After so many years in Spain, I may have forgotten what it is like to be in the presence of a group of people and not understand a single word of what they are saying. Having my mum over for a few days, I have realised how unpleasant it can be for someone to be in the company of people who speak a different language. That feeling of overwhelming frustration and annoyance and even paranoia you get when everyone seems to be laughing and you have no idea of what's going on. Trying to put myself in my mum's shoes, I got a faint recollection of how I used to feel for the first few months I spent here, with a group of Spanish friends. Despite actually speaking the language quite well even in those days, whenever I found myself sitting at a table with more than two or three other people I suddenly became unable to understand what anyone was talking about. On a one to one basis I was fine, but put me in a group and they could have been speaking Mongolian for all I knew. All this got me thinking about some of my students and their inability to understand listening extracts or videos, even those that are below their productive level.
As teachers, we have usually forgotten about our own experiences of language learning, and blocked out those unpleasant memories of being in a classroom with another 30 students all trying to make out what is being said on a tiny taperecorder placed unstrategically on the teacher's desk at the front of the classroom. Maybe you were lucky and had a language laboratory with individual headphones, but it was rare to do any listening comprehension at all, at least in my French class, and when we did it was a recording of Mrs Rowlands speaking in her lovely Potteries accent.
Teaching methodologies have changed a lot over the past couple of decades and we now force plenty of natural sounding English conversations and interviews down the ears of our students, whether it is still on a cassette player, a CD or if you are "modern" like me (that's what my students say when I get the equipment out) an MP3 player with portable speakers. But however good the equipment and acoustics of the room, unless our students are well prepared for what they are going to listen to, the exercise will be useless. Put yourself in the situation my mum was in last week, sitting on a bar terrace having a drink with me and seven Spaniards, not knowing the language. Even if she did speak Spanish, what would the chances be of her understanding what we were all talking about? She doesn't know any of the people or places mentioned, and has little knowledge of what we do every weekend or what kinds of things we discuss. Now put yourself in the place of your students. They know they are going to listen to a recording, but unless they are given some clues as to what it is going to be about, they are unlikely to understand a thing and the whole activity will be pointless.
So, what can we do to make listening comprehension tasks more productive? Firstly, it is vital to provide some information about the context. How many people will speak? Who are they and what relationship do they have with each other? Where are they? What are they going to talk about? You can do this by explaining the situation, you can provide a photo of the interlocutors (which often appears in the coursebook) or you could get your students to ask you questions which they think will help them with the listening task. Secondly, make sure it is clear what students have to do. What information do they have to listen for? Are there any questions they have to answer? Where are the questions? Which exercise do they have to complete? This may all seem far too obvious, but I can guarantee that all of you have had at some point at least one student trying to complete exercise three (fill in the gaps) when they are supposed to be doing exercise two (comprehension check). They should be allowed plenty of time to read the questions before they listen so that they don't get lost because there is a word they don't understand in the questions. Take the time to explain any confusing words or questions, and if you feel it is necessary, preteach some of the vocabulary that occurs in the recording. All of this preparation should at least make your learners feel more relaxed when they listen.
One of the most important qualities a teacher needs and especially with listening exercises is patience. Listening may be something which comes naturally in your own language, but in a second language a great deal of concentration is required. Don't try to make a challenge out of listening and don't allow your learners to feel that they have failed if they have not been able to understand. You may find that certain learners or even whole classes have a listening ability below their general English level. If this is the case, you will need to adapt the materials (it is easier to adapt the questions rather than the recording) and make sure your students get plenty of practice. Build up the level little by little, start with easy tasks and gradually make them more difficult or complex. Be sympathetic and understanding, and if the pressure is off, your learners will become better listeners.