Friday, 27 December 2013

Joined up listening – how to understand natural speech

Johanna Stirling
This was the title of a recent webinar hosted by Cambridge University Press and presented by Johanna Stirling.  What follows is a summary of what she had to say.

Why don’t students understand natural speech?
·         It’s too fast for them to process.
·         The words aren’t spoken clearly.
·         They aren’t listening properly.
·         They don’t know all the words.
·         They panic.
The first two are probably the main reasons for non-comprehension.
How do we teach listening?
1. Skills development:
·         predicting
·         listening for gist
·         listening for specific information
·         inferring
2. Practise
These are important, but they are not enough.  Following on from practice, we need to analyse the wrong answers.  We need to find out why students got the answers wrong. 
Micro-listening – receptive pronunciation

It's important to focus on specific parts of what the students have already listened to, as in this example from Face2Face:

Pronunciation is normally associated with speaking, but receptive pronunciation is vital for listening.

Difficulties when listening

1. Ellipsis - incomplete sentences, which are very common in spoken English, are extremely difficult for learners to cope with.  We can give students conversations like this:
and ask them to supply what's missing, or give them the whole conversation, listen and cross out what they don't hear:
2.  Weak forms - where we have strong stress on one word and the others all get squashed, it is very problematic for learners.  We need to show students weak forms to help with their comprehension.  They don't necessarily have to say it that way themselves, but they need to recognise it.

3.  Elision - when we put words together, we often lose the last phoneme.  We need to raise students' awareness of this.
4.  Linking - it's often difficult to tell where one word ends and another starts - mad_idea_about, for example.  Look at how these combinations can sound to an untrained ear:
We should introduce linking to our students at pre-intermediate level at the latest.  It's really never too early to show students what's happening in joined-up speaking.
5.  Assimilation - some sounds change when they're near other sounds.  For example, 'sunbathing' sounds like 'some bathing', 'sandwich' becomes 'samwich', and 'handbag' sounds more like 'hambag'.
To conclude:
We need to make our students aware of all of these anomalies in spoken English through the practice of micro-listening and receptive pronunciation.


1 comment:

  1. Re. Linking: One of my ESL students heard my continuous use of "for instance" (frinstance) as Flintstones and asked me why I was always mentioning the cartoon characters in my lessons. Now I say "for example" to avoid any confusion. :-)