Does listening improve listening?

This term I’ve been given an IELTS listening class. It’s the first time I’ve taught Listening and only listening. I’ve had many Speaking and Listening modules and often tutored writing only courses, but never Listening.  I was curious about filling four hours with Listening.

As students seemed to be struggling with IELTS Listening, we’d been advised to encourage students to widen their listening: to listen to TED talks, BBC programmes, documentaries and the like, and not just concentrate on IELTS Listening. Having not taught Listening in isolation before, I duly set up a forum with links to TED talks and the BBC homepage and planned extension listening tasks into my overall teaching plan. Encouraging students to do this, has it itself been a great challenge: I had to schedule in an extra computer lesson and take the students through the process step by step. It’s only now (11 weeks into the course) that they are beginning to engage in it.  That aside, it soon became pretty clear (before week 11!), that this alone was not going to get the students to where they needed to be.

As many of the students expressed their concerns with listening, saying it was ‘difficult’ and that they lacked confidence, I decided to see if I could pinpoint what the issues are. Rather than repeating that old chestnut of ‘You need to expand your vocabulary. You need to listen more’ (something often repeated to students struggling with listening), I started with looking at listening skills. The core coursebook deals with these in a comprehensive way: it addresses each IELTS question type and tackles the skills needed for that question type throughout the book. There isn’t really much that I can add to the skills work that is already there. Knowing the students well, I thought perhaps they might need some of the connections highlighting, so I summarised the question types and skills, created a matching exercise and had the students record the answers. Clearly, it’s not enough to do  this on one occasion: consequently I review it on a regular basis. This seems to be helping and students are slowly remembering the skills and appear to be getting better at practising them, although it’s hard to judge how they are actually employing the skills while listening.

However,  I don’t think looking at skills has fully covered the problem areas. I’ve also been doing warmers  that look at the grapheme-phoneme relationship to help students with connections between sound and speech (their spelling leaves quite a lot to be desired) and doing a few running dictions. While working on sound and spelling, I noticed that students didn’t feel confident with syllable stress and certain sounds. This led me to believe that perhaps it’s not actually listening that students struggle with, but distinguishing between sounds and words in fluent speech – in other words connected speech. I’ve subsequently, started raising awareness of features in connected speech, intonation and sentence stress. As it’s a Listening module I don’t expect production, so I’ve introduced the features through examples and simple exercises that use listening skills. For example, dictation; humming sentences and questions; using my fingers; sound bingo, as well as games from Pronunciation Games from Mark Hancock (I’ve yet to try Mark Hancock’s idea of an acoustic drill). My aim is for students to be able to recognise these features  (they don’t need to produce them for listening purposes), so they can better locate the answers and not only perform better for IELTS, but also at university. So far students have received the lessons well and have said that it’s helping. I’m yet to be convinced: I think my introduction has been very ad hoc and for students to really benefit I should create a teaching overview which introduces the aspects in a more ordered manner. Once I’m confident with this (or before), I can work towards creating a new syllabus.

As a result of teaching this module, I’ve realised that purely using listening and listening exercises isn’t enough to really improve students listening skills. Nor is telling students to expand their listening through non-EFL sources; listening is far more complex and teaching should reflect this.


About sarahali

I am linguist working in the EFL field. I started my teaching career in East Germany in 1997, continuing for a while (7 years) in Austria before settling back in the UK, where I am now based. I have taught English in various forms (ESP, ESOL, Business English, EFL (general) and EAP) to students ranging from 3 years of age to 80. I have written, developed and edited teaching material and curricular for the Arabic speaking world, as well as African countries. I have also written materials and teacher's books for 3-year olds learning in multi-lingual schools in Spain and have worked on translating and adapting Early Readers for the international market. I'm currently a senior tutor for EAP, a TEL coordinator and an academic proofreader. I also work as a freelance materials writer and developer. I speak English, German and French, with a basic knowledge of Arabic and Spanish.
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