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IELTS Speaking Practice Part 2: Listening & Responding

shutterstock_298463378Louis Rogers is a freelance author and senior academic tutor at the University of Reading. Louis is co-author of Oxford EAP B1+, Foundation IELTS Masterclass, Proficiency Masterclass and Intermediate and Upper Intermediate Skills for Business Studies. Today, he joins us for the second article in his IELTS series, focusing on the Listening test.

These activities are useful to prepare for IELTS Part 1 and Part 2 listening, however, they are also useful for anyone who wants to give their students practice with spelling and confusing numbers.

In the IELTS listening test Parts 1 and 2 students often hear basic practical information such as addresses, dates, prices and arrangements. In Part 1 this is a dialogue, for example, between a customer and a receptionist in a hotel, someone inquiring about a course, or someone joining a club. Similar information can be given in Part 2 but in the form of a monologue.  For example, they might hear someone giving an induction talk at the start of a new course who is giving a description of events scheduled throughout the week. Whilst listening, students will then usually complete a form or table that contains this information.

While these may not sound the most challenging of tasks students can struggle to differentiate between certain letters, numbers and sounds. Accurately spelling names, streets, email addresses and post codes can be difficult while listening and completing the form or table. The two activities here can be good practice before students try one of these tasks, or the bingo game could be used as a follow up fun activity at the end of the lesson.

The first activity is a pair-work activity. You will need to copy enough of sheets so that half the class can have sheet A and half the class can have sheet B. Organise the class into pairs and give an A and B worksheet to each pair. The pairs then follow the instructions on their worksheet.

Once you have completed this you could then play an IELTS audio such as the one in unit 1 of Foundation IELTS Masterclass. Or you could simply move on to play the follow up bingo. Copy and cut up enough cards for one per student. Read from the list below in order. Give spellings if necessary. As you read the list out loud, students should cross off the items they hear. The first to cross off all nine on their card is the winner.

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Bingo cards

IELTSbingocards

 


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Bottom-up decoding: listening

female earMark Bartram has been a teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer for more than 30 years. His titles for OUP include Venture and Think English for Italian high school students, High Spirits on Holiday for middle school students, and a Business Result Teacher’s Book. 

In a previous post I explained some of the reasons why we should focus on bottom-up strategies for listening and reading. In this post, I’d like to show how this might work in practice for the skill of listening.

Even learners who have a good range of grammar and vocabulary can struggle with understanding natural speech. And the same is true even for listeners who have a reasonable grasp of the topic and good prediction skills (usually associated with top-down strategies). There could be a number of reasons for this, but one essential reason is that they have difficulty in decoding the “signal” which is coming at them. By “decoding”, I mean perceiving the sounds of English and linking them mentally to words and phrases that they have in their store of language. (Even so-called native speakers struggle with this – for example, the recent case of a man who thought the phrase “as opposed to” was “as a pose to” until he was nearly 20.)

English is often described as a particularly difficult language to understand in this respect, as

(a) the sounds we hear don’t always correspond to what we think is the spelling

(b) certain sounds change when spoken quickly and/or in groups of words. In the example above, the schwa sound at the start of “opposed” could be spelt as an O or an A, and the /d/ sound at the end of “opposed” gets lost (elided?) in the following /t/ sound

(c) it is sometimes difficult to work out where one word ends and another starts, as in “I scream/ice cream”.

Our learners’ stories confirm this: a classic example from my own experience was a B2 level class asking me at the end of a course why I kept talking about festivals, when I had just been giving instructions: “First of all….”

So what kinds of activities would help our learners with this problem? Firstly, learners need to be made aware of these features – in my experience, even high level learners may be unconscious of them. Features might include:  connected speech, including weak forms, elision, assimilation and so on; the use of reference words like it and this to refer back to something mentioned previously (very difficult even for advanced learners); the use of stress to carry meaning (as in “I didn’t want to GO” vs “I DIDN’T want to go”); interpreting auxiliary verbs (“Where did you live?” Vs “Where do you live?”)

