Primary and lower secondary schools

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PRESENT SITUATION

I work in a College of Education that trains teachers for primary and lower secondary schools. And the aims of language teachers' education in Nigeria as set in the minimum standards by the National Commission for Colleges of Education (NCCE) include to:

Prepare students to perform competently in spoken and written forms of their chose languages. Prepare them as competent teachers of their chosen languages literatures in Primary and Junior secondary Schools. (Yusuf, 2005:2)

Listening comprehension is taken in the second semester by 100 level students of English in a class of about 160 students. The course is taught by the teacher as reading summary and comprehension. The problem here is that Listening comprehension is not taught at all. Consequently, students graduate as teachers of English without knowledge of technicalities and methodologies involved in learning and teaching listening skill. Secondly, the teacher does not know how to use the multi-media language laboratory in the department to teach and this is a problem because, a valuable teaching resource is under-utilized and students do not benefit from it. No wonder the UNESCO report (2009:76) said "Serious quality deficits in education exist across Nigeria..."

INTRODUCTION.

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The question this paper seeks to answer is 'how can we teach listening comprehension better to trainee teachers?' Specifically, the focus is the listening process, listening skills, techniques and strategies for teaching listening, organizing listening classes, and proffering possible solutions to problems identified.

PROCESS OF LISTENING.

The focus will be the concept and process of listening. Oxford (1993) sees listening as the process of receiving aural stimuli and giving meaning to it. Yusuf (2007) sees it as the perception of verbal signals using the ear and begins with attending, understanding, interpreting, evaluating, remembering and terminates with responding.

Yusuf discountenances the role of 'non-verbal' signals in listening unlike Oxford and sees listening as sequential but, introduces the element of response which in my experience as a teacher is important. For Field (2008) listening is not sequential but, a framework of two strategic actions 'decoding' and 'meaning building' one running into the other.

I see some relatedness in these views. Oxford's 'receiving' is the same as Yusuf's 'attending' and together form an aspect of Field's decoding. This is because, for Field 'Decoding' goes beyond reception of signals to translation, and interpretation at a literal level. It implies that meaning giving begins from decoding.

In addition, meaning giving refers to the development of further meaning based on what has been said and Field (ibidem) says it has two functions. It enables the listener to expand the meaning of what the speaker said and brings in additional information to the speaker's view of the discourse.

Moreover, Field (Ibidem) identifies three essentials for decoding and meaning giving as "input, linguistic knowledge, and context" The first two are used for decoding while the last is used for meaning giving.

Input and context influence the message that the listener derives, meaning deduced, and methodology employed for the lesson, Field (2007). Research shows that simplification of input may look attractive but, on the long run it is disadvantageous. And classroom experience shows that it does not prepare the learner for real life situations.

The listener makes use of context and co-text to enrich meaning, make it relevant, and aid the decoding process. But research cited by Field (Oakeshott-Taylor, 1977; Osada, 2001; & Tsui & Fullilove, 1998) show that less skilled listeners either spend more time decoding unfamiliar words or rely more on context to decode. The reasons deduced for these are that less skilled listeners are either too engrossed with details or lack the linguistic competence to properly decode signals. The positive implication I see is that they help in identifying learners' listening problems at input level.

Another aspect of decoding is the way a listener processes input. Hansen and Jensen (1994) called them 'Global and local coherence strategies'; Harmer (2007) calls them top-down processing and bottom-up processing. For Hansen and Jensen, the former is used to make sense at clause and sentential level, while the later is used to recognise links between major ideas in a discourse and the overall structure of the discourse. Harmer agrees but, adds that top-down processing is activated by the listener's schemata. Experience from the classroom shows that these postulations help in explaining the reaction of second language (henceforth L2) students to homophonic inputs e.g. when is /æi/ 'I' or 'eye'. These situations are difficult to follow, Field (ibidem).

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Closely linked is Stanovich's (1980) Interactive Compensatory Hypothesis cited by Field (2008). It tries to explain the way less skilled native speakers (henceforth L1) readers handle text. Stanovich assumes that the role of top-down information is small when confidence is high. But, it's role becomes greater where confidence is low and there is reliance on information provided by context and co-text. For Field (2008) this shows the variable relationship between input and context with each situation. For example, 'noise levels' determine the level of reliance on context and co-text. Noise refers to lexical, semantic, phonological, or physical barriers in listening.

