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Writing While Listening - Tackling
the Double Challenge of Note Taking
by Alex Case
1

Students of even a high level often complain that listening is one of their weaker skills, usually meaning that communication with native speakers breaks down not because they can't make themselves understood, but because they don't understand what is being said to them. This can be especially true in countries where exposure to English is less due to factors such as dubbed films or English language pop music being less popular. The use in class of texts that test more than teach and which are of limited interest rarely persuades students that they want to do more of the same at home. On top of this, exams such as the CAE (Cambridge Advanced English) ask students to do other things at the same time as listening such as reading, processing logically difficult multiple choice questions or writing. Of these, the process of writing whilst listening is probably the most difficult and the least examined in TEFL literature.

This article aims to examine how we can make the double challenge of note-taking easier for our students, both by making the lessons more engaging for them and by giving them a real insight into what they are being asked to do. The article uses the CAE exam as an example, but all the concepts and activities should be relevant for any students who will need to do this, such as students wishing to study in English-medium universities. If none of these external criteria apply, the article should provide some food for thought on how, or even whether, to use the note-taking tasks that textbooks provide. To this end, this essay will examine:

- The history of listening in EFL
- The theory of how people listen
- Listening in a foreign language
- Listening and note-taking
- Note-taking in the CAE exam
- Practice and development activities

The history of listening in EFL
In EFL, listening first came to the forefront in the audio-lingual method, although this mainly consisted of comprehension and then repeating dialogues. Things have developed somewhat, so that now what we might call the 'standard listening' might be considered the one that consists of: lead-in, pre-teach, general comprehension task, detailed comprehension task, post-text production task. More recently, but less well known, there has been increasing talk of a 'micro-skills' approach to listening, responding to the perceived weaknesses in what I have called the 'standard listening' above, that 'it does little or nothing to improve the effectiveness of [students'] listening or to address their shortcomings as listeners'(1). These two approaches are examined in more detail below.

The theories of how people listen
In the most general terms, one theory of the process by which people listen and understand is (2):

- The listener takes the sounds into their short-term memory
- The sounds are organised into constituents (sense groups)
- The listener interprets the sense, using the semantic meaning
- The meaning is stored in long term memory, the original words being forgotten

I would generally accept this theory. One experience I have had that seems to back this up is finding myself singing a song in English that is sung in Spanish! More commonly, it is exactly in songs that people often remember whole strings of the exact sounds even when they have misheard the lyrics and what they sing along to themselves is gibberish- so obviously the model above is not the entire story.

Listening in a foreign language
The second language learner undergoes the same process as above, but their needs can be analysed in more detail. What a student needs to be able to understand, or at least cope with, a text in L2 can be divided into two parts

1. Knowledge
2. Strategies to cope with lack of that knowledge

Knowledge can be split down again into:

- Knowledge of the pronunciation system
- Knowledge of lexis
- Knowledge of grammar
- Knowledge of culture

In terms of pronunciation, the learner will need to be able to distinguish between the individual sounds of the language, e.g. 'ankle' and 'uncle'. In contrast, they will also need to identify variations on the same sound as the same thing, e.g. cope with variations by accent. A particular problem of English is that a word familiar in the written form might be totally unrecognisable when heard.
In linked speech, students will need to cope with weak forms, elision etc. in order to interpret the message. In order to get the 'pragmatic' meaning of what is being said, they will also need a good grasp of the intonation system. It should be pointed out here that 'system' is used in a rather broad sense, in that there is no evidence to suggest that any single intonation pattern links with any function in a totally generalisable way (3).

The problem of lexis particular to listening is the greater occurrence of informal language which might not might be familiar to a student who has learnt mainly from reading. In a similar way, students will come across grammatical features of natural speech such as contractions, reduced forms (such as missing off the subject) and the inevitable production of ungrammatical forms- in part because the sentence, basis of traditional grammatical descriptions, does not strictly exist in fast natural speech.

Cultural knowledge a student might lack includes the concept of 'scripts'. The evidence suggests that a native speaker has hundreds of formulaic, stored scripts to use when interacting in familiar situations, which help them interpret to pragmatic meaning of what is being said (4). These vary from culture to culture (and even within the L1 speaking community), and lack of knowledge can lead to misunderstanding.

I think what is most noticeable about the above is how much work can be done to improve a student's listening ability without even touching a tape, and how little these are examined in traditional listening materials.

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