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TEACHING LISTENING SKILLS AT TERTIARY LEVEL
Mykolas Romeris University, Vilnius, Lithuania
Listening has been a neglected skill in terms of research and, in spite of it being most needed ability in everyday life, left to a secondary position after speaking and writing. Skills of listening need to be taught like all other language skills.
This paper describes research into learners self-assessment of listening difficulties and challenges performing listening tests. The findings give insights into the practice of developing listening skills.
Useful tips for good practice of teaching effective listening skills in a foreign language have been offered based on the research data and observation of the students performance.
Skills of listening have been neglected in terms of research and shifted to a secondary position. The priority has been given to teaching speaking and writing. It is a surprising fact considering that it is the skill most often used in everyday life. According to L. Miller (2003), more than forty percent of our daily communication is spent on listening, thirty-five percent on speaking, about sixteen percent on reading, and only nine percent on writing. Yet listening remains one of the least understood processes in language learning in spite of its critical role in communication and language acquisition.
Researchers and language teachers have often maintained that listening skills could be picked up by the learners. Now it is generally accepted that listening skills have to be taught like any other language skills. Currently more attention is being paid to developing and researching the field of teaching listening. State-of-the-art issues relevant to listening will be examined further in our literature review.
Objectives of Study
The objectives of this research is to evaluate students difficulties in while- and post-listening activities and to analyze learners performance in English for Specific Purposes (ESP) listening tests in order to develop a sound to listening activities.
Methods and respondents
The methods of research include the application of self-assessment questionnaires on while- and post-listening activities and the analysis of learners performance in listening comprehension tests.
The respondents were 97 full-time students who study English for Specific Purposes (ESP) at tertiary level.
Review of literature
Although once labeled a passive skill, listening is an active, creative and demanding process of selecting and interpreting information from auditory and visual clues. What is known about the listening process basically emerges from research on developments in native language.
In listening activities there are several major steps that may occur sequentially or simultaneously, in rapid succession, or backward and forward. The major points include determining a reason for listening, predicting information, attempting to organize information, assigning a meaning to the message, transferring information from short-term memory to long-term memory.
The research into listening (Rivers, 1992) suggests: listening involves active cognitive processing the construction of a message from phonic material. Three stages in the aural reception of a message are distinguished: 1) listeners must recognize in phonic substance sound patterns in bounded segments related to phrase structure. At this stage students are dependent on echoic memory, which is very fleeting; 2) listeners must immediately begin processing, identifying the groupings detected according to the content of our central information system; 3) listeners recycle the material they organized through immediate memory, thus building up an auditory memory which helps to retain the segments listeners are processing. Another important point is highlighted: much of processing of incoming information takes place during the pauses in speech (Rivers, 1992). Thus, speech is still comprehensible if the pauses are slightly lengthened. Pauses in natural speech allow students to gain processing time. Since listening is a creative activity, much of comprehension involves drawing inferences, in other words, creating messages is a characteristic feature of listening, and learners store the message they have created. This phenomenon is called a false recognition memory (Rivers, 1992).
Learners inability to understand the L2 speech is caused just as much by difficulties of the language as by memory limits (Cook, 1996:69). All comprehension depends on the storing and processing of information by the mind. Interestingly, the human mind is less efficient in L2 whatever it is doing. L2 learners have cognitive deficits with listening that are not caused by lack of language ability but by difficulties with processing information in the L2 (Cook, 1996).
The role of vocabulary knowledge and its recognition in listening affects comprehension of information. John Read (2000) coined the term listenability as an oral equivalent of readability. The simple readability idea focuses on two variables: the frequency of the complex vocabulary and the length of the sentences. The number of long words (three syllables or longer) and the number of words in a sentence define comprehensibility of a text. Lexical density is a variable showing the percentage of content words, and it may provide an indication of how easy it will be for learners to understand a spoken text. In listening, it is not just the relative frequency of the content words that affects comprehension but also how concentrated they are in the text. The issue is also not simply a level of difficulty, but also one of authenticity and content validity. Authenticity implies real language, which is the hardest to understand, because no concessions are made to foreign learners - language is unlikely to be simplified or spoken slowly. For non-native listeners, authenticity often means negative expectations, i.e. listening is bound to be too difficult (Harmer, 2001).