The implication for teachers is to build up the decoding process in learners when teaching, and use this in the choice of content and material for instruction.

However, Field (2008:127) unlike Yusuf and Oxford sees input as "... a group of acoustic features". This is because these features occur together and decoding them takes place as a matching process on the listener's part. The listener uses prediction and knowledge of the language in an online situation to decode concurrently as the input comes in. These in my view explain why the response by the listener is immediate or almost immediate.

CATEGORIES OF LISTENING SKILLS

Research (e.g. Kutlu et al 2009) evidence emphasizes the importance of listening skills in both educational and interpersonal relationships in the life of a learner. A listening comprehension programme according to Bryne (1986) should aim to expose learners to varieties of the target language, train them to listen flexibly, provide a stimulus for other language activities, and the opportunity for learners to interact. I find these very general and suitable as curriculum objectives

Oxford (1993) identified six 'listening behaviours' associated with different tasks. These include listening for details , main ideas, emotional content, appreciation, analysis and passing of valued judgment, and for paying attention. The listener requires selective attention, global, empathic, appreciative, critical and relational thinking respectively. Oxford matches each aim with a task and experience shows that this is more purposive and easy to evaluate.

Field's (2008) reasons for teaching listening include 'accuracy', 'fluency' and the development of the ability to communicate interactively with speakers of the language in the learners. These aims recognize the communication process in real life and can only be achieved if proper strategies, tasks, and activities are used in the classroom, Bryne (Ibidem).

Listening skills have been severally classified by experts. Rost (2002) broadly classifies them as 'Linguistic processing' and 'Pragmatic processing' skills; Field (2008) sees them as either decoding or meaning building and identified sub-skills to include ability to retain chunks of language for different lengths of time; detect key words; infer links and connections in texts. (See Field, 2007: 98-102)

White (1998) classifies them based on their ability to deal with information, create interaction, use knowledge of the world, employ language skills, and function as perception skills. Lynch (2009) calls them perception, interpretation, and enacting skills; while Goh (2002) analysed them as strategies.

My analysis of these classifications shows differences exist. Rost recognizes listener response and like White identifies listener collaboration with the speaker. Field integrated the 'Interactive Compensatory Hypothesis' thus, recognizes the constant negotiation of meaning by the listener. Lynch's classification is apparently based on the Speech act theory and thus stresses the effect of utterances on the listener. But, Goh's is most elaborate and structured. It recognizes the self-regulatory function of listening by the listener and the role of monitoring and evaluation in the listening process.

My experience from teaching listening strategies to teachers of English in various workshops in Abuja shows that, Goh's is not easy to adapt in the classroom . For example, how do teachers assess 'hard concentration' in the classroom? Conversely, Lynch's is easily adaptable because they are measurable. Rost and Field provide better listening process descriptions. White's gives input on choice of class activities.

My experience also shows that In addition to Field's sub-skills, others that enable learners listen actively with high perception should be taught.

STRATEGIES FOR TEACHING LISTENING COMPREHENSION

Having identified listening skills, focus now goes to teaching strategies. I agree with Tarone (2007) that, In order for teacher-learners to develop their own language skills they should not just be taught about the usage of these skills but, should be encouraged to develop the ability to teach them in their classrooms. Tarone's opinion was about grammatical analysis but, the role of grammar in language development makes it relevant to listening.

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Moreover, the teaching of listening focuses on either the product (skills) or the listening process itself. Product approach emphasizes linguistic knowledge over listening comprehension skills, learning is through imitation, the learner is passive and the lesson is teacher-centered. (Field, 1998) But research (NCRLC, 2007) indicates that it neglects the role of schematic knowledge and de-emphasizes process skills. Conversely, process approach recognizes knowledge brought in by learners and emphasizes planning. The teacher here is a facilitator and from experience learning is participatory.

Apart from that, Field (1998) adopts a 'comprehension' approach that is diagnostic and uses micro-listening exercises to practice individual sub-skills of listening. Field outlined activities to use here e.g. discrimination, segmentation, and strategic skills modeling training.

