“Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen” – why we wrote it and what it is about

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As many of my readers and followers will know, I have always been very passionate about Listening. Why? Because it is simply the most important language skill, the one that teachers should prioritize in the classroom, the precursor to speaking. How can you ever hope to master Speaking, if you are a poor listener?

As a learner of 14 languages, I have experienced firsthand the frustration of not being able to understand aural input at the early stages of L2 learning when even basic target-language speech sounds like a fast flow of undecipherable gibberish. I have also experienced the enhancing power of comprehensible input, of skillful use of audiovisuals and body language, of aural texts flooded with repetitions, of enhanced input and of lessons revolving mostly around sound and oral communication.

 

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Developing L2 learners’ aural skills is a must as the human brain is hard-wired to learn through listening by our biology and 150,000 years of evolution. Children listen to their caregivers on average for 9,000 thousand hours before they start producing intelligible output. Through incessant repetition, routines, audiovisual cues and body language oozing out love, empathy and patience, caregivers impart on their children their mother tongue through the oral medium. Add to the above that 45 % (some say 65 %) of verbal communication occurs through listening and 30 % through speaking. Only about 25 % occurs through reading and writing.

 

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Yet, in 28 years of teaching and many more as a language learner, I have seen teachers neglect listening skills day in day out. As Chambers (1996) famously pointed out, in the typical English modern language classroom listening is usually about (1) pressing a button, (2) playing an audio track twice to students who answer a number of ‘wh’ or ‘True or False’ questions, (3) giving the answers and (4) assigning a score. What is worse, Chambers (1996) and other subsequent studies have found that listening activities are not usually logically sequenced and integrated in what comes before and after. It is all pretty random and consistent with the textbook’s suggested pedagogic sequence.

 

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Chambers (1996) doesn’t paint a rosy picture. Nor has done any subsequent research. Unsurprisingly, Listening has been labelled the ‘Cinderella skill’, as research has consistently found that it is the skill, teachers

  1. understand the least;
  2. have fewer resources for;
  3. feel the least confident teaching;
  4. neglect the most.

What is worse, it is also the skill language students enjoy the least and fear the most. In fact, there is a specific form of situational anxiety related to listening which has been documented by many studies. Many students’ expectancy of success or Self-efficacy is at its lowest in Listening. Professor Graham of Reading University, one of the greatest experts alive in the field of listening instruction, has researched L2 students’ self-efficacy in Listening for several decades, always finding the same issue time and again: many students approach listening task with a sense of anxiety and a poor repertoire of listening strategies.

Preventing students’ anxiety and building self-efficacy are two of our main foci in the book. We suggest a range of strategies which encompass considering affective and cognitive factors, input design and delivery, metacognitive and cognitive strategies, as well as task and assessment design. The objective: to develop approach motivation and prevent avoidance motivation from setting in.

 

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Unfortunately, the traditional model of aural skills instruction and published textbook materials (Studio and Expo being amongst the worst French textbooks, in my opinion) perpetuate this status quo, by adopting a swim or sink approach to listening: students listen and carry out comprehension tasks without being taught how to listen in the first place. It is akin throwing football players into a match without ever having taught them the basic skills of passing, dribbling, shooting, heading, tackling, etc.

And when listening skills are ‘taught’ it is by mainly focusing on compensatory strategies such as predicting, guessing from context and/or background knowledge, focusing on key words, etc. – all useful strategies, don’t get me wrong, but not what Steve and I believe listening should be mostly about. This approach to listening is ‘Top-heavy’, i.e. it focuses on the development of the set of top-down processing skills that we use in our first language whenever we experience problems in understanding incoming input ; for instance, when we are talking to someone on a bad skype connection or in a noisy bar or when we are listening to someone with a serious speech impairment. In other words, modern languages students are taught from the beginning to the end of a course to resort to survival skills when they listen; not to try and understand the vast majority of the linguistic cues in the input they hear, as they do in their first language.

This practice sends our students the message : you will never get it, so just guess intelligently from context and focus on keywords to get the information you are asked to provide.

Steve and I believe listening instruction in the formative years of language learning should focus on the process of listening (i.e. developing students’ ability to listen), not on the product (e.g. a score out of ten). The approach we advocate in our book, L.A.M. (or Listening As Modelling) is rooted in this belief.

But being able to focus on the process of listening means understanding the cognitive bases of listening, i.e. what happens in the brain as we listen and the potential barriers to comprehension. Without fully understanding such barriers, it is difficult to empathize with our students and prepare them for effective aural comprehension. Providing our readers with an understanding of the listening processes – based on John Field’s seminal work on the cognition of aural comprehension – is the starting point of our book.

