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Decoding skills: a neglected part of listening comprehension?

Rachael Roberts, a teacher, teacher trainer and author, discusses the often neglected use of decoding skills in listening comprehension.

When you sing along to a song, are you sure you’ve got the right words?

Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody contains the line, ‘Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?’, but it is often misheard as ‘will you do the banned tango?’

The Police, actually sang ‘When the world is running down, you make the best of what is still around’, not ‘you make the best home-made stew around.’

Amusing, but the point is a serious one. When we listen, there are two sets of processes taking place simultaneously:

1 Meaning building or top down processes

  • Drawing upon knowledge of the world, topic or culture.
  • Understanding literal meaning
  • Selecting relevant information
  • Recognising redundant information
  • Connecting ideas
  • Making inferences

2 Decoding or bottom up processes

  • Identifying sounds
  • Working out where words begin and end
  • Dealing with unknown words
  • Recognising where clauses and phrases end
  • Making use of sentence stress
  • Recognising chunks of language

Over the last few decades, there has been much more emphasis on the first set of processes. We are all familiar with activities where we activate students’ knowledge about a topic, encourage them to make predictions and select or reject the information they hear in order to answer comprehension questions.

And these activities are useful; they just aren’t the whole picture. A good listener is also carrying out the second set of processes, and these decoding processes can be very challenging for the English language learner.

Decoding is made particularly difficult by all the features of connected speech. For example:

‘Will you do the banned tango’ : the final /d/ in ‘banned’ elides into the ‘t’ of tango, making it sound very similar to ‘Fandango’. Especially if you don’t know what a Fandango is (it’s a kind of dance, not as well known as the Tango).

Good listeners are able to use world knowledge (such as what a fandango is), together with ability to decode. If they can’t decode, perhaps because the speaker is inaudible, they can predict from their knowledge of syntax. Given a sentence like ”When the world is running down, you make the best …… ‘, they think about what it is that the person might make the best one of (though stew is a slightly bizarre choice, even if it does begin with the same consonant cluster as ‘still’!)

Recent research, however, suggests that less efficient listeners have to put so much energy into decoding that they can’t use their meaning building skills effectively. They simply can’t hold onto enough of the meaning to make connections between different parts of the text.

So, as well as providing practice of the top down/meaning building skills, there is a clear argument for more listening activities which focus specifically on developing decoding skills, especially at lower levels, where students have more limited vocabulary.

So, after your usual comprehension work, why not try some of the following?

Sounds and weak forms

  • Minimal pair work (coming back into fashion). Learners listen to two words, e.g. ‘pat’ ‘bat’ or ‘pat’ ‘pat’ and say if they are the same or different.
  • Learners look at a transcript and mark the words carrying the main stresses (either as they listen, or they predict the stresses and then listen to check).
  • Play or dictate short chunks, especially formulaic chunks like ‘What do you mean?’ pronounced naturally, with reduced forms, and ask students to write the full forms.
  • Students transcribe a (short) section of a listening text and compare what they have written with the original transcript.

Syntax

  • Also using a transcript, students mark ‘chunks’ of meaning, either while or before they listen.
  • Play part of the listening text again, stopping halfway through each sentence and asking students to try and remember what comes next. This is nominally a memory exercise, but it will develop ability to predict based on understanding of English sentence structure.
  • Students look at the transcript and pull out groups of words that often go together (formulaic chunks). Then listen to how they sound when pronounced naturally, and even drill them.

Have you tried any of these activities? Have you successfully used any other decoding activities?

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