The nature of listening
'Listening is an active not a passive operation.' Garvie. With this in mind I would like to emphasize three things:
The importance of understanding this concept of listening is being an active engagement. That is, as a listener, the mind is actively searching for meaning.
The importance of what Krashen calls 'comprehensible input' (CI) or that 'we acquire when we understand what people tell us or what we read, when we are absorbed in the message.' Individual progress is dependent on the input containing aspects of the target language that 'the acquirer has not yet acquired, but is developmentally ready to acquire.'
This seems to imply the importance of ensuring that the language level is matched to the learners, which means teachers, must understand their learner's abilities. Krashen advises that acquisition proceeds best when 'the acquirer's level of anxiety is low and self-confidence is high. This seems to enforce the importance of making the learning environment in our classrooms non-threatening.
Why we need to develop listening skills
'If someone is giving you a message or opinion, then of course you have to be able to understand it in order to respond.' (Brewster, Ellis, Girard).
Listening skills need to have a 'real-life' meaning, Donaldson says that children need 'purposes and intentions' which they can recognize and respond to in others 'these human intentions are the matrix in which the child's thinking is embedded.'
This implies that we need to carefully select materials and purposes for practicing listening skills and that they need to have an authentic meaning to young learners.
Theories of developing listening skills
Keeping in mind that listening is an active process, Brewster, Ellis and Girard caution that asking children to 'listen and remember' can make them 'anxious, places a great strain on their memory and tends not to develop listening skills. The teacher would support children's understanding more effectively, if they direct their pupils' attention to specific points that have to be listened for 'using activities that actively support learners' understanding and guide their attention to specific parts of the spoken text.
Wells says a lot of children's learning 'is dependent on making connections between that they know and what they are able to understand in the speech they hear' but they don't learn only listening, motivation for learning language is to be able to communicate 'using all the resources they have already acquired to interact with other people about their needs and interests.' This seems to be in line with social constructivist theories.
Piaget believed that a young learner 'constructs' or builds understanding over time. Vygotsky believed that learning was ahead of development and for development to occur; interaction with adults or peers who are more knowledgeable is needed. This has been termed the 'zone of proximal development'.
Bruner extended Vygotsky's ZPD theory by defining the role of the more knowledgeable 'other' as someone who is actively involved in the learning processes by closing the gap between what has been partially and fully understood. This has been termed 'scaffolding'.
Some considerations for classroom listening
These are some of the things I consider when I try to develop my students' listening.(Brewster, Ellis & Girard) Give the children confidence. We should not expect them to always understand every word and they should know this.
Explain why the children have to listen. Make sure the learners are clear about why they are listening, what the main point or purpose of the activity is.
Help children develop specific strategies for listening. An important strategy that the teacher should teach is 'intelligent guesswork'. Pupils are used to drawing on their background knowledge to work out something they are not sure of.
Set specific listening tasks in three stages, pre-listening, while-listening, post listening and have activities for each stage.
Listening does not have to rely on the availability of a cassette or pre-recorded material. Most listening is teacher talk.
There are a number of ways to make students easier to understand.
Keep sentences short and grammatically simple
Use exaggerated intonation to hold the child's attention
Emphasize key words
Limiting the topics talked about to what is familiar to the child
Frequently repeating and paraphrasing
Listening is an active process, as the mind actively engages in making meaning. It is therefore our duty as teachers to ensure that the materials we use are comprehensible to our young learners, as well as within the range of what they are developmentally ready for. Listening is also hard work! And can be stressful! So in order to maximize the potential for acquisition of language, we need to ensure that our young learners are not stressed about this process
Here is a possible sequence for doing pre-listening with upper elementary students who can already write simple questions. I have chosen the news as an example.
Brainstorm content of listening from topic 'Today's News'
Elicit list of possible content and write on board e.g. Elections, Sport results, Weather etc.
Elicit possible order of content.
Make groups of four, with one 'chairperson.'
Each student has to choose one topic from the list and think of 2 things they would like to know. They write questions. (teacher monitors)
Students listen to the text and answer Questions.
Listen again if necessary.
Individual members of the group tell the chairperson the answers. (teacher monitors)
Chairperson collects all the information and gives feedback to class.
A more controlled way of allowing choice with lower level students is to prepare a set of questions yourself, write them on the board, and get them to choose the two questions they would like to know the answers to.
This is fine with authentic listening taken from radio or other sources, but what about course book listening material? Here also you can give students an element of choice. Below is something I do with a short flight departure announcement from a well-known elementary course book.
Collect some pictures of the cities mentioned in the announcement.
Students look at them in groups and try to work out which cities they are.
Write up the names of the cities on board.
Each student has to choose one city s/he would like to visit. Why? Give three reasons.
Then write the name of the city on the form below.
Pre-teach airline names
Students listen and complete the information they hear in the departure lounge announcement on the form.
This is a very adaptable piece of material. With very low level students you can just collect the basic information. With slightly more advanced students you can expand on the discussion about the cities. If your class is not too big, you can actually place the 'gates' on posters around the room and students can then actually go the right gate for their destination.
As it is already mentioned, it's important to get feedback only on what a student has listened for, not on every detail of the listening piece. This selection really helps the student to zone in on information he or she is interested in, thereby mirroring what we do in real life. Different feedback from different individuals needn't be problematic. One way round it is to use the group format suggested above.
If we can create an element of 'personal investment' in listening, either by tuning into our students interests or by giving them some choice, I believe that they will have more and better reasons to listen. The result of this will be that their listening skills will improve.