Improving Listening Skills in Language Teaching

This essay is an abridged and translated version of my other essay called "Dinleme Becerisinin Geliştirilmesi Üzerine".

Language shows us some clues about how we understand and interpret the world. When we think language as an understanding and interpreting tool, we cannot ignore its communicational dimension. In this sense, listening skill in language teaching occurs as one of the communicational achievements in the learning process.

Ihde (2007) describes listening as a phenomenon and on this basis, he distinguishes the language as word and as signification:

“Listening to the voices of the world, listening to the ‘inner’ sounds of the imaginative mode, spans a wide range of auditory phenomena. Yet all sounds are in broad sense ‘voices’, the voices of things, of others, of the gods and myself. In this broad sense, one may speak of the voices’ significant sound as the ‘voice of language’… Extension of the idea of language is taken symptomatically to point up the continuity of all the potentially significant aspects of the voices of the world, then further distinction must be made that specifically distinguishes the ‘linguistic’ form of language from ‘language’ as significant. ‘Linguistic’ language is language-as-word. It is the center but not the entirety of language in the broad sense.” 

On this basis, it is possible to say, listening is part of understanding and interpreting in linguistic settings. Human beings start to design language by listening to the voice of the universe then they give them a limitation, in other words, meanings and finally they imitate what they hear by expressing. In a word, human produces linguistic components by giving ear to the universe, then imitating and synthesizing.

If we try to describe listening in language teaching settings, we can assume that the main function of listening serves oral narrative skills in second or foreign language teaching. Listening skill has different roles in language teaching methods and approaches. For instance, in Grammar – Translation Method, listening is not a purpose, and it does not have a place as comprehension. The only listening activity is to listen to a description of the rule of the second language is in the first language. Because in this method, students usually learn “dead” languages that they would not have the opportunity to listen (Flowerdew and Miller, 2005).

When it comes to the Direct Method, we can summarize the learning goals for listening as “listen and answer questions”. This method gives the listening skills a priority however we cannot talk about a systematic attempt at “teaching” listening or developing listening strategies in the learners (Flowerdew and Miller, 2005).

In the Audio – Lingual Approach, the objective is to listen to pattern match, imitate, and memorize. In this approach, the student must listen and repeat similar words and sentence structures many times in order to remember them and if the students make an incorrect response, the teacher corrects them. According to Flowerdew and Miller (2005), the main focus is not developing listening skills in the Audio – Lingual Approach, because there is no attempt to teach lexis or contextualize the sentences. The fundamental purpose is developing the manipulation of structures.

In the Communicative Approach, the main goals are process spoken discourse for functional purposes; listen and interact with the speaker and/or complete a task as part of the listening skill (Flowerdew and Miller, 2005). As similar to the Communicative Approach, the Task-Based Approach also processes listening for functional purposes. In this approach, listening activities serve the tasks by carrying it out using information (Flowerdew and Miller, 2005).

Most of the language methods and approaches have their listening activities according to their basis. What is the purpose of listening activities? Durmus (2013) distinguishes this purpose as general and particular. In his opinion, the general purpose is to provide an understandable and clear message for the student. In the case of a particular purpose, it is recognizing and interpreting the voices, stresses, and intonations in the target language. On this basis, we can consider what acts have to be developed between the learners to improve listening skills. During the listening activity, learners must understand the type of text, they must recognize the new linguistic structure they heard in the records. It must be convenient to make the meaning of the words out in the context for learners. Lastly, they should be able to express what is the record about. If we think about the nature of listening in second language teaching settings, first, we need to identify the models of listening. Researchers (Flowerdew and Miller, 2007; Richards, 2008) classifies it as three models:

1.The Bottom-up Model:

In this model, listeners apply the act of understanding by starting with individual sounds, or phonemes. These smallest units of the messages are combined with the words and then evolved to phrases, clauses, and sentences. Clark and Clark (1977) explain this model in the following way:

  • Listeners take in row speech and hold a phonological representation of it in working memory.
  • They immediately attempt to organize the phonological representation into constituents, identifying their content and function.
  • They identify each constituent and then construct underlying propositions, building continually onto a hierarchical representation of propositions.
  • Once they have identified the propositions for a constituent, they retain them in working memory. In doing this, they target the exact wording and retain the meaning (as cited in Richards, 2008).

To apply this model properly, learners should have a wide vocabulary and sufficient knowledge about sentence structure.

2.The Top-down Model:

In this listening process, learners use their previous knowledge to understand the meaning of the message. According to Flowerdew and Miller (2007), this model developed when researchers considered the fact that experimental subjects are unable to truncate induvial sounds from the words they a part of. On the other hand, learners are more able to identify the words presented in the surrounding context. In comparison with Buttom-up Listening Model, this processing goes from meaning to linguistic units. When instructors want to teach this model, they follow this process up:

  • Using keywords to construct a schema of a discourse.
  • Inferring the setting for a text. 
  • Inferring the role of the participants and their goals.
  • Infer causes or effects.
  • Inferring unstated details of a situation.
  • Anticipate questions related to the topic or situation.

3.The Interactive Model:

In this processing, the two models above are required, it combines both listening styles in a listening lesson. The Interactive Model makes room for a different learning style. The extent of using one of two models depends on listeners’ purpose, topic, content and text type.  We can consider this model as more realistic. Because in a real classroom environment both of the two models occur naturally.

In the listening skills, the instructors have an important role, they must be aware of learners’ intentions to learn the target language. Therefore, the responsibility for choosing the right strategy to improve listening skills.

Every learner has a different learning style which depends on their age, gender, educational and cultural backgrounds. For this reason, the instructors have to make a room for that kind of variabilities while they design their materials and activities. 

On the other hand, the improvement of listening skills based on the evolution of achievements to metalinguistic skills. In this sense, the factor which made the language learning skills an acquisition had a huge impact. Compendiously, the learner must recognize the linguistic specialties in the input. For this reason, improvement of the listening skill is possible only by using the right activity with the right level. 

References:

Durmuş, M. (2013) Yabancılara Türkçe Öğretimi, Grafiker Yayınları.

Flowerdew, J. ve L. Miller (2005), Second Language Listening: Theory and Practice, Cambridge University Press.

Ihde, D. (2007), Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound, State University of New York Press.

Richards, J. (2008), Teaching Listening and Speaking: From Theory to Practice, Cambridge University Press.

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