In the second of a three-part series on teaching EAP, Edward de Chazal, a freelance consultant, author and presenter, looks at effective listening strategies and appropriate materials to support students in their chosen disciplines.
Listening is a core activity in EAP: when students are studying their chosen disciplines, they will have to deal with a range of spoken texts – which involve listening. For many people academic listening implies lectures, yet there many other types of spoken text: presentations and papers; seminars and discussions; tutorials and small-group events; one-to-one meetings and supervisions; collaborative activities such as group work and projects; and more informal activities like dealing with administration staff and social interaction. These can be highly varied – from informal to formal, straightforward to complex, transactional (e.g. a lecture) to interactive (e.g. a group project).
Accessing the content further
Clearly a lot of information is given through spoken texts, and students need to be able to understand them. However, understanding is just part of the story. Listening is not simply a passive activity. Two key roles of the academic listener are interpreter and recorder. The listener has to work out the meaning of what they are listening to, including the speaker’s main points, arguments, and stance. They may also have to record this information, for example by making notes. In this way the listener can access the main content – via their notes – to use in future spoken and written texts. Lectures can be highly complex, and taking notes typically involves far more than listening and writing. In short, lectures are integrated, cyclical, and multimodal. Lectures are integrated as they develop a topic which students might be reading about, talking about in seminars and discussions, and ultimately writing about in their essays and assessments. They are cyclical in that they form part of longer cycles of knowledge: the material in lectures may also be developed and presented in conferences, and then published in articles and textbooks.
Multimodality means using various ways and technologies to present information. These can include visuals (such as PowerPoint slides), embedded hyperlinks to external content such as websites and podcasts, other video and audio content, as well as other spoken and written texts including student questions and handouts. Any or all of these may be incorporated into a single lecture.
These characteristics mean that students have to work with multiple inputs of text, knowledge, and language; furthermore, while doing so they have to respond to these inputs by making notes (in a lecture) or making a relevant contribution (in a discussion). Challenges for the student include language (phonology, vocabulary, grammar), and other aspects such as reading a lecture slide while listening, or dealing with the cultural dimensions of the input.
Effective learning strategies
Given all these characteristics and challenges, how can EAP teachers facilitate effective learning? Above all, learning needs to be focused and realistic, with clear objectives. Good materials are vital. Time is limited, and students typically have a great deal to learn. It is better to follow these principles and make some measurable progress, for example by moving from B1 to B2, than adopt a ‘hope for the best’ approach through unfocused activities such as exposure to a series of difficult lectures without providing the appropriate support. Think of someone you know who has lived in a foreign country for years without learning much of the language – lots of exposure in itself is not the same as moving forward in terms of language level.
To be effective, EAP listening tasks need to be staged, scaffolded, and supported. This support can take the form of sample texts to aim for (such as student presentations), carefully selected language for intensive focus, and achievable outcomes like completing a set of notes. With lectures, the tasks can include relating the information on visuals to the lecturer’s spoken text. In addition, reading is a good preparation for listening – in authentic academic contexts students typically read something on the lecture topic before the lecture. Finally, follow-up tasks can be very useful, for example identifying and noting down material in a listening text to use in a new speaking or writing text.
What can we learn from these observations? Listening is a core activity in EAP, and it requires a complex set of skills and language. By using appropriate materials with achievable learning objectives, we can enable our EAP students to overcome these challenges and develop their academic listening skills.
This article first appeared in the January 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults,subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.