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Language can be recognized as a media of communication, rather than the simple complex of sound, vocabulary and grammar. English language teaching (ELT), therefore, has long been conducted through reading, listening as receptive skills and speaking, writing as productive skills in communication. Among all the factors, listening is an essential section of language competence and it indicates the comprehending of spoken language.
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During the process, listening input is usually accompanied with other sounds and sometimes with visual input (Lynch & Mendelsohn, 2002). In making sense of the listening contents, the context of the communication happens in and listeners’ relevant prior knowledge is vital (ibid). However, as many linguists reviewed, listening has long been neglected until the early 1970s (Morley, 2001; Brown, 1987; Rivers, 1966). It is only since then that listening attracts more interests from linguists and researchers. Therefore, as it is far less studied than other fundamental skills, listening needs more research and is worth to be emphasized in ELT.
II. An Overview of a Listening Lesson
In the contemporary English language teaching and research, listening is becoming more and more important. Some researchers advocate and encourage teachers to apply listening strategies in classroom teaching and guide students to listen (Mendelsohn, 1994; Field, 1998). Listening approaches are also suggested and experienced. Harmer (1987) reviewed some basic principles of receptive skills and stated that, learners read and listen to language with purpose, desire and expectations. He further pointed out that, a lead-in stage can create expectations and arouse the students’ motivation in the following listening contents. Field (1998) proposed a diagnostic approach which involves pre-listening, listening and post-listening in a listening class. He asserts that the approach can check and adjust students’ listening skills through short micro-listening exercises. According to the introduction given by Hedge (2000), the process of listening class can be divided into three stages, pre-listening stage, while-listening stage and post-listening stage.
1. Pre-listening Stage
It is commonly recognized that pre-listening is a preparation of the listening class. In this stage, teachers tend to arouse learners’ expectation and interest of the language text they are going to listen. They can also motivate learners by providing background knowledge of the text; organizing learners to discuss a picture or a related topic which involves in the text; asking some related questions to the text, and etc. In general, pre-listening plays a role of warming-up and the main aim of this stage is to make learners focus their attention on the following while-listening stage and decrease the difficulties of the text. It is more important in its relating to and being of help to many other aspects which will be represented later.
2. While-listening Stage
While-listening is the main procedure of listening information input. In this stage, learners are given some audio materials for listening. Learners may be requested to deal with some questions with the listening materials, such as Yes/No questions, Cloze, True/False questions and etc. Usually learners need to answer the questions simultaneously or take note of some main points of the listening materials. Teachers, as a guide during this process take control of the speed of the materials, start or pause of the machine and raise some questions for discussions or give necessary explanations to help the learner comprehend the materials. Depending on the learners’ language level and the difficulty level of the materials, teachers can decide the times of presenting the listening materials. The purpose of while-listening is to provide the learners with audio material input with exercises and therefore promote the learners’ listening competence.
3. Post-listening Stage
Post-listening is also an important stage as it reviews and checks the listening efficiency and result. During this stage, teachers are not only supposed to check the answers, they also need to lead the learners to consolidate the comprehension of the listening input. They can organize further discussions on the listening text, explain some new terms and phrases, summing up appeared language rules and designing some related exercise for the learners to strengthen their impression about the knowledge. In addition, giving a dictation on a summary of the text may check all the different language points and learners’ mastery of knowledge. Via the first two stages, learners have received many comprehensible input, thus, the purpose of post-listening is to transfer these input into intake. In another word, the stage of post-listening can be considered as a transformation of language knowledge to language competence in listening teaching section.
III. The Essentiality of Pre-listening in a Listening Class
Pre-listening, as the first stage of listening teaching, is long argued by linguists and teachers on its contexts and role in the listening teaching. For example, some researchers (Buck, 1991; Cohen, 1984) suggested arrange a question preview in pre-listening stage with the reason that it may guide the students’ attention in the right direction. On the contrary, others (Ur, 1984; Weir, 1993) argued that the question preview process may distract the learners from attending to the actual input. Hence, it is worthwhile to clarify the status of pre-listening in classroom teaching of listening.