Teachers often feel that the practice of these features helps in awareness-building.  That is, if the learners try saying these forms (even if they do not wish or need their own pronunciation to reach “native-speaker” level), they are likely to be in a better position to recognise them.

Secondly, learners need to work on the best strategies for successful listening. For example, it is very important for learners to understand the topic of a conversation, but they often interpret a key word wrongly and mis-interpret the topic. This could be because the word has multiple meanings (a student of mine went through a whole lesson thinking we were talking about people from Poland when in fact we were discussing the coldest parts of the Earth) or because the word is close in sound to another (eg track/truck). Students can be asked to listen to snippets of natural speech and choose between different words (“did she say track, truck or trick?”), or different meanings of the same word (“is she talking about a party as in a celebration or a political party?”).

Another important point is how we check comprehension. John Field and others have rightly criticised materials for focussing too much on assessing comprehension as opposed to training learners. But if our comprehension activities focus on the features above, then we can assess how successful our skills training has been. For example, we might ask learners “why does the speaker stress DIDN’T?” or “what does these refer to in John’s last sentence?”. This will help learners become aware of issues they had not previously been aware of.

We said in the previous post that we should not ignore top-down strategies, partly because the kind of knowledge and schemata that we activate before learners listen help to compensate for the various hurdles they face (not least, the poor quality of some recordings). Also, prediction and activation activities are usually fun, and motivate the learners into the listening. But top-down approaches will only take you so far: learners need to become skilled at decoding as well.

To see bottom-up decoding in practice in the classroom, watch Navigate author Rachael Roberts’ video demonstration here.

This article first appeared in the January edition of Teaching Adults newsletter. If you’d like to receive more articles like this and resources for teaching adult language learners, sign up here.


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Six ways to boost classroom participation: Part Five – Get better at listening


shutterstock_271719515Zarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels, across the world. She joins us on the blog today for the fifth article in a series focused on boosting classroom participation. Last week, she explored asking better questions and improving questioning style to allow for different learning styles in class. This week, Zarina focuses on improving your own listening skills as a teacher.

“Are you really listening…or are you just waiting for your turn to talk?” Robert Montgomery

Last week in the previous article in this series, I explored how you can get more out of your students by improving your questioning technique – but it’s just as important to work on how you listen and respond to their answers.

In an average, busy lesson when the teacher has planned a set of activities, it is easy to ask questions of our students, knowing what the answers should be. This sometimes results in ‘half listening’ to their responses. Students often answer with a lack of confidence in themselves, so they speak quietly, or purposefully mumble certain vocabulary that they feel they can’t pronounce properly. As teachers, we sometimes fill in the gaps of what we have heard, or think we have heard.

This may appear to save time in the short-run, but it does not build the trust required to help students gain confidence. In the long-run, students who don’t fully trust their teacher and lack confidence in their abilities in another language take much longer to answer oral questions or offer opinions. It is in this kind of situation that a language lesson can often seem like a monologue and lack that important two-way communication. We therefore need to practise active listening.

What is active listening?

We can demonstrate that we are listening actively by the way that we respond to what someone is saying.

