This article appeared in the July/August 1998 (Vol. 1, No. 4) issue of ESL
Magazine
, pp. 24-25. ESL Magazine is on the web at www.eslmag.com


    
Learning to listen

By Marc Helgesen


Every day we listen to many different things in many different ways.
Perhaps your alarm clock rang this morning. You heard it and woke up.
That's listening. Maybe the TV or radio was on as you ate breakfast. You
weren't really paying attention until something you wanted to know about
-- the weather or the news -- came on. Then you focused in. Both being
aware of the sounds in the background and your focusing were types of
listening. Maybe you had a conversation with your partner, roommate or
children. I hope you were listening. You got to work where you talked --
and listened -- to different people in different ways for different purposes.
The list could go on. The point is this: 

    What's important is not just what we're listening to. 

    It's what we're listening for.

Nobody has to be taught to how to adjust their listening to match their
purpose in their native language. It naturally grows out of exposure to and
having to understand different things. Yet, what happens in the
classroom? All too often, textbooks introduce students to a very narrow
range of listening types and tasks. But to be effective listeners, students
need a variety. They need to learn how to listen.


The first step in learning how to listen is for them to notice their task --
learners need to be aware of what they are listening for. The goal affects
the way they listen. To demonstrate the point, you're going to read a very
short conversation. Before that, choose a task. Read one (and only one) of
the tasks below.
    Task 1
   
What's the main topic of the conversation?
        - sports
        - the weather
        - the window

    Task 2
        What's the weather like?
            - It's sunny.
            - It's cold.
            - It's raining

    Task 3
        Do the people go outside?
            - yes
            - no


Now read this conversation and decide the answer to your task.
Rafael: I need some exercise. Do you want to go outside?
Maybe we could play tennis?
Erika: Tennis? Look out the window. It's raining.
Rafael: Raining? Oh, no.
How you read depended on which task you chose. Task one was reading
for the gist or general understanding. Task two asked for specific
information. Task three depended on inference. If you had been listening
to the conversation instead of reading it, you would have adjusted your
listening to fit your task.


Types of listening.


Listening for gist
In the first task, all three answers -- sports, the weather and the window --
were part of the conversation. However, the weather was the most
important thing. Readers doing task one were looking for the gist or main
idea. They didn't focus on understanding everything. Rather, they read to
see what was important. Listening for gist works the same way. Students
only focus on the main ideas. If one compares listening to the other
receptive skill, reading, listening for gist is a lot like skimming.
    Gist listening is like standing in a waterfall.
    It washes over you and you get the general feeling/ understanding.


Listening for specific information
Task two involved looking for specific information: What is the weather
like? Looking for specific information doesn't mean reading and
processing every word to find the answer. Rather, it's about scanning for
the needed data. The reader's focus was probably something like this:
    Rafael: x xxxx xxxx exercise. xx xxx xxxx xx xx outside?
            xxxxx xx xxxxx play tennis?
    Erika: xxxxxx xxxx xxxx xxx window. xxxx raining.
    Rafael: Raining? xx xx.

Rather than paying attention to every word, people think about what
they need to understand and look for that information. Listening for
specific information quite similar to the reading skill of scanning.
This is where students often get into trouble. They try to catch
everything, often taking the time to mentally translate it into their mother
tongue. This word-by-word processing leads to slow, tedious reading.
With listening, it's impossible. It simply takes too long. The key is to get
students to focus on what they are listening for. One good way is simply to
have them read the task or questions before listening. Do they have to
write answers? Check boxes? Fill in a form? Number pictures? In real
life, people always know why they are listening. In class, the learners need
to know, too.
    Listening for specific information isn't understanding everything and
using what you need.
    It's understanding what you need and catching that.

Inference
Task three was about inferring information. The question was simple
enough: Do they go outside? Of course they don't. It's raining. Notice
the they never say specifically that they aren't going to go outside. It
isn't necessary.


Inference is an important skill, but one that's often left out of elementary
level textbooks since it is considered a higher level of comprehension. This
is unfortunate because learners really do need to be able to "listen between
the lines" from the very beginning. Indeed, beginners who lack extensive
vocabularies and knowledge of language functions and grammar often need
to infer a lot, just to compensate for what they don't understand.
    Inference is neither magic nor pure imagination.
    It is hearing meaning that is there, even when the words aren't.

How do we let students know about the different listening types?
Exercises like the one at the beginning of this article (which is based on one
from Active Listening from Cambridge University Press) are useful to create
awareness. By regularly pointing out the task types, teachers encourage
learners to notice of their own listening goals.