When learners listen to unfamiliar speech they hear an almost continuous chain of sounds. Inexperienced learners do not actually hear the boundaries of words. Experienced learners are able to break down this chain into separate words in their heads because they are familiar with the sounds and can create meaningful words with them (Read, 2000). Errors at this level may impede the listener in the correct understanding of the spoken utterance.
The role of intonation in listening activities seems underestimated (J. Harrington, online). Intonation is known as the ability to vary the pitch and tune of speech. Stressing words and phrases correctly is vital if emphasis is to be given to the important parts of messages. Some words sound more prominent they stand out to a greater extent than others. The relative prominence of words depends very much on how the intonation is associated with the words, or with the text, of the utterance. Above all, the same string of words can be accented in different ways. Different turns are signaled by the rise and fall in pitch. People hear certain accented words as prominent because of intonation. Knowing the language well, there is no need to hear every single sound in every single word to know what is said, because ones mind is able to fill in the gaps and to determine where one word ends and the other begins. Intonation is interrelated with pronunciation. The aspect of pronunciation is crucial to listening. The major problem that occurs in learning pronunciation is students great difficulty in hearing pronunciation features, in intonation tunes or identifying the different patterns of rising and falling tones (Harmer, 2001).
There are two basic levels in learning to listen: the level of recognition and the level of selection (Field, 2003). The level of recognition implies separating elements and patterns such as phonemes, intonation, words, and phrases. The level of selection means separation of the message units for retention and comprehension without conscious attention to individual components. The development of selection level plays an important role because it is responsible for understanding specific information and gist, and, therefore, the ability to answer relevant questions.
In the 20th century, testing students understanding L2 messages was traditionally a hard task. Language teachers relied on tests that employed multiple-choice and True or False questions. In the last decade, however, the assessment of listening in a second language has attracted increasing amount of attention. The degree of listenability significantly affected test scores (Wagner, online): the dialogue text was the easiest, then the lecture text, and the newscast text was the most difficult. This result is quite understandable, because spoken language differs from written language it contains many pauses, fillers and redundancies, which allow more processing time for the listener to interpret the input. Moreover, word stress is a magic key to understanding spoken English. Native speakers use word stress naturally, they do not even know they use it. Non-native speakers of English find it difficult to understand native speakers, while the native speakers find it difficult to understand non-native speakers.
Teaching listening skills is one of the most difficult tasks for any English language teacher, because successful listening skills are acquired over time and with lots of practice (Rivers, 1992). Learning listening skills is frustrating for students because there are no rules as in grammar teaching. Listening skills are also difficult to quantify. One of the largest inhibitors for students is often mental block. While listening students suddenly decide they do not understand. At this point, many students just tune out some students convince themselves they are not able to understand spoken English well and create problems for themselves.
A scientific approach is essential in order to help students to improve listening skills. One aspect of this approach is to convince learners that not understanding is all right. Another aspect is to satisfy the students wish to listen to English passages as often as possible. The third aspect is to provide listening practice for short periods of time (5 10 minutes). According to V. M. Rivers (1992), a rule of thumb in giving listening practice is not too much but often. The fourth aspect of this approach is to teach students important listening strategies, which are individual - not the same to each person, i.e. to pay attention, not to stop listening or get distracted or bored if not understanding, take notes, etc. A list of useful listening sub-skills incorporates predicting, guessing unknown words or phrases, identifying relevant points, retaining relevant points, recognizing discourse markers, cohesive devices, understanding different intonation patterns and uses of stress, understanding inferred information (Saricoban, online, 1999).
Participants and research methods
The participants in this project were 97 day-time students. There were two streams of learners: 35 1st year students and 62 2nd year students of the same faculty. They studied English for Specific Purposes (ESP). The design of the ESP course reflected the students needs in professional language, and the course was adjusted to requirements for a Bachelor of Social Science degree. The majority of learners were in their early twenties, and females. Males made just a small group of 7. The average level of proficiency was pre-intermediate, although there were some students (about 10%) of intermediate proficiency.
