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Enjoying sounds (1)


How do skilled teachers develop confident listeners? In this series of blogs based on my forthcoming book Becoming an Outstanding Languages Teacher I'm going to look at a range of phonological tasks which get beginners to enjoy hearing and using unfamiliar sounds. I’ll emphasise the importance of linking sound to spelling to reinforce memory links (phonics) and examine what it means to teach listening, rather than just test it. Listening tests are often the ones students fear most (over in a short time, with no time to reflect and review). I’ll offer examples of specific tasks, including using online video, transcribing tasks, gap-fill, matching tasks and multi-skill tasks featuring a strong listening element. I’ll also show how you can improve students’ grammar through listening and pose some provocative questions about how you might be teaching listening now.

In this first blog we'll consider phonics, what it means to "teach listening" and how to exploit video listening. I hope you find some useful points here to supplement your own ideas.

Phonics fun

How do we get youngsters to enjoy strange sounds? How do we get them to pronounce well? How do we take the fear out of listening?

From the very beginning it’s important to be demanding with your expectations about pronunciation. If your students develop good pronunciation habits in their first year, this will continue into the future. If you make do with second class pronunciation, students will rarely develop the right habits. What’s more, if students try hard and are fussy about sounding like a native speaker, they’ll become more discerning listeners in turn.

Research suggests that having a good phonological memory assists with word retention in general. Fortunately, most students enjoy playing with new sounds if you create the right conditions. Here are some tips of the trade:

• Drill isolated sounds, linking them to spelling, e.g. in French use the phrase "un bon vin blanc" to practise the four nasal vowels; explain how you make a French u or German ΓΌ sound by trying to say ee while rounding your lips; explain the mechanics of making a uvular r sound in French and German, or a rolled r in Spanish.
• Show students a side-on diagram of the mouth with the main articulators and how they work to create specific sounds. Give them some basic phonetics terminology to get them interested in the science of sounds, e.g. the terms plosive, voicing, fricative, bilabial, uvula, dental, alveolar and palatal.
• When doing choral repetition exaggerate sounds a little and encourage students to do the same; show them clear mouth shapes.
• Group words together with the same vowel sounds, e.g. when displaying words on PowerPoint slides for repetition work. Point out how different letter combinations can produce the same sound (notably in French).
• Be acutely aware of the sounds which will cause difficulty for English native speakers, e.g. all French vowels, r sounds in all languages, German fricatives (ch) and diphthongs, Spanish bilabial, sibilant (s) and fricative (j) sounds. Focus on them and have fun making them.
• Link gestures to sounds and spellings, e.g. raising your arms or fingers for certain accents or diacritics.
• Use tongue-twisters.
• Use reading aloud to reinforce good habits, but do this sensitively and in short chunks. Reading aloud helps embed sound-spelling links and aids vocabulary retention.
• Model correct stress and intonation, explaining how it works in the TL and draw slanting lines above written sentences to illustrate it.
• When using slides or other written words to illustrate sound-spelling links, highlight key sounds in a different colour.
• Talk about different accents in English, and contrast native language and TL sounds.

Some teachers like to do discrete phonics lessons, but my preference is to embed phonics within other communicative tasks, pausing now and again to focus on specific words and sounds. However you approach it, skilled teachers don’t neglect pronunciation.

Teaching listening

What does it mean to “teach listening”? I need to go into the theory just a little at this point. To listen effectively students use both top-down and bottom-up processing. What do these mean? Compare these scenarios:

1. Over dinner, a friend tells you a story about a recent holiday which went badly wrong. You listen with interest and make comments at appropriate moments, maybe to express surprise or sympathy.

2. The next day, a partner calls to ask you to buy some items at the supermarket for a meal. You listen carefully and make notes on a piece of paper.

How do you listen in each case?

With the holiday, your main concern was probably understanding the general idea and knowing when a certain type of response was expected. In contrast, when listening to the shopping list, understanding the exact words was more important.

The way you listened to the holiday anecdote could be described as top-down listening. This refers to the use of background knowledge in understanding the meaning of the message and knowing how to react. Background knowledge involves context, i.e. the situation and topic, and what came before and after. Even the context of chatting casually to a friend limits the range of possible topics. Once the topic of a holiday has been established, our knowledge of the kind of things that can happen comes into play and helps us to match the incoming sounds against our expectations of what we might hear and to fill out specific details.

In contrast, when listening to the shopping list, comprehension is largely achieved by dividing and decoding the sound signal bit by bit. This is bottom-up listening. The ability to separate the stream of speech into separate words becomes more important if we are to recognise, for example, a brand of ketchup or a quantity of tomatoes.

To teach listening, therefore, we need to focus on both of these elements, but in particular, for our purposes as language teachers, on bottom-up processing. How do we help students recognise words and pick them out in the stream of sound?