  1. First, how can we respond more positively to correct answers?
    If we just accept the answer as correct or acceptable and move on, we haven’t let the student know what we heard. Instead, show that you think the answer is a good one, by saying things such as “Exactly!” “Well done, you really thought about that” “Just what I was looking for”. Ask the rest of the class “Did everybody hear x’s answer?” then ask the student to repeat it, adding “What you said is really important, I’d like everyone to hear it.” This values an answer, boosts confidence and gives recognition to those who give it a try. It should also encourage others within the group to get involved too.
  1. But what do you do if you can’t hear, or don’t understand what a student is saying?
    Don’t move on after guessing what they meant, thinking that you are saving them from embarrassment. Tell them you couldn’t hear their answer and ask them to repeat it. If it’s the meaning that’s the problem, when they repeat the answer then it is useful to rephrase their response and ask them “Did you mean _______?” Surprisingly, rather than dying of embarrassment, the student will probably realise you actually want to know what they mean, and try to communicate their idea differently. If you follow with an apology for misunderstanding them (and state that you now understand what they mean), rephrase if necessary or restate the answer for the rest of the class. This demonstrates that you are willing to work with them on an answer and that you are truly interested in understanding their response.
  2. What can we do if students are struggling to answer?
    Students may try very hard to answer a question or give an opinion, but struggle to get their idea across in another language. In such cases we need to try to piece together and summarise what they are trying to say, with their consent. This illustrates that the message being conveyed is more important than accuracy of language and that inaccuracies don’t make an idea or opinion invalid. So if they stumble over whether to include an article or not, for example, quickly add “That’s right, we say on THE street,” then bring them back to the content of what they were saying. “So what was happening on the street?”
  3. How can we explore students’ answers in more detail?
    It’s also important to check that the thought processes behind students’ answers are correct – in fact, this part is actually more important than the final answer! We can do this by asking questions such as “Tell me why you think that?” or “Where did you find that answer?” This also has the benefit of helping students who have been struggling to come to an answer, because they will hopefully be able to follow the thinking behind their classmate’s answer.

In summary, teachers who listen actively do so by clarifying and rephrasing their students’ answers, and reflecting on their students’ thought processes. By concentrating on the thinking behind students’ answers, not just the answers themselves, we can foster a more trusting relationship between ourselves and our students, giving them greater confidence, and reducing their fear of making mistakes. After all, active listening leads to active communication, which should be every language teacher’s goal.

This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of Teaching Adults. To find out more about the newsletter and to sign up, click here


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Teaching with Web 2.0 Tools (Part 2)

DeathtoStock_Medium5Magali Trapero Turrent is an ELT Editor at Oxford University Press, Mexico. She is the co-author of several books published by OUP as well as a teacher and former OUP Educational Services teacher trainer. In her posts, she shares her ideas for using Web 2.0 tools to develop learner’s language skills.

Listening is a difficult skill to develop for ELLs or any other foreign language learner. And yet, it is critical for language acquisition. In the past, we mostly used the audio materials included in textbooks to help our learners develop listening skills. However, with the advent of new technologies and the Internet, we have been able to add richness to our lessons by using podcasts, short videos or live radio programs from stations in other countries. Despite this, there are times when we want to create specific audio materials to suit our learners’ needs without having to record our voices. Fortunately, using Web 2.0 tools can give us the opportunity to create our own engaging and fun listening materials without having to record our voice or, better yet, we can engage our students in the process of creation. Text-to-Speech (TTS) technology is extremely helpful because we can select the speech rate, the gender and the accent of the voice that will be created from our text. iSpeech and Voki are examples of tools that employ TTS technology.

iSpeech can be used with computers or with tablets and smart phones through the mobile apps. Voki allows you, or your students, to generate fun listening activities through the creation of avatars to represent you, a fictitious character, or your students. You can use TTS, upload audio files or use your smart phone to record. You can place your listening activity (avatar) in your social network site or blog, or even email it for homework.

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Figure 1: Sample Voki development page—Text extract from the OUP series Discover Science Level 3 Student’s Book

In designing a lesson, we can apply the pre-listening, while-listening and post-listening framework. Once the topic of the lesson is decided and after the instructional goal of the activity is established—top-down or bottom-up skill development (Rost, 2011)—we can begin developing our listening materials.

During the pre-listening stage, learners can begin work on top-down processing skills. Top-down processing takes place, for example, when learners use their previous knowledge on a topic to interpret a message. If they do not have any knowledge on the topic, regardless of how fluent they are, it will render a listening activity quite challenging. This principle applies even to native speakers. Imagine having to listen to a conversation about astrophysics—if you are not an astrophysicist, having to answer comprehension questions based on that conversation can be an overwhelming challenge. Therefore, establishing a context, pre-teaching vocabulary or sociocultural elements and activating previous knowledge are needed for comprehension of aural input (Ur, 1999).

