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ELT Blog Carnival on Listening – “Mining Texts”

August 22, 2013

This blog post is inspired by the ELT Blog Carnival on Listening, and I’ve chosen to write about Sheila Thorn’s article from the April 2009 edition of Modern English Teacher entitled “Mining Listening Texts”.  (If you can’t access this version of the text then you can try here ).

The thing I like most about this article is the way in which the writer has a right good pop at mainstream approaches to listening. Her main criticisms of listening activities as they typically appear in ELT materials are as follows:

They’re not authentic

Scripted dialogues performed by actors with easily-comprehensible accents do not reflect the kind of speech that learners have to deal with in everyday life. The topics are generally bland to avoid causing offence, and the lexis and grammar are graded and/or carefully selected so they fit with whatever other language is being presented in that particular unit. Furthermore, students know that they’re not listening to real conversations and therefore find it difficult to identify or engage with the speakers.

They test comprehension rather than improving students’ listening

Listening activities usually involve listening to a text and answering questions to demonstrate how much of it you’ve understood, and that’s it. You may argue that you also do pre-listening work to contextualize or introduce some key vocabulary, and often use the listening as a springboard for further language work or discussion, but the actual listening part tends to involve understanding the gist, then getting a more detailed understanding. There’s no deeper analysis of the parts of the dialogue that the students had problems with or, crucially, what these problems were and why they had them.

There is too much focus on top-down processing

Encouraging students to use their real-world knowledge to predict what they’re going to hear is all very well. But what if the listening contains information that is different from, or contradicts, their real-world knowledge? Also, the writer argues that telling students to focus only on content words and telling them certain words aren’t important is not only counter-intuitive for learners but is also rather misleading. Non-content words can hold meaning that is key to understanding crucial information in a listening text.

An alternative approach

This article doesn’t only criticise common approaches to listening, it also provides us with useful practical ideas for “mining” listening texts. The need for an authentic text is paramount as it contains a rich array of features of real speech, and it is these features that the teacher should identify and focus on. Areas of spoken language to draw students’ attention to include connected speech, intonation, informal expressions and colloquialisms, and specific features of accents. There is also a step-by-step guide on how to develop classroom materials out of a piece of authentic listening.

Conclusions

The benefit of using listening texts to improve listening rather than just test it seems obvious. However, it’s surprising how few listening materials actually do this. I wonder if this focus on comprehension stems from the fact that many learners aspire to doing internationally-recognised English exams such as IELTS. Perhaps this legitimizes to some extent the need to test comprehension. But students still need to get better at listening and, as Sheila Thorn says, the best way to do this is by unpacking spoken English and analyzing it in detail.

I felt that a lot of her practical ideas, e.g. exploiting the text as much as possible, analyzing the reasons why learners had difficulties, pretending to mishear answers and forcing students to justify why the answer is one thing and not another, tie in very nicely with Demand-High ELT. Adrian Underhill would probably say it’s all about getting the students to use their inner workbench.

As for using authentic materials, that’s a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned, and if you have any doubts then I strongly recommend reading this article.

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From → Classroom ideas

15 Comments
  1. Ken MacDougall permalink

    I remember using a listening from the (brilliant) ‘Cambridge English Course 1’ about directions that seemed to be set in the Clyde Tunnel very early on in my teaching journey. I don’t think that I could even now make anything of it in a class. It should be hard, but it shouldn’t be dispiriting. But, yes, we need to get students to dig into what they are listening to. I still don’t think that is ‘high demand’ or ‘dogme’, that’s just doing your job.

    • Yes, Ken, I agree. Another point she makes in the article is the importance of using authentic listening to build confidence, and she goes into detail about how to do this when designing the tasks.
      You can certainly argue that demand high is just doing your job, but only if that’s how you do your job. Not everybody does…

  2. Paul Duffy permalink

    Maybe it’s just me, but the link to the article doesn’t work.

  3. “There’s no deeper analysis of the parts of the dialogue that the students had problems with or, crucially, what these problems were and why they had them.”

    But isn’t that the point of a listening comprehension exercise? First you find out what questions they have difficulty with, then you use this to go back and find what language they struggled with, explain it and teach it. If you didn’t have the comp check exercise, it’d be more difficult to find out where your students had problems.

    By and large, I don’t think its the job of ‘materials’ to do this. ‘Materials’ don’t know what your students will struggle with when they listen. It’s the kind of thing only a live teacher in class can do!

    I agree (obviously) that non authentic texts are a waste of students time, especially with listening. (with lower levels, use shorter texts!).

    • Paul Duffy permalink

      RE your first point, I think this would be the ideal, but most text books, (and by extension, probably most teachers), do the comprehension bit and then move on to something else. As you say, the comprehension stage should be the first stage, when in fact it is often the only stage.

