Challenges in listening

Listening, as an integral part of communication process, is used in any verbal communication subjected to different purposes. It is impossible to study and use foreign language without listening skills.

Teaching listening in a secondary school is aimed at the development of the following listening skills that learners should acquire up to 11th grade: to understand the main information in authentic expressions of everyday situations, to understand native speaker’s spontaneous speech, to extract particular or specific information from audio and video texts of different genres and styles. They should be able to evaluate information; use this information in communication, determine the topic/ problem of philological character on the radio or TV, provide evidence/examples/arguments in accordance with the question or problem supplied, summarize audio information and determine or express their attitude towards it. Time preferable for the duration of listening passage is up to 3 minutes. So, listening is one of the main sociocultural skills, which takes an important place in the development of communicative competence and sociocultural knowledge. The guarantee for the development good listening skills may be the development of necessary sociocultural knowledge about the target language country, matching the facts of native and target language culture. Sociocultural knowledge and skills are developed during communication, reading, writing, listening and discussions in a target language. All the main language skills: reading, writing, speaking, listening are interrelated. So, it is impossible to develop one particular skill separately from others.

Thus, learners should be able to communicate in a foreign language to be understood by native speakers. They should try to avoid faulty pronunciation, errors in grammar or vocabulary, inappropriate or offending style, otherwise, they confuse interlocutor.

It is important for a teacher to have a clear understanding of what listening is, why foreign-language learners have difficulties in it, and what solutions we can find. The burning question is how to fill a gap between peculiarities of listening and up-to-date classroom teaching. Traditionally, much classroom practice consisted of the teacher reading aloud a written text, one or more times, slowly and clearly, and then asking a number of comprehension questions about it. In such approach much attention is not given to the skill itself, or the characteristics of natural spoken English. There is nothing wrong with this approach in itself, but it could claim to be teaching listening comprehension. There are many current listening materials that can be found in the Internet and brought into the classroom. They manipulate both language and tasks, and take into account a range of skills, listener roles, topics and text types. Such approach will be more useful for learners.

Yet, listening is very motivating for language learners, because it gives them information about current world events and the target culture, and puts them in touch with the world outside the borders of classroom and the school.

So, what is listening? Listening is the ability to identify and understand what others are saying. This includes understanding a speaker’s pronunciation or accent, his grammar and vocabulary, and grasping his meaning [6: 227]. A capable listener is able to perform these four things simultaneously. The most important aspect in listening is ‘comprehension’. ‘Comprehension’ involves extracting meaning from a text, from participating in a conversation or from listening to a person or people speaking [7:14]. On the assumption of these listening peculiarities Ur defines some listening problems.

  1. Trouble with sounds. The majority of listeners rely on context for comprehension; they are often themselves unaware of inaccurate sound perception. Practice with pronunciation will assist learners in identifying the sounds they are hearing.
  2. Tendency to understand every word. This problem is common among learners. When listening to the recording learners often believe that everything that is said is important. This leads to ineffective comprehension, feelings of fatigue and failure. So, learners need practice in selective ignoring of heard information. The ability to understand the main message is of primarily importance for effective listening in a communicative situation.
  3. Can’t understand fast, natural native speech. In the classroom learners usually listen to their teacher’s speech, so they are used to their teacher’s accent, formal kind of speech or to the standard variant of British English.

It’s difficult for them to understand speakers with American or other accents. Learners often ask a teacher to slow down and speak clearly – it is convenient for them when each word sounds in isolation. If a teacher does, she is not helping them to learn to cope with everyday informal speech. Learners are accustomed to seeing words written as separate units in their textbooks. The content of listening material may not be well organized. During spontaneous conversation speakers often skip from one topic to another. In such type of conversation it is difficult for listeners to predict what speakers are going to say. They should be exposed to as much spontaneous informal talk as they can successfully understand as soon as possible. Teacher should get faster and more fluent as their listening skills develop.

Need to hear things more than once. When students listen to the types of text such as radio and television programs, audio books, lectures, and so on it is often difficult or impossible for them to stop speakers and ask them to repeat or clarify something they have missed or failed to understand. Foreignlanguage learners tend to read more than to listen, because teachers devote very little time to listening in the classroom that is why it creates a need to listen a passage more than one time.

