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What does “listening in action” mean?

Listening in Action is about “action” in three senses:

First, Listening in Action stresses that listening is an active process. To become better listeners, our learners must employ active thinking as they listen. By developing an “active attitude” about understanding and “active strategies” for making sense of what they hear, our learners can and will improve. We, as teachers, can help our learners to develop this orientation through principled planning of activities and through attentively responding to their efforts.

Second, Listening in Action emphasizes that listening plays an active part in language learning. Listening is involved in many language-learning activities, both inside and outside the language classroom. Progress in listening will provide a basis for development of other language skills. By becoming aware of the links between listening and other skills and by consistently pointing out these links to our learners, we can assist our learners in their overall language development.

Third, Listening in Action features the teacher as an active “researcher” of listening development. As teachers, we should be active not just in planning and preparing activities for our learners, but in giving useful feedback to them and exploring with them how their listening skills are changing and improving.

Listening in Action, then, is for language teachers:
• who want to help their learners become more active in developing listening skills;
• who want to help their learners utilize opportunities both inside and outside the classroom for becoming better listeners and better language learners; and
• who want to improve their teaching by exploring with their students the process of learning to listen.

What is listening?

In order to define listening, we can ask two basic questions: What are the component skills in listening? and What does a listener do?
In terms of the necessary components, we can list the following:
• discriminating between sounds
• recognizing words
• identifying grammatical groupings of words
• identifying “pragmatic units” — expressions and sets of utterances which function as whole units to create meaning
• 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
• 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
• recalling important words and ideas
Successful listening involves an integration of these component skills. In this sense, listening is a coordination of the component skills, not the individual skills themselves. This integration of these perception skills, analysis skills, and synthesis skills is what we will call a person’s listening ability.
What is listening ability?

Perception Skills
discriminating sounds
recognizing words

Analysis Skills
identifying grammatical units
identifying pragmatic units

Synthesis Skills

connecting linguistic and other cues
using background knowledge

Even though a person may have good listening ability, he or she may not always be able to understand what is said in every situation. In order to understand messages, some conscious action is necessary to use this ability effectively in each listening situation. This action that a listener must perform is “cognitive” or mental, so it is not possible to view it directly, but we can see the effects of this action. The underlying action for successful listening is decision-making. The listener must make these kinds of decisions:

• 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?

Successful listening requires making effective “real time” decisions about these questions. In this sense, listening is primarily a thinking process — thinking about meaning. Effective listeners develop a useful ways of thinking about meaning as they listen. The way in which the listener makes these decisions is what we will call a listening strategy.

_________________________________________________________________________SITUATION STRATEGIES
How should I deal with this situation?
What is my relationship to the speaker?
How can I get clarification?

What is my goal for listening?
How should I organize what I hear?

What words should I pay attention to?
Can I guess unknown words and expressions?

Does this make sense to me based on what I already know about the topic?
What content can I predict?

In order to develop a comprehensive image of ourselves as instructors of listening, we need an combined approach for building up essential skills and for fostering successful strategies.

What are learning styles?

To develop their listening ability, our learners need a great deal of exposure to spoken language and ample practice in various listening situations. However, in addition to exposure and practice, it is vitally important for the listener to become engaged in the process of listening and develop a desire to understand. This is not something that exposure and practice alone can bring about. The ways in which individual learners try to become engaged and try to understand and try to improve are called learning styles.

Let us look at some different types of learners and how they approach development of their own listening ability:

Ulla: I like to watch American films online. I replay some of the scenes again and again until I feel that I have understood well. Then, after watching the whole film, I go back to some of the scenes — my favorite ones — and listen to them and study the language carefully. I make sure that I know exactly what the speakers say, and I even try to repeat the lines. This helps me to understand the expressions when I hear them again.

Agbo: I like to talk with people. Whenever I have free time, I try to meet with English-speaking friends, either in person, or skype or facetime with them. Even though I’m not a great speaker, I try to understand and ask a lot of questions if I want to understand something more clearly. Especially, I have one or two good friends I can contact online, and by talking with them, I think my listening is getting much better. I’m certainly becoming more confident when I am with them and more comfortable with my English ability.

Emi: My listening has improved because in my English class, we have to do a lot of talking to our classmates in English, and we have to listen to different kinds of audio and video clips and get the important ideas. I need this kind of class because I know I would give up if I study just by myself. I like to be tested by the teacher about what I hear, and then listen again and again. Each time, I feel I am understanding more and becoming a better English listener.

