TEFL Q and A, Chapter 6: Teaching Listening Skills

Q: As far as I can see, what we've covered so far seems to represent all that's necessary to teach EFL. But are there any other big areas we need to look at?

A: There certainly are. And the biggest one is teaching skills.

Q: What sort of skills?

A: Listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

Q: But don't the students learn these things naturally if you teach the language effectively?

A: Well, some students learn better than others.

Q: OK. Are there any general principles that we can apply to teaching these skills (as we did before)?

A: Yes. If I could sum up a successful skills lesson, I'd say it should be characterised by simply creating the right conditions for effective learning. Skills teaching is often common sense.

Q: Are some skills more difficult than others?

A: It's difficult to generalise. But I would say that, by and large, listening is the one we spend most time doing--so let’s start with listening.

Q: OK. Why is it that some nonnative speakers can't seem to figure out what we're saying?

A: There are many reasons for this. In real life (as opposed to a listening text created specifically for an EFL course book) people talk over each other, the speed of delivery can be very fast, and some accents are different from what students are used to. All these things can cause problems for the learner.

Q: Should it be my goal to get students to understand every word a speaker says?

A: No. A teacher would usually use a video- or audiocassette to play a listening text at a level considerably above the speaking level of the learners. The language in the texts wouldn't be played as a model for the students to copy, but more of a listening challenge (e.g., to see if they can understand the main points).

Q: How should I start a lesson whose main focus is listening?

A: First, arouse interest and then set a listening task (i.e., ask students to do something while they listen).

Q: Why?

A: Otherwise, they won't be so focused or motivated when they listen.

Q: What kind of task should I set?

A: That depends on the type of listening text you use. You see, we normally listen to something for one of two reasons: gist or specific information. If you're listening to the lottery results, you're listening for specific information, but if you're listening to some strangers at the table next to yours in a restaurant, you're probably listening for gist. So, before you play your text, you really need to ask yourself, "Why would someone listen to this?" Then you need to set a task that reflects this reason.

Q: Could you give an example?

A: Sure. For the lottery text your question could be "What are the winning numbers?" For the restaurant text your question could be "What general topic(s) are the people talking about?"

Q: And what do I do then?

A: First, play the tape all the way through (uninterrupted), ask the students to answer the question, and tell them whether they're right or wrong.

Q: Is that it? Or do I go back to the tape?

A: You rewind the tape, and play the key bits again, bit by bit.

Q: What do you mean by "key bits"?

A: The bits containing the answers to the questions you set at the beginning.

Q: And do I set a task this time?

A: Absolutely. You should always set a task. This time you can give your students a fill-in-the-blank exercise (that you prepared before the lesson).

Q: What exactly would this exercise contain?

A: It would contain the text verbatim but without the answers (these are replaced by blanks).

Q: Could you give an example?

A: Well, if the sentence pertains to the weather, it might read, "The weather in London is going to be a mixture of ________________ and ________________."

Q: How many times do I play each bit?

A: The minimum number of times for the students to get it (i.e., preferably once, but up to three times).

Q: And if they still can't get it?

A: In this case you can make it easier for them by saying the sentence yourself. First, begin at the same speed as the tape, and then say it more and more slowly. Eventually one of the students will definitely understand what you're saying.

Q: This sounds difficult.

A: Yes, I suppose so. But it can be fun, and it makes students feel powerful. I'd strongly recommend this technique.

Q: Once I've done that, is that finally it?

A: Not quite. It's best to play the tape once more--uninterrupted. If you like, you can give the students the whole text to read while they listen.

Q: So I play it all the way through, then bit by bit, and then all the way through again?

A: That's right. Students will appreciate this structure. What's more, they'll notice the difference in their ability to understand the tape when they contrast their performance during the first listening with their performance during the second listening.


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