Helping Advanced Learners to Prepare for Exams and the Real World
Spoken discourse has very different features from written discourse; therefore, it may take a long time to master the ability to understand fluent speakers because learners need to learn how to process spoken language. According to Jack C. Richards (2015), there are two different kinds of listening, which are referred to as one-way listening, or non-interactive listening, and two-way listening, or interactive listening:
In one-way listening, such as listening to the radio, listening to a lecture or watching a movie, the listener is required to process what is heard, but is generally not able to interact with the speaker or speakers in order to facilitate comprehension. In two-way listening situations, such as those involving face-to-face interaction with speakers, the listener is able to interact with the speaker and use a variety of strategies to clarify the speaker’s meaning.
(Richards, 2015: 372)
One-way and two-way listening require different sets of listening skills and strategies.
Problematic features of spoken discourse
Listening in a foreign language is difficult due to such features of spoken discourse as speed, the unplanned nature of spoken discourse, accents, and blends and reductions.
One of the most common obstacles foreign language learners mention is that fluent native speakers seem to speak very fast. In fact, speech rates used by both fluent native and non-native speakers of any language vary considerably. However, Richards (2015:373) points out that ‘the impression of faster or slower speech generally results from the amount of intra-clausal pausing that speakers make use of’.
Many learners have insufficient exposure to authentic spoken language because their experience of spoken English may be confined either to the teacher’s language, which is often carefully monitored or simplified, or to recordings accompanying their textbooks, often featuring professional actors reading carefully from prepared scripts. As a result, when they have to deal with natural ‘unscripted’ discourse, they may have difficulty following it.
The unplanned nature of spoken discourse
While the discourse learners hear in teaching materials is often planned carefully to aid comprehension, two-way spoken discourse is usually much more spontaneous and often reflects the processes of construction, such as hesitations, reduced forms, fillers, false starts and repeats. Spoken discourse is also context-dependent and personal, often assuming shared background knowledge (Lynch, 2009: 16).
In face-to-face conversations or while using classroom technology and the media, learners of English come across a variety of English accents, some of which are unfamiliar and may initially impede comprehension. Field (2008) points out that foreign language learners normally take a longer time ‘to get used to a voice that employs the unfamiliar sounds, rhythm patterns and intonation of a foreign language’ (Field, 2008: 158). To make a successful transition to the real world, he suggests that students regularly listen to recordings of speakers with different accents to identify and get used to distinctive features of the speakers’ English, such as speech rate, accent and pitch (Field, 2008: 160).
Blends and reductions
Words in natural speech often sound very different from the way learners expect to hear them, due to the fact that words are often reduced to accommodate to the rhythms of spoken English. Words are also blended together, which sometimes leads to problems of recognition (Richards, 2015: 376).
Richards (2015) distinguishes two kinds of processes are involved in understanding spoken discourse: bottom-up (decoding the incoming input as the basis for understanding the message) and top-down processing (the use of background knowledge in understanding the meaning of a message). Whereas bottom-up processing goes from language to meaning, top-down processing goes from meaning to language.
Bottom-up processing (decoding the message) mainly draws on the listener’s knowledge of key words in an utterance and knowledge of grammar, including word order, tense distinctions, syntax and parts of speech. Field (2008) offers a solution to how problems such as these can be addressed:
The answer is to expose learners to spoken material that contains multiple examples of the feature they have trouble with. There is absolutely no reason why a remedial exercise of this kind should involve a lengthy listening passage; instead, it might take the form of a micro-listening task, lasting as little as five or ten minutes. It might involve a set of (say) ten sentences, all of them exemplifying the problem in question.
Field (2008: 88)
Apart from decoding, several other factors are involved in interpreting messages. Listeners use different dimensions of top-down processing: context, background knowledge, situational knowledge, inferencing and interactive listening processes, such as confirmation check, comprehension check, clarification request, repetition, reformulation, etc. (Lynch, 2009: 63).
Learning to listen involves practice in a variety of skills, such as listening for key words, listening and making inferences, listening for topics, listening for main ideas and listening for details. In standard examinations, listening skills are tested at two levels: microskills, i.e. the ability to process speech at the linguistic level as a bottom-up process, and macroskills, i.e the ability to focus on the larger elements of a listening task involved in a top-down approach.
Learners’ ability to understand what they hear can improve dramatically if they are regularly exposed to authentic audio materials. The more English they hear, delivered at natural speed in a variety of voices and contexts, the more confident they become in extracting key information and gist meaning, even if they are not able to catch and process every single word or phrase. Therefore, an extensive listening programme which involves your students in providing verbal or written reviews or giving a series of short class talks will give them exposure to varieties of English, to speakers of different ages and backgrounds, and to the language of different contexts.
To build students’ opportunities to hear naturally occurring spoken English
To introduce an extensive listening activity that serves as a model for independent practice
Video: The mysterious world of underwater caves
Cave diver Jill Heinerth explores the hidden underground waterways coursing through our planet. Working with biologists, climatologists and archaeologists, Heinerth unravels the mysteries of the life-forms that inhabit some of the earth's most remote places and helps researchers unlock the history of climate change. In this short talk, she invites us to take a dive below the waves and explore the wonders of inner space.
1. Play the video without subtitles and without pauses. Focus on getting the main ideas, not listening for details, and note any new words that seem important.
2. After watching the talk, summarise what you saw in a single paragraph.
3. Think what the main ideas were and how to select the appropriate points for writing a short summary. Then write a response to the content of the talk – what you thought about the speaker and the issues raised.
4. Write a few sentences reflecting on your experience of listening to the talk without subtitles or pauses. Then think what you felt and how you needed to use different listening strategies than you are used to using when you have the opportunity to watch videos with subtitles.
5. Having completed this viewing and reflection activity, you will be familiar with the various practices you will need to use as you pursue a range of listening activities.
Field, J. (2008) Listening in the Language Classroom, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lynch, T. (2009) Teaching Second Language Listening, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Richards, J. C. (2015) Key issues in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cambridge English: Advanced Handbook for Teachers (2015)