Teaching Listening Comprehension by Penny Ur

Penny Ur, a prominent ELT-expert, a professor and a teacher with more than 30 years of experience, has been featured in our articles not once. We discussed her 100 Teaching Tips, talked about Discussions and More, and picked the best of Five-Minute Activities. Today we’ll peek into another book of hers – Teaching Listening Comprehension. This article will share some of the takeaways and a number of exciting activities to use in class.

Ms Ur says that the book’s aim is to discuss what successful foreign-language listening comprehension entails, and on this basis to propose types of practice that may be effective in the classroom. The book is divided into 2 big parts called Understanding spoken English and Suggestions for classroom activities. If you are looking for a couple of new ways to use listening activities in your classroom, you probably need to take a look at the second part. If you are curious to know why and how we listen to the information in whatever language, start with the very beginning of the book.

Takeaways

Below you will find some ideas and theoretical fundamentals of listening processes. Penny Ur compares real-life listening to the one in the classroom and gives teachers a lot of food for thought.

We listen for a purpose and with certain expectations

When we listen, our expectations are often linked to our purpose. Asking a question makes us focused on specific information which we need to get in the answer. If we listen to the news, we usually expect to hear about certain issues of current interest in a certain kind of language. If it’s a lecture, we normally know something about the subject, and either need to learn about it, or are interested in it for its own sake. ‘If none of these conditions is true, then we shall probably not listen at all, let alone understand’. When we present a listening task in class, it might be a good idea to give students an actual need to hear the passage and to give them some information about the content, situation and speaker(s) before they actually start listening.

We make an immediate response to what we hear

Real-life listening often implies some immediate response. We nod, ask questions on spot and use back-channelling – all those ‘No way!’, ‘Oh really?’ and ‘That’s nice!’ kind of phrases. Classroom tasks mainly lack this and look like listening to the whole piece and answering the question after. Penny Ur says that it might be useful to base listening tasks on ‘short, active responses occurring during, or between parts of the listening passage rather than at the end.’

There are some visual or environmental clues as to the meaning of what is heard

What can really support our learners who struggle with listening is the so-called environmental clues. They are mostly visuals related to the topic of conversation or the task. Environmental clues can include all kinds of graphs and diagrams, maps, pictures, clips and videos. They are essential to the effective presentation of most listening exercises.

Most heard discourse is spontaneous and differs from formal spoken prose in the amount of redundancy and ‘noise’ 

There is little – if any – use in listening to lengthy passages taken from novels or newspaper articles and answering the questions that follow. ‘A learner who relies on this type of exercise is going to have a very rude awakening when he tries to understand native speech in natural communicative situations.’ First, spoken texts differ greatly from more formal written ones. Second, when we speak, redundancy occurs. Redundancy may take the form of repetitions, false starts, re-phrasings, self-corrections, elaborations, tautologies and apparently meaningless additions such as ‘I mean’ or ‘you know’ – all this ‘extra’ information that seems to be irrelevant and distracting. Also, real-life listening can be difficult because of ‘noise’. By noise Penny Ur means the factors preventing us from understanding. They can be background sounds, temporary lack of attention on the part of the listener, or the fact that a word or phrase was not understood because it was mispronounced or misused or because the listener simply did not know it. 

Main difficulties

I am sure that most of the difficulties, mentioned by Ms Ur, are familiar to you and your students. She names such challenges as hearing the sounds, understanding intonation and stress, coping with redundancy and ‘noise’, predicting, understanding colloquial vocabulary, fatigue, understanding different accents and using visual and aural environmental clues properly. If you want to know more about each of them, take a look at the ‘Listening to English as a foreign language’ chapter, you won’t regret it. 

Activities

In the part of the book devoted to activities, the author divides them into listening for perception and listening for comprehension. The first category of exercises is focused on teaching to perceive correctly the different sounds, sound-combinations and stress and intonation patterns. Comprehension exercises range ‘from very ‘passive’ ones, where the learner simply listens, making little or no response, to very ‘active’ ones, where the listening is only the preliminary to or basis for more sophisticated activities involving other language skills and imaginative or logical thought.’ 

How often did you hear it?

This is a nice and simple exercise that can develop our students’ awareness of certain sounds and help them distinguish potentially problematic ones. The teacher here says a short sentence and asks learners to count how many times they hear a particular sound. For example, you might tell to focus on the /w/ sound and read the following:

Very well, who wants to get some water now?

Identifying word divisions

This activity will draw learners’ attention to the peculiarities of spoken language and help them work out features of connected speech. Here, you say a sentence and ask students to tell how many words there would be in its written form. Be natural, don’t slow down or break the phrase into words! For example, you might say the following: 

‘Wotcha won?’ (4 words, What do you want?)

No-response listening aided by visuals

Even though it’s a good idea to give some response while listening, we sometimes can do without. No-response tasks can be an excellent start for exposing students to spoken English. Also, when lower-level learners do not have to answer a list of 10 questions after they’ve heard the track, they feel much more relaxed and – somehow – concentrate better.

An idea for such exercise is asking students to listen to a description of a picture. You can even choose one from your coursebook. To make sure that students are following properly you can ask them to point at the relevant parts of the illustration as they listen. 

Detecting mistakes

This is quite a popular activity that students of all ages mainly enjoy. The point is that students listen to a longer passage, such as a story or a piece of current news, and respond only when they come across something wrong. Here mistakes of grammar should not be used and only the meaning should be taken into account. Students of lower levels can be asked to spot mistakes in well-known stories or picture descriptions, while more advanced learners may also apply to common sense and general knowledge, for example:

‘Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. This is your captain, the pilot, speaking. Welcome aboard the Boeing 747, our biggest ship. The time is twelve midnight and we have just taken off from London on our flight to New York. We shall be flying due east. The sky here is clear, but most of the Indian Ocean, over which we shall be flying, is covered with cloud, so we shall not see much of it. The weather in New York is, I am sorry to say, rather unpleasant: there is a heatwave on, and the temperature is below zero.’

(from ‘Teaching Listening Comprehension’ by Penny Ur)

Interpretative listening

At times, while listening, we rely not just on words and meaning, but on a variety of factors such as intonation, the speaker’s attitude to the subject, what’s going on around and so on. A lot of stimulating discussions can be based on the interpretation of such factors after listening. Students can simply be asked to identify who and where the speakers are, what they are talking about, and what their relationship to each other might be. Students have no hint beforehand and are just exposed to authentic listening with no preparation. However, the teacher can help them by showing some visuals, for example, of the speakers or of the settings. Here is an example of such a task: 

‘Young woman, Scots accent, loud, some talking in the background

What’s that? Can’t hear you! What … right, tomorrow at seven, I’ll be there . . . I said I’ll be there … I love you too. .. Bye!’

(from ‘Teaching Listening Comprehension’ by Penny Ur)

All in all, this book of Penny Ur seems to be of great use both for practitioners who are always in search of new activities for their classroom, and those of us who are in love with methodology. A great combination or theoretical implications and highly practical tools! You won’t regret reading it.

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