Truyen: Although I studied English for many years, I never really understood spoken English very well. But when I entered the university, I really began to make progress with my listening ability. I think this is mainly because I am very interested in my classes. The ideas of the lectures are very difficult, but I have found that if I really want to understand the lectures, I must prepare very hard for them in advance. Sometimes I record lectures and review the parts where I was confused. The preparation and the review helps me to listen better each time. I also take some classes online, to get more experience if I can.

We can see some clear differences in these types of learners. Ulla might be called a “self-instruction type.” She sees useful opportunities for learning alone, she consistently carries out her plans, and she enjoys the learning process. She has developed her ability to perceive language accurately and has worked on developing her memory for English vocabulary. She also has a sense of how to assess her own progress.

Agbo is what might be called a “social type”. He enjoys face-to-face interaction and senses that it is an effective way to get “the real thing” in terms of listening practice. He is usually satisfied to get the general gist of what he hears, though he is not embarrassed to ask questions if he wants to understand specific expressions and meanings. He understands that language development requires consistent effort and he is willing to make that effort.

Emi is what might be called a “classroom type”. She trusts her teachers to present her with useful practice. She consistently tries hard to do what is expected of her. She has a sense of what her goals are and feels strongly that classroom instruction is helping her to reach them. She is confident that she will succeed.

Truyen is what we might call a “subject matter type.” He wants to listen better so that he has access to ideas in English. He is, in this sense, “listening to learn”, not just “learning to listen”. He sees English not just as a vehicle of social communication, but as a carrier of important concepts, and an aid to him in his career. He has found a motivation and a systematic method for developing his listening ability.

What are the main principles for developing listening ability?

We can identify different strengths in the learning styles of each of these four types of learners. All of these styles contain useful learning strategies and illustrate important learning principles. From these portraits, and based on what we know about language skill development, we can draw out some general guidelines:

1. Listening ability develops through face-to-face interaction.

By interacting in English, learners have the chance for new language input and the chance to check their own listening ability. Face-to-face interaction provides stimulation for development of listening for meaning.

2. Listening develops through focusing on meaning and trying to learn new and important content in the target language.

By focusing on meaning and real reasons for listening in English, learners can mobilize both their linguistic and non-linguistic abilities to understand.

3. Listening ability develops through work on comprehension activities.

By focusing on specific goals for listening, learners can evaluate their efforts and abilities. By having well-defined comprehension activities, learners have opportunities for assessing what they have achieved and for revision.

4. Listening develops through attention to accuracy and an analysis of form.

By learning to perceive sounds and words accurately as they work on meaning-oriented activities, our learners can make steady progress. By learning to hear sounds and words more accurately, learners gain confidence in listening for meaning.

How can a teacher help students develop their listening ability?

As teachers, we need a comprehensive image of what we do in order to help students develop their listening ability. Recalling the earlier discussion about listening development, we can propose several guidelines for the classroom teacher in assisting students to develop their listening.


1. Talk to your students in English. Talk to all of your students — not just the better English speakers. Make English a vital language for communication. Personalize the classroom: get to know your students through talking with them about topics of mutual interest.

2. Make English the language of your classroom. Give opportunities in class for the students to exchange ideas with each other in English. Point out to them how they are becoming confident and effective users of English.

3. Introduce your class to other speakers of English — personally or through use of video and audio sources. Expose them to different types of people and situations. Above all, encourage them to listen to understand things that are important to them.

4. Encourage the learners to become independent, to seek out listening opportunities on their own outside of the classroom. Help them to identify ways of using English language media (TV and radio broadcasts, YouTube videos). Set up a self-access listening and learning center. Help your students to develop self-study listening programs and goals.

In the classroom

5. Set activities for listening that personally engage your students. Set challenging, yet realistic, goals for each activity. Give the students clear feedback on how well they do. Provide systematic review of audio and video (A/V) sources and activities to help consolidate their learning and memory.

6. Focus on teaching, rather than on testing. Reward students for trying to come up with reasonable ideas, rather than just “the correct answer” during listening activities. Keep a record of what the students have achieved during the course.

7. Look for effective ways to utilize audio and video resources that come with textbooks you are using. With some thought and experimentation with different types of listening exercises, you will find relevant and productive uses for these clips. (The index in this book will direct you to ideas for utilizing audio and video resources.)

