What do we know about what is actually happening inside a learner’s head while they are listening? It’s a complicated process. Speech comes at the learner in a continuous stream of sounds. They need to be able to identify and discriminate between these sounds, and recognise their stressed and unstressed versions. They also need to be able to recognise where one word stops and another word starts (particularly hard to do in English, with linking, elision and assimilation). They need to understand the meaning conveyed by stress and intonation.
And that’s before we start on understanding the actual meaning of the words being used, and the syntax!
No wonder that students at lower levels, without a wide vocabulary or much familiarity with the features of connected speech are so overwhelmed by all these demands that they simply can’t hold onto the meaning of what they are listening to long enough to piece it all together.
In my last post, hosted on the OUPELTGlobal blog, I wrote about ways to develop these bottom up or decoding skills in listening. In response I had a tweet from Kyle Smith (@ElkySmith ), drawing my attention to a fascinating article by Magnus Wilson, on what Wilson terms Discovery Listening. This got me thinking about ways in which we, as teachers, could find out more about our learners’ listening processes- and of course raise the learners’ awareness at the same time.
In Discovery Listening, Wilson builds on an idea by John Field (2000), of using dictogloss to develop students’ awareness of how they are processing language. Field’s technique is to carry out a dictogloss, where students note down all the words they can catch while listening, and then discuss their understanding of the overall meaning with classmates afterwards. The idea was to raise awareness of how they can use guesswork to build meaning. Wilson takes this idea further by getting students to try to reconstruct the text more fully after listening, and then compare their versions carefully with the original. It’s a discovery, or ‘noticing’ activity, because students look specifically at what they failed to hear correctly and classify their problems. For example:
I couldn’t hear what sound it was.
I couldn’t separate the sounds into words.
I heard the words but couldn’t remember their meaning quickly enough.
This word was new to me….
As well as raising awareness, Wilson makes the point that ‘noticing’ these issues is likely to make language, or aspects of connected speech ‘stick’ for the learners. While I wouldn’t suggest carrying out this kind of micro focus all the time, as an occasional activity, I think it could be very effective.
A protocol is a technique used by researchers to try and find out exactly what is going on in someone’s head during a process. Basically, the subject is asked to either talk aloud while they are doing something, explaining their thought processes, or, in stimulated recall protocols, they are reminded of what they were doing, and asked to recall what their thought processes were at the time.
There are lots of examples of protocols being used to discover more about listening in second language acquisition, for example Wu (1998), but I can’t see why this couldn’t be something that teachers could use themselves in the classroom. Obviously we wouldn’t want everyone talking aloud while they listened (!), but after listening to a recording, we could ask students to discuss with a partner which parts they found difficult and why. Or they could listen again with the transcript in front of them, and underline parts that they found difficult to follow, and then discuss why.
Another interesting article is Jenny Kemp’s The Listening Log. In it she describes a project carried out at the University of Leicester, on a summer programme, where learners were required to keep a log of at least 5-6 listening experiences they had outside the classroom each week. They were asked to comment on how easy or difficult it was to understand, and what had helped or hindered them (e.g. context, accent). Looking at the examples given, it is evident that this could be a powerful tool for raising awareness and increasing motivation- as well as giving the teacher useful information about each learner’s individual difficulties.
The teacher is a tape-recorder
And finally, a very old (hence the title- should it be the teacher is an Mp3 player?) activity, which is a bit silly and light-hearted, but actually really useful for identifying problem areas.
Simply choose a text- this could be the transcript of something already recorded, or a story, but it needs to be written down, so that it can be reproduced exactly each time. Start to read aloud, as naturally as possible. Learners could be answering questions, or, probably better still for our purposes, trying to write down the text. Whenever the learners want they can shout ‘pause’ ‘rewind’ ‘fast forward’ etc. Of course, you could equally well do this with an actual machine, but believe me, it’s much more entertaining with a teacher doing it. I think students (of all ages), just love being able to bark commands at the teacher!
The serious side of this activity is that you can use it to identify chunks of connected speech that the learners are having difficulty with and then look at the linking, weak forms, assimilation etc with them afterwards.
Please do add any other ideas you have for either raising awareness of, or developing these decoding skills.