As useful as these three types of listening are both for learner awareness
and as a checklist for teachers planning classes, it's important to remember
that the skills are rarely used in isolation. At times, a specific word
or two will give the clues that help learners understand the gist. In some cases,
global knowledge of a topic makes it easier to focus on specific information
or to infer meaning. The important thing is that students have experience
with a variety of listening types and tasks.

As important as these listening types are, they need to be considered
within the overall framework the learners are using to make sense of what
they hear.

Which direction are they listening?
Over the past several years, the distinction between "top-down" and
"bottom-up" processing has emerged as a useful metaphor for how learners
make sense of what they are listening to.


Basically, "top-down" listening starts at the point of overall meaning. It
makes use of overall general knowledge and life experience (sometimes
called "content schemata"). Top-down listening simply means thinking
about what one already knows about the topic, the task and likely answers.

In short, listeners use what they already know about a topic to understand
more.

"Bottom-up" listening, on the other hand, makes use of the "parts" of
language to try to understand what's been heard. These parts include
vocabulary, grammar and sounds. Because so much language study
involves the parts, many learners are overly reliant on bottom-up
processing. This "puzzle it out" approach is a little like trying to deal
with English as if it was their first language in code = they catch a piece (a word
or phrase), focus on the meaning of that bit, perhaps mentally rearrange it to
fit their first language's grammar, and then go on to the next bit. That
sounds easy enough, but it's actually quite difficult to do effectively. To
make that point, read the following excerpts from a passage and write a title
for it.


Your title: ____________________

A few years ago, the Canadian National Swim Team put ladybugs
on their breasts. 

200 years earlier, a cross on the back might have stopped a
whipping.

In some places, it's about beauty.

East Africa. Polynesia.

At times, it is related to occupation. For better or worse.

Think before you make a judgment.
And think before you make a decision.

In this age of AIDS, you've got to be careful.

Most people feel frustrated reading this. What's the topic? All the words
are known, but what is it about? That feeling is the frustration of bottom-
up processing. All the pieces are there, but they just don't add up.

This passage's real title is, The Tattoo - Across cultures, across time.
However, without that (top-down) background information, readers can't
make use of their own general knowledge: Why do people get tattoos?
Group membership is one reason. That could include bikers and, a few
years ago, the Canadian swimmers. European sailors used to get a cross or a
picture of Jesus tattooed on their backs so no one would dare whip them.
In many cultures, tattoos are a sign of beauty. Occupations? For better:
Thai soldiers were tattooed for bravery. For worse? Japanese and Korean
gangsters get the markings to show toughness and cultural defiance. A
recent problem has been the spread of the HIV virus through tattoo ink.


Knowing the title would have helped make sense of the passage.
Without it, the reader was faced with same difficulty that learners who try
to listen from the bottom-up face.


Teachers can't replace bottom-up processing with top-down. It wouldn't
be desirable even if it was possible. They key is to get learners "listening in
both directions." They need to integrate top-down and bottom-up
processing. When they do, it activates their language and increases their
listening skills.

The simplest way to activate language is through a pre-listening warm-
up. Just as doing pre-reading exercises is a good way to get learners ready
to read, pre-listening tasks should be a standard part of listening lessons.
The pre-listening task "reminds" learners of what they already know -- or
want to know -- about the topic. That is, it gets them in touch with their
own top-down knowledge. At the same time, that top-down information is
made up of words and phrases: the bottom-up elements of vocabulary and
grammar. The warm-up is more than an introduction of the topic. It's a
way to activate background knowledge and integrate the directions of
listening.

The specific warm-up will, of course, depend on what the students are
going to listen to. If they were going to listen to the passage on tattoos as
part of lesson on cultural differences, they might do a pre-listening task in
pairs or small groups. They say or list everything they can think of related
to the topic in five minutes. Their list could include who gets them,
common pictures or anything they know about the topic from other
cultures.


Earlier it was pointed out that students should always know their task
before they listen. Just reading the questions can get students to activate
what they know -- especially if they try to answer them. Regardless of how
it's done, make sure the students warm up with a pre-listening task. By the
time the recording starts, it's too late. They are either ready to catch the
information and to succeed. Or they aren't.


Listening is an important skill. Do the students need practice? Of course.
But they need more. They need to be aware of their purpose, to integrate
their listening directions and to activate the English that they already have.
If learners gain those skills, they've learned more than the answers to a
particular exercises. They've learned how to listen.

