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

A student listening to a tape in a classroom has an even more challenging task. They cannot use strategies such as interpreting the gestures of the person speaking or asking for confirmation. Just as much, they must cope with a real lack of shared knowledge with the speaker- not only as compared to a face to face conversation, but even as compared to a recent broadcast of international news.

Strategies students can use to cope with lack of knowledge include prediction of content, guessing unknown vocabulary from context and simply ignoring unimportant unknown language. In conversation other strategies include asking for confirmation and avoidance of difficult topics.

You might have noticed that 'listening for gist' has not been mentioned above either as knowledge or strategy. It is precisely here that the 'standard' model mentioned in the introduction falls down. A couple of gist questions are a great test of listening comprehension, but in a standard textbook task it is often unclear which of any of the above factors are being taught, practised or improved.

Listening and note-taking
Listening and note-taking provides particular problems of summarising, writing and listening at the same time etc. and is something that 'even native speakers find challenging' (5). The problem might be less all your students are university students or graduates, as these skills are at least partially transferable from L1.

Note-taking in the CAE exam
The note taking in the exam can comprise up to three quarters of the listening paper, hence the importance of tackling this skill. The tasks are somewhat unusual in that they consist of filling gaps in sentences summarising some of the information from the text, rather than writing whole sentences. In general, the answers are of three words or less per gap. Specific problems students have with this part included spelling, missing capital letters on proper nouns, not changing part of speech to fit in the gap, being unused to hearing texts only once, being caught out by the irregular spacing of the answers in the text, concentrating too much on one answer and so missing the next etc.

On the plus side, the answers are in the same order as the text. On the minus, students can often be caught out by the irregular spacing of the information through the text- there quite often being a long introduction with no information to note down, for example. Other specific difficulties with the CAE tasks are that the information from the text often has to be re-worded to fit grammatically in the gaps. In Part 2 the difficulty lies more in only hearing the text once. The students are also supposed to show accurate spelling.

Many of the problems students have with this part of the exam can be dealt with by the simple expedient of advice and further practice. This can be examined by brainstorming problems students have had with this type of task (see list below). They can then do another listening and analyse exactly what difficulties they had and discuss ways of lessening that problem.

Another simple technique in tackling problems with this task is to motivate students to expose themselves more to English. A popular theory on Spanish students' weakness in listening is the amount of dubbing in the cinema and TV, and the consequent lack of exposure, for example. One Spanish student of mine bought a satellite connection and started watching BBC World whilst studying for the exam, so prompting can work!

An obvious approach is just to bring more listening into the classroom. Even with students who really understand their need for it, however, using lots of textbook listenings is likely to produce boredom. You also need to think carefully about whether what you are doing in class is adding anything to what your students could do at home. This can be tackled by varying how you use the texts, the use of video, songs and relevant materials such as radio news stories, as well as a very close look at which micro-skill you are aiming to improve.

The advice in the official CAE handbook (6) for preparing the students for the paper is:

- Practice concentrating on key words
- Examine tapescripts to note similarities and differences between text and expected answers
- Dictation to practice listening in detail
- Extensive listening to improve confidence in not needing to understand every word
- Encourage Ss to keep answers short
- Encourage Ss to look carefully at the stem and wording of the question so that the answer provides an acceptable completion
- Train Ss to be accurate with spelling and check it carefully

One possible activity to get students to concentrate on key words is a kind of dictation where half the class write down only the verbs and the other half only the nouns and then in pairs they try to reconstruct the text. Another can be to make them concentrate on the stressed 'content' words. A fun activity for this is to set up a list of questions which students must ask each other. The first time they ask the question, however, they can only say one word and can only hum the rest of the question. If their partner answers the question correctly they get a point. The second time they can add one more word, but hum the rest etc. This is great practice for stress and intonation, and understanding how little you need to understand to cope with the language.

In an exam class such as CAE, I think it is best to always take in photocopied tapescripts and examine them every time students have real problems with a listening.

With dictation, I have found something as 'simple' as a primary school-style spelling test of difficult words from Advanced Language Practice (7) went down well with a previous CAE class, as practise for both this part of the paper and the Use of English editing task. Another useful thing that can be tested through dictation is students choosing the correct spelling of homophones. There is also a host of alternative ideas in 'Dictation- New Methods, New Possibilities' (8). Dictogloss can be used for more general practice of summarising/ note taking (9). When using dictation, it's worth thinking about if you can make it more 'realistic' by dictating things that native speakers would, e.g. names and numbers. The other problem with dictation is adapting it to the 'gap filling' format of the exam.

I agree with the advice in the handbook that students need practice in extensive listening, but more specifically I think the problem for these tasks is one of still thinking about one question when you should be listening for the next. I have recently been playing more texts once only, as I believe hearing everything twice can actually increase the problem above ('I'll hear it next time').

Encouraging students to keep answers short is a simple matter of advice.

A good exercise for making sure the answers fit is one I have found in Cambridge First Certificate Handbook (10). It consists of an answer sheet filled in but with none of the answers fitting grammatically into the gaps. Without even needing to hear the text, students correct the answers. Something similar could be done with students listening to the text to correct the answers- e.g. because the answer contains the wrong key word. Such a task also allows the teacher to break the students slowly into a task, something the Cambridge First Certificate Handbook does very well but Advanced books all too often ignore.

Something that is not mentioned in the official handbook but I feel is possibly the most useful to work on is prediction of content. This takes two forms:

- Prediction before the text
- Prediction during the text

Before listening to the text, students have the opportunity to read through the gapped text. They should be able to predict what part(s) of speech the missing information is (e.g. adjective), if it is a proper noun (name of place etc.) and what topic area it comes from (e.g. transport). At the most extreme, I recently completed 60% of a listening comprehension on Salamanca without listening to it by already knowing the information, but unfortunately this is unlikely to happen in the CAE.
During listening, it is possible to guess the ends of sentences, responses in conversations etc. without needing to hear them. Penny Ur (11) suggests stopping during a text and having students discuss what could come next. A more structured version is to get them to decide between multiple choice options (5).

The final thing that needs to be taken into account is simply that of making listening in the classroom more interesting. As I mentioned above, over-use of the cassette in the classroom is likely to produce a negative impact- and paradoxically this is most true with students who are weak at listening. Even more than the use of video and song, the most motivating activities are those which involve students doing the activities above whilst listening to each other. For example, students can make notes on an anecdote they are going to tell (max. 20 words) and then make notes when their partner tells their story. They then cut their notes down to 20 words and compare with their partner's original notes. Activities like this are by far the most motivating I have found.

Finally, a particular favourite of mine for exam classes is to have them write the tasks for each other, as it also helps them get inside the examiners' heads. Going through their problems with the exam task first (see above) helps them recreate the same nasty tricks as the examiners produce for their classmates to tackle.

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