In a previous blog post, I tried to answer the question: “What is listening skill?” To briefly review, listening is a holistic process, where a listener’s experiences, preferences and comprehension work together to construct an understanding. No two people will understand what they hear in exactly the same way, because no two people have exactly the same background. However, if this is true, the question for the second language learner still remains: “How can I improve my listening skill?”
Much has been written about the importance of input and output in language learning. The basic idea is that the more you hear a language (input) and then try to speak it (output), the more your language will improve. At the same time, anyone who has tried to learn a second language already knows that simply listening to language, without any previous study or support, is not a very effective way to learn. In fact, trying to identify which types of input best help language learner’s to learn is an important discussion in the language teaching field.
Stephen Krashen’s input hypothesis is perhaps one of the most famous theories about how input works. Basically, Krashen suggested that language input should be only slightly above a language learner’s current ability level. So, for example, if an English language student is a beginner, they should practice listening with very slow, clear, simple audio samples. A more advanced student might try listening to a lecture or the news. In both cases, Krashen suggested that input needs to be comprehensible to the learner. If the language input is so advanced that the learner can’t understand it, then that learner’s language skills will not improvesignificantly.
So, one important step for language students is to try and find listening materials that they can almost understand. It is not necessary that the student understand everything that they hear completely, but they should at least understand enough so that their practice doesn’t feel too stressful, difficult or impossible. This is one area where working with a language tutor or taking a class can be helpful, because a trained teacher can help students find materials that are appropriate to their language level. At the same time, for English language students, there are a wide range of listening materials available online that have already been sorted by proficiency level. Whatever the case, it’s important that students who want to improve their second language listening skills regularly practice with materials which are both challenging and accessible.
However, it is equally important for language students to acknowledge that even when they listen to something in their first language, they do not remember everything that they hear. Anyone who has attended a lecture or listened to a talk in their first language knows that sometimes attention wavers, we are attracted to certain things in the talk, but not others, and our understanding of the listening is largely shaped by our own opinions, preferences and past experiences. Because the common format for language listening tests involves students listening to passages and trying to answer questions about specific information in the passages, students often develop the incorrect understanding that high level listening skill involves remembering every detail that they hear. In reality however, this is rarely the case even for native speakers of the same language.
Therefore, in addition to finding listening materials that are appropriate to their learning level, language learners should also practice incorporating their prior knowledge and experience into their understanding of the passage. One way of doing this is to look at the title of the lecture or listening materials before they begin listening, and brainstorm both what they think the passage will be about and what you already know about the implied topic. An easy way to approach this task is to select keywords in the title, and then draw a mind map for each of the words.
After thinking about what they already know, learners should try and listen to the audio. Especially if they’re beginners, it can be helpful to listen to the passage more than once. Then, after the listening has finished, try to have a short conversation with someone (preferably in the second language) about what they heard. If a conversation is not possible, maybe write a few sentences about what they heard. In particular, try to mention how the listening reminded them of other things in their life. Learners should try to make as many connections as possible between the listening and their own experiences.
So, in summary, one strategy for practicing basic listening skills involves four steps:
1. Find listening materials appropriate to you/your student’s level.
2. Look at the title and guess the topic. Then brainstorm what you already know about the topic.
3. Listen to the listening. Try to listen more than once.
4. Have a short conversation or write a few sentences about what you heard. Include information about how what you heard connects to your life and background.
And of course, find amazing listening material on EnglishCentral!