An evidence-based re-evaluation of second language listening pedagogy

Our posts this week all come from the Forum on Research informing materials writing at the MaWSIG Showcase at IATEFL in Liverpool 2019. In today’s post, Dr Jane Ward and Associate Professor Colin Campbell discuss a new approach to teaching and materials design for L2 listening.

Experts in the field of L2 listening pedagogy (e.g. Cauldwell, 2018; Field, 2008; and Thorn, 2019, writing in the IATEFL MaWSIG blog) have, for some time now, been calling for a shift away from the traditional comprehension teaching method towards an approach which focuses more on word recognition (decoding). However, materials supporting this approach are limited – as Thorn (2019), amongst others, points out – as is training on how teachers can incorporate this instruction in their classrooms. This may be because, up to now, there has been little research to back up the call to train students in word recognition skills. But a recent large-scale study, by one of the authors, of mid-level L2 listeners, underpinned by psycholinguistic theory, does indeed provide that support (Ward, 2018).

Alarmingly, the study found that the listeners were unable to decode around half of the content words they heard in segments of EAP coursebook lectures. It is unlikely that use of contextual knowledge or strategies could have compensated for such extensive gaps in the information these students understood, and so promoting automatic word recognition is clearly a crucial aspect of teaching listening. The listeners’ mistakes were analysed to see what appeared to cause errors, and results revealed that perceptual difficulties were commonly caused by aspects of connected speech.

A framework for teaching word recognition
With this evidence adding weight to the call for a re-evaluation of L2 listening pedagogy, we began our efforts to do so by creating a framework for materials design, informed by the results of the research. The framework evolved from several recommended approaches to teaching listening. Three suggestions from Field (2008) were useful:

  • A diagnostic approach: subsequent to general comprehension tasks, wrong answers are examined to ascertain what element of listening processes caused the breakdowns. Practice exercises are then used to address these elements.
  • A process approach: instruction based systematically on the listening processes of expert listeners, as established by psycholinguistic literature.
  • Awareness raising: low-level decoding exercises to highlight aspects of connected speech.

In addition, Ward (2018) puts forward two further approaches:

  • Pronunciation to promote listening: Pronunciation training implicitly involves listening skills; however, teaching pronunciation of individual words – rather than words in connected speech – limits the impact of this type of pronunciation training on listening processes. Words spoken individually are not liable to the variation which results from features of connected speech, and so, when they practise pronunciation of words in isolation, learners are not exposed to the type of speech they will hear in real-life listening. For instance, with this approach, learners produce phrase- and clause-length utterances illustrating: (i) aspects of connected speech; (ii) prosodic features at word and clause level; and (iii) lexical stress as a cue to segmentation.
  • Learning vocabulary in oral form, in chunks: Vocabulary coursebooks tend to focus on learning words in their written form, but knowing the orthographic form of words does not guarantee they will be recognised in natural connected speech. Therefore, this approach involves teaching vocabulary presented orally and embedded in phrase- and clause-length utterances which illustrate its various possible deviations from citation forms in natural connected speech.

In line with these suggested approaches and the analysis of listeners’ common decoding errors (Ward, 2018), we created the framework below.

One of the framework’s main goals is to help learners cope with the phonological complexity of speech. Even in single words, phonemes vary due to co-articulation (the movement of the articulators from the proceeding phoneme to the next). But in connected speech, decoding difficulties are compounded by features such as assimilatory processes (whereby one sound becomes like another neighbouring sound), reduced forms, elision, linking, and a lack of consistent word boundaries. It is this ‘degrading’ of speech which often bewilders learners, who have largely been taught pronunciation of citation forms of words in isolation.

The framework also incorporates a cue to word recognition, which is rarely considered in the field of ELT, but is identified in psycholinguistics as being crucial for expert listeners, namely co-text (Field, 2008). Co-text refers to the words immediately surrounding an utterance, for example a listener hearing I’m going to … expects a verb or adverb + verb, and this expectation narrows the range of words likely to be uttered next, so aiding listening. Similarly, the phrase immediately before I’m going to … also provides a cue to decoding. If the speaker said, I’m so hungry. I’m going to …, a listener would expect only a narrow range of verbs likely to be uttered next, e.g. stop for lunch, buy a sandwich, etc.

Care should be taken not to confuse co-text with context. Context is a ‘conceptual’ cue to listening and refers to the prior knowledge of the topic under discussion. On the other hand, co-text relates to the immediate utterance, using syntactic cues (as in the first example above) and/or semantic cues (as in the second example).

Materials design
Equipped with this framework, we were able to systematically design a short listening training course to address each feature. Several of the exercises involved short dictation (or partial dictation) exercises and gap fills, where words likely to be known were rendered perceptually complex by features of connected speech.

When writing materials of this type, we offer the following advice regarding level of listening ability: the degree of degrading in the speech can be adjusted. Be careful not to slow down speech so that natural stress and rhythm is degraded. Simplify tasks by adding longer pauses at syntactic boundaries. Grade the vocabulary. Field (2008) is a great source of theoretical and practical information on this topic.

The role of the listening teacher
A final, crucial point is the need for teachers to understand listening processes and be able to notice and explain aspects of connected speech to learners. After all, the comprehension approach towards teaching listening does not call for knowledge of this kind because addressing reasons for incorrect answers to comprehension questions is not generally part of the approach.

Jane Ward has been studying and researching listening from a psycholinguistic perspective for around 10 years at the University of Reading. During this time she has completed a PhD, has designed and taught second language listening courses, and trained teachers and test writers. She is always eager to collaborate with colleagues on this topic. Outside of her academic role, Jane works with professionals who need help to communicate in the workplace, such as when presenting, being interviewed and being persuasive. She has spent half her working life in business and half in education, so enjoys merging these varied experiences. j.e.ward@reading.ac.uk.

Jane is holding a workshop to train teachers in this new approach to teaching L2 listening and materials design at the University of Reading on 20 July 2019. For more details and to book your place, click here.

Colin Campbell has worked as a teacher, teacher trainer, consultant and ELT materials writer for longer than he cares to remember. Highlights of a long and very enjoyable career include (to date!) coursebooks for schools in Eastern Europe, Spain and Brazil, self-study vocabulary books, and an EAP listening book for students. He has also written books for teachers, most notably Learner-based Teaching. He works at the University of Reading with EAP students and teachers, and on the MA TESOL course there. He also leads language projects in Community Engagement schemes. colin.campbell@reading.ac.uk

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