From pedagogical point of view, it is useful for learners to listen to the same texts more than once. But in real life they often have to cope with ‘one-off’ listening; and teachers should improve their ability to do so. For this purpose, teachers can use texts with ‘redundant’ passages in which the important information is presented more than once and not too intensively.

  1. Find it difficult to keep up. Learners feel that incoming information overloads them. Teacher should not slow down the discourse but rather encourage them to relax, learn pick out essential information and allow themselves to ignore the rest.
  2. Get tired. Due to this reason listening comprehension passages should not be too long overall, they should be broken up into short ‘chunks’ through pause, change of speaker or listener response. It is a fact, that in a long listening comprehension exercise a learner’s attention and understanding of the content is much better at the beginning and becomes worse as he goes on. One reason of it is a psychological phenomenon (people tend to perceive and remember the first of a series of visual or aural stimuli better than they do later ones). Another reason is fatigue: the listener runs out of energy to absorb and interpret the strange sounds and unfamiliar words.
  3. Coping with redundancy and ‘noise’. There is a certain amount of ‘noise’ on the recording which listeners usually have to put up with. Some words may be indistinctly pronounced others may be drowned by outside interference. The foreign-language learner finds it difficult to cope with them. There are two reasons. First, he cannot understand some items just because he does not know them, others which he is not enough familiar with he cannot grasp during rapid speech. Second, he is not familiar with some sound-combinations, lexis and collocations of the language to predict or guess what was missing.
  4. Understanding colloquial vocabulary. It is obvious that a learner will not understand a word he has not learnt yet in a listening passage. He will also fail to recognize many words he has learnt but is not sufficiently familiar with to identify or recognize them when they occur within a fast stream of speech. Most of learners may not be familiar with these expressions. Mastering new words to the point of total familiarity is a gradual and long process. Learners also need to know that some expressions are common in colloquial English and more or less taboo in formal style. Students usually learn written and spoken form of a new word. Recognition of the word is linked to the knowledge of what it look like and what it sounds like when pronounced, whether in isolation or in context. If a word is not pronounced the same way in informal and formal speech, the listener may simply not recognize it as the same word, or even miss it completely.
  5. Understanding different accents. The speakers usually suppose that their audience is native users of the language, and that is why they make no concessions for non-native speakers in terms of things like speed or accent. Many learners are often surprised and discouraged and have difficulties understanding someone else because they are used to the accent of their own teacher. Some of them

believe that the second speaker’s accent is ‘wrong’ or somehow inferior. There is no such a thing as a ‘wrong’ accent; there are accents that are more or less difficult to understand. It should be taken into account that students will need to understand non-native English speakers. Today, two people who do not speak each other’s language will very often use English as the instrument of communication. It is impossible to teach students all the ‘native’ accents, so teachers can try to give them a reasonable familiarity with the two most useful English accents – the British and American standard varieties.

  1. Shortness. Sometimes listening discourse is divided into short chunks. Stretches of heard speech are broken up by being spoken by different people from different directions. Even when there are long periods of uninterrupted discourse – talks, instructions, anecdotes, stories and so on – they are often broken down into smaller units by the physical movement of the speaker, pause, and audience reaction. Speaker also may omit some parts of sentences. Stretches of speech that are more formal – lectures, broadcast reports – are usually less interrupted.
  2. Speaker visibility. Sometimes the visibility of the speaker coincides with the necessity for listener-response. In some cases we can see the person we are listening to but are not expected to react to him personally (during a television programme), and there is a situation where we cannot see the speaker but must respond to what he says (during a telephone conversation). Opportunity to see the speaker facilitates perception of listening information because listeners obtain other visual (environmental) clues that help them to grasp the meaning. Speaker’s facial expression, posture, eye direction, gesture, tone of voice enriches the content and implications of what is said. Such items contribute spoken information and facilitate listener’s comprehension [8: 225].

We should also define such factor as is lack of sociocultural and contextual knowledge of the language studied that creates some difficulties for learners in listening comprehension.

To help learners we should provide them with some listening strategies for coping with listening problems in real life situations.

There are some ways how teacher can help students to cope with the listening challenges.

In the classroom it is possible for a teacher to make listening easier for learners by helping them to see that, to choose texts which are organized in certain predictable ways, grade listening materials from easy and short to more difficult and longer, get them listen to the speakers with different accents and so on.

