Teaching Listening Comprehension Nowadays New Multimedia Challenge English Language Essay

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The present paper focuses on the teaching of the listening comprehension nowadays, especially in respect to the use of the new multimedia in teaching material. The new multimedia, also called the Information and Communication Technology (ICT), enclose a wide range of tools and numeric products in education, improving the processes of learning. The purpose of this research is threefold; first, we will prove the central status of the listening skill regarding language acquisition, and therefore its crucial necessity in foreign language curriculum. Secondly, we will undertake a review of current listening comprehension teaching methods. To end our study, the third part will attempt to define to what expand teaching the listening skill through the ICT is relevant in second language (SL) classrooms, and what are the pros and cons of such challenge.

INTRODUCTION

In order to help the reader understand the importance of such study, we will start this essay by a brief introduction to the history of the teaching methodologies. These varied over time because of both internal and external elements of the learners. Teaching methods have always tended to be in adequacy to the society and therefore changed along with the new needs required by both the evolving society and the learners themselves.

The listening skill has long been neglected in pedagogy. From the 17th century until the 1950's, education was indeed production-based, i.e. that the main aim was to teach and train the writing and oral skills, leaving the receptive skills out of considerations. The structure and the form of the language were the only aspects that mattered and the listening skill only served to memorize and reproduce the different utterances studied in class.

At the beginning of the 20th century studies on language acquisition spread widely and marked a turning point in education by putting comprehension at the center of the language learning processes.

PART ONE: FIRST AND SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION THEORIES

This first part of this essay explains how the listening skill develops in first languages (L1) and second languages (L2), and it also outlines how L2 acquisition takes places through listening.

Numerous different studies and trends on language acquisition appeared in the beginning of the 20th century. Burrhus Frederic Skinner, founder of the behaviorism applied his conception to the language acquisition processes. In his work Verbal Behavior (1957), Skinner claims indeed that a language can be acquired by reinforcing a behavior, either positively or negatively, promoting the former one. "Historically, people have been controlled primarily through negative reinforcement (…).  Positive reinforcement has been less often used, partly because its effect is slightly deferred, but it can be as effective as negative reinforcement and has many fewer unwanted byproducts.  For example, students who are punished when they do not study may study, but they may also stay away from school (truancy), (…), or stubbornly do nothing.  Redesigning school systems so that what students do is more often positively reinforced can make a great difference." (Skinner:1957)

In reaction to Skinner, Noam Chomsky in his Treaties of Linguistics (1957, 1965) defends the idea that all infants innately possess a language acquisition device (LAD) applicable to all languages in the world allowing children to learn any of them. Later he specifies that infants gradually acquire their mother tongue simply by listening to their care-takers. Other "developmental studies of speech perception across languages demonstrate that infants begin with a language-general capacity that provides a means for discriminating thousands of potential phonetic contrasts in any of the world's languages. Over time, based on the input received from the speakers nearby, each infant sifts the set of contrasts to the ones most relevant to what is become his or her native language." (Rost: 2002) This 'learning-by-selection' notion has also been assumed by other researchers in psycholinguistics and language learning theory such as, among others, Krashen, Ellis, Gagné and Anderson.

Various hypotheses emerged from this new consideration of the comprehension skills in L2 acquisition. Krashen and Ellis consider the comprehension as the first step in L2 acquisition. To them, the comprehension precedes and underlies the production. Krashen states indeed in his Input Hypothesis that "language acquisition does not require extensive use of conscious grammatical rules, and does not require tedious drill (…) [but it] requires meaningful interaction in the target language - natural communication - in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding." (Krashen: 1985) Krashen bespeaks therefore that the best methods supply 'comprehensible input' (C.I.) in low apprehension situations, conveying messages of students' interests. He adds that "These methods do not force early production in the second language, but allow students to produce when they are 'ready', recognizing that improvement comes from supplying communicative and comprehensible input, and not from forcing and correcting production." (Krashen: 1985) According to him, the learner of L2 moves from his current level 'i' to the 'i+1' level by understanding inputs containing 'i+1'. Krashen's conception met competing hypotheses such as the Skill Building Hypothesis, the Output Plus Correction Hypothesis and Swain's Comprehensive Output Hypothesis. Radical versions of such theories do not succeed explaining L2 acquisition phenomena completely or at all while the C.I. Hypothesis does. It is nevertheless interesting to note that these competing suggestions involve conscious learning which does have effect on learning even though it is limited. The Comprehensive Input Hypothesis might not be sufficient either since some competences are practiced by conscious learning and other factors such as the attitudinal factors or the quality of the input received must be taken into account.

