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Listening in the Language Classroom

Price: £30.30
This book challenges the orthodox approach to the teaching of second language listening, and argues that a preoccupation with the notion of 'comprehension' has led teachers to focus upon the product of listening. The book proposes a radical alternative to the comprehension approach and provides for intensive small-scale practice in aspects of listening.
Author(s): John Field

This book challenges the orthodox approach to the teaching of second language listening, which is based upon the asking and answering of comprehension questions. The book's central argument is that a preoccupation with the notion of 'comprehension' has led teachers to focus upon the product of listening, in the form of answers to questions, ignoring the listening process itself. The author provides an informed account of the psychological processes which make up the skill of listening, and analyses the characteristics of the speech signal from which listeners have to construct a message. Drawing upon this information, the book proposes a radical alternative to the comprehension approach and provides for intensive small-scale practice in aspects of listening that are perceptually or cognitively demanding for the learner.

Review from Modern English Teacher 19(4)

"Despite its bland title, this is not just another manual on conventional listening methodology. Rather, it is an impressive synthesis of well-argued polemic; research-based descriptions of the various processes involved in listening; and detailed proposals for classroom practice. As stated in the introduction, the book “aims ?rst and foremost to challenge the present orthodoxy so far as [listening] pedagogy is concerned” (p. 6).

The book is divided into six parts, each comprising a number of chapters. Part I presents a clear and, for my money, very recognisable picture of the comprehension approach (or CA) to listening which prevails at the present time, where lessons are divided into pre-listening activities (such as raising interest, teaching key lexis), listening (for gist, details and so on) and post-listening (typically, a shift to productive skills work or language focus). This is followed by a nicely balanced discussion of what the author sees as the pros and cons of this approach. Field has a point to make here, of course, concluding that “the current approach does not serve our purpose adequately” (p. 26), but he nevertheless acknowledges that the CA “still has a place … though … a much more limited place than at present” (p. 32). The absence of dogmatism here only serves to make the main thrust of his argument all the more convincing.

Field identi?es a number of weaknesses in current practice, but his central objection is perhaps that orthodox listening procedures constitute a product approach. The focus is on the outcomes of listening – Can learners answer these questions? Can they ?ll in these gaps? – rather than on developing speci?c processes by which people listen successfully. At best, the CA seems to be rooted in a woolly notion that ‘practice makes perfect’; at worst, we may simply be testing learners instead of teaching them. Field argues that we need a greater awareness of the speci?c psychological processes of listening so that we can understand the challenges facing learners and design activities and materials to help them develop those processes in a systematic way.

However, rather than rejecting the CA completely, Field devotes Part II of the book to a discussion of ways in which it could be tweaked to make it work more effectively. He makes the interesting point that many aspects of the CA – its teacher-centredness, its emphasis on solitary work – do not sit easily with the tenets of communicative language teaching, and would be unlikely to be tolerated in lessons focused on other skills.

His suggestions for how this situation could be remedied cluster around two main ideas. First, he proposes that teachers should adopt a more hands-off approach during listening, facilitating learners as they work towards an understanding of text rather than acting as sole arbiter of whether learners have ‘got the right answers’. There is a tantalising suggestion here, most obviously in the transcript of the lesson on p.42, that it is time to abandon the notion that classroom listenings must always have speci?c, pre-set tasks – though sadly, this idea is not explored further. Second, Field suggests that a far greater degree of interaction between learners should be fostered by, for example, encouraging learners to compare answers, listen again to resolve differences, and refer to recording scripts. These are all sound suggestions, though in this case, my experience is that many teachers already use these techniques.

