About Very Narrow Listening, Stephen Krashen, Michael Jordan and Jackie Chan

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(At the TESOL Colloquium 2016 in Paris I presented Very Narrow Listening to a large group of friendly English teachers who seemed quite interested in the concept. I promised to post my presentation on my TPRS Witch blog, but returned home to discover that our entire neighborhood had no internet connection and it took Orange five days to repair the lines. My sincere apologies to those who have been looking for this article for the last week.)

Good morning. Today I want to talk about a problem all language teachers have: our A1 – B2 students who find it impossible to understand native speakers either face to face or in authentic resources. When we know that listening is a fundamental skill, perhaps the most important of all skills, how can we help them? How can we make our oral input comprehensible to them?
When I ask students to listen to a scene from a film, typically they blame their difficulties on the actors. “They have an awful accent. They don’t articulate, they swallow half the words!” When they say the actors are speaking too quickly, I reply that they are listening too slowly. This gets a smile, but it actually is the cause of their inability to understand spoken English. They are taking too long to decode what they are hearing.

The importance of listening was illustrated by Dr. Ashley Hastings’ 1995 study on Focal Skills. A group of English learners was tested to determine which of the four skills, Listening, Reading, Speaking and Writing, was their weakest. Then the students worked exclusively on that one skill during an intensive course that lasted four weeks. Those whose lowest score was in Listening spent four weeks working on that one skill.

In tests given after completion of the course, Dr. Hastings demonstrated that not only did the Listeners progress five times faster in their ability to understand spoken English than the control group that had worked on all four skills, they also matched or did better than the other groups that had concentrated on reading, writing or speaking skills. In short, the best way to improve in all four skills is to concentrate on Listening.

Although Listening is such a vital and fundamental skill, the typical textbook offers very little to help students improve their ability to comprehend spoken English. Most “listening exercises” are simply recorded conversations with comprehension questions. Some manuals try to help students pick up clues so that they can better guess at the content but such exercises are basically exam practice. Michael Jordan said that if you practice something wrong, you get very good at doing it wrong. Stephen Krashen said that “Weighing the pig doesn’t make it any fatter.”

Knowing that acquisition comes through comprehensible input, how do we make oral input comprehensible to our students? As teachers we can shelter vocabulary, speak slowly and check frequently for comprehension, but these are professional skills that our students won’t often find in their conversational partners out in the great wide world.

Many many years ago I started trying something with films. I wanted my students to be able to enjoy the treasures that come from Hollywood and are available everywhere in the world. It seemed to work, the students enjoyed it and when I was teaching in a large French lycée it kept classes of 35 boys quiet and focused for an hour. One student told me years later that the only pages from the lycée that she had kept were the ones I gave out to accompany The Lord of the Ring.

At that time I knew nothing about Stephen Krashen and Comprehensible Input. When I did learn about the Acquisition hypothesis, it helped me to understand why what I was doing with films was effective. With Dr. Krashen’s permission, I call the exercise Very Narrow Listening. He has described Narrow Listening as an ideal way to acquire language by listening repeatedly to short recordings about a topic that the learner finds compelling. Since all the recordings focus on the same topic, vocabulary will be sheltered.

For Very Narrow Listening I begin with a short, two to three minute scene of dialog from a film my students find compelling. I prepare a transcript and blank out a certain number of words, usually one word every line or every other line. I will explain further on how I choose the words to blank out.

The first time I show the scene to my students I may choose to mute the sound entirely, so we discuss the characters who are present, what we know about them and their actions. This helps students to have an idea about the context and they may guess at what is being said. I think a video is much better than a recording because the visual context helps to make the spoken dialog comprehensible.

Then I play the scene with the sound and ask what students have understood. Usually they have only caught a word here and there. This is when they tell me that the actors are speaking too fast and don’t articulate.

I then hand out the script I have prepared and ask them to listen to the scene again. They are not allowed to have pens in hand at this point and no one should write anything in the blanks. I ask them to simply follow the dialog with a finger, to show that they are able to follow what is being said. Many of them will find this simple task quite difficult.

Of course the scene will most likely contain vocabulary that they don’t know. I let them ask for definitions of unknown words, which I write on the board and explain. They will focus on this new vocabulary, but in reality I’m not interested in their learning the words on the board. This is not a vocabulary exercise. Words that are repeated several times and are important to the context may be acquired, or they may not.

Now I play the first lines of the scene for the third time and stop. I don’t want the students trying to write words in while the scene plays, because they will soon be lost. It’s not possible to write and follow the conversation at the same time. After almost every blank I stop to give them time to write and we check to see if they have found the right word. If they haven’t heard it, I replay the bit as often as they request it. This is not a test, but a learning exercise. So we listen again and again and again. We stop to fill in what they have understood. We go through the scene phrase by phrase. When all the blanks are filled in, we listen to the scene again while they follow with the transcript. Then I ask them to turn their pages over so that they are not reading and we listen to the scene one last time. And I ask them, “How much do you understand now?”

In general they will understand most of what they are hearing, the very words which sounded like gobbledy-gook at the beginning. I’ve had students say, “It’s magic!”
Why does it work? Krashen says that Narrow Listening is effective when the recordings are compelling, short and the context is limited and familiar. I think Very Narrow Listening works because:
1) Filling in the blanks feels like a familiar activity, not particularly difficult, lowering the affective filter.
2) The activity is enjoyable because students feel successful. As a matter of fact, weak students often shine, seeming to have a better ear than some of their more academic comrades.
3) Identifying the words in the blanks is team work, the result of collaboration, promoting group spirit and again lowering the affective filter.
4) The films are chosen because students find them compelling. We discuss the situation so that the context is familiar and sheltered, helping students find the missing words.

Students who do Very Narrow Listening frequently progress in their listening skills, but also in reading, writing and speaking. Why?

We all know that magic tricks work because of the magician’s ability to focus our attention elsewhere. My students are focused on filling in the blanks, but actually my goal is to get them to listen to Comprehensible Input attentively and repeatedly. Do you remember the scene in Karate Kid, where Jackie Chan makes the boy take off his jacket, throw it on the floor, pick it up, hang it up, take it off the hook, put it on, take it off, throw it on the floor, over and over and over again? The boy thinks he’s being disciplined, but the day that he has to fight his enemy, he realizes he has acquired the spontaneous moves and gestures that he needs to be victorious. While my students focus on the blanks, actually they are in the process of acquiring the language of the scene, the vocabulary and grammatical structures as well as the pronunciation. Their speaking skills will improve because they will find it easier to say words that they can now actually hear. Their reading skills will improve because they have been reading the transcript repeatedly and automatically their writing will improve because of the progress in reading.

How do I choose the words for the blanks? This is really the secret of the exercise, what makes it effective. The words I choose are words that I’m certain my