Of course, some problems that were mentioned above cannot be overcome. For example a teacher cannot change or influence speaker’s accent or remove background noise. Though, s/he can provide them with necessary linguistic and cultural knowledge, listening material, stimulate/facilitate their skills, find or design useful exercises to help them cope with these problems and find useful listening strategies.

First of all, a teacher should classify listening materials from the easy to more difficult ones and use materials according to their level. A teacher also should familiarize students with authentic material as well as former sentences and expressions. From time to time listening material should become more and more complicated and totally authentic.

Yet, a teacher can design task-oriented exercises that aim learner’s interest at listening material. Such kind of tasks helps them to develop listening skills. As Ur had said, “Listening exercises are most effective if they are constructed round a task. That is to say, the students are required to do something in response to what they hear that will demonstrate their understanding” [7: 25]. She recommended the following tasks: taking notes, answering questions, true or false statements, putting pictures into the order according to the listening passage.

It is important and facilitates listening comprehension when students are provided with background information and various inputs, such as lectures, films, interviews, everyday conversation, TV programs, storytelling, English songs, and so on.

According to Brown and Yule audio texts can be divided into three types: static, dynamic and abstract [5: 192]. To static texts they refer texts of descriptive and instructive character; dynamic texts are the texts of narrative character which recount an incident; those that express someone’s ideas or beliefs refer to abstract texts. All types of texts present different kinds of difficulties, so, to prevent them three types of input should be provided.

Another recommendation for teachers to help students simplify listening understanding is to use visual aids, pictures, diagrams related to listening topics. This may stimulate students’ imagination and guessing. A teacher should help learners develop a set of listening strategies and choose an appropriate strategy to certain listening situation.

To help learners understand speaker’s accent or pronunciation a teacher may give examples of colloquial patterns of speech, ask students to practice and imitate native speaker’s pronunciation. Students should be aware of at least two speaker’s accents: British and American.

For school learners (low-level students) a teacher should use simple listening texts, and more complicated ones for advanced learners. Because, low-level learners are not capable of accepting extra information in long listening passages. On the contrary, advanced learners may benefit from complex, broadened and sophisticated listening materials.

One more important feature is to provide feedback on learners’ performance and observe students’ reaction. Thus, a teacher can keep activities purposeful. It can help fulfill error correction and learners’ encouragement. Following students’ feedback a teacher is aware how the class succeeds and should be managed [3: 134].

A teacher can develop students’ listening skills by putting different goals in tasks. For instance, s/he can aim learners’ perception at listening for specific information, listening for the main idea, for intended meaning, for expressing attitude or opinion and so on.

Listening exercises are divided into three stages: pre-listening, while listening, post-listening. Each stage contains different types of activities. For example, activities (warm-up exercises) referring to pre-listening stage are discussion, prediction about the topic (based on visuals), brainstorming, games, guiding questions.

While-listening stage may include the following activities: comparing passage with prediction, filling in gaps, repetition of the phrases, completion utterances recorded, monitoring mistakes or differences, search of

the information, paraphrasing, information transfer, filling in blanks, matching.

Post-listening exercises are: true/false or multiple choice questions, problem solving, summarizing, jigsaw listening, writing based on listening material – letters, telegrams, messages, postcards, speaking as a final stage of listening activities – interview, debate, discussion, dramatization, role play related to listening material.

It is a teacher who can arrange listening process with the help of various pre-listening, while-listening and post-listening tasks so that students were completely engaged and benefit from the listening process.

A teacher should try to make listening exercises success-oriented. When students succeed they feel more confident in their listening ability. Yet, students should be aware of listening goal. If a teacher conducts a lesson in a foreign language using audio and audiovisual means, he creates a prototype of foreign environment, approaching learning process to real foreign language communication.

Listening takes a significant place in language learning and teaching, that is why it is important for language teachers to help pupils become effective listeners, capture their interest, stimulate their imagination and motivate them. However, listening is to be the most difficult skill for students to acquire. The problem is that students lack skills in listening, motivation and memory retention. Due to different approaches to language teaching that commonly used today a teacher can motivate learners, help them develop listening skills and cope with challenges.



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Year: 2012
City: Oskemen
Category: Philology