 

the listening process

 

Once identified (1) the various stages of listening comprehension, (2) the vulnerabilities to aural fluency at each level of processing as well as (3) the obstacles that the finite resources of the human brain and the nature of aural input pose to L2 listeners, Steve and I propose a skill-building approach to listening.

By this we mean approaching listening instruction in the same way as a football coach trains his or her players for the big match, i.e.: building up the micro-skills required by the student-listener gradually and steadily, providing 95-98 % comprehensible input and abundant opportunities for processing key language at every level of grain. Whilst the football player needs to master the micro-skills of dribbling, passing, shooting, heading, etc., the learner-listener needs to master the following core abilities:

  • Phonemic processing (recognizing and analyzing sounds)
  • Syllable processing (recognizing and analyzing syllables)
  • Segmenting (identifying word boundaries)
  • Lexical retrieval
  • Parsing (recognizing grammatical and syntactic patterns, functions words, assigning roles to words, recognizing word classes, etc.)
  • Meaning building (understanding meaning of individual sentences)
  • Discourse building

In our book we provide teachers with a vast array of tested strategies and engaging tasks to develop the above skills in their students. The mission: forging students who are versed in the art of extracting cues from aural input at every level of processing, from sound to vocabulary, from grammar to syntax, from grasping the meaning of an utterance to the understanding of a whole text. At the last count the book contained 218 tasks – all research informed – equally distributed across all the above listed areas.

How many times have you taught segmenting, lexical retrieval or parsing skills through listening? In my experience, few teachers do. Yet, in the first 400-500 milliseconds of processing aural input, our brain execute these skills at a very fast speed. Hence, extensive practice in these core micro-abilities is essential.

The structure of the book is outlined in Table 1 below. Each of the 12 chapters starts with a thorough but concise discussion of the theory and research which provide a rationale for our approach, followed by a substantive section packed with a vast array of practical tips, strategies and tasks. The language used is as simplified and jargon-free as possible, in order to render the book accessible to everyone, even to non-classroom practitioners.

Table 1: breakdown of the book’s content

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The only chapters which are different in structure are Chapter 8 and 12. In Chapter 8, we show how listening can be integrated with the other three skills; a very important chapter, in the economy of our book, as a key theme that runs throughout our book is that Listening is a precursor to Speaking and that students should not venture into oral production until they have consolidated the target L2 items receptively first.

In Chapter 12 we provide suggestions on how to develop listening in a language department where this skill is lagging. Here are our 9 principles for framing the planning of an intervention programme:

1. Where are we now? 

An evaluation of current practice is worth carrying out. To what extent do we understand the rationale and research support for activities we do? What percentage of time is spent on one-way and two way-listening? Where listening is happening, to what extent is it focused on process? How do students respond to listening lessons?

2.Target language

How much L2 are we using in class? To what extent does the Scheme of Work/Learning or Curriculum Plan spell out that L2 use is at the heart of lessons? Is this actually carried out? We wouldn’t suggest a specific percentage of L2 use since this is too directive and classes vary, but a conscious decision can be made that L2 is the default position. Most of the listening students do is, as we’ve seen, interpersonal. So should interactive, communicative lessons be a number one priority – using the language, not talking about it? How would L2 based lessons look? We know this is a challenging area for many teachers. Would they include choral repetition, reading aloud, the use of sentence-builder frames, thorough structured drilling and QA interactions, L2 games, less controlled dialogues such as role-play, adapting dialogues, information gap activities and communicative tasks? We know students who receive a consistent diet of meaningful interaction will inevitably become better listeners. Why not share with students the rationale for what you do?

3. It’s fine to just listen

With pressure on to ensure students are active and ‘having fun’, do we avoid long bouts of listening work? We know listening is by no means a passive task, so while lessons usually need to be varied to hold interest, is it fine to plan for quiet, active listening in lessons, alongside a diet of teacher-led and paired oral practice? Is spending 20 minutes working on a gapped transcript or dictation more beneficial than a piece of unstructured role play or producing a digital artefact? Furthermore, importantly, would overworked teachers be justified in seeing the “listening lesson” as a time to recharge batteries as the class does a calm activity? We’re familiar with this feeling!

4. Not just comprehension

Instead of just doing comprehension, how many exercises do we do which develop the micro-skills of listening? Could we weave into lessons activities we suggest in Chapters 3, 4 and 5? Do we do enough transcription, dictation, gap-filling and intonation practice? Do we take every opportunity to develop phonological and phonics skill by doing specific pronunciation practice, teaching letter to sound equivalents and talking about phonetics and phonology? Do we ever make do with second-best when it comes to pronunciation? With our beginners—intermediate students do we exploit short, comprehensible texts thoroughly, rather than longer, harder to understand texts superficially?

