Narrow reading and narrow listening – enhancing receptive skills through focused and purposeful recycling


As mentioned in previous posts, listening in my opinion is not taught effectively in many MFL classrooms as students are often engaged in listening comprehension tasks that ‘feel’ more like tests and involve almost exclusively top-down processing skills. Another reason is that instructors and textbooks often do not exploit the full potential of the target texts. Students listen to a recording two or three times, answer a few comprehension questions and then the text is ‘ditched’ and the teacher moves on to a new text  which may deal with a similar topic area but rarely recycles the same material. As far as reading is concerned, things are a bit better and occasionally textbooks do provide two or three activities on the same text. But even so, the full potential of a text is often wasted.

In what follows I propose an approach to listening and reading that I have used very often over the years, which, although quite time-consuming, can yield great results if executed properly and implemented regularly.

Narrow listening

When I was in my teens, Internet did not exist and finding the lyrics of a song, in Italy – where I lived in those days – was not easy. Hence, a lot of my school mates, aware of my anglo-phone background (my mother having grown up in England) would ask me to write up the lyrics of the British hits that were ‘invading’ and taking over Italy at that time. To be able to do that, although I was already near-native at that stage, I had to listen to each song over and over again, sometimes going over the same line a dozen times to decode problematic words.

Useless to say, that process was as useful as it was tedious; I learnt loads, both in terms of bottom-up processing skills and in terms of vocabulary. But can we ask students to do the same? Apart from a few highly self-motivated individuals, the vast majority of our learners would not. Yet, as I argued in a previous post, if students simply listen to a text once or twice only, the learning benefits will be relatively low; students often need to process the same text several times in order to fully understand and learn new vocabulary from it.

One obvious solution is to exploit each text several times by engaging the learners in four or five tasks based around it.  However, this can be boring and repetitive. So, what can one do, to ensure that the students listen to the same words over and over again without listening and re-listening to the same text?

I found a possible solution a few years back, whilst reading the work of Stephen Krashen and his ‘narrow listening’ technique. ‘Narrow listening’ involves asking several L2 proficient/native speakers to talk about a specific topic whilst recording them in the process; the questions should be quite ‘narrow’ in their focus so as to elicit similar content and, consequently, language (vocabulary and grammar). At the end of the process one would listen to all the recordings obtained thereby being exposed several times to fairly similar language.

When I first got acquainted with this technique, I liked its aims: firstly, to facilitate learner understanding of the target input, by creating the same ‘narrow’ context for each interview and by recycling the same vocabulary over and over again; secondly, to consolidate vocabulary through that recycling. However, Krashen’s approach, being based on a spontaneous response on the part of the interviewees, does not guarantee any control on the teacher’s part over the vocabulary contained in their input. This means that the effect that song-transcribing had on me could not be guaranteed 100 % all of the time through Krashen’s technique.

Hence I decided to adapt Krashen’s model and increase my degree of control over the input. In my model, the interviewees are not just improvising; each is given a script that will not take longer than 30 to 40 seconds to read for beginner to pre-intermediate learners and about 1 minute for GCSE level students. The wording of each script is quite similar – but not identical – and the input is ‘comprehensible’ (i.e. mostly familiar language or cognates, with a few unfamiliar words). The ‘secret’ is to make sure that the same pool of words is recycled constantly whilst the texts sound different and have slightly different messages (e.g. some negative; some positive; some ‘neutral’) – not an easy thing to do. Even though the process can be quite laborious, the learning benefits of this practice in terms of vocabulary acquisition, consolidation and self-efficacy are remarkable.

In international schools like the one I work at where there are lots of young native speakers of the target language(s) (and their parents) this approach is not too difficult to implement. But one can go about it a different way, by searching the web for short videos/recordings which are very similar in content. I did that, for instance, in the context of daily routine; I found a serious of youtube videos shot by French teenagers, which actually contained very similar language and used them for narrow listening tasks. In the absence of L2 native speakers, other L2 experts (e.g. colleagues) may be used.

But what tasks should the students be involved in whilst narrow-listening? Unlike Krashen, who believes they should not be doing anything but listening, I do believe the students should be demonstrating understanding one way or another. The type of activity we decide to engage them in will depend on what we are trying to focus them on: is it inferring the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary? Is it consolidating old vocabulary? Is it listening for gist? Is it identifying specific details? Or is it all of the above? The answers to these questions will determine the in-listening tasks we will set. I usually do one or more of the following:

  1. Given the word in English spot the French/Spanish equivalent on the recording;
  2. Identify the meaning of the following French words in the recording;
  3. Jot down two/three/four etc. main points each speaker makes;
  4. Spot the speakers who express similar/different opinions or do/have done similar/different things;
  5. Comprehension questions. As you will know if you read my previous posts, these are not my favourite kind of tasks.

Narrow listening activities should be preceded by warm-up vocabulary and schemata activation activities and followed by consolidation activities further recycling the target lexis in order to maximize retention.

Narrow reading

The same principle underlying narrow listening can be applied to reading with the same beneficial impact on L2 acquisition. In fact, I often use the transcripts employed in narrow listening for my narrow reading sessions. I strongly recommend using fewer texts for narrow reading than one would use in narrow listening. Narrow reading is easier to implement as there’s no need for native speakers and similar texts are easy to find. For instance, recently I was doing some work on the environment and finding five similar texts on things to do or not to do to protect the environment was easy – and each text was authentic L2 material.

In conclusion, narrow listening is a technique that I recommend to colleagues and that I wish textbooks and other published instructional materials adopted more often than they currently do. It has the great advantage of exposing the students to similar comprehensible input, which allows for easier access to unfamiliar language, due to the contextual and linguistic clues they get from listening to several similar texts; moreover, similar vocabulary is recycled over and over again which fosters consolidation and retention; finally, students get to listen to accessible L2 language for relatively long time as uttered by different people. However, it does require some extra-work and the availability of several L2 experts willing to co-operate.

In order to save time and effort, Krashen’s approach may be easier to implement and can work, too, if one chooses the right questions. I do it sometimes and ask students to go around school with their iPads – not in lesson time, obviously –  to interview as many L2 native speaker schoolmates as possible about a specific topic (e.g. food in the canteen). When the focus of the question is very narrow (e.g. talk to be about a typical day in school), the likelihood of the vocabulary overlapping across interviewees is quite high.


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