It’s a really difficult thing to do without masses of practice, so the first thing to say about teaching listening is that you have to do lots of it! Secondly, if you want the main focus to be on bottom-up processing you need to do tasks which lay the emphasis on vocabulary recognition and picking out words in the sound stream. Thirdly, it’s usually better to work intensively on shorter texts than longer ones – you want to give students a sense of mastery. With that in mind here are some activities which will aid the process:

• It sounds obvious, but make sure you teach vocabulary, words both in isolation and in context. Use the spoken word to do this, not just the written.
• Do transcription tasks, e.g. dictation of words, phrases and longer chunks, filling in letter gaps in words, completing notes on a grid while listening to instructions.
• Read aloud to students as they follow the written transcript.
• Recycle previously learned words and chunks as much as possible.
• Work intensively on short audio and video listening texts (see below, including a range of task types you can use).
• Listen to short statements and translate them into English.
• When doing question-answer work and other types of interaction, include the opportunity for students to write down answers to oral questions.
• Exploit the concept of “narrow listening”, whereby the students are exposed, through different activities, to four or five short texts on the same topic and containing very similar vocabulary.

Really effective teachers recognise these issues and avoid seeing listening as a series of tests tacked on to a lesson, done “cold” without the preparation and practice needed to make them enjoyable and useful.

Using video listening

In real life we usually see the person we’re listening too so it’s easier for students to listen if we create the same conditions. From the earliest stages of learning, the best source of listening is you the teacher, assuming that your skills are good (let’s not forget that this is an important part of being an outstanding practitioner). When you’re speaking you can tailor the level and speed of the TL to the class. You’re the one best placed to know what students will understand. (This is why visiting speakers are often hard for students to understand since they don’t have that detailed knowledge of your class’s abilities.) Most of the listening students do takes place when you are talking or interacting with them. If your lessons are sequenced well, moving from easy to complex, scaffolding activities where necessary, your students will inevitably become better listeners.

When you need to use recorded material, video is therefore preferable to audio. An extra level of interest is created, with visual clues helping with meaning. In practice, many teachers, especially with beginners and intermediates, have to use audio alone since it’s harder to source video at the right level and professionally recorded video is expensive. With more advanced students sources of video listening are abundant.

To exploit video bear in mind the following factors:

• Try not to go beyond three minutes in length (a bit more for advanced students) for intensive work.
• Choose clips based on clarity, interest and speed.
• In general avoid strong, non-standard accents.

The teaching sequence below is effective when using a video clip.

1. Do a pre-listening task, preparing students for the content they’re going to hear. You could make sure you include some of the key vocabulary. This will arouse their interest, take advantage of their top-down skills, and get their minds on the task to come.
2. Tell students exactly what they’ll have to do so that they know the purpose of the task.
3. Give them their worksheet task at the start, letting them see it while they’re watching. This will improve the class’s focus and support their listening.
4. Play the whole clip once without stopping. When you do this, remind them that listening places a huge load on their working memory, their “processing power”, but not to worry, it will seem much easier by the end of the task.
5. Depending on the task, play the clip in short sections, repeatedly, or give them the means to do so if they’re working independently. Observe the group carefully to adjust the number of times you need to repeat a section. Give your own verbal hints for more difficult sections or even say whole sections aloud if they are particularly hard.
6. Occasionally ask if they want to hear the section again.
7. Play the whole clip through at the end to enable students to check what they’ve written.
8. Get students to feed back their responses.
9. Where possible provide a transcript at some point so they can see the text written down.
10. Do any appropriate follow-up work, e.g. oral discussion or general summary.

The above sequence works for audio too, of course. The point I’d make here is that a listening text (either video or audio) is often best exploited in some detail, in a very thorough manner since, as I’ve mentioned before, a listening text is both an excellent source of meaningful input, but also the basis for intensive input-output work.

Useful task types for audio and video listening include:

• true/false/not mentioned (including “not mentioned” is not only useful for assessment purposes – three responses are more reliable than just two – but it also gets students to listen even more carefully;

• ticking correct statements in TL or English (TL better since it is a multi-skill task involving reading);

• correcting a faulty transcript (less demanding on comprehension since students have access to the written word, but good for listening to fine detail);

• gap-filling TL sentences (again, a multi-skill task like this is better for detail than a general comprehension task);

• gap-filling English statements (suitable for lower-attaining students);
• finding the French/German/Spanish for….;

• questions in TL (best for multi-skill practice);
• questions in English (easier, with a pure focus on comprehension);

• supplying a list of words which students tick off when they hear them (useful, but may distract the students from general comprehension).

In addition it’s worth noting that you need to make sure your students are prepared for the question types they’ll encounter in exams. Research and experience show that familiarity with test type is a significant factor in achievement.

In the next blog I'll be looking at the role of teacher talk.

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