Teaching Listening: Theory and Practice

This entry is part 4 of 9 in the series Teaching Listening

I have spent some time reading different books and articles about how language teachers teach listening in the language classroom, and it has been an interesting adventure… for the most part.  However, digging through the theory and finding some really practical advice and relevant pedagogy has been a challenge.

I’ll be the first to tell you that there are a lot of theories out there about how we listen, or better put, how we filter what we hear so that it affects how we listen. I have great appreciation for the second language acquisition researchers out there who spend years studying and creating theories about how listening happens, but after a certain point I became paralyzed with information,  and I felt as if I couldn’t even begin the process of creating a curriculum to teach listening without taking into account every single one of these theories. I felt overwhelmed.

So, I took a break from the reading theory for a few weeks. And I spent some time just thinking.  In many ways, I also just spent some time just listening… listening to my students, listening to my colleagues and also listening to my own thoughts about how to teaching listening in the L2 classroom.

Based on my experiences in the college classroom o’er these last 15 or so years, I knew that students come to my conversation class not just because they want to speak, but also because they want to be able to listen in a real world context.  Listening is almost an afterthought, possibly because speaking is a more active and visible task but also, I believe, because students have spent little time actively improving their listening abilities in classroom instruction, and yet they know it needs to improve if they are going to be able to communicate.

Take a moment and think about the last language class you took.  Odds are you spent a great deal of time listening in the class, trying to glean meaning or getting ready to answer a question.  Listening is the very first skill we expect students to exercise in the language classroom.  The assumption in many language classrooms is that we do not need to teach listening, instead, we think students will “get it” over time if we just provide them with lots and lots of input.  The problem here is that this type of listening is passive, and at some point students need to be engaged in active listening where what they hear becomes part of a conversation or at the very least an exchange of ideas.

Alternatively, if your teacher did active listening exercises with you, I am betting you were being asked specific questions about a listening text (be it a song, a dialogue, etc). Listening tasks often took the form of comprehension checking, which is fine, but that is not enough if we want our students to improve enough to be ready for real world tasks. Also, the teacher probably chose those activities based upon the textbook content or something they thought was interesting… makes one wonder how those activities could have been improved if the listening activity was based upon students’ interests and ideas.

Like speaking, or writing, or reading… listening skills in the classroom need to be developed and shaped intentionally in order for them to be improved.

So that is what I working on now:  building a curriculum that not only includes authentic audio for listening, but a curriculum that also provides strategies for building listening proficiency in a second language.

I appreciate the work that has gone into all of the theories that have been developed around how we listen in a second language. But at a certain point you have to move towards practice and you need to dive in.  And it is the practice of teaching listening, with knowledge of that theory,  that I plan to share in the next few posts.

More to follow!


Featured image: “RailArt in Calgary Canada” by Malcolm CC by-NC-SA 2.0

Series Navigation<< Teaching Listening: a seriesTeaching Listening: Listening Strategies >>

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: