concert with the other ones, not apart. Real life interactions, be it with other people or with a media (TV, internet, radio, books, etc.) happens with more than one skill (listening, speaking, reading, writing) being at work. I also agree with John F. Fanselow that very often we do not just have one stimulus during these interactions. There is a lot going on around us. Right now, for instance, I’m writing this post from my classroom. Regular classes are over, but there are still few things to do before vacation starts. The room is empty, but sounds come from everywhere. I can hear and feel the cold air of the air conditioning. The birds are not singing as much as in sunny days. Doors are being closed and desks are being dragged around. I guess the cleaning ladies are making sure that every inch of our school is clean to be closed soon for the summer. Even in an atypical day as this day, there are sounds coming from everywhere. Including from my computer as I type this post. We select what we want to focus on, but we can’t stop the stimulus to come on our way. Concentration is another topic I shall write down some day, and closely related to our ability to listen attentively.

Sketch Notes from Barbara Butjas of my talk

Sketch Notes from Barbara Butjas of my talk Listening with both EARS- 12/06/2014

The changes I made to classroom routines were made based on my understanding that listening in the classroom should be fostered, not taught or tested. In order to be fostered we need to create the need to listen and listen attentively. Listening attentively to one another becomes part of the environment dynamics. We should also learn to listen to silence. I don’t have many students who do not like speaking in a group or do not feel connected to the group in a way that prevents them to communicate when they have something to say, but now and then we do get learners who prefer to listen than to speak. But they like writing, so I listen to them through their writings. Listening for understanding does not imply that it has to happen only through spoken language, it can be also through writing.

1. Listen to learners through their writings. Notebooks are very important in my class. But I also use slips of paper and post-its to communicate with my learners. Or any other digital media when they choose to connect with me through social media.

In order to create the need for students to listen to spoken English IN class to train them to listen for English OUTSIDE the class:

2. Bring authentic language to class. Some learners already like listening to English songs, watching TV series or movies, and video clips on youtube or vine. We discuss what they are listening to, watching or have seen recently. I hardly ever turn it into a formal pronunciation class. What I do though is discussing them what they found most difficult in the audio or audiovisual material and we take from there. If there is a need for be to explore it more, than in the following class I’ll take the clip and create tasks to raise their awareness or practice listening and using it. The board, the dictionary, the audio input and us are usually enough, so I also don’t create handouts.

They need to understand how things work (how words sound alone and when streamed, their meaning and use) to be able to make sense of language used outside the class.

3. Listen and transcribe is great for that. Few sentences taken out of an episode of a TV series, short videos, a movie or a song which must be clear (no interference from the instruments) are useful authentic sources that should be used with and without the visual input.

Before listening and transcribing, I use those sources of input as we have in real life. If it is a song, let’s listen to it (I always choose songs with their videoclips – it is more engaging and fun for my learners). What are their reactions? Did they like it? Had they heard this song before? Or seen the videoclip? Do they like this kind of music? This kind of questions personalize the experience and contact with the input material. The lesson becomes about them and listening for understanding a purpose.

After the first contact with the input material, they are invited to listen to it again but this time our aim is to really understand what they are saying. Not just the words but the message and again react to it. So, they listen, pause, and write. They listen, check, edit. They write, think of what they know about the language in order to fill the gaps (what they couldn’t really hear, often these are the function words which are reduced and unstressed). They write and see the areas they need improvement. Reflecting with learners is really important if we want them to make changes in their attitude towards learning. Do learners have difficult in making sense of the content words? Then, they need more work on vocabulary. Would they recognize those words if they were looking at the written version of it? If so, they do not need to be taught meaning but practice with spoken language. More often than not this seems to be my learners problem. If they read, they can understand much better than when they listen to it, especially those who are not keen to be in contact with the language outside the class. It might be that they can’t really process meaning altogether, therefore language need to be taught (meaning, written and spoken forms). Did they have trouble cluing the content words? Or predicting which function words should they be hearing? Then, practicing all the aspects of streamed speech is paramount. Let’s sing more songs. Let’s add drama to our classes and let them act out their own scripts.

Listen and transcribe is an opportunity for language to unveil itself and needs to emerge. There is so much we can learn through it that even learners will become curious to find out what they know and what they don’t know.

4. I dictate a lot in class. Never one word at the time, but ocassionally a word they ask for because they need to check spelling. “How do we spell/write (and the word they are trying to make sense of or need to check spelling)?” is a common question during class interaction. Correction time is also done through dictation, and sentences are said as natural as possible, respecting thought groups (sense group) instead of single words unless they ask me for spelling, then we focus on it and if necessary we work on word stress and syllables. Once the sentences are checked, listening to the whole sentence again with the right intonation and word stress is really important. We often give so much importance on vocabulary and grammar and totally forget of the importance of pronunciation and all its aspects to develop better listening skills. And here is one of the reasons why I focus on thought groups instead of dictation one word at the time. I repeat two or three time the thought group and use the board only if there is really a real necessity. As I check notebooks constantly, I notice if learners are able to connect spoken to written language. They will have to negotiate it if they want to make sure they did it right anyway.

