Break the wall of sound

7th March 1997 at 00:00
David Hood assesses what teachers can do to help pupils acquire listening skills

It's ten minutes into the lesson. The class has settled back into their places after a pacey oral "warm-up". A listening activity is next. Their teacher arranges (still in the target language) for the distribution of a batch of photocopied worksheets. (This represents another chunk off the departmental budget, which is already in a parlous state as it's the second month of the new financial year.) He or she moves to the cassette recorder, stands behind it with an index finger poised above the play button and everybody is ready: "Alors tout le monde. Regardez la feuille. Je vais passer la bande deux tots. Vous allez ecouter et cocher les bonnes casesremplir la grillerepondre aux questions".

The recorder is switched on and the pupils listen and tick boxes, complete the grid, or answer the questions as instructed. After the second run-through of the dialogue the teacher switches off the recorder and, with the help of those who have understood, starts to write up the "correct" answers on the board. At the end, the pupils are encouraged to feed back on their own performance: "Qui a sept sur sept? . . . Excellent! Qui a zero sur sept? Oh la la! Main tenant sortez vos cahiers et vos livres d'el ve." The lesson continues.

Though this has an element of caricature, it is an accurate representation of what forms the part of a lesson intended to develop pupils' listening skills through a taped exercise. What has taken place is not so much an exercise for developing pupils' competence in the skill but a test of the level of competence gained so far. Within this example, two scenarios often come about. At one end of the spectrum, the exercise is "too easy", everyone gets sept sur sept and nobody is much the wiser. At the other, it is "too hard" and marks are low.

Either way, the exercise and the way it is done do not constitute a genuine teaching activity. In the latter case, pupils should hear the tape one more time so they have the chance of hearing the "right" answers.

Assessment of what pupils can do is a precursor to devising the next stage of learning, but it is not always the main intention when activities are set up. Consequently, opportunities are often missed for the structured development of listening skills, despite using a wealth of taped material. Pupils in these circumstances are not sufficiently taught to listen.

The first key element in helping pupils to listen well is the quality of the teacher's use of the target language, backed up by gesture and other non verbal prompts.

But no matter how sensitive or subtle the teacher is, the pupils' acquisition of language learning skills is vital in their success as users of the language. Pupils must become active learners, equipped to break down what appears to many as a "wall of sound". This is especially so as many are forced to learn in circumstances not conducive to effective language learning. Many still do not start the subject until they are 11. Most pupils have too little time in the classroom to learn listening skills by growing used to the sounds of the language.

By the time most pupils start lessons in a foreign language, they ought to be able to cope with a discussion of the use of context to support understanding. An effective teacher will provide opportunities for practising these skills, but it adds to the quality of the experience for the pupils to be made aware of the process that is taking place.

They need reminding of the need to take risks and be prepared to get the wrong end of the stick if the boundaries of understanding are to be pushed back. The well-structured exploitation of taped materials is a crucial component in teaching effective comprehension strategies.

A consideration of some of the terminology used by German trainee teachers as they draw up their lesson rationales might be instructive. Before being presented with a task that uses comprehension skills, the pupils undergo Vorentlastung (literally the "removing of burdens before the event"). They are given a "way into" what they are going to hear. This may be contextual elements to listen out for and identify (How many people are speaking? What sex are they? What is the tone? Any ideas about the venue in which the dialogue takes place?) or it might be a list of specific words and phrases, the meaning of which has already been given.

Later on in the lesson comes the Aufbauphase, during which foundations are built on. The listening activity might provide some of the foundations. It might build up language competence. The key lies in the range of activities and the levels of support. Each element must be considered before the tape is played. At the end of the sequence of learning, a further taped dialogue might provide the basis for a test, which is the same in both languages.

So what can be done in practical terms? Combine the following suggestions to help pupils become more confident when they tackle listening tasks. Many teachers will have their own additions.

* Tell the pupils the theme of what they are to listen to. Brainstorm what they might hear. Guide them if necessary, gathering suggestions on the board. Decide whether to tell them how many of the ideas or items are going to appear. Play the tape and seek responses at appropriate levels - this can range from raising the hand to show recognition, to sequencing, to a question and answer session.

* Pupils listen for clues in what they hear, for example, question words, words which imply contradiction (si, doch), negation, actual numbers or identifying the category of number heard (prices, dates, telephone numbers, times), spot when the speaker changes, try to identify the context, possibly from a range of choices.

* Allow the pupils to see part or all of the transcript for some or all of the "hearings".

* Pause the tape frequently, asking "What have you just heard?" and requiring different levels of answer from the last individual sound to the whole utterance. When pupils are more familiar with the extract, ask them what they think is about to come next. Ask more advanced pupils what part of speech the next word should be or what form of punctuation would go into the gap you have created if they were transcribing the text.

* Use truefalse statements, "correct the errors" exercises and all the rest, as long as these contribute to the structured development of pupils listening skills.

Regardless of which activities were chosen, when the intention is to teach and not to test, the key underlying principle needs to be that, having heard the tape, all pupils should be able to contribute something to the discussion of "What was that about?" David Hood is county adviser for modern languages for Buckinghamshire County Council

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