Recently learners self-reported data have become an important source of information on learning difficulties, needs, wants, likes and dislikes. Such information allows teachers to become aware of either success or failure in their teaching, make well-informed decisions on class techniques, create a beneficial environment to learners and employ an individual approach as a learning tool. The method of gathering data employed a questionnaire on learners self-assessment of listening difficulties and the comparison of self-assessment data with learners performance in listening tests. The open-ended questionnaire was designed in accordance with accepted standards of constructing surveys (Dornyei, 2003). The questionnaire is reproduced in the Appendix and cover questions on speakers rate of speaking, vocabulary, pronunciation, and difficulties while listening and in post-listening tasks. Some results of learners performance in listening tests are compared with the relevant data of self-assessment. The findings are presented in the results section.
Results and discussion
Learners often complain about fast speaking rate of native speakers. For this reason, the first question refers to the speaking speed in listening activities, because speaking rate of native speakers is important for understanding a message by non-native speakers.
Chart 1. Learners perception of speaking speed.
Chart 1 displays learners perception of speaking rates which are drawn by double bars. The 1st bars show the responses by the 1st year students, and the 2nd bars by the 2nd year students. Quite surprisingly, 47% of the 2nd year students find speaking rate in recordings too fast, in comparison to only 11% of the 1st year students (first pair of columns). The second pair of columns shows that 47% and 31% of learners, respectively, think speaking rate is quite good. Moreover, only 22% of the 2nd year students feel speaking speed is normal in comparison to 42% of the 1st year students. It can be concluded that the 1st year students have better listening skills and fewer inhibitions than their senior counterparts. Such a difference can be ascribed either to individual differences of two streams of students or their language backgrounds.
It is well known that pronunciation affects students comprehensibility. Moreover, pronunciation is the most important feature people notice in persons English. Next research question refers to the importance of speakers pronunciation. The learners responses are displayed in Chart 2.
Only a few learners in both study groups (3%) believe that speakers pronunciation in recordings does not affect their level of comprehension. The vast majority of the students admit that speakers pronunciation in listening materials either always (51% and 41%, respectively) or sometimes (46% and 56%, respectively) affects their listening comprehension. This implies that learners need exposure to various English dialects.
Chart 2. Influence of pronunciation on comprehensibility of material.
Undoubtedly, knowledge of vocabulary is of uppermost importance in understanding a foreign language. This notion made us examine the question of comprehensible vocabulary.
Chart 3. Learners comprehension of vocabulary in recordings.
Chart 3 displays students self-assessment of the impact of vocabulary recognition on comprehensibility of material in listening practice. The minority of learners in both streams had no problems with vocabulary (8% and 11%, respectively). It should be noted that professional vocabulary was always brainstormed before the listening activities. Two thirds of the 1st year students recalled 75% of lexis, and almost a quarter (26%) half of the vocabulary (50%). For the 2nd year students, the ratio is 50% and 39%, respectively. These results imply that learners found it difficult to recall general vocabulary. This fact is quite significant. Its implication for teachers is very important: teachers need to pay more attention to revising lexis, otherwise learners find it difficult to activate learnt vocabulary.
The important issue is to find out what difficulties students encounter during listening practice. Students responses are displayed in Chart 4.
Chart 4. Learners perceptions of difficulties while-listening.
The good news is that learners were able to understand main points only a few students found this task too hard (9% and 6%, respectively). The main problem was difficulty in understanding specific information (40% and 61%, respectively), and desire by students to understand each word in the recordings (66% and 26%, respectively). All in all, in ones native language people do not listen to speakers word by word, and they sometimes are step ahead of the speaker. However, this was not the case in this situation among students who listened to passages in English. Therefore, a recommendation to use the top-down activities, i.e. activate prior knowledge of students on the subject, is crucial for teachers who set listening activities. According to (Lingzhu, 2003), it can help students transfer their mother tongue listening strategies into English listening.