Rod Ellis, in his work Comprehension and Acquisition of Grammar in L2 demonstrates that there is no direct link between comprehension and acquisition as far as grammar is concerned. He agrees that the acquisition of the forms of L2 can be derived from the written input but it also requires conscious learning of the linguistic characteristics of the input. The C.I. helps making the meaning of lexical items understandable thanks to the context. In terms of L2 grammar acquisition, Ellis believes that using artificial written inputs will considerably accrue the learner's grammar knowledge. Ellis puts the comprehension at the basis of L2 acquisition but focuses on written inputs rather than oral ones.

Claire Kramsch also bases her theory on Krashen's Input Hypothesis focusing on the social parameters within the communicative situations. These parameters include the interlocutors, the situation of communication, the usage, the grammaticality, the diverse social contexts as well as numerous other aspects. The place of the meaning is no longer central, the context is, and i.e. that Krashen's C.I. is understood on a negotiated context. Understanding is building and manipulating a context of interaction between the interlocutors.

Those studies among abundant others contributed to radically change the status of the listening and reading skills in education, shifting its minor positions to central ones in SL curriculum. Skinner and Chomsky were the first to consider redesigning school systems initiating the comprehension-based second language teaching. Ellis thinks the written input lies at the root of the L2 grammar acquisition while Kramsch considers parameters of interactionsas essential in L2 acquisition.

PART 2: LISTENING SKILL IN SECOND LANGUAGE CLASSROOMS

As stated earlier, teaching the receptive dimension is relatively recent in education. Thanks to research on the language acquisition and cognitive psychology, roles were re-distributed placing the learner at the center of the learning process and the teacher as the facilitator of this active process. The teacher indeed must adapt his/her methods to the learner's mental processes to help him/her acquire L2.

Thanks to those studies, educationalists have a solid base on which they can build a curriculum axed on receptive abilities.

The main features of such curriculum must respect the gradual development of learner's acquisition processes. As in L1 acquisition, the learner is given time to internalize L2 'form-and-meaning map'. This occurs through the listening and reading of comprehensive inputs. This comprehension-axed approach also provides a wide range of activities that cover all the learning styles and needs of the learner. The subject is subdivided into themes that suit the learners' background knowledge and interests so that his/her motivation is accrued. As far as the listening skill is concerned, the text selection varies depending on the level of the learners but attention is paid to the minimal understandability, the coherence and the redundancy of the information conveyed.

The L2 learning sequences efficiency depends on several factors such as the quality of the material, the learning environment and the economical use of the time devoted to L2 learning. Ideally, the learner needs frequent and relevant practice as well as an intensive exposure to the target language but often learners have few hours a week of SL class and therefore, every activity must be as complete and dense as possible to meet those criteria. For instance, grammatical points are still covered in class but always in contextualized situations practicing the receptive competences of the learner.

To set the learner in a motivating and challenging spirit, the curriculum will be task-oriented which means that the learner will be conscious of what he/she is expected to do at the end of each learning sequence. Those tasks coincide with the learner's needs and interests as well as with real-life situations. Tasks allow the passage from the comprehension to the production skills and can take various forms in listening for instance. So, the outcomes can either be listening and performing actions, listening and performing operations, listening and solving problems, listening and summarizing texts, or interactive listening and negotiating the meaning through clarification questions and answers.

The evaluation of a comprehension-based curriculum also differs from the former production-based methods. Courchêne summarizes it as followed "what is tested is what is taught". The production, the performance is important but the whole learning process is equivalent and therefore, evaluations take different forms. Frequent feedbacks, oral corrections or adjustments occur along the learning sequences beyond the form of formative evaluation such as homework and are not marked. Formative evaluations serve to help both the teacher and the learner to diagnose any potential lack of understanding. Marks are given in summative evaluations that enclose several learning sequences material.

All those aspects of a comprehension-based curriculum are to be found in most recent textbooks such as the "In Touch 3".

If we now focus on the teaching of the listening skill in particular, we denote that it is part of every SL class and must be in some way or another be optimized. Morley suggests different guidelines for developing listening comprehension activities and materials.

First, to compensate for the lack of time devoted to L2 learning, and more precisely to intensive listening activities, Morley provides techniques to stretch the listening time with her 'listening-across-the-day' concept. The aim is straightforward: extending auditory activities out of school by constituting the learner a 'self-study listening library'. By offering a wide choice of audio and video materials and worksheets for self or pair-study, the learner can practice his/her listening ability at home. Other ideas suggested by Morley are the 'reach-out community dimension' and the 'bring-in community dimension'. The former one basically is the exploitation of resources in the native language community by inviting native speakers of L2 to school events or others, and the latter exploits any resources in the target language community.

