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Listening tips from Penny Ur

I've been dipping into sections of Penny Ur's excellent little book 100 Teaching Tips which I have previously reviewed here. I find myself agreeing with nearly everything she writes. Although her background is teaching English as a foreign language, what she says is highly relevant to modern language teachers. So many excellent ideas have come form EFL over the years.

Here are some points she makes about teaching listening, which she says is the most important skill - I agree. Most people spend more time listening, including in conversation, than they do reading, speaking or writing. I think it should be at the heart of our practice.

Give the topic and task in advance

Make sure you give the context of any listening task to students in advance. Never just play a recording and ask students to listen and understand. make sure they have an idea who is speaking, what the topic is, what the context may be and what precise task they will have to do. If they have a worksheet to do, give it to them at the outset.

Don't always pre-teach vocabulary

Pre-listening tasks are great (e.g. some general questions about the subject, he speaker, the type of task they might be doing), but don't feel you need to pre-teach key vocabulary. The reason she gives is this:  being taught a new item before it is heard in a new context does not necessarily make it easier to understand. Better to have taught and practised the item several times in advance before the listening task. (This implies that a listening task may be better set later in a teaching sequence.)
If you feel the need to pre-teach items, then just do one or two key words or chunks, placing less load on memory. By the way, she cites research by Chang and Read* in support of her view. they concluded from a study that pre-teaching vocabulary was the least successful of four strategies, the others being repetition of the text itself, seeing comprehension questions in advance and providing information about the content.

Don't use written texts for listening

Textbook listenings may just be written texts read aloud. This is less than satisfactory. Written discourse is designed to be read, not listened to. It lacks pauses, redundant phrasing and repetition - the sort of cues which make listening easier. If you cannot access natural-sounding listening, then the best source may be your own voice. You can tailor the speed and content to the class. This is also a good argument for plenty of teacher talk, provided it's interesting and meaningful.

Let the students see the speaker

We tend to use audio recordings because they are cheaper to produce and more convenient to use. Adding a visual element makes listening more interesting and a little easier because you can see the speaker's facial expressions, for example. This is another argument for teacher talk or, for example, using visiting speakers. In real life we usually see the person we are talking to. Audio listening is a good preparation for listening to the radio, but otherwise teacher talk and video are better.

Divide the text into short bits

Avoid having students listen to long sections in one ago. In natural discourse listening is usually broken into short fragments. This applies not just to conversation, but to other sources of listening such as movie scenes, a TV commercial or a talk with slides. Listening to long stretches places a huge load on working memory and is one reason students find it so hard and off-putting. Again, it may be that teacher talk (e.g. telling a good story) is one occasion when lengthy listening is justifiable.

Use dictations

Dictation is not just a test of spelling, it is a very good way of developing listening skills at lower levels. It is not a meaningless grammar task. To do a dictation well you have to understand the meaning of the text. penny ur cites research to support this.**

As a final note, I would add a point which my friend Gianfranco Conti often makes and which we point out in our Toolkit - to some extent it is implied in some of Penny Ur's remarks - that you should try to avoid treating listening as a test or product. This is one reason pupils often say they don't like it. Rather, it's a process which you can teach, by clever scaffolding, breaking it down into bits, showing the task type in advance, phonological practice, pre-listening tasks and more.

*      Chang, A.C.  and Read, J (2006). The effects of listening support on the listening performance of EFL learners. TESOL Quarterly, 40 (2)

**   Reza Kiany, G. and Shiramiry, E. (2002). The effect of frequent dictation on the listening comprehension ability of elemntary EFL learners. TESL, Canada Journal, 20 (1)


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