The difficulty of recalling information from listening passages was problematic to 20% of the 1st year and 34% of the 2nd year learners, respectively. This fact is in agreement with V. Cooks views on learners memory limits and cognitive deficits. Learners process information in the L2 slower and forget faster.
Administering various activities that reveal the degree of perception usually helps to check learners listening comprehension. Next question covers possible challenges of comprehension. The responses are displayed in chart 5.
Chart 5. Learners perceptions of difficulties in post-listening.
Gap-filling and summarizing were ranked as the most complex exercises 49% and 40%, respectively for the 1st year students, and 35% and 39% - for the 2nd year students. Other activities seemed to be tricky on average to about 20% of the learners.
The usual procedure of assessing learning outcomes, which neither learners nor teachers like, is administering various tests. Testing can give teachers valuable information about what students have or havent learnt and help a teacher to decide what needs to be reviewed and take decisions on how to improve teaching. Tests encourage students to review materials and can give them a sense of accomplishment. Testing listening comprehension can reveal how realistic learners are about their perceptions that have been shown in charts 4 and 5.
In this research on students performance in listening tests, all students listened to the same recording twice and answered 10 comprehension questions. Seven questions out of ten refer to specific details in a passage, one to the gist, two to getting a particular word. Self-assessment and testing data on answering questions are compared in Table 1. As can be seen, it is consistent with self-assessment and testing data except for the 2nd year students performance.
Table 1. Comparison of Self-Assessment and Testing Data.
In self-assessment chart 5, only 20% of the 1st year students find it difficult to answer comprehension questions. Interestingly, in testing, on average, 25% of our students failed to answer questions correctly, which is in a fairly good agreement with the self-assessment results. In self-assessment chart 4, 40% of the 1st year learners felt it hard to understand specific information. In testing, the percentage of students is 42%, which is also very close to the self-assessment data.
As many as 61% of the 2nd year students felt it is hard to catch the specific information. In tests, the percentage of the students who failed to understand specific information was 39%, which means that some learners are much better at comprehension than they perceive.
It should be noted that current teaching of L2 listening has tended to overlook the point that learners ultimate aim is to rely less on contextual guesswork, and more on hearing what was actually said. J. Wilson (2003) claims that an excessive focus on meaning, either through extra vocabulary learning or additional listening practice, will not necessarily solve the listening comprehension of many students. A so called discovery listening is described as an approach to teaching listening that strikes a balance between attention to form and attention to meaning, and tries to achieve a focus on sound and word recognition by adapting the dictation approach (Wilson, 2003). Furthermore, noticing as a method of improving listening ability by getting students to discover and then prioritize their listening difficulties after reconstructing a text is highly recommended.
The issue of breakdowns of understanding in L2 listening was addressed by J. Field (2003). The causes of breakdowns in understanding are numerous, i.e. due to lexical segmentation (determining word boundaries), a reduced form of words, weak forms, the chunking of phrases, a rhythm of speech, assimilation and elision (word beginnings and endings), resyllabification (a syllable final consonant attaches itself to the following syllable), cliticization (effect towards a regular stressed-unstressed pattern). J. Fields message to teachers is to be aware of learners perceptual difficulties and be prepared to anticipate and rectify listening problems.
The data and discussion described above led us to an experiment of arranging individual listening practice for each learner. Fortunately, our English language classroom is equipped with computers, and access to the Internet is unlimited. These facilities made advantageous provisions for arranging online listening practice individually. The assignments included listening to recordings available at the BBC language learning website http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/. The good point about this website is that its recordings are updated every week, so the website can be often used for learning purposes. Moreover, there are a lot of interesting things that students can learn doing quizzes or listening exercises, in other words, learners do not get bored with their activities. The students were free to choose recordings that they wanted to hear, listen to them for as many times as they needed for a complete comprehension, then subsequently read tape-scripts, which are available on this learning site, and analyze unknown vocabulary.
