Module 1| Describing language and language skills| Language Skills: Listening
The role of listening as a language skill
Listening, like reading, is a receptive skill and is one of the four language skills. Listening is more responding to language than producing it and making a meaning of the language sounds. This is done by the use of context and our knowledge of the world as well as language.
To listen, means understanding spoken language. Spoken language and written language are two different types.
Make a list of a few differences that you can see between spoken and written language (in English).
Have a look at the table below.
Written language in English
Spoken language in English
Stays on the page and does not disappear.
Disappears as soon as it is spoken. Sometimes it is spoken fast and sometimes slowly, with or without pauses.
Uses punctuation and capital letters to show sentences.
Shows sentences and meaningful groups of words through stress and intonation.
Consists of letters, words, sentences and punctuation joined together into text.
Consists of connected speech, sentences, incomplete sentences or single words.
Has no visual support-except photos or pictures sometimes.
The speaker uses body language to support his/her communication: e.g. (movements of hands or arms to help people understand us), and facial expressions (the looks on our face). This helps the listener to understand what the speaker is saying.
Is usually quite well organised: sentences follow one another in logical sequences and are joined to previous or following sentences.
Is not so well organised, e.g. it contains interruptions, hesitations, repetitions and frequent changes of topic.
Usually uses quite exact vocabulary and more complex grammar.
Often uses rather general vocabulary and simple grammar.
The role of context in listening
In order to understand spoken language, it is important to have the ability to consider all its characteristics shown in the table on the previous section. Given below is an example of spoken language. Note how less organised and less precise it is in comparision to the written language:
Mother: You done with your homework now?
Son: Nearly, mom.
Mother: How’s it going? So far so good?
Son: Yep, it’s not bad. There’s not much to do anyway. Just reading and filling in the blanks kind of thing.
Mother: Well, you sure you understand it? D’you need any help?
Son: I got it, mom, thanks. All done now. Can I go out for a movie with my friends?
In order to understand spoken language well, it is important to use the context in which the language is being used as well as our own knowledge of the real world. In the example given above, it is easy to understand because we understand the relationships between mothers and their sons and children’s general attitude to home. However, if we knew the context of the dialogue, e.g. where the conversation occurred, the mother and son’s gestures, their behaviour towards homework), it would be easier for us to understand much more.
Listening also requires good understanding of different types of spoken text. For example, conversations, announcements, songs, instructions, lectures, advertisements and stories. They consist of separate ways of organising language, separate and various language features and some are spoken by just one voice whereas others are spoken by more.
Different aspects of listening
It is also important to understand different speeds that people speak in. Some individuals speak very slowly and pause more often. Some speak really fast, pausing only once in a while. It is difficult to understand those who speak like that. We must also be able to understand different accents too. Some accents that are more difficult to understand are Irish or Australian English. Some are much easier to understand because they are clearer, e.g. British English. However, it all depends on why we listen. We need to have a reason for listening. Some reasons might be listening for gist, particular information, detail, attitude (listening what kind of attitude is being conveyed by the speaker) or extensive listening. To understand exactly what these terms mean, refer to the terms in the reading section in this website.
Obviously, listening requires a lot of things such as dealing with the characteristics of the spoken language, using context and our knowledge of the real world, understanding all the different text types, speeds of speech and accents and using dissimilar listening subskills.
Here is an extract from a lower English secondary listening syllabus. In this example, you can see different aspects of listening:
· Hearing the differences between common sounds
· Identifying important words in what someone has just said
· Understanding and responding to simple instructions and commands
· Recognising basic differences in information (e.g. commands vs questions)
· Following a simple narrative spoken by the teacher with the help of pictures
· Recognising the sound patterns of simple rhyming words
· Understanding the development of simple stories
· Understanding and responding to simple requests and classroom instructions
· Identifying main ideas
(adapted from Syllabuses for Secondary Schools, English Language, Secondary 1-5; the Education Department. Hong Kong 1999)
The nerd baby says ...
- Students have the opportunity to listen to many sources of spoken language in the classroom. For example, listening to the teacher, listening to other students, visitors, videos, DVDs. Listening to these is much harder than listening to live speakers because it is not possible to ask the speaker to repeat what they said or explain it further. We cannot see the speaker, therefore we cannot see the speaker’s body language and gestures. We also cannot see the context that the person is speaking in.
- There are some listening texts we can find in coursebooks which are authentic. This means that they have all the features of actual spoken language. There are other types written especially for those who are learning a language. According to experts, it is best for students to listen to both these kinds of text in order to enhance their listening skills.
- Showing that we have understood and actually understanding are quite different from each other. Here is an example: perhaps we can an entire story. However, when the time comes to tell the story to someone else, we find ourselves stuck and unable to it. Therefore, it is best if comprehension activities are done in language that is easier than the language used in the listening text.
- Listening to stories that they find enjoyable and are interested in is a way for to learn well. It is easier to learn if we are having fun and enjoying what we are learning.
- Students’ listening skills can be further enhanced by concentrating often on specific aspects of listening. For example, problem sounds, features of connected speech and subskills.
- Listening lesson activities usually look like this:
- Introductory activities: an introduction is given as to what the text is about. Then, activities are done which concentrate on the language used in the text.
- Main activities: comprehension activities are to develop separate listening subskills.
- Post activities: these are activities which request the students to discuss a topic in the text and explain how it relates to their own lives. Sometimes, they have to give their ideas on certain pieces of the text. Doing activities like these encourage the students to use some of the language which they have come across in the text.
Test your knowledge
Here is a dialogue between two English students. Go through it carefully and find examples of contractions, hesitations, interruptions and repetitions.
Sam: How do you want your life to be in 15 years’ time? How do you picture yourself?
Jill: Well… I would want it to be like… I want to have a beautiful family… to have a lovely husband…
And you know.. four children… and …..
Sam: Would you be satisfied with a life like that?
Jill: I’d be…. Yes! Yeah of course I would be happy. I would be very happy. What about you? What kind of life would you like to have?
Sam: Erm…. Well…. Er…. I would probably like to have a good… a really good job. A really good and fun job that … that would pay me really well! And a beautiful house!
(based on a conversation in English for the Teacher, Mary Spratt, Cambridge University Press 1994)
In your opinion, what is the context of this dialogue?
Given below are a few questions about the dialogue. Which subskills do they focus on: gist, detail, particular information or behaviour (attitude)?
- What is the dialog about?
- How does Sam want her life to be in 15 years?
- Jill likes children. How many does she want?
- Do you think Jill sounds as though she is happy?
What in your opinion do your students need to practice and revise the most? Why do you think so?
- Features of connected speech? If so, which features do they need to practice?
- Accents? If so, which ones?
- The speed of their speech?
- Dissimilar types of text? If so, which types?
- Listening for gist/detail/specific information/attitude?
- Extensive listening?
Questions 1-6 are instructions and answers A-G are ways of listening. Match them together, leaving out the extra answer which does not need to be used.
1. Watch a video to see how the woman looks? How do you think she feels?
2. Listen to every pair of words and say if they are different or the same.
3. Listen and find what town Jim lives in.
4. Listen and draw the boy and girl according to the description given.
5. Listen closely and underline the word in the sentence said most strongly by the person who is speaking.
6. There is a story to listen to. Listn to it and decide on a title that is best matching for it.
Ways of listening
A. Listening for gist
B. Understanding body language
C. Listening for individual sounds
D. Listening for detail
E. Listening for sentence stress
F. Extensive listening
G. Listening for specific information