As an English teacher, I have noticed several problems that students have when they are listening to English. Of course, beginner students simply do not know enough English to understand most spoken English. This article is not about them. This article is about several big problems that I have seen in intermediate and advanced students.
These problems prevent them from understanding English and carrying on a smooth conversation. I did not put these problems in a particular order. I have not done real counts to see which is the most common problem and which is the least. I know that many students have trouble with more than one of these problems, so many of them need to practice listening basics.
Here are the problems I have noticed.
Unaware of Fast English (reductions)
Many students think that spoken English is like written English. In written English, there are spaces between the words. Words do not touch each other, let alone join together. These are called reductions. Of course, I teach them some of the joinings, like gonna (the fast form of ‘going to’). When they learn this from me, they have one of two reactions.
The first reaction is one of surprise and pleasure. These students feel I am teaching them a secret (I am; many teachers do not teach this). They like to learn it and make cooperative students.
An easy correction to help students overcome this problem is simply to teach a core set of reductions. I recommend you start with some of the most common and easiest, such as ‘gonna’ or ‘want to’. Later move into more difficult but still common reductions such as the ‘disappearing H’ on his, her, and others after many words.
The second reaction is suspicion. They have not heard this from other teachers. They are concerned that I am teaching them bad English or slang. Of course, once English is spoken fast enough, the form becomes poor, and it is slang. But I teach the normal speed reductions. Normal for a native speaker, but quite fast for an English learner. These students are reluctant to practice the forms and do not use them in their unscripted speaking to me. They may be nervous about slang, but they also have to recognize common everyday forms in the language.
Students will naturally have difficulty when they hear a word for the first time. Sometimes they have studied it before, but often they are not aware that they have studied it until they see it written down. This is another argument for studying vocabulary by listening practice.
At this point, you can do a quick analysis of their listening skill. If they do not know the word, and they can repeat it, they have a moderate to high skill level. Students with low listening skills cannot repeat a word that they do not recognize. I try to elicit the word that they do not know to give them a chance to practice sound recall.
For students with these problems, you have to teach vocabulary. Not just writing, though, but also with recorded scripts and stories to listen to. Shadowing is a great practice that students can do for homework. Beyond this, though, practicing listening and repeating also helps these students a lot. this gives them the ability to identify and remember the new word. Then they may ask someone the meaning or look for it in a dictionary. I think the listen and repeat activity is highly valuable for this reason, as well as others.
Many students do not understand the grammatical pattern in what they hear sometimes. This is a sticky problem. If you start to teach grammar, your class can easily fall down a slippery slope into explanations. Short simple explanations are the best, but they are also the most difficult to do, and students often have difficult questions. Their questions are real and good but they can eat into valuable class time, and much grammar can be studied on their own.
For these students, I simply try to work on the pattern in a descriptive style. That is, we do pattern practice using sentences and content that best shows the meaning of the grammar in use. Most students do not understand the grammar in the first lesson but several weeks or months later start to be able to use it on their own correctly. Much of it is simply memory work. If you remember enough, the meaning begins to suggest itself to the student quietly, so they can use it even if they cannot explain it.
Thinking too much about the meaning
I have the joy of teaching some very bright students. Sometimes the brightest of them will fall into this trap. They are good at thinking and often believe they can think their way through anything. The problem is when they have a complex sentence, they cannot listen to the remainder of the speech because their attention is going into thinking about the complex sentence. They get hooked by it and cannot go further.
These problems are easily cleared up with some intense shadowing practice in class. I have the students shadow me. Students with this problem do not like to shadow. They like to listen and repeat. As they shadow me, they wait for me to say three or four words before they repeat it. If they do this, I stop and we begin again. After a few tries they often get the hang of it, but their old habits reappear next week. I have to repeat this practice over several weeks before I see their pattern of thinking while they listen get weaker.
If they practice lots of shadowing and listen and repeat, they will have time to think about what they hear after it is said because they will have a great aural memory, close to native speaker level. This is not a daunting task. It is attainable with a moderate level of sustained practice over a few months. But first, they have to stop thinking too much.
Guessing too much
Finally, I have students who try to guess what I am saying. This is fine most of the time. It becomes a problem when they guess too much and begin to think they are correct all the time. This problem is not quite as common as the other problems.
I suggest the same strategy for the students who think too much and get hung up on one thing. these students also need to slow down and pay attention to their ears more than their own thinking. With good practice, this problem clears up, but you have to be firm and practice consistently.
As you work with students and find difficulties try to figure out which area they are having difficulty with. It is often connected to listening and is one of several problems. They may be unaware of reductions in English. They may be worried about learning ‘proper’ English and passively resist your earnest attempts to teach conversational English. Many students have difficulty with vocabulary and this turns into a valuable diagnostic tool, where you can assess their listening skill level.
Most students have trouble listening to and understanding some grammatical forms, and regular speaking and listening practice, coupled with students’ own reading studies can help with this difficulty. Then there is the group of students who cannot stop thinking too much. Their thinking interferes with their listening attention, and simple shadowing can help with this problem. Finally, there is the small set of students who guess too much and have too much faith in their guessing ability. Once again, a consistent listening practice routine can work best with this difficulty.
Do you find any of these problems in your classroom? Drop by English Listening and see what other materials are available for use in your classroom for enhancing your listening program. Be sure to look around for any other articles that might be useful while you are there.