Teaching procedures

For classroom teaching, it is important to have a model of instruction that incorporates useful learning principles. Most experienced teachers seem to have a model of the “ideal” sequence they will follow in a class — although in practice they will usually “skip” back and forth between steps in response to what their students do. Here is a general model for a sequence in a listening phase of a class.

Help the students’ focus their attention
• get them thinking about the content
• have them set a purpose for participating

Set the task
• provide criteria for successful listening
• give advice on using strategies for understanding
• model what would like them to do as they listen

Let the students do the task
• observe them as they do the task
• note how they are doing the task; where they are succeeding and where they are having trouble

Evaluate the task
• Did everyone succeed at the task?
• Is a second attempt necessary?
• Can you point out how certain skills and strategies helped them do the task?
• Can the students take note of any new words or ideas for future study?
Provide a follow-up
• use the listening task and evaluation as a lead in to the next classroom or homework activity

Listening in Action will provide you a menu of many specific ideas and “formulas” for setting up complete listening activities with your own students. Of course, you, the teacher, must select wisely from the menu and adapt these ideas in light of what you know of your students and your own teaching situation and teaching goals. Experiment with the activities and evaluate them in light of your own teaching experience. Adjust subsequent activities in order to find the right level of challenge for your students. In this way, Listening in Action will work best for you and for your students.

How is Listening in Action organized?

Listening in Action is divided into four main sections:

Section 1. Attentive listening
Section 2. Intensive listening
Section 3. Selective listening
Section 4: Interactive listening

Each section helps students develop a range of skills and strategies.

Section 1: Attentive listening is designed to provide students practice with listening and providing short responses to the speaker, either verbally or non-verbally – through actions. Because this kind of “responsive” listening involves immediate processing of information and quick decisions about how to respond, the activities in Section 1 provide a great deal of support to help the learners “process” the information they hear. The support is of three types: linguistic, in the form of cue words and previewed utterances, non-linguistic in the form of visuals, realia, and music used in the activity, and interactional, in the form of repetitions, paraphrases, and confirmation checks by the speaker. By providing this support, the activities allow the teacher to introduce real-time listening practice to students at all levels, including beginners. Because the support in each activity can be varied, teachers can utilize these activities with more proficient students as well, to help them increase their attention span for spoken English.

Section 2: Intensive listening will focus the students’ attention on language form. The aim of this section is to raise the learners’ awareness of how differences in sound, structure, and lexical choice can affect meaning. Because this kind of listening involves an appreciation of how form affects meaning, all of the activities in this section are contextualized — placed in a real or easily imagined situation . In this way, all students — even beginners — can practice intensive listening in a context of language use, from which it is most likely to transfer to “real life” listening situations. Because the activities in this section require attention to specific contrasts of form — grammatical, lexical, or phonological — the teacher can easily adapt the activities to more proficient students by increasing the complexity of the language forms.

Section 3: Selective listening will help enable students to identify a purpose for listening. By providing focused information-based tasks, the activities in Section 3 help direct the students’ attention on key words, discourse sequence cues, or “information structures” (exchanges in which factual information is given). By learning to attend to words, cues, and facts selectively , students at all levels come to handle short naturalistic texts (such as announcements) as well as longer and more complex texts (such as authentic video programs). Because the task support in these activities can be adjusted, Section 3 is useful for students at all proficiency levels.

Section 4: Interactive listening is designed to help learners assume active roles in shaping and controlling an interaction, even when they are in the “listener’s role”. Because it is important for learners to take an active role as listeners, each activity in this section has a built-in need for information or clarification questions by the listener. In order to work toward the goal of active participation by the listener, the students themselves — rather than the teacher or an audio or video source — take on the central focus in the activities. To this end, in Section 4 listening skills are developed in the context of interaction– mainly through information gap pair work, jigsaw groups, and student presentations and reports.

The introductions to each of the four sections in this book provide fuller explanations of the purposes of each section and the rationale for the specific activities.

Sequencing the four sections

The four sections (Attentive Listening, Intensive Listening, Selective Listening, and Interactive Listening) may be used in this given sequence, in order to provide a “natural” progression from activities that entail minimal verbal interaction to those that involve a maximum of interaction. However, since learners’ background in language study, current learning needs and classroom expectations will vary, it is recommended that the four sections be used interchangeably, with appropriate activities drawn from each section according to the learning requirements and readiness of the students.

