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Improving ESL Learners' Listening Skills: At the Workplace and Beyond
Carol Van Duzer
Listening is a critical element in the competent language performance of
adult second language learners, whether they are communicating at school,
at work, or in the community. Through the normal course of a day, listening
is used nearly twice as much as speaking and four to five times as much
as reading and writing (Rivers, 1981). In a recent study of Fortune 500
Corporations, Wolvin and Coakley (1991) found that listening was perceived
to be crucial for communication at work with regards to entry-level employment,
job success, general career competence, managerial competency, and effectiveness
of relationships between supervisors and subordinates. Yet listening remains
one of the least understood processes in language learning despite the recognition
of the critical role it plays both in communication and in language acquisition
(Morley, 1991). As language teaching has moved toward comprehension-based
approaches, listening to learn has become an important element in the adult
English as a second language (ESL) classroom (Lund, 1990).
What other processes are at work?
At the same time, two types of cognitive processing are also occurring: bottom-up and top-down processing.
Top-down processing refers to utilizing schemata (background knowledge and global understanding) to derive meaning from and interpret the message. For example, in preparing for training on the operation of a new floor polisher, top-down processing is activated as the learner engages in an activity that reviews what the learner already knows about using the old floor polisher. This might entail discussing the steps in the polishing process; reviewing vocabulary such as switch, on, off, etc.; or generating a list of questions that the learner would like answered in the training.
Bottom-up processing refers to deriving the meaning of the message based on the incoming language data, from sounds, to words, to grammatical relationships, to meaning. Stress, rhythm, and intonation also play a role in bottom-up processing. Bottom-up processing would be activated as the learner is signaled to verify comprehension by the trainer/teacher asking a question using the declarative form with rising intonation ("You see that switch there?"). Practice in recognizing statements and questions that differ only in intonation help the learner develop bottom-up processing skills.
Learners need to be aware that both of these processes affect their listening comprehension, and they need to be given opportunities to practice employing each of them.
How can listening help the adult learner acquire English?
Current research and theory point to the benefit of providing a silent or pre-speaking period for the beginning-level learner (Dunkel, 1991). Delaying production gives learners the opportunity to store information in their memories. It also spares them the trauma of task overload and speaking before they are ready. The silent period may be long or short. It could comprise several class periods of listening activities that foster vocabulary and build comprehension such as in the Total Physical Response (TPR) approach. In this approach, the teacher gives a series of commands while demonstrating each one. Learners then show their comprehension by acting out the commands as repeated by the teacher. Learners themselves begin to give the commands as they feel comfortable speaking. Or, the silent period may consist of learners listening to a tape-recorded conversation two or three times before answering questions about the content. A listening period consistent with the demands of the following productive task works to enhance rather than inhibit language acquisition and helps the more advanced-level learner as well as the beginner.
What should be considered when selecting listening techniques and activities?
What is known about the listening process and the factors that affect listening can be a guide when incorporating listening skill development into adult ESL classes. The following guidelines have been adapted from a variety of sources including Brod (1996), Brown (1994), Dunkel (1991), Mendelsohn (1994), Morley (1991), Peterson (1991), Richards (1983), and Rost (1991).
Listening should be relevant.
Because learners listen with a purpose and listen to things that interest them, accounting for the goals and experiences of the learners will keep motivation and attention high. For example, if learners at a worksite need to be able to understand new policies and procedures introduced at staff meetings, in class they should be helped to develop the abilities to identify main ideas and supporting details, to identify cause and effect, to indicate comprehension or lack of comprehension, and to ask for clarification.
Material should be authentic.
Authenticity should be evident both in language and in task. The language should reflect real discourse, including hesitations, rephrasing, and a variety of accents. Although the language needs to be comprehensible, it does not need to be constantly modified or simplified to make it easier for the level of the listener. Level of difficulty can be controlled by the selection of the task. For example, in a unit on following instructions, at the beginning level, the learner might hear a command ("May I borrow your hammer?") and respond by choosing the correct item. At an intermediate level, the learner might hear a series of instructions ("Go to the broom closet, get the floor polisher, take it to the hall in front of the cafeteria, polish the floor there, then go to the . . .") and respond appropriately by tracing the route on a floor plan of the worksite. An advanced-level learner might listen to an audio tape of an actual work meeting and write a summary of the instructions the supervisor gave the team. Use of authentic material, such as workplace training videos, audio tapes of actual workplace exchanges, and TV and radio broadcasts, increases transferability to listening outside of the ESL classroom context--to work and to community.
Opportunities to develop both top-down and bottom-up processing skills should be offered.
As mentioned above, top-down oriented activities encourage the learners to discuss what they already know about a topic, and bottom-up practice activities give confidence in accurate hearing and comprehension of the components of the language (sounds, words, intonation, grammatical structures).