In preparing a science lesson, I can use Google Earth to engage my learners and activate their previous knowledge on ecosystems and biomes during the pre-listening stage. As they engage in their virtual exploration of the Earth, I can begin eliciting content-specific vocabulary and teaching any lexis they will need to successfully complete their listening task.

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Figure 2: Image courtesy of Google Earth

Moving on to the next stage of the lesson, besides top-down processing skills, more skills will need to be developed that are just as necessary—namely, bottom-up processing skills. The while-listening stage provides a great opportunity to develop decoding or bottom-up processing skills. In bottom-up processing, some degree of phonological, grammatical and lexical competence is needed. This is because when learners engage in bottom-up processing, they attempt to make sense of the message based on chunks of input, such as sounds, words, clauses or sentences—to name a few. Top-down and bottom-up processes do not happen in isolation—they interact (Vandergrift, 1999).

Continuing with the example of a science lesson, for the while-listening activity, I can use Woices to develop a guide to different biomes and the services they provide. I can embed the guide in a blog or a social network page, or use it directly from the site. Woices can be used with computers or with tablets and smart phones through the mobile apps. In a while-listening activity like this, depending on the instructional goal, I can have my learners complete a mind map in Mind42 with information from the aural input or follow the information on Google Earth as they capture images mentioned in the Woices guide for the post-listening activity.

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Figure 3: Image courtesy of Woices

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Figure 4: Images courtesy of Mind42 and Tiffany @Making the World Cuter

In fact, Woices, iSpeech and Voki can be used for the post-listening stage. You may decide, for example, to have your learners create their own Voki as a response. The advantage of using TTS technology is that if students have memorized words with the wrong pronunciation, once their text is converted to speech, they will notice the difference. After all, research shows that learners have consistently reported that memorizing words with the wrong pronunciation greatly interferes with their listening comprehension performance (Goh, 2008). The downside of TTS is that it may not provide the desired intonation if that is one of the instructional goals of a lesson.

In the next article in this series, we will explore the use of Web 2.0 tools for writing activities.

 

References and Further Reading

Goh, C. (2008). Metacognitive Instruction for Second Language Listening Development: Theory, Practice and Research Implications. RELC Journal: A Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 39(2), 188–213.

Rost, M. (2011). Teaching and Researching Listening (2nd ed., pp. 132-133). New York, NY: Pearson Education Limited.

Ur, P. (1999). Module 8 – Teaching listening. A Course in Language Teaching (pp. 41–47). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vandergrift, L. (1999). Facilitating Second Language Listening Comprehension: Acquiring Successful Strategies. ELT Journal, 53 (3), 168–176.


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Why Language Learners Should Take Notes

Why Language Learners Should Take NotesMargaret Brooks, a co-author of Q: Skills for Success, Second Edition, offers some tips to help your students take notes in class.

Whether in the context of taking a phone message or listening to an academic lecture, note-taking is an essential skill for most language learners. In order to help learners acquire this skill, it is important to consider first the special challenges language learners face when trying to listen and take notes.

Short-term memory

One of the most self-evident issues is that it takes a language learner longer to process audio input than it does a native speaker.  One reason for this is that a person’s short-term memory is shorter in L2 than in L1. People employ short-term memory (usually measured in seconds) when processing audio materials. For example, when listening to a long sentence, the listener may need to hold the whole utterance in his mind and review it in order to comprehend it adequately. For the L1 listener this happens naturally, without the person being aware of it.  However, for the language learner, this mental review process may not always be possible in the available time.1

Language structure

Another factor is the need for a mental map of the language, an internalized knowledge of the vocabulary and structures. A native speaker is grounded from childhood in the structures of the language and knows what to expect. We know, in fact, that people do not actually hear every word when they listen. But they hear enough to be able to parse out the meaning or reconstruct the sense quickly.  They can “fill in the blanks” with words not actually heard.

Cultural expectations

Finally, in addition to being familiar with the semantic and syntactic aspects of the language, a listener may need to know of certain cultural expectations. Names of people and places and knowledge of events or history familiar to the average native speaker may be unfamiliar to the learner.  All of these are things that may cause the listener to hesitate, stop listening, and try to think about what was said, while in the meantime the speaker continues.  The listener then loses the thread and finds it difficult to bring attention back to the task.