One goal of any classroom activity is to provide the optimal challenge for the students. Since learners’ listening abilities will vary, teachers should note how the activities can be adapted to the learners’ capabilities. The main techniques of adjusting the “level” of an activity are by:

1. Making the “input” language of the activity simpler or less complex.

This can be done most effectively by slowing down your speech (using longer pauses between groups of words) in order to allow the learners more salient boundaries between grammatical constituents and to give them more time to process the language; by repeating familiar information; by clearly signaling (through intonation and use of discourse markers) shifts in the text; by paraphrasing unfamiliar vocabulary.

2. Creating pre-listening activities that give a useful preview of the content and procedures in the activity.

This can be done by providing some of the difficult language items (grammar structures and vocabulary) in advance; by stating clearly the students’ purpose for listening; by providing some advance question-answer or dictation activities that use the key vocabulary items; by having a warm-up chat with the students related to the topic.

3. Giving visual support for the listening activity.

This could be accomplished through the use of maps, graphs, illustrations, photographs, film strips, or (silent) video. The instructor’s gestures, facial expressions, and other body language can lend visual support to a listening activity as well.

4. Breaking down the steps of the activity in order to provide sub-goals.

This can be achieved by having the students listen several times, each time with just one goal to accomplish (e.g. identifying the number of speakers, identifying the main topic words, identifying whether a particular expression occurs in the text).

5. Decreasing the amount of oral or written production that is required of the students during the listening phase of the activity.

This can be accomplished by requiring only non-verbal responses (e.g. “raise your hands when you hear…”) or by using visual icons that the students select to represent their response (e.g. ticking a smiling face on a worksheet means “True” or “I agree with the speaker”) .

How do I use the activities in Listening in Action?

Each section has a separate introduction, which:

• gives an overview of the activity goals and explains the rationale for the organization of the section
• highlights the key features of the activities and shows how these features relate to the goals of the section
• previews the activities in the section and indicates the links between activities

Following the introduction, each section contains several individual activity outlines, which:

• provide an introductory heading to suggest appropriacy of the activity for:
* level (elementary, intermediate, or advanced) suggests a relative level of proficiency for whom the main activity is most suitable

* student age (children — ages 8-12; young adults — ages 13-17; adults — over 18) suggest the group(s) for whom the main activity is most suitable

* purpose of the activity (in terms of listening skills or strategies to be practiced)

* text type (the source of the “input” for the activity)

• offer an overview of the classroom action — what the students actually will do
(see: In this activity …)

• detail steps in the teacher’s preparation of the activity (see: Preparation )

• set out the main steps for carrying out the activity in class (see: In class)

• outline variations offering similar types of practice (Note: often these are variations of the main activity that will be suitable for different age groups or proficiency levels)

• offer useful follow-up options to consolidate learning (see: Follow-up options)

• propose possible links to other activities in the book (see: Links )

• suggest some general evaluation questions for the teacher (see: Teacher’s Diary )

In order to use Listening in Action effectively, it is recommended that you read through the introduction to each section for a general orientation first. After you have read the section introduction and have considered the main features of the type of listening practice featured, consider which activities from that section will be most suitable for your students.

Once you familiarize yourself with the four main sections of the book, you may wish to locate suitable activities by using the index at the back of the book. The index provides initial summaries of each activity in the book [Index A], as well as various options for access to the activities:
• type of activity (such as following instructions, taking notes, or filling in information charts)[Index B],
• sources for the activities (such as news broadcasts or lectures) [Index C];
• language level of the student group (beginning, intermediate, advanced) [Index D]
• student age (children, young adults, adults) [Index E]
• medium of the input (audio, video, or “live”) [Index F]

One additional feature of Listening in Action that can be of great use to you as a teacher is the Teacher Diary and Links section at the end of each activity outline. In this part of the activity, you are asked to reflect briefly on evaluation questions such as:

• How did the activity go?
• How did your students do?
• What difficulties did they have?
• What aspects of the activity were most useful?
• What aspects of the activity would you choose to revise?

The questions provided serve as a framework for reflection and evaluation of the activity, not as literal questions that must be answered explicitly. However, by taking time to write out responses to some of the questions in a separate notebook (or directly in the book), you will be clarifying your own thoughts and providing concrete teaching notes for your future classes.

In addition, by taking time to evaluate your classroom activities in this way and by considering different possible linking activities in the LINKS section, you will be participating in a kind of “action research” that both you and your students will find rewarding — as part of your teaching and as part of your students’ learning.