The development of listening strategies should be encouraged.
Predicting, asking for clarification, and using non-verbal cues are examples of strategies that increase chances for successful listening. For example, using video can help learners develop cognitive strategies. As they view a segment with the sound off, learners can be asked to make predictions about what is happening by answering questions about setting, action, and interaction; viewing the segment again with the sound on allows them to confirm or modify their hypothesis (Rubin, 1995).
Activities should teach, not test.
Teachers should avoid using activities that tend to focus on memory rather than on the process of listening or that simply give practice rather than help learners develop listening ability. For example, simply having the learners listen to a passage followed by true/false questions might indicate how much the learners remembered rather than helping them to develop the skill of determining main idea and details. Pre- and post-listening task activities would help the learners to focus attention on what to listen for, to assess how accurately they succeeded, and to transfer the listening skill to the world beyond the classroom.
What are the steps in a listening lesson? The teacher can facilitate the development of listening ability by creating listening lessons that guide the learner through three stages: pre-listening, the listening task, and post-listening.
Engage the learners in a pre-listening activity.
This activity should establish the purpose of the listening activity and activate the schemata by encouraging the learners to think about and discuss what they already know about the content of the listening text. This activity can also provide the background needed for them to understand the text, and it can focus attention on what to listen for.
Do the listening task itself.
The task should involve the listener in getting information and in immediately doing something with it.
Engage in a post-listening activity.
This activity should help the listener to evaluate success in carrying out the task and to integrate listening with the other language skills. The teacher should encourage practice outside of the classroom whenever possible.
For example, at a worksite where schedule changes are announced at weekly team meetings, learners may need practice recognizing details such as their names, times, and dates within a longer stream of speech. A tape of such announcements may be used along with any pertinent forms or a weekly calendar. The lesson stages might proceed as follows:
What kinds of listening tasks are appropriate?
There are numerous activities to choose from for developing listening skills. Lund (1990) has categorized them according to nine responses that can be observed as comprehension checks:
Assisting learners in the development of listening comprehension is a challenge. It is a challenge that demands both the teacher's and the learner's attention because of the critical role that listening plays, not only in communication, but also in the acquisition of language. Knowledge of the listening process and factors that affect listening enable teachers to select or create listening texts and activities that meet the needs of the their adult ESL learners. Teachers, then, must weave these listening activities into the curriculum to create a balance that mirrors the real-world integration of listening with speaking, reading, and writing.
Brod, S. (1996). Teaching listening in the workplace English language training program at the Spring Institute. Unpublished manuscript.
Brown, G., & Yule, G. (1983). Teaching the spoken language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Brown, H.D. (1994). Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.
Dunkel, P. (1986). Developing listening fluency in L2: Theoretical principles and pedagogical considerations. The Modern Language Journal, 70(2), 99-106.
Dunkel, P. (1991). Listening in the native and second/foreign language: Toward an integration of research and practice. TESOL Quarterly, 25(3), 431- 457.
Lund, R.J. (1990). A taxonomy for teaching second language listening. Foreign Language Annals, 23, 105-115.
Mendelsohn, D.J. (1994). Learning to listen: A strategy-based approach for the second-language learner. San Diego: Dominie Press.
Morley, J. (1991). Listening comprehension in second/foreign language instruction. In M. Celce-Murcia (Ed.), Teaching english as a second or foreign language (2nd ed.) (pp. 81-106). Boston: Heinle and Heinle.
Nunan, D., & Miller, L. (Eds.). (1995). New Ways in Teaching Listening. Alexandria, VA: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 388 054)
Peterson, P.W. (1991). A synthesis of methods for interactive listening. In M. Celce-Murcia (Ed.),Teaching English as a second/foreign language (2nd ed.) (pp.106-122). Boston: Heinle and Heinle.
Richards, J. (1983). Listening comprehension: Approach, design, procedure. TESOL Quarterly, 17(2), 219-240.
Rivers, W.M. (1981). Teaching foreign language skills (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rost, M. (1991). Listening in action: Activities for developing listening in language teaching. New York: Prentice Hall.
Rubin, J. (1994). A review of second language listening comprehension research. The Modern Language Journal. 78(2),199-221.
Rubin, J. (1995). The contribution of video to the development of competence in listening. In D. Mendelsohn & J. Rubin (Eds.), A guide for the teaching of second language listening (pp. 151-165). San Diego: Dominie Press.
Wolvin, A., & Coakley, C. (1991). A survey of the status of listening training in some Fortune 500 Corporations. Communication Education, 40, 152-164.
This document was produced by the Project in Adult Immigrant Education, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through a grant to the Center for Applied Linguistics (4646 40th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20016 202-362-0700). Additional funding was from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), Office of Educational Research and Improvement, under contract no. RR 93002010, The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of ED or the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This document is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.