My experience shows that teachers in training need these approaches as part of their repertoire of pedagogic skills to be competent. From the forgoing, the two approaches for teaching and learning listening include Top-down and Bottom-up strategies.

The NCRLC (2007) says that 'Top-down' strategies are listener based and require use of listener knowledge of the context, type of text and linguistic skills to process input and develop listening skills. Research (Oxford, 1983) has shown that these strategies include listening for main ideas and anticipation of contexts and details while listening.

The 'Bottom-up' strategy (Field, 2008, 1998; Harmer, 2007) holds that the listener relies on the link between the constituent linguistic parts to create meaning e.g. sounds, words, and grammar. Skills needed include listening for specific information and identifying linguistic patterns e.g. word order and collocation patterns (NCLRC, 2006). These strategies can check the shortcomings in the comprehension approach challenged by Field (2008).

ORGANIZING LISTENING COMPREHENSION CLASSES.

Here my focus is setting lesson objectives, lesson organization, selection and use of tasks, activities and materials, and lesson evaluation. In addition to my experience, examples will come from Allan's listening lesson. (video in Harmer, 2007).

Setting objectives.

When organizing a comprehension class, Ross (2006) says the teacher should set the objective of each lesson and make it known to learners. In determining these objectives, the teacher should look at the overall aim of the comprehension course then, break it down into specific skills for each lesson. This enables the teacher to teach individual skills before linking them together into a sequence with increasing fluency. Field (Ibidem) says this enables the learners to move from the stage of possessing information in the mind, 'declarative knowledge' to that of been able to perform a sequence of skills, 'procedural knowledge'.

As experience shows, such strategic planning will help learners develop specific objectives and activate their schemata to an extent.

Lesson organization

The progression of lesson activities enables the teacher to move the learner from being a passive to an active learner. Several approaches have been suggested. Ross (2006) suggested four steps; consisting warm up activities, listening comprehension activity, controlled practice, open-ended listening/speaking activity. And Harmer, (ibidem: 271) suggests a basic model for teaching receptive skills. It consists of four major steps with a loop for feedback and 'Type (1) 2 tasks'. Harmer's model is elaborate and I find it more adaptable because it gives the teacher the opportunity to handle multiple skills in a lesson. Allan's lesson adapted the Harmer model. He begins by specifying tasks for the students, gives the title of the story, sets time limits for each activity and what the teacher's role will be.

Selection and use of tasks, activities and materials.

Here I will treat the three items above in an inter-related manner because, that is how they are used in the classroom situation. Activities and materials are used to accomplish language tasks by the teacher.

Lynch (2009) citing (Richards, 1983:233-4)says that listening activities must satisfy some criteria like content validity (ascertaining the extent to which a task engender practice of and relevance to listening sub-skills); is the task focused on comprehension or just regurgitation of information from memory; does a task target real-life listening purposes or does it enable skills transfer to real-life listening; as for testing and teaching, does the task give opportunity for the practice of existing skills and the acquisition of new ones. From experience, the teacher's role is to match listening tasks to lesson objectives, purpose of listening, and learners' proficiency levels. Allan does these by using 'live listening and reconstruction activities in the classroom'. He gives reasons for carrying out the activities.

Furthermore, when designing listening materials, Lynch (2009) suggests that teachers must consider their level of difficulty for L2 listeners and authenticity.

Research evidence (NCLRC, 2009) and teaching experience show that the level of difficulty can be assessed when the teacher looks at how the information is organized. The teacher checks whether the information is presented in a chronological form that is easier for learners to comprehend.

Apart from that, one must ask if the theme familiar to the learners i.e. does it easily activate their schemata or is it culture bound. Ross (2006) says that teachers should also ascertain whether the material is filled with redundancies. This I understand to mean whether the material is overloaded and overwhelms the learner.

The other points to be considered include whether the materials contains clearly contrasted multiple individuals and objects. The more the contrast the easier it is for understanding. Finally, consider whether the material offers visual aids that help contextualize the input, (NCLRC, 2009).

The other issue raised by Lynch is authenticity. The use of authentic materials and situation (NCRLS, 2007; Field, 1998) is critical for the success of listening comprehension because they prepare learners for real life listening.