In Part III, Field moves on to a discussion of some alternatives to the comprehension approach to listening. He ?rst outlines a diagnostic approach in which far more weight is given to the post-listening phase of the lesson, where teachers take time to establish why learners may have misunderstood certain parts of a text. This, he concedes, requires skill and persistence, as any given misunderstanding may result from a number of causes. To give one of Field’s own examples (p. 87), imagine that a learner fails to grasp the implication in I’ve lived in Italy for ten years that the speaker still lives in Italy. This could result from either a lack of knowledge of the present perfect (a text problem) or a failure to hear the /v/ sound in I’ve (a process problem). Once teachers have diagnosed the source of a problem, Field advocates the use of micro-listening tasks – that is, listening to short passages or sets of sentences for the purpose of close transcription or discrimination. For example (p. 89), learners might listen to pairs of sentences like She said she’d found the key and She said she’d ?nd the key , focusing on the main verbs to decide which report the past (she’d = she had) and which the future (she’d = she would).

The diagnostic approach is ideally suited to tackling the problems of particular learners on particular occasions, but there is a need for a broader, prognostic approach to listening skills for the purposes of curriculum design, materials writing and teacher education. Field proposes that listening programmes be designed using a process approach, which focuses on speci?c “processes which have been shown to contribute to successful … listening” (p. 110). Such an approach would be based on “hard evidence of how skilled listeners behave” (p. 111) from phoneticians, psychologists and neurologists. The rest of the book – which is to say, most of it – explores the theory of the process approach and ways in which it could be put into practice.

Field describes two broad types of listening process: decoding (eg. working out where words begin and end, using sentence stress as an aid to understanding) and meaning building (eg. using world knowledge to interpret messages, making connections between ideas). While it is probably fair to say that much current teaching of listening gives emphasis to meaning building, Field repeatedly stresses the importance of decoding – developing learners’ ability to recognise sounds, syllables and (in particular) words. Research suggests that expert listeners are distinguished by their ability to decode with ease, while use of context and the like to ‘?ll gaps’ is a largely a compensatory strategy employed in cases where decoding is dif?cult (for example, in a noisy pub). On the other hand, reliance on contextual clues necessitated by underdeveloped decoding skills – a situation which the orthodox approach to listening perhaps unwittingly promotes – is characteristic of unskilled listeners.

Part IV, the weightiest section of the book, describes a range of listening processes which have been identi?ed by researchers, and includes plentiful examples of activities for developing learners’ abilities to use those processes. Two chapters focus on decoding. The ?rst is a thorough account of how the realisation of speci?c phonemes and words can vary in connected speech – owing to such phenomena as resyllabi?cation and assimilation, the prevalence of weak forms in English, and the use of different accents – thereby adding to the challenge of decoding the speech signal. The second describes theories of how skilled learners are able to recognise sounds, syllables, words, syntactic units, intonation groups and information focus, then discusses implications for classroom practice and offers teaching ideas and materials in each of these areas.

A further two chapters focus on meaning building. Again, accounts of the competencies of expert listeners in a range of areas – such as use of contextual information, schematic knowledge, making inferences, coping with ambiguity, and selecting, comparing and connecting information – are interleaved with practical teaching suggestions.

Towards the end of the book, Part V includes thought-provoking chapters on the use of authentic recordings, the nature of listening strategies, and strategy instruction. Finally, Part VI summarises the conclusions and proposals of the book and suggests ways in which a process approach to listening could be put into practice in the context of the broader language curriculum at different levels. Of particular note here is a table (p. 332) which sets out, at six notional learner levels, possible priorities in relation to listening processes, strategy training, use of authentic texts, diagnostic procedures and comprehension tasks. There are also three useful appendices – lists of decoding and meaning-building processes, and a brief guide to phonetics and phonology – and a glossary of listening-related terms.

This is certainly one of the most important books on listening to have been published in recent years. It proposes a quite radical re-think of the ways we approach listening in the classroom, and clearly demonstrates how a process approach could be put into practice at the levels of curriculum, lesson structure and classroom activity. Despite the breadth and complexity of its coverage, to which I have not really been able to do justice in this review, I found this to be a lucidly-written and engaging read throughout. Its arguments are empirically based but accessibly presented, ?rmly articulated but never strident, always plausible and occasionally disconcerting. They surely demand a response."

 Alex Tilbury

ISBN: 9780521685702
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Publication: 31 January 2014