Before analyzing the role of pre-listening in the process of a listening class, it is useful to overview the difficulties in listening teaching initially so that the role of pre-listening stage can be further discussed.
1. The Difficulties in Teaching Listening
Comparing to other language competence, such as reading and writing, listening has some specific features which could bring learners pressure and difficulty in dealing with it. They are concluded as follows (Lynch & Mendelsohn, 2002; Thomson, 2005):
- High frequency in communication. Based on the investigation of Rivers and Temperley (1978), listening takes approximately 45% of the place in communication of an individual’s daily life.
- Passivity. Apparently, listening is considered as a totally passive action in communication, though it is further regarded as an active process rather than its original passive role (Lynch & Mendelsohn, 2002).
- Speediness and repeatlessness. Differ from reading, listening normally needs to process the information instantly and usually just once. It is not as flexible as in reading that readers can refer to the contents as many times as they like.
- Other widely-concerned aspects of natural characteristics. In the process of listening, many other aspects of language of knowledge are needed such as phonetic, vocabulary, grammar.
Due to above features of listening, teaching listening was involved in an amount of difficulties. According to the introduction of Cherry (1957), in second and foreign language listening, most of the difficulties are caused by “uncertainty” which could present in the area of speech sounds and patterns, language and syntax, recognition of content and other influence of environment. The difficulties could show different representations in classroom teaching of listening:
- Learners could be anxious about a long text for the reason of lacking time to process information.
- Unfamiliar context and background could scare the learners and make them lose interests and patience.
- Learners may be influenced by new vocabularies, phonetic phenomenon, grammar structure and these affections could decrease their comprehension about the text.
- By giving a long audio material, learners could have difficulties to concentrate on the important information.
- There are also some other elements in the process of listening which could confuse the learners such as different accent, background noise and assimilation, etc.
2. The Functions of Pre-listening in a Listening Class
As discussed above, pre-listening can be recognized as a stage of preparation and warming up of the whole process of listening. As some researchers (Rees,2002; Peachey,2002)review, there are a few of aims and types of pre-listening tasks that enable the learners deal with the following listening text smoothly and strategically, such as to generate interest, build up confidence and facilitate comprehension. Following is the detailed discussions on the functions of pre-listening.
(1) Motivating learners
People believe “Interest is the best teacher”. To arouse students’ interests is one of the most important conditions for a teaching process. Only when the students are interested in the contents of teaching can the efficiency of teaching and learning be guaranteed. Therefore, the first role of pre-listening is motivating learners.
Underwood (1989) summarizes a variety of ways of pre-listening work can be carried out during the classroom teaching. Some of them are suitable in motivating students:
- The teacher gives background information.
- Organizing the students to have a discussion about the topic or situation in the upcoming text.
- Showing a picture which is related to the content of the text.
To make the listening task interesting, the teacher also can tell the beginning part of the text and provide with some questions as a guideline for the students to guess the end or take some keywords for brainstorming.
(2) Activating current world knowledge and acquiring new knowledge
The main purpose of listening is to teach the knowledge of language and help the learners to be competent in listening. Design some activities that can activate learners’ world knowledge will facilitate them behave better in the listening. Moreover, pre-listening can also play a role to input some new language knowledge. Therefore, it is necessary and meaningful to introduce or review the language knowledge in pre-listening session.
There could be a number of ways to make this part meaningful, depends on the content of the text, the teacher can:
- List the new vocabularies and make sure the students know the meaning and the pronunciation of each one.
- Introduce some phonetics knowledge which could impact on comprehension, such as jointed sounds, lost sounds and etc.
- Review the complex grammar rules and introduce new sentence patterns if any.
- Introduce some language discourse knowledge briefly.