As far as the listening activities are concerned, Morley emphasizes the necessity to catch the learner's attention and to keep him/her active to maximize the effectiveness of the auditory exercises. Once again, the listening activities have to be relevant to the learner's lifestyle, applicable to other classes or aspects of life, and task-oriented. Listening activities can also meet various objectives such as the 'listening for perception' exercises that drill the learner's ear, or the 'listening for comprehension' exercises or even the 'listening for fun' exercises that allow the learner to relax and enjoy an oral text.

Regarding the materials used in SL classrooms to teach and practice the listening skill, Ur collected the main resources used and summarized its pros and cons in her book Teaching listening comprehension.

The use of recordings of authentic unrehearsed discourses are, according to her, to be avoid because of the great difficulty of understanding an arduous language without seeing the speaker. However, recordings are time-saving for teachers and also provide many different accents, moods, voices to the listener.

Visual materials such as video tapes present the advantages of allowing the learner to see the speaker and therefore to help him/her understand by interpreting non linguistic information, the context. The teacher has also more control on the pace of the listening and it generally has a positive effect on the learner's concentration, attention and motivation. However, authentic visual materials also present the inconvenient of the difficulty of the language and therefore, are not accessible to beginners.

Personal observations of SL classrooms have shown that teachers often use short and simplified authentic recordings suggested by textbooks for 'listening for understanding' purposes and visual materials for 'listening for perception' outcomes.

This last reflection on the materials exploited in SL classrooms allows us to introduce the last part of this investigation on the new multimedia potential applications in education.

PART 3: THE INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATION TECHNOLOGY CHALLENGE

As previously stated, teaching methods have always tend to be in adequacy with the society. Nowadays, the shape of the world has been modified by the overwhelming multimedia. The UNESCO organization accurately reviews that "Information and communication technology (ICT) has become, within a very short time, one of the basic building blocks of modern society. Many countries now regard understanding ICT and mastering the basic skills and concepts of ICT as part of the core of education, alongside reading, writing and numeracy". Therefore, educational techniques necessitate to be redesigned to fit the 21st century and to response to both the society and the learner's needs.

This revolution of the school systems, integrating the ICT in classrooms started 25 years ago with abounding applied linguistics research. Soon, SL teachers enriched their classes with modern material such as the recordings, the radio, television, or the CD-Rom. The use of these materials was indeed an improvement but remained static. Today's challenge is to combine teaching with the newest dynamic technologies such as the Internet, and more precisely the Web 2.0.

A recent survey undertaken in 2002 by Daniel Martin, searcher for the 'Fonds québécois de la recherche sur la nature et les technologies' and the 'Ministère de l'Éducation du Québec', depicts various aspects of such challenge. The main constraints met by SL teachers are either related to technical or pedagogical aspects. The teacher, using computers, software and hardware has to learn how these materials function and how to fix them. In addition, the teacher has to develop other strategies to organize the classroom and the activities, without forgetting the change of managing the content of the curriculum. Fortunately, Martin also provides useful tips to compensate those inconvenient; for instance, placing the computers along the walls leaving space for non-computer activities, anticipating computer breakdowns by preparing 'alternative tasks', or controlling the learners' evolution with sub-tasks.

Nowadays, the Web is no longer static (Web 1.0), it is available to anyone. Anybody has the right and the possibility to interact on the Web. Language learning websites such as www.anglaisfacile.com or www.britishcounsil.org already proliferate on the Web. Teachers and educationalists have thus the opportunity to create websites dedicated to education. The perspectives of such application of the ICT are immense and deserve all our attention. Working online counts numerous advantages for both the teacher and the learner. The learner's motivation and interests will probably be boosted by computer-activities that also allow him/her to progress at his/her own rate. The teacher will surely be pleased to make his/her pupils work the whole hour and will save time preparing the lessons that will be updated in a click. As far as the listening skill is concerned, we truly believe that the Web 2.0 can considerably facilitate the learner's access to aural material by constituting Kramsch's suggested 'self-study listening library' online.

CONCLUSION

The present paper is surely not a precise and complete analysis of the teaching of the listening skill through the ICT. We conducted a three-part investigation to examine the subject. The first part provides a theoretical background of the acquisition processes in second language, underlying the key role of the listening ability. The second part of this research attempt to review the actual teaching of the listening skill in SL classrooms and curricula. And finally, the last part researches the implications of the ICT describing very briefly its mutations towards time and its perspectives in education.

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