5. Listening for a purpose

We know students enjoy meaning-focused tasks with a purpose so do we build into the Scheme of Work at all levels specific communicative tasks and games where the focus is on listening? Do we find a suitable balance of process-focused, nitty-gritty listening work with information gaps, whole class tasks and purposeful games, such as those described in Chapters 6 and 7? Do we make listening social activity whenever we can? Do we have chats at the door when students enter or leave? Do we start lessons with brief listening and speaking exchanges about likes, dislikes, what students did last weekend, last lesson or last night?

6. Confident listeners

We know making listening feasible builds self-efficacy and creates confident listeners. Are we using texts and our own input at or just above the students’ current level? If we use a challenging resource, do we scaffold exercises sufficiently, working the material intensively so students feel they’ve mastered it? Are we flexible in our use of audio material, reading it aloud or giving extra opportunities to listen? Do we also make occasional use of short, authentic material so students get to hear what the real language sounds like? Do we use all the tricks of the trade to make listening comprehensible: gesture, pictures, facial expression, slowing down and so on. Do we deliberately practise these? Do we translate from time to time, paraphrase, repeat and pause? Do we write language up on the board after using it? Do we use formative assessment techniques to check for understanding?

7. Strategies

When comprehension fails, students may have to fall back on compensatory strategies for coping. Do we help students to think of ways they can work out meaning when they don’t understand the input: their general knowledge of the world, their knowledge of what they might expect people to say, the intonation of what’s said, and other linguistic clues? Do we have techniques for developing these skills, such as modelling, thinking aloud and specific exercises? Do we rely too much on these to compensate for weak decoding skills or an inappropriate choice of text? Have you discussed the role and range of strategies to support listening? Have you considered building these into your Scheme of Work? Do you discuss with students their problems with listening and ways to cope with harder texts? Do we do everything we can to find out what students think about listening? Do we attempt to reduce any anxiety about the process?

8.Vocabulary

If we know that vocabulary knowledge is central to listening skill and language acquisition, how might we improve our approach? Are we doing too much isolated word learning? Could we present and practise words through chunks, sentences and paragraphs? Does our syllabus create opportunities to review vocabulary on a regular basis through tasks and texts? Do we take every opportunity to present vocabulary through the aural medium? Do we keep in mind forgetting rates and the principle of spaced learning?

9.Test and exam preparation

Do we have a planned, agreed approach to the run-up to high stakes exams such as the GCSE? Do we match our teaching to the test and vice versa? How influenced are we by washback? Are our students well versed in the question types they’ll encounter? Are we explicit in telling students what they’ll be tested on? Are our own tests fair, generating scores which will not discourage students?

Compared to our previous book, “The Language Teacher Toolkit”, “Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen” is more research-informed. Every key statement is referenced and a quick glance at the 20-page long bibliography will give you a clear idea of the amount of reading and research behind this book.

In conclusion, this is an evidence-informed book written by very experienced teachers (60 years of teaching between the two of us!) for other teachers. There are tons of ideas, games, tasks and strategies that we have magpied from the best or have developed and tested ourselves. We are confident you will find something useful in there.

I am personally very proud of this book and I strongly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a clear and no-nonsense guide to listening. Just do not expect magic tricks to pass high-stake examinations. This book is about Listening As Modelling, i.e. building capacity in our student-listeners during the formative years of language learning, when high-stake examinations are not in sight and should in no way affect our teaching.

In our approach L2 instructors are primarily teacher-nurturers, not teacher-examiners. They talk to their students’ eyes; they do not merely press ‘Play’ buttons abdicating modelling to an audio track designed for an anonymous learner. Our mission is to model language, skills and culture; to facilitate linguistic and personal growth; to make learning engaging, enjoyable and successful. Not to quiz students day in day out on what is largely incomprehensible input, thereby building the perception of listening tasks as something you learn little – if anything – from.

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We hope that reading this book will deepen your understanding of listening, raise your awareness of its key role in learning and enhance your sense of efficacy and agency vis-à-vis this key skill. In the words of our concluding remarks on page 248 of our book:

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Finally, let me thank Dr Elspeth Jones, Professor Emerita at Leeds Beckett University, expert in Internationalism and – last but not least – Steve’s spouse, for patiently editing and formatting the book.

I hope you enjoy our book if you do get hold of it. Any feedback will be much appreciated.

Gianfranco

“Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen” is available for purchase on Amazon.

2 thoughts on ““Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen” – why we wrote it and what it is about

  1. Hello. I want to first say thank you for creating this book. I believe it promises to be a great contribution to the professional development of language teachers around the world. I also have a request. Would it be possible for the book to be published on Kindle with Txt-to-Speech enabled so as to be made available to those of us language teachers with visual impairment or other reading disabilities. This would be more appreciated than you realize. Thank you.

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