(3) Setting context and predicting content
Rees (2002) emphasized the importance of setting context for listeners in pre-listening session because even in exams learners have the chance to know a general idea of the listening materials. It will greatly help them to predict what they are going to learn. It will help learners to form expectancy of what they will listen and this is an important listening strategy for their future study.
Listening is a difficult and complex section in language learning. Especially in foreign language teaching which has no language environment for practising, listening competence seems even harder to be developed. Thus, before presenting a “long and horrible” text, acquiring some listening techniques (for instance, concentrating on the stressed words, predicting the information, etc.) could be helpful for the students to deal with the task.
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(4) Checking the listening task
To check with the learners if they have full understanding of the task is important in pre-listening. In this procedure, the teacher is recommended to set some tasks according to the content of the text for the students. They can also directly make sure with them in case misunderstanding happens and it may demotivate them.
In the specific classroom activity, the task could be one or two simple questions which relate to the final or important point of the text. For example, if the main content of the text is concerned about competing for a job, the task could be “Who got the job in the end”, if it is about a process of making a manufactory, the task could be designed as “How many procedures are needed to make xxx”.
IV. The Appropriate Length of Pre-listening
By analyzing the role and functions of pre-listening, the essentiality of pre-listening stage is undoubted and it seems that it is worthwhile to spend much time and energy on this stage. However, the main process of listening class must be a fluent work. It does not make sense to spend too much time on pre-listening. The fundamental aim of pre-listening is to prepare learners behave better in while-listening.
Actually, the length of pre-listening is not fixed in every listening class. As Rees (ibid) argues, pre-listening should take a “fair proportion” of a lesson but it usually depends on the teachers’ aim and the learners’ language level to decide how long it should take. Also, based on the different backgrounds of the texts (length, difficulty, genre, etc.) and the level of the learners (beginning, intermediate, advanced, etc.), the type and length of pre-listening can be various. For example, if the content of the text is easy to understand, teachers do not need to spend too much time on basic language knowledge teaching any more; if the students are advanced learners, it is unnecessary to spend much time on pre-listening part for the reason that they have already have enough language basis and may be confident in what they are going to listen. On the contrary, if the learners are at beginning level, the pre-listening part is supposed to be longer. In addition, a very short listening task can be prepared by simply presenting several sentences to clarify the situation of the listening or the necessary information in which the length of pre-listening can be very short. Therefore, pre-listening is rather flexible and the length can be based on the specific aim and situation.
Via analyzing the role of pre-listening in a listening lesson and its relationship with the other two stages, it shows that well-arranged pre-listening activities are essential for listening comprehension.
Listening is an essential competence in language teaching and learning. On account of the features of listening teaching and the role of pre-listening stage, it is vital to design and arrange appropriate pre-listening activities in a listening lesson. A well-planned pre-listening activity could prepare the students to deal with the listening text smoothly. It is also helpful to build up students’ confidence and motivate them to listen. During the pre-listening process, teachers can take the opportunity to introduce world knowledge and related language knowledge related to the text. Moreover, it devotes to fulfill the whole process of a listening lesson in making the work more effective and efficient. However, even though pre-listening plays a significant role in the whole listening process, it does not mean that it needs to occupy too much time in the classroom teaching. The length of pre-listening part could be flexible in different circumstance.
Based on the analysis of the features and aim of listening teaching and the role of pre-listening, while-listening and post-listening stage in a listening lesson respectively, a successful listening class is recommended to include following elements:
- The audio materials are appropriate for the learners in length, speed and difficulty.
- The students are well motivated before listening to the text.
- The aim and forms of the listening task is clarified to students.
- The length of each stage are well arranged and closely connected with each other.
The old saying goes, “Well begun is half done”. As the warming-up of formal listening process, pre-listening should be well-organized and emphasized to play its role of stimulating students’ motivation and expectations for the text. Hence, more investigation should be focused on designing optimizing pre-listening activities in order to facilitate the listening teaching in ELT.
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