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Teaching Listening at Upper
Intermediate Level
by Sam Smith
- 1

At the beginning of an extensive (3 hrs. A week) course with my upper intermediate group I conducted a needs analysis, I was pleasantly surprised by their very modern attitude to listening and how important it is. This ties in with my own beliefs and my observations of this class and of the problems of my students in general in this area.
Before going on to describe the argument for listening and how to carry out the listening lesson, I would like to spend a few words on my students' goals and needs.
· 25% of the group use English with Americans and British people on a regular basis at work.
· 50% of the group are learning English so as to use it in an English speaking country and 25% to live and work there.
· 87.5% put as a specific goal 'to understand native speakers and speak fluently'. (The other 12.5% put 'speak like a native speaker'.)
This shows a great need and desire to practice and be taught listening, particularly with authentic materials featuring native speaker speech and a need to be presented with and become aware of the features of this: stress, intonation, weak forms, elision, assimilation, catonation, using fillers, pauses, repetition, self correction, interruptions and all the discourse features used to signal a speakers' intention.
Some of these features are of particular importance to my students, being Spanish, as there is a noticeable difference between Spanish and English in terms of word and sentence stress, intonation and weak forms.

The Importance of Listening

Historically played down until the event of the popularity of the tape player, the importance of 2nd language listening has been growing recently and we are finally beginning to see how important it is.
It was something that I had just accepted as another part of ELT until at a teaching workshop in Kharkov, Ukraine, I was asked to compare my feelings about being deaf, dumb or illiterate. I chose being deaf as the worst. I have lived in 3 foreign countries while learning the language and have noticed what is important. Listening (and speaking) are the mediums through which I conduct at least 90% of my interaction (my guess) and I don't think I am unique in this.
My own observations are backed up by Michael Lewis.

Almost all the world's natural language output is spoken rather than written.
(Lewis 1993, 32)

As well as listening being a vital skill for almost all interaction, it follows from this that it is therefore the most important medium for input in learning a foreign language (Lewis 1993) and by increasing our students' ability to perceive speech, we are increasing the amount of input they will receive and therefore aiding language acquisition.

Having established the importance of listening, I would like to answer a few questions about the nature of listening before going on to look at how we teach it and how we should teach it.

What is listening?

Michael Rost breaks down listening into 2 things: The component skills and what a listener does.
What a listener does, is take some conscious action, involving cognitive processes to understand a message. The listener must take decisions such as:
· What kind of situation is this?
· What is my plan for listening?
· What are the important words and units of meaning?
· Does the message make sense?
(Rost 1991, 4)

Making these kinds of decisions involves thinking about meaning at the same time as listening, another way to say this is listening strategies.

Rost give the skills (in terms of perception skills, analysis skills and synthesis skills) necessary for understanding as:
· Discriminating between sounds. (perception)
· Recognising words. (perception)
· Identifying grammatical groupings of words. (analysis)
· Identifying 'pragmatic units' - expressions and sets of utterances which function as whole units to create meaning. (analysis)
· Connecting linguistic cues to paralinguistic cues (intonation and stress) and to non-linguistic cues (gestures and relevant objects in the situation) in order to construct meaning. (synthesis)
· Using background knowledge (what we already know about the content and the form) and context (what has already been said) to predict and then to confirm meaning. (synthesis)
· Recalling important words and ideas.
(Rost 1991, 3-4)

These skills make up a person's listening ability.

By helping learners improve their skills (listening ability) and encouraging them to successfully use strategies we should be making them better listeners. (Rost 1991)

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