Harmer (2007) describes authentic material as a situation where normal and natural language used by the native speaker or competent user of the language is presented to the learner. Widdowson's (1979) proposition cited in Lynch (2009) separated two aspects of language used into 'genuineness' and 'authenticity'. Widdowson described texts as 'genuine' if the language contained is typical of that genre in real life. And used 'authentic' to describe the appropriacy of reader/listener response to genuine texts. Lynch (2009) says that a genuine text could be invented for teaching purposes and I observed Allan (in Harmer, 2007) doing this in his listening lesson.

Other sources of authentic materials include videos, tapes or CD/ DVDs, radio and television broadcasts and the internet. These materials are important for L2 listeners because they provide vital visual and paralinguistic clues (Yusuf, 2007; Lynch, 2009) that print cannot. I would say they provide some type of 'immersion' in the language for L2 learners.

Field (2008) citing McGrath (2002) suggests guiding principles to follow in the selection and invention of authentic materials. Briefly put, authentic materials must be relevant to the syllabus and needs of learners, possess intrinsic interest, and are culturally appropriate. One should also ascertain the linguistic demands of the material (i.e. its centrality to understanding); consider the cognitive demands (i.e. the complexity of ideas); logistics, quality and exploitability of the materials while making selections.

The implication I see is that a poor choice can be frustrating for both learners and teachers. But an informed choice of authentic materials would provide a rich variety for classroom use.

In designing and selecting activities Kutlu et al (2009) suggest and I agree that, activities must have real and communicative purposes, use authentic language, allow learners to infer meanings, have clues to aid listening, require meaningful responses, and use general everyday language except where specified.

These activities can come at different stages in the lesson. Lynch (ibidem) identified stages to include Pre-listening, first listening, second listening, third listening, and post-listening. Allan's lesson has six different stages and apart from the first two which are 'lead-in and Teacher's direction of comprehension task' (Harmer, 2007), the rest consist of reconstruction activities.

Reconstruction activities raise learner expectations and make them listen carefully. Allan also uses dialogue, group discussions, questions and answer sessions and language activities like using vocabulary to construct meaningful sentences. These I understand from experience, will make learning relevant to real life language use.

Classroom evaluation.

The focus here is classroom assessment by the teacher. On a general level, Harmer's (2007:384) recommendation is that tests that are valid and reliable be used for assessing listening. He states that a good test should "create a level playing field... replicate real-life interaction". These I find also useful for setting examinations.

At classroom level, Yusuf (2007) says that listening comprehension is most adequately assessed when questions are task directed. Nuttall, (1996:188-9) cited in Lynch (2009) suggests types of comprehension questions to be used as summarized below.

These questions should test: Literal comprehension, reorganization of information, inference (i.e. relationship of thought), text evaluation (i.e. achievement of communication purposes); response (requiring listener's reaction to information presented); and metalinguistic abilities (i.e. awareness about language forms).

This classification makes it possible for the teacher to use comprehension tasks to assess achievement of listening skills. For example, true or false questions are comprehension tasks that can be used to test listening sub-skills like "...ability to detect key words" (Lynch, 2009:101).

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS.

The major problem here is that listening comprehension is not taught as it should. It is handled like a reading comprehension programme which is against NCCE regulations (Yusuf, 2007) In view of this; I suggest that a comprehensive re-training programme be put in place to curb this anomaly.

There should be re-training in the content area of listening. Training may cover theories, processes, types, pedagogy, problems, and characteristics of the skill (Field, 1998). These in my view will build the teacher's knowledge of the subject matter.

Next, the teacher should be re-trained in pedagogy needed to pass on content knowledge to teachers-in-training. This may take the form of hands-on training to make the teacher better equipped for the job, (Yusuf, 2007; Ross, 2006).

I am of the view that the teacher be trained to use the language laboratory as a tool to teach listening comprehension. From experience as a language laboratory manager, it is ideal for group work and individual practice in language skills.

Finally, to check deficiencies (UNESCO, 2009) stringent quality control measures have to be devised and implemented in the college to ensure quality. My experience as departmental examination officer shows that external moderation helps ensure standards. This technique could be applied internally too.

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