Monday, 10 September 2012

Listening To News Reports.

After having spent the summer moaning about course book listening activities, it is time for me to take some action. If course book listening tasks really are so grim, then why do I hypocritically insist on using them, week in and week out? Well, perhaps it's because they are ready to go and require no more preparation than popping a disc in the player. I also know they are geared towards the level of my learners. If all else fails, and the whole activity goes horribly wrong, I can direct the class to the tape script at the back of the book.

So course books listening activities have their uses, perhaps. But (and this is on top of all my most recent gripes), can I really expect my learners to muster sufficient motivation to listen to:

  • a terrible cover band singing a terrible Travis song?
  • an interview with a fictional romantic novelist? 
  • an interview with a bland (and  fictional) band? 

Surely, my Shetland based learners would find authentic listening texts far more inherently motivating and useful to their daily lives than this nonsense.

News Reports in the Listening Class

I am often surprised by the extent to which my learners are unaware of what is happening in the local and national news.  They are not disinterested in current events, yet rarely watch the news in English, as they find it too difficult to understand.  As a result, they miss out on news announcements which affect them (such as weather related school closures for instance).  

On the occasions we have used news reports in class my learners have been interested and motivated. I want to make listening to news reports a regular occurrence, and over the next few weeks I will be exploring how I can help learners with this crucial, every day listening activity.

The ideas below will be my starting points. In my next post, I will  provide an outline procedure for a news report listening lesson. 

Using Visual Images to Predict Content and Generate Vocabulary

Lessons which teach learners to use their top down processing skills in order to make predictions about what they hear will challenge notions learners have about “the point” of a listening lesson.
An example of this is an activity I used last year with an intermediate level class. I selected an extract of a news broadcast about the riots in London, and showed the class the footage with the sound muted.  The class then worked in pairs and discussed their predictions for the broadcast’s content. After a feedback session we watched the broadcast again (with sound this time) and the learners were able to compare their predictions with the language actually used.  
This activity works well as a way of allowing learners to see how successfully they can predict content from visual information in a news report, and also generates useful vocabulary.

Developing learner Autonomy
Mark Lloyd used a dictogloss style experiment in order to develop learner autonomy in listening.  In this experiment, learners listened to a news broadcast every day in class for a week and the learners had to write down all the words they heard.  By the end of the week, learners had become better at selecting the most important words in the text: thus training themselves in a vital listening sub-skill. [ (Lloyd: 1997). 
Activities such as these focus on strategy training and take a step away from the “product” approach to teaching listening.  

Listening for gist
Higher level learners benefit from “confidence building activities” which show them that they can arrive at an understanding of a text even if the language initially seems very advanced. (Bowens, 1994 ) One such activity is a jigsaw listening style in which learners work together to arrive at a shared understanding of a text.
In this activity half of the class are asked to leave the room and the teacher plays short television news broadcast while the remaining learners make notes. Next, the teacher swaps the people in the room with those outside and plays the recording again. Finally, the teacher asks the learners to work in pairs (one learner from each half) and asks them to try to compile as much information as they can.  Finally, the recording is played one final time to check any points of contention.
I have found this task to be effective, as it visibly reduces any anxiety the “risk avoiders” may feel by side stepping the usual scenario in which listening is “tested”.  Instead, learners work together to arrive at a shared understanding of what they have head, and the role of the teacher is far less” interventionist”.   (Field, 1998)

Pace of Delivery
One of the most effective ways of improving learners’ ability to identify individual words from a stream of speech is through teaching them about word stress.  Goodith White describes an activity designed to help learners recognise words which are stressed in sentences and to consider the reasons why they are stressed . (White, 1998) 
In this activity, learners read an excerpt from an audio book.  Each learner marks the words in the excerpt which they believe the reader on the audio CD will stress, reading the text aloud to themselves as they do so.  Learners compare their answers in pairs, and then whole class feedback is conducted by the teacher, who elicits the idea that it is generally the content words which receive the stress. The teacher then goes on to discuss with learners how they can recognise stressed syllables within a word.  Finally, the learners can listen and check their answers against the recording. 
I have applied this lesson to a “test teach test” format, and found that the learners’ progress in recognising stressed syllables was measurable within the lesson. 

Background Noise
This activity is also suggested by Goodith White (White, 1998) and is designed to help learners cope with background noise. In this activity the class divides into two groups.  Working in the same room they listen and answer questions to a course book listening activity they have done previously.  The noise generated by the other recording in the room will give the learners practice in picking out important information over the top of background noise.  
While I have found this activity to be suitably challenging for high level learners it has been necessary to persuade learners of the usefulness of this exercise, and they can be ambivalent at the prospect of returning to work they have done before.  Although dealing with background noise is clearly an issue, it is difficult to find a way of helping learners deal with this that is not too contrived.


Field, J. 1998 The Changing Face of Listening ETP Vol 6 Jan 1998
Field, J. 2000 Finding Ones Way in the Fog MET Vol 9 Jan 2000
Lloyd, M. Dealing with Authentic Listening IHJ Issue 3 April 1997
Richards, J. 1990 The Language Teaching Matrix Cambridge University Press
Ridgway, T. 2000 Listening Strategies – I beg your pardon? ELT 54/2 April 2000
White, G. 1998 Listening Oxford University Press

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