How note-taking can help

In the face of these challenges, it may seem that adding note-taking to the listening tasks in the classroom may be a step too far for many. How, for example, can we expect high beginning students to listen and write at the same time? However, when the tasks are appropriate for the learners’ level and carefully implemented, note-taking can actually improve comprehension.

Taking notes helps the student maintain focus and attention. It encourages a more engaged posture, such as sitting forward in the seat. The act of handwriting also aids in attention. Interestingly, studies have shown that students taking handwritten notes performed better on comprehension tests than those taking notes with an electronic medium such as a laptop or tablet.  The reason for this is that handwriting is slower than typing. The writer has to summarize content, which involves more mental processing than faster typing. This in turn leads to better understanding and retention.2

The following are some examples of note-taking practice activities for the language classroom:

  • Preparing to listen: Although this is not a note-taking skill in itself, it is a necessary first step in the classroom. In real life, people do not usually approach something like a lecture or other listening context without some idea of what they will hear. They will have read assignments leading up to a lecture, received the agenda for a meeting, or at the very least know something about the topic.  We often put learners at an unfair disadvantage by starting a listening task by just saying, “OK, now listen to this.” Pre-listening activities level the playing field by giving learners realistic preparation for the task. These can consist of things like pre-teaching key words, exploring students’ prior knowledge of the topic, or short reading selections related to the topic.
  • Focusing on main ideas and key words: Some students have a tendency to equate note-taking with dictation and set out to try to write every word – something impossible even in L1. Activities that focus on writing only main ideas and key content words address this issue and help develop short-term as a well as long-term memory. When students write down a few important words as they listen, seeing the words is a memory aid and helps them follow the flow of the ideas.  This strategy is essential when dealing with authentic listening texts at higher levels of language study and, by extension, in real world situations. Authentic texts are likely to contain chunks of unfamiliar language that become “roadblocks” if students are not able to move past them and keep listening for key words.
  • Using a variety of organizational systems such as outlining, the Cornell Method, or even word webs: This enables students to follow the development of a speaker’s ideas and “remember” them from start to finish as they listen. Presenting several ways of organizing notes shows that note-taking is essentially a personal task. Each person has to find a system that works for them.
  • Reviewing and adding to notes soon after a lecture or presentation: The purpose of note-taking in an academic setting is to provide students with a tool for study and review. In a business setting, notes from a meeting might be used to write a report or prepare a task list for a project. Notes consisting of just words and short phrases will not serve the purpose as the note-taker will quickly forget how to put these together into a coherent record of a lecture or meeting, for example.  In the classroom, students can review notes and expand what they have written. Also, even though there is no “rewind” function in a real-world lecture hall, it is useful practice for students to listen again and add to their notes.
  • Collaborating with others: Students often suffer from the mistaken notion that asking questions or getting help from others somehow diminishes them, makes them seem “stupid.” They forget that even native speakers do this all the time and it probably comes naturally to them in their first language. In the classroom, students can compare notes with classmates, ask questions about things they didn’t understand, and listen again to verify information.

Providing students with an opportunity to practice note-taking in a controlled and “safe” environment not only gives them a skill that will be useful in a variety of settings from the lecture hall to the meeting room, or even a doctor’s office but also helps them become more attentive listeners and improves general comprehension.

References and Further Reading

1Rost, Michael. Research in Second Language Processes and Development in Eli Hinkel (Ed). Handbook of Research on Second Language Learning and Teaching, Part IV. , Chapter 35: L2 Listening, Routledge, Nov. 11, 2005.

2Mueller, Pam A and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Note Taking. in Psychological Science, published on line 23 April, 2014.

Martin, Katherine I and Nick Ellis. The Roles of Phonological Short-term Memory and Working Memory in L2 Grammar and Vocabulary Learning. in Studies in Second Language Acquisition, Vol. 34, Issue 03, September 2012, Cambridge University Press, 2012.