Individual listening practice has a number of advantages in learning listening skills. First, a learner can work at ones own pace. Second, it allows a learner to concentrate on his or her assignment. Third, learners do not worry for not being able to follow everything immediately. Finally, they can analyze their performance and not lose face due to anonymity of ones performance.
Corporate listening activities, which are common in language classes, do not benefit all students in the same way probably because of learners diverse abilities to grasp a meaning. Moreover, shy students are reluctant to admit if they fail to follow, thus losing an opportunity to learn. In addition, majority of students prefer ideal listening conditions, i.e. complete silence in the classroom, ideal quality of a record, etc., which are difficult to ensure. Consequently, individual listening practice might be beneficial to students who wish to perfect their skills of listening. Learners can practice individual listening outside English classes at their own pace and at the convenient time.
As a matter of interest, after online listening practice students described their listening experiences in their weblogs, which are downloaded on the teachers weblogs (http://gkavaliauskiene.blogspot.com and can be viewed by anyone who is interested in this problem.
Implications of research
The implications of research might be useful to other teachers who face challenges of teaching listening skills. The most interesting suggestion that we would like to put forward is to arrange individual listening to online recordings either in the classroom, if facilities permit, or advise students to carry it out outside classes. This will give a novelty feeling to your learners and provide a vast diversity of listening materials to choose from.
The analysis of learners self-assessment and practice in while- and post-listening activities offers some useful tips in teaching listening skills. Teachers can encourage students to: 1) avoid tuning out during listening (if students mind wanders, it is easy to miss information); 2) anticipate further information similarly, as learners do in their mother tongue; 3) underline key words in comprehension questions before listening; it helps to concentrate; 4) remember that not understanding every word is all right; 5) make pauses while listening the thinking time to process information is needed for non-native listeners; 6) take notes while listening it helps retain specific information, especially numbers, dates, figures; 7) search for implied meanings and assumptions; 8) paraphrase the talk in their own words or summarize what they hear.
Learners difficulties in while- and post-listening activities were researched by employing learners self-assessment questionnaire. Several facts have emerged. Firstly, perceptions of speaking speeds in the same recorded messages differ. Secondly, pronunciation in recorded messages affects comprehension of many learners. Thirdly, even pre-taught vocabulary might present difficulty in understanding. Finally, during listening activities students found it difficult to get specific information and wanted to hear each word, and in post-listening difficulties gap-filling and summary writing were most problematic.
The implications of creative approach to developing listening skills are to diversify listening practice make it individual, which is possible by employing online listening facilities. Application of creative approach to teaching and learning skills of listening might be helpful. Some teaching and learning tips are suggested.
Cook V. (1996). Second Language Learning and Language Teaching. London: Arnold, 228 p.
Dornyei, Z. (2003). Questionnaires in Second Language Research. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,
Inc., Publishers. New Jersey. USA.
Field J. (2003). Promoting Perception: Lexical Segmentation in L2 Listening. ELT Journal, 57/4,
Harmer J. (2001). Practice of English Language Teaching. 3rd edition. Longman, 370 p.
Harrington J. About Intonation.
Lingzhu T. (2003). Listening Activities for Effective Top-Down Processing. The Internet TESL
Journal, vol. IX , No 10. http://iteslj.org/Techgniques/Lingzhu Listening.html
Miller L. (2003). Developing Listening Skills with Authentic Materials. ESL Magazine.
Read J. (2000). Assessing Vocabulary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 279 p.
Rivers V. M. (1992). Communicating Naturally in a Second Language. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 243 p.
Saricoban A. (1999). The Teaching of Listening. The Internet TESL Journal, vol. V, No 12.
Wagner E. Factors Affecting Comprehension in L2 Tests.
Wilson M. (2003). Discovery Listening Improving Perceptual Processing. ELT Journal, 57/4, p.
Appendix. Questionnaire on Listening Skills.
1 How do you rate the speed of speaking in the recordings?
2 Does speakers pronunciation in recordings affect your comprehension of listening material?
3 What percentage of vocabulary do you understand?
4 What are your difficulties in while-listening practice?
5 What are your difficulties in post-listening activities?
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