      • Well, the textbooks do that because that’s what they should do! The textbook was never supposed to provide your entire lesson plan!

        Yes, teachers do it too though. I guess that’s a bigger issue. I think its more about poor teacher training though. Teachers are taught how important context setting, gist and detailed listening are, but the importance of running back through the text and dealing with language is often neglected, especially at CELTA level!

  4. Thanks Jonny and Paul for your comments. You’re right, Jonny that a good teacher will always follow up a comprehension activity with some analysis of problems. Can materials play a role in this though, as Paul suggests?
    You make a very interesting point about teachers not being trained to identify and respond to student problems. I’ve been pondering this a lot myself recently. There seem to be a lot of teaching skills and techniques which people seem to regard as untrainable; they just come with experience. But couldn’t new teachers be trained to be more responsive and capable of teaching in the moment, rather than just teaching their lesson plans?

    • Paul Duffy permalink

      I totally agree Steve, and Jonny. I think training, especially at Celta level, is about the lesson itself – ie managing the stages, the materials, groupings and so on, so that a plan can be carried out. There is not enough on the learners themselves – on responding to their needs in real time. Perhaps because this is less tangible, and therefore more difficult to train and assess in a teacher.

  5. Gordon Wells permalink

    Hello Steve. We haven’t met, but there are connections. As then “senior lecturer” for languages at Clydebank College I held what I guess was the fore-runner to your own post until 1996, before moving to the Hebrides, where I still am. Anyway, I came across your blog recently, and have enjoyed browsing through. It’s a very informative read. I’m really enjoying it. So I thought I’d “hook up”. The connection to Listening is perhaps a tad tangential, but it’s an area in which I’ve done some work in the past – just in terms of collecting authentic speech and putting it online in a format that is, hopefully, reasonably teacher- and/or learner-friendly, and also Scottish… If you want links I can supply them. Cheers. Gordon.

    • Hi Gordon,
      Thanks for getting in touch. I imagine things have changed a lot at Clydebank since you were there.
      I’m pleased that you are enjoying reading the posts on this blog. Please feel free to add your comments. I’ve done a few that focus on the Scottish context and would welcome more views on these.
      I’ll have a more detailed look at your blog too – some really interesting stuff from what I have seen. We are always looking for authentic materials, particularly containing Scottish accents, so I may well contact you if that’s ok.
      Best,
      Steve

      • Yes, Steve, I would guess they’ve changed a lot. Back in my day it was mostly Scottish International Foundation Programme work, with rather little on the community side, which was quite a learning curve for me, having come from what was then called Industrial Language Training (workplace learning). I will indeed continue to look through your stuff. I’ll not fill your comments page up with links, but if you click on my “gravatar” you’ll find “personal links”. The WordPress site Island Voices/Guthan nan Eilean is the centre of gravity round which the other social media sites spin – YouTube, Ipadio, Facebook. Please poke around and feel free to help yourself. “Gordon’s Website” also gives contact details should you wish to get in touch directly.

        There are 75+ English video clips on the YouTube channel (and more in Gaelic), and I’d be interested in your thoughts on Clilstore as an aid in a resource-based learning approach, if you get time to look at it (links from the WordPress site).

        All the best,

        Gordon

  6. This reminds me of a discussion I was in once on how to test listening. There were lots of responses and the person kept saying, “That’s great, but that’s listening comprehension…I want to know how to test listening.” It was the first time I stepped back and realized that yes, understanding the big picture is important (it is after all a key to communicate), but if students can’t hear the little differences then they are in big trouble when it comes to the rest. I have since started using a joke a day in class. Some deal with grammar, some with idioms, but a great number of them work with minimal pairs. Mainly because it is the only real area of bottom up technology that I feel that I am decent with (other than dictoglosses which I feel are really more communicative)

    I, like others, feel I lack the skills to teach a lot of bottom up. I really enjoy this article (and others) and they give me some practical ideas on how to focus in on my learners’ weaknesses.

    • Thanks for this, Carissa. Minimal pairs and pronunciation work in general is certainly another area where bottom-up teaching can be effective. To me though, listening comprehension and testing listening are kind of the same thing. Sheila Thorn’s article is more about helping students to listen better. As she says, this isn’t about giving them lots of stuff to listen to and then making them answer questions. It’s about identifying their problems and helping them to overcome them. Which, essentially, is what all teaching should be about.
      You say that you feel you “lack the skills to teach a lot of bottom up.” It sounds like you have quite a number of tricks for focusing on language in a bottom-up way. However, maybe a lot of teachers feel that, once they can do the basics, they discover that there is a lot more to teaching than what is covered on your average CELTA. Or DELTA.

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