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Listening or breaking the 'fear' barrier…

On this post, I would like to concentrate on the listening skill, which based on a survey I did with my students, they find the hardest to tackle, especially in a high stress scenario such as GCSE examinations. Many of my students fear this skill especially in GCSE type of tasks which are often very ambiguous and many of us would agree almost seem to be designed to catch students out often incorporating vocabulary that wasn’t included in the syllabus. 

I, personally do not agree with this type of examination system. I am not sure what it is suppose to achieve other than alienate our students from language learning. 

Listening is the key to all effective communication. Without the ability to listen effectively, messages are easily misunderstood or missed.receptive skill that develops in humans first – babies even though they can’t speak are learning sounds, words and about the language through listening. 

When we are learning a new language, learning to listen to L2 improves the language ability. The sound, rhythm, intonation and stress of L2 can only be adapted through listening.

Listening as a skill is also essential in the languages classroom. Students receive language through the ears in the first instance, they identify the sounds of speech and process these sounds into words and sentences therefore teaching of phonics and pronunciation is so vital for encoding and storing of the language in the memory. 

Learning sounds incorrectly means listeners will not be able to decode/recognise them when they encounter them, they won’t be able to match the phoneme to the grapheme. Understanding of the links between the spoken and written word is crucial for decoding of word meanings.

Listening in any language requires high levels of focus and attention. It is a skill many learners need to work at harder than at other such as for example written texts.

However, many times listening is approached just as a text book exercise quizzing comprehension and not as a decoding and parsing skill that should be nurtured and developed. I also believe that within our curriculum we don’t give sufficient importance to decoding skills, this could be due to lack of time allocated on the timetable, the pressure to cover a vast content in short space of time or just simply hoping that the skill will develop over time naturally. 

In many lessons, key phonemes are often not systematically recycled through listening, reading and speaking activities which naturally support their acquisition. 

L.A.M. (Listening as Modelling) as per Gianfranco Conti approach that we have adopted in our school last September focusses explicitly on listening skills which as he says shouldn’t be seen as separate from speaking, reading, writing and Grammar instruction, but interleaved and recycled in various contexts continuously. Through this approach we have noticed a vast improvement in students’ confidence, progress and willingness to ‘take risks’.

In order to develop good listening skills from ‘the get go’, listening opportunities should be integral part of  every lesson and as any skill need to be practised over and over again through variety of activities in order to become more and more automaticListening activities should also be used to model new language/sounds not just as mere testing tool.

Listening could be presented through simple activities (these will be different for novice-learner and expert-learners) such as greetings at the start of the lesson, register routines, giving simple instructions, to well planned and thought through tasks which focus on various micro – skills: decoding, parsing and lexical recognition skills. I found the book ‘Breaking down the sound barrier’ by Gianfranco Conti and Steve Smith invaluable when looking closely how to improve my students ‘ listening skills. Many of the tasks mentioned below are ideas from their book. I also try to use variety of tasks to keep students engaged and interested.

Here are some examples of tasks I have been using:

  • Recognising the correct soundsminimal pairs – students write the correct number on their MWB. This could be conducted by the teacher reading out single words or for more challenge using the words within a sentence, so students have ‘distractors’.           

Other activities practising phonics – word endings / spot the error / spot the intruder

  • Dictation – inspired by Gianfranco Conti

  1. partial  – teacher starts the word or part of the phrase and students finish it – could be done in writing on MWB or orally practising correct pronunciation.

  2. delayed – teacher dictates a short sentence, students hold this sentence in their memory for cca.10 seconds then write the sentence down on their MWB.

  3. running – parts of the text are stuck on the wall – students are divided into groups of three – one student stays seated whilst the other members take turns to run to the text and dictate it to the sitting member who writes it down. Here the students are practising listening, writing reading and memory skills as well. Might not be possible at the moment.

  • Break down the speech flow – teacher reads the sentences and students put spaces as appropriate – extension task – students re-write the sentences correctly applying capital letters where needed (this applies specifically to German).

  • Listening pyramids – first seen and inspired by @madamemassè. Students listen to recordings and write what they hear. The structure getting longer and more complex.

  • Narrow listening – teacher reads texts which are very similar from the slide and students write the number of the text on their MWB. When I started this task initially, I noticed that as the texts were so similar, students stopped listening once they heard a specific key word resulting in some writing the wrong answers. I had to explain to them it wasn’t a sporting competition – who answers the fastest, but to listen to details in order to spot the differences and identify the correct text.

  • Tick or cross activity – this idea has been recently shared by Gianfranco Conti

  • Listening for key words in the sequence – inspired by @MissWozniak. Words could be in L1 or L2 depending on the level of challenge. Text could be read out or recorded.

  • Listening for cognates/adjectives/time phrases/ nouns/verbs … – students work in groups for this task.

  • Reconstruction of text – text is cut up into strips and students have to put the text together as they listen. This could be also used as a reading/syntactical/grammatical task.

  •  Listening gap fill tasks – could be used without support, with missing words provided in form of a list or multiple choice option for more support.

  • Listening for Grammar points – tenses/opinions/negatives/clauses – this could be scaffolded even more by having students in groups and each member concentrates on one specific Grammar point thus building confidence in listening. ‘Tally’ idea by @MissWozniak.

  • Listening – multiple choice questions

  • Listening – comprehension questions

Useful websites: 

Here are four main websites that I have been using so far to support my students with developing their listening skills. 

  • teachvid – with variety of activities to practise listening skills.

  • lyricstraining – very popular with my older students who like to listen and explore music, good for the cultural capital. Allows you to print out the lyrics as well.

  • Audio Lingua – recordings by native speakers – can be downloaded or embedded – the teacher can create various activities.

  • – different levels, good mainly for comprehension and also for ‘cultural capital’.

Listening in real time – communicating with a person face to face where we can see the facial expressions, lip read or simply ask the speaker to repeat or re-phrase, is very different to listening to an audio or video recording which learners find the most stressful

I, personally still struggle (I have lived in the U.K. for almost 20 years now) when I am on the phone and the person on the other side spells their name to me. I have to ask them to either slow down or repeat it and I consider myself to be an accomplished and experienced linguist – polyglot. 

So where does it leave our young learners? I would say practise, practise and practise… 

Maybe one day the people who make decisions in education will re-consider how they structure the assessments and most importantly what they want to achieve with them. One day we might see the importance of language learning being more valued and language learning flourishing in the U.K. once again!

Free resource based on Edexcel 2019 Foundation/Higher listening including work book for students – link here.

If you find my resources useful, you can show your appreciation by buying me a☕. Link here.


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