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Teaching Listening to Advanced Learners: Problems and Solutions
by Scott Shelton
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Teaching advanced learners and preparing them for the Cambridge Certificate of Advanced English examination, I often encounter a majority of students who find the listening section of the test particularly challenging and difficult. In this paper I will attempt to outline a framework of what listening entails, identify some of the more salient difficulties that students typically have at advanced levels, look at possible reasons for this, and propose some activities and approaches in teaching that could enable students to improve in this area.

Defining 'listening'

Listening effectively is a demanding and involved process. One must be able to deal with different accents or pronunciation, unfamiliar lexical items and syntactic structures, competing background noise, and also make a conscious effort to not 'switch off' or become distracted while listening. All of this must be achieved and dealt with more or less simultaneously in order to identify and understand the meaning in any given message.

There is often a difference between what we experience in 'real life' in terms of listening and what students are asked to deal with in the classroom. In 'real life' we are required to listen in many different situations and for different reasons. Penny Ur (1984:2) offers a list of listening sources such as:

• The news on the television or radio
• Friends while having an informal chat
• Others talking on their mobile phones or in a public place
• Songs and films
• Small talk at a party
• Discussing problems at work or at home
• On the phone
• Attending a class or a seminar

The list can go on and on. The point is though, that while we are required to listen to many different 'texts' in real life and for different reasons, these situations are not always present in textbooks and are not always possible to recreate authentically in the classroom. This puts the learner at a disadvantage because ample exposure to a variety of situations where relevant and purposeful listening takes place is an extremely important element in improving aural comprehension and recognition skills. Therefore, the kind of listening we do and the types of tasks we set for learners in class are important. They need to be of a kind that somehow relate to learners' needs outside the classroom socially and academically, as in the case of exam preparation. They should also develop the skills necessary to understand different types of discourse which will in turn help equip them to be more effective listeners in 'authentic' native speaker environments.

How we listen

Richards (1990:50) breaks down the process used in listening comprehension into two distinct types, referring to them as 'bottom-up' and 'top-down' processing. The former is described in Cook's Discourse (1989) as:

'Interpreting the lowest-level units first, then proceeding to an interpretation of the rank above, and so on upwards.'

In other words, we sometimes need to rely on our knowledge of grammar, syntax, and lexis, and apply that knowledge when confronted with an incoming message in order to achieve comprehension. On the other hand, we might apply a top-down approach to aid comprehension. This is defined as:

'Interpreting discourse by hypothesizing about the most general units first, then moving downwards through the ranks below.'

This means applying our background knowledge to aid in understanding the meaning of a message. Richards (1990:51) explains that:

" This may be previous knowledge about the topic of discourse, it may be situational or contextual knowledge, or it may be knowledge stored in long-term memory in the form of 'schemata' and 'scripts' - plans about the overall structure of events and the relationships between them."

Anderson and Lynch (1988:22) argue that research has shown that the assumptions in the 'bottom-up' model are incorrect. They state that:

"Listeners would not be able to perceive speech as successfully as they do if they were in fact engaged in a process of building up the recognition of words solely by attempting to identify their constituent phonemes."

They instead, argue for an interactive process to explain how we listen. Amos Paran (1997) explains in an article contrasting the two models:

'Recent views see comprehension as drawing upon both types of processing, in what is know as interactive processing (Carrell, Devine and Eskey). Some psychologists claim that when the quality of the stimulus is good, bottom-up processing is preferred, and it is only when stimulus quality deteriorates that top-down processing takes over to compensate ( Eysenck and Keane).'

In teaching listening skills, we need to be aware of how these processes work and guide our students, through the use of different tasks, towards using a balanced approach if we are to aid them in improving their listening comprehension. I believe we can help advanced learners by drawing attention to these strategies and overtly practicing these listening skills in the classroom.


Why we listen

Because we listen for many different purposes in and out of the classroom, this has an effect on the way we listen. Yule and Brown (1983) make a useful distinction between interactional and transactional communication. McCarthy, (1991) in Discourse, defines transactional talk (and listening) as communication for getting business done. Interactional communication, on the other hand, has to do with lubricating the social wheels. In Listening (1988) Anderson and Lynch describe them as (transactional) listening when the main purpose is to achieve a successful transfer of information, while interactional listening is defined as listening for social reasons, and to establish or maintain friendly relations between interlocutors.

From the list mentioned above in 'defining listening', an example of 'transactional listening' would be taking notes on key information in a class or a seminar, whereas an example of 'interactional listening' would be making small talk or perhaps discussing problems at home or work.

Recognizing the different purposes that listeners have and how these differences affect the way we go about listening has important implications for the language classroom. These implications deal directly with the way we design listening tasks, ask our learners to respond to listening material and how we prepare them to listen. While practice in the areas mentioned above and pointing out how they can overlap is essential, advanced classes preparing for high level exams are required to deal with tasks largely transactional in nature. We therefore need to make them aware of appropriate techniques in order to increase their chances for success with these types of exercises such as listening for key words, or using their background knowledge to aid their understanding.

Potential Problem areas

The majority of advanced learners, in my experience, have many of the same problems that beginners and intermediate learners have. They may understand more as a general rule, but still have gaps in their understanding and experience difficulties in comprehension in less than optimum listening situations. Penny Ur (1984) points out several potential problem areas in her book Teaching Listening Comprehension: See appendix one for examples.

• Hearing the sounds
• Understanding intonation and stress
• Coping with redundancy and 'noise'
• Predicting
• Understanding (colloquial) vocabulary
• Understanding different accents
• (Not) using visual or environmental clues
• Fatigue

Listening to our students

In researching information for this paper, I naturally consulted my current advanced classes. I believe that by listening carefully to our students and involving them at a personal level, we can develop the insight necessary to help them improve their listening skills. By building on what foundation they already have, and raising their awareness of possible pitfalls that could impede their listening comprehension, we can help the advanced learner enormously.

The majority of the comments made by my students were related to the stream of speech (connected speech) and how 'fast' native speakers speak, difficulties in understanding different accents, and not knowing (or recognizing) the vocabulary used by the speaker. It was also mentioned that listening to tapes was difficult due to the lack of a clear context as well as the lack of paralinguistic features such as facial expressions and gestures. Some found it challenging to concentrate on understanding every word while at the same time attempting to understand the whole message. Becoming used to 'teacher-talk', or English spoken too clearly in class, and becoming overly accustomed to the teacher's accent were both mentioned as potentially problematic when later confronted with trying to understand other native speakers and accents.

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