Tips for teaching listening
How did you know? When doing a task involving gist or inference
listening, have a few students say the words that gave them the clues. This helps learners who missed the information know how their classmates caught it.
Do it in pairs. If learners find a passage difficult, have them listen
in pairs. They help each other find the answers. This usually means they focus on sharing what they did understand rather than panicking over what they missed.
Choose your own level. While checking an activity, write the answers on the board or an OHP. Then play the passage again. Students choose their own level of support. Those who feel they understood the listening well close their eyes and imagine the conversation. Those who were less certain look at the task in their textbook and try to spot the information as they hear it. Those who found the listening difficult watch you. As they hear the passage, point to the answers just before they are spoken.
Play it again, later. If students found listening to natural English
difficult at the beginning of a course, go back to the same passage a month or two later. In most cases, what used to be difficult to understand is now easier. This helps them see their own progress and builds confidence.
  Don't give out the script. In most cases, don't give out the scripts.
It can reinforce the idea that they need to catch every word to "really" understand. When the script is given out, it should be for a specific purpose such as listening and underlining the particular point of grammar.
Listen to enjoy. Stories are a wonderful source of listening material.
They can excite and involve students. And, if learners can explain whether or not the like a story they've heard, it demonstrates understanding at a very high level. Ironically, the most sophisticated comprehension question possible might simply be: Did you like the story? Why?


Tips for teaching listening
How did you know? When doing a task involving gist or inference
listening, have a few students say the words that gave them the clues. This
helps learners who missed the information know how their classmates
caught it.
Do it in pairs. If learners find a passage difficult, have them listen
in pairs.
They help each other find the answers. This usually means they focus on
sharing what they did understand rather than panicking over what they 
missed.
Choose your own level. While checking an activity, write the answers on
the board or an OHP. Then play the passage again. Students choose their
own level of support. Those who feel they understood the listening well
close their eyes and imagine the conversation. Those who were less certain
look at the task in their textbook and try to spot the information as they hear
it. Those who found the listening difficult watch you. As they hear the
passage, point to the answers just before they are spoken.
Play it again, later. If students found listening to natural English
difficult at the beginning of a course, go back to the same passage a month or two
later. In most cases, what used to be difficult to understand is now
easier.
This helps them see their own progress and builds confidence.
 Don't give out the script. In most cases, don't give out the scripts.
It can reinforce the idea that they need to catch every word to "really" understand.
When the script is given out, it should be for a specific purpose such as
listening and underlining the particular point of grammar.
Listen to enjoy. Stories are a wonderful source of listening material.
They can excite and involve students. And, if learners can explain whether
or not the like a story they've heard, it demonstrates understanding at a
very high level. Ironically, the most sophisticated comprehension
question possible might simply be: Did you like the story? Why?

 

Adapting textbooks
If a textbook book lacks pre-listening tasks and a range of listening types, here are some ways to add them.
Preview tasks
Students work in pairs or small groups. They look at the tasks and say or list everything they know about the topics. Add a time limit to keep them focused.
If it's a topic the students don't know much about, learners list at least three things they would like to know or think the recording will include.
If there's a picture with the task, have students work in pairs. How
many items in the picture can they name in English in two minutes?
Adding Listening types
Gist
Choose the main idea of the listening passage as well as two or three
other items from the passage. Write all the items on the board in a
scrambled order. Students listen and decide which is the main point.
If the passage tells a story, choose four or five events. Again, write
them on the board in a scrambled order. Learners listen and put the events in order. Include one extra event not from the story so students have to listen all the way to the end of the passage.


Listening for specific information
Choose a group of items that comes up several times in the listening
passage. They might be content items like names of food, colors, people, etc. or specific grammar items such as -ING verbs, past tense verbs, modals or adjectives. Tell the students what they are listening for. Play the passage. Students raise their hands each time they hear the item. Raising their hands is a way to show their answers and it also serves as a cue for others who might have missed it. Generally, listening for content items is a way to preview the main listening task. Listening for grammar points is usually best after they already know the general meaning.
If the listening task involves answering comprehension questions or
filling in blanks, students work in pairs before they listen. They try to
guess the answers to the questions. Later, when they listen, they find out whether or not they were right.

Inference 
Inference depends on the specific passage so there are no generalizable
"tricks" like the other listening types. Look for opportunities to add
inference. Two places to start:
Focus on the speakers' emotions. How do they feel? How do we
know that? 
Look for the "background information." Has one or more of the
speakers been here/ done that/ tried this before?

Marc Helgesen, Professor, Miyagi Gakuin Women's College, Sendai, Japan,
is a co-author of many textbooks including the Active Listening series
(Cambridge University Press), and the English Firsthand, Impact and
Workplace English series (Longman).