This takes us to Read and Look up. I learned about this technique from John F. Fanselow back in 2012. And as we work with reading materials in class and reading aloud might happen at some point of the lesson, it can become a wonderful chance to work on reading fluency aspects that naturally involves reading. If learners read always silently, they have no opportunity to learn how those words are streamed together, and if they haven’t learned, how will they be able to understand the message of what they are reading if processing information fast to become enjoyable and accurate depend on previous knowledge of the language as much as background knowledge of the topic itself?

Here is a wonderful article I have just found. Like John, I had been playing with it too and one of the changes I could make to encounters learners have with questions that serves as prompts for speaking is what I use in class: Read, Look up and Say it.

Extract from John F. Fanselow article - shared here:

Extract from John F. Fanselow article – shared here:

5. In this way, they don’t just glue their eyes on the page and totally forget that their partner is there right in front of them. How can communication happen if one or the two of them are looking down and just reading the words out loud? And have you noticed that they usually read them slowly and pausing in between (often in the wrong places?)? And how can this be qualified as an speaking activity if they do it in that way? So, it became part of our classroom routine to read the questions or statements (this can be from Coursebooks or from questions/statements learners create themselves which had been previously given corrective feedback from the teacher. I use learners modified input as input a lot in class), then look at their partner and say it. If the question or statement had already been learned (when I said learned I mean all aspects of it), they will easily be able to do it. At first though, they are not used to rely on their memory or knowledge they have from within so they will pause at the middle of it because they had forgotten the second thought group (longer sentences). I ask them when that happens to look down again at the whole sentence, then look up and say it again from the beginning of the sentence, not where they had stopped. With time, this will go away and they will get used to do it pretty naturally and their partner will respond automatically. Especially those speaking activities where they have to practice simple questions and short answers, they will do it without much thinking. I pay especial attention to them when they are doing it and note down if they show any sign that an aspect of the language hadn’t been mastered yet. As they are not producing a new sentence, they read it out in order to connect written language to spoken language and create in their memory samples of the structures through spoken language that must be spoken using proper intonation, rhythm and stress. It becomes a safe speaking activity because they emulate speaking in a natural way and their partner can respond/react to it more naturally too.

Going over these aspects in my classroom routine and why I do them helped me verbalize the changes I’ve made in my own practice in order to understand learning and teaching. I hope you have enjoyed taking this trip with me with my last two posts and also the article that was published at TESL-EJ. Here is the link to it if you haven’t had the opportunity to read it:

2014 was quite a year for me and the more I delve into it, more teaching becomes exhilataring to me and I hope to my learners as well.

I so look forward to continue making changes and learning more about my own teaching in 2015!

If you haven’t read or taken a course with John F. Fanselow, you should. Here is John in a video I have just found.

And a global webinar we had the opportunity to attend a year ago.


3 thoughts on “Fostering Listening: simple changes

  1. Pingback: Listening with Both Ears BELTA Webinar | ROSE BARD – Teaching Journal

  2. Hi Rose,
    SO much to reflect on in this and the previous BELTA Webinar post! I think there’s some great stuff here, and it gels with a lot of the SLA research. I particularly like Vandergrift and Goh’s chapter on teaching listening in Long and Doughty’s (2011) Handbook of Language Teaching. It reviews research on bottom-up and top-down processing approaches to listening and recommends the model below which is commented on at length. Worth reading IMHO.

    Stages of Listening Instruction

    Planning/predicting stage

    1. Once students know topic and text type, they predict types of information and possible words they may hear.

    First verification stage

    2. Students verify initial hypotheses, correct as required, and note additional information understood.
    3. Students compare what they have written with peers, modify as required, establish what needs resolution and decide on details that still need special attention.

    Second verification stage

    4. Students verify points of disagreement, make corrections, and write down additional details
    5. Class discussion in which all contribute to reconstruction of the text’s main points and most
    pertinent details, interspersed with reflections on how students arrived at the meaning of certain words or parts of the text.

    Final verification stage

    6. Students listen for information that they could not decipher earlier in the class discussion.

    Reflection stage

    7. Based on discussion of strategies used to compensate for what was not understood, students write goals for next listening activity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much Geoff for taking the time to read my posts and add such a thoughtful comment. I’ll certainly follow your recommendation and read the chapter. I’ve been very interested in how input is processed and how it links to output to foster language learning. I appreciate the book recommendation. 🙂


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