Listening might be the most difficult challenge for your students, mainly due to incorrect learning habits. Traditional language teaching still puts emphasis on mechanical grammar exercises, reading, tests and, usually, speaking drills that don’t really involve listening skill training. Students should be exposed to native spoken English every day. By assigning homework which involves watching TV in English or even listening to short videos on YouTube, teachers will encourage students to practise their listening skills. Still, these types of homework assignments are exceptions rather than the rule. There might be some improvement in students using their CD-Rom included in their course pack, but these often provide subtitles which turns their practice into reading instead of listening.

Therefore, whether it is about completing a form based on an audio track or completing a summary, the main issue is, even in exam preparation courses, that students often have difficulties in understanding audio tracks. So here let me list some general exam skill tips for every listening exercise.

Papers: Listening:
Exercise type: any

Why is listening difficult?
1. Students don’t have any visual input, they cannot see the speaker’s lips, face and his/her body language. So they have to trust their ears, while in real life we perceive 70-80% of the world surrounding us through our eyes.
2. Students tend to get stuck on a word they find familiar but cannot recall its meaning. Trying to remember what it means, they miss out a great deal of the audio and panic when they realize that they have to skip more than one question.
3. English is a language of homophones (eg. hear vs here) which easily confuse students.
4. Students tend to concentrate too much on the questions, waiting for the words they have just read and overlook synonyms or antonyms.
5. Students might not activate their common knowledge about the topic due to misinterpreting or not interpreting the title, etc.

So how can you prepare them for the listening exam?
a) Teach your students that in real life we usually have expectations what a person might (want to) say. In an exam situation, the topic (ergo the title) and some pictures or slogans can help to build up expectations. Analyze these quickly. The questions are the next step: in most cases students need to know in advance what type of answers are expected. For example, if it is a gap-fill exercise, students might recognize that in a sentence like He is a …, a noun is going to be the correct answer, (maybe following some adjectives), and in a sentence like His phone number is …, they are asked to understand numbers. This way they narrow down the possibilities and listen for specific details (key words).
b) Clarify how many times students can listen to the track. This will lower their affective filter, since they’ll know they have another chance to hear the text. Tell them to listen first without thinking about the questions, only concentrate on what is going on and leave the answers for the second listening (if there is a second time). Giving them a gist question for the first listening and then questions asking for details is a way to prepare your students for an exam. This is how textbooks work with audio texts. The first time, students should not deal with detail questions, they are motivated to listen to the general message or mood of the dialogue/text. They should work on the questions during the second listening.
c) The difficulty in listening exercises is the same as on the phone: there is no visual input; the listener cannot read from the speaker’s lips (which we often do even in our mother tongue). On the other hand, what we have visually in front of us is really stressful: scary questions waiting for an answer from us. So encourage your students to use their imagination. Ask them to close their eyes and imagine the situation with the speaker(s) in front of them. This way, they will be able to concentrate on what they hear and won’t stress whether they have missed the answer e.g. to question 2.
d) Good news: with listening exercises, at least at lower levels (up to B1), spelling doesn’t matter. So, even if they write down a homophone, (they understood the sound but they made a mistake with the spelling), they won’t be penalized and the answer will be accepted. What is important is that the completed sentence gives a meaningful answer. Needless to say, if a word is spelt in the track, then it must be written correctly.
e) Practise listening for gist as many times as possible. From the beginning of the course, try to convince your students that they can reconstruct a situation without understanding every single word in a dialogue. Play them pieces where they will definitely find unknown words and push them to figure out what the speaker intended to say without giving a translation for these words. Tell them that the main information is rarely at the beginning of a text and so they need to listen carefully until the last word. This way, they cannot stop listening after the first two sentences because they have found these too difficult.
f) Finally, ask them not to make any noise/comments/questions during listening. Even if they cannot understand a word, they should not disturb the other students.

(to be continued)


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