Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Listening activities: How to deal with them

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When students of EFL are faced with a listening activity, their typical reaction is one of fear and dislike, basically because they always have the impression they don’t understand anything at all of the input presented to them. Why does this happen? Normally as a result of a poor presentation of this activity to them, in combination with a lack of the appropriate warm-up for it.

In the past, when a teacher wanted their students to be exposed to a listening passage, he or she simply told their students “Listen up, children, we are going to listen to a passage and these are the questions you have to answer”. Of course, the kids would start trembling with fear, because after having listened to it, twice or even three times, they would be asked to give their answers. Result? Total failure. Why? Because they would try to understand the whole passage ate first, without focusing on certain parts of it.

What’s the suitable way to carry this out then?

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We should start by concentrating on the materials we can use, namely the tape-player and the tapes themselves. In many Spanish state schools, teachers of EFL have the possibility of using a language laboratory, which, needless to say, greatly improves the quality of the listening activity itself. The students in the class aren’t exposed to any background noise and can concentrate on the passage alone. However, this isn’t the case in all schools, where teachers simply have a stereo system in their classroom, or, in the worst of the cases, they have to carry their own portable tape-player around, with all the inconveniences this brings along. Besides, we have to bear in mind that a language laboratory may not be ideal for all kinds of exercises, as we are going to see below.

For example, if we are dealing with phonetics, where differences between sounds are normally very subtle, the use of the lab becomes a must. In any case, we should ensure that the system we use can provide sound of enough quality so that it won’t impair their understanding of the passage.

As regards the tapes themselves, publishers normally supply the original ones free of charge to the teachers, so this shouldn’t be a problem. It’s true, though, that sometimes we want to use alternative materials, for which we don’t have the original tapes. It’s this material we must deal with suitably, because, otherwise, no matter how attentively SS listen to it, they’ll have a hard time making sense of what they are hearing.

Once we have made this introduction, we can start analyzing the different types of activities, as well as the procedure we should use in each case.

Generally speaking, we can say that, regardless of the type of activity and the subject we are focusing on, we should always present the SS with a warm-up activity. Why? Because if we don’t, students are left on their own facing a passage on a subject they don’t anything about until they actually start listening to it. This warm-up activity can be extremely simple, or a bit more elaborate.

For example, in English File , sb, p 7, there is a dialogue between a receptionist and a guest at a hotel. So, before they are exposed to it, we could focus on the setting

What is this place? It’s a hotel- Who are these people? The receptionist and a guest- Is it a big hotel? No, it’s a small one

In English File , sb, p 8, there’s an activity on the nationality of celebrities. Before we listen to it

Focus on Person B Who’s he? Pele- Why is he famous? Because he was an excellent football player.

Probably at this stage, SS haven’t seen the past form of BE, so they could simply say A football player. We can do the same with some of the other celebrities.

On the same page, there’s a conversation that takes place at a party. We could do a warm-up by asking SS what’s the typical way of introducing people in Spain, kissing included, and telling people how different it is in Britain with handshakes.

In English File , sb, p 14, there’s an activity on Asking for a drink. We could provide SS with some vocabulary as an introduction. This could be done through a process of brainstorming. SS could be asked to come up with as many means of transportation as they can remember. After this, the book provides itself a second warm-up exercise. SS are supposed to match the pictures of the drinks and other items with their names in ex 1. We must remember this is all internationally-known expressions, even by people who don’t speak English.

Once we have done these warm-ups, we can move on to the core activities. Generally speaking, passages are played twice, although in certain cases a third time may be advisable, if the passage is very complex. However, something to bear in mind is that, the first time they listen to it, SS should be asked to do a different task than on the other occasions. Why? Because that first time will be the one that offers the most difficulty for SS, since they haven’t been exposed to that passage before. Therefore, a simple task that serves as a lead-in is much more advisable at this stage.

For example, going back to the first activity we mentioned before, on page 7, the first task SS are given is that of spelling the first name and the surname of the guest, as well as her room number. The second time, they should complete the rest of the dialogue, while at the same time they can read the other parts of it. On the same page, they have a similar activity, which concentrates on the spelling part alone, as a follow-up. In both cases, SS should repeat the dialogue, first in open pairs, then in closed ones.

In the main activity in English File , sb, p 8, SS have to match the celebrities and their nationalities. This could be done in pairs, since some of the famous people are not so famous among young people. Then, in the second activity on the same page, those nationalities are used in the dialogue at the party. As a follow-up, students could introduce themselves to other people in the class, making it as real as possible, with handshakes and kisses included.

In English File , sb, p 14, after they have matched the items in the pictures with their names below, SS have to simply match the three orders they find in exercise a with the passengers 1, and . Once this has been done, and with books open, they can follow the dialogue while they complete it. As a follow-up, SS can repeat the dialogue in groups of four. We must emphasize that when they role-play the dialogue, they shouldn’t just read it, but actually play their parts. To help the, there are some symbols to the left of the lines, which can be looked at if they forget their line.

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