• Paul Woodcock

To Listen or not to Listen … that is the Key Skill!

To Listen or not to Listen … that is the Key Skill

It may sound counter intuitive, being able to teach listening, but since listening takes up, on average, 45% of all time spent on communication it is obvious how important it actually is. By contrast, speaking on average accounts for 30% of all time spent on communication. Therefore, it is clear that listening is well worth spending time on. Listening is a skill which can, thankfully, be taught. And any teacher involved with teaching English as a foreign or second language will have spent plenty of time trying to come up with a classroom plan for their students to succeed.

Teaching listening can be especially challenging because of sound. Not necessarily the words, but the sounds a language contains. All languages are made up of unique sounds, or phonemes. There are very few languages which share the same number of phonemes. For example, English features 44 unique phonemes whilst Arabic has 34, Italian 30, Japanese 22, and Rotakas has just 11!

Therefore, there are issues arising out of languages featuring sounds that simply do not exist in another, those sounds also may be produced in a different manner to how it is produced in another. This does mean that the listener may well struggle to distinguish between sounds, simply down to the fact that they are not part of their first language.

There are other much more immediate factors which can contribute to teaching listening to EFL learners. These factors include the quick pace of the speaker, background noise, a lack of visual clues (such as on the telephone), the listener’s limited vocabulary, and a lack of knowledge of the topic.

While the challenges posed by the speaker or the situation may be out of the listener’s hands, there are a few skills or 'strategies' that EFL teachers can focus on to help their learners.

1. Predicting content

Predicting content means to look at what is about to unfold, for example, on TV, and then try to imagine what the story is going to be, and then try to work out what kind of vocabulary is likely to appear.

2. Listening for gist

Listening for gist means to identify the key words that allow you to paint a complete picture. A good example is ‘sun,’ ‘beach,’ ‘towel,’ ‘hotel.’ On their own, all different. Together, they lead you to understand the topic is probably going to be about a holiday.

3. Listening for detail

At this point, you are listening for key words which fill in the gaps you have. It can be directed, however. Based on key words you can identify, you can then assume what kind of vocabulary you are likely to need following it. For example, if in a test you are identifying ‘age,’ then numbers, and the word ‘years’ will be the most important to listen to.

4. Inferring meaning

This is when we take clues in a conversation and attempt to build understanding by using our own experiences to fill in the blanks. For example, if two people are talking, and you hear “good try” “try again” “lean more” you may expect the conversation to be a discussion between an athlete, and their coach.

It is worth noting that these five elements do not exist in isolation. They do overlap each other, and it is very important for an EFL teacher to be aware that an activity is likely to cover more than just the skill they are looking to work on. Because they overlap, it does mean the students can struggle with what they are specifically trying to do. However, given how activities can influence more than just one skill, there are always opportunities in and outside of the classroom for students to look to improve their listening.

And of course, here at Notting Hill College, we work hard to ensure that every teacher who undertakes one of our courses, such as Ofqual regulated Level 5 Certificate in TEFL, or Ofqual regulated Level 6 Diploma in TESOL, has the tools necessary to work with their students and build their confidence when it comes to key skills such as listening. Especially in areas such as listening where improvements can be marginal, and for students feel like no improvement at all. This is where teachers really can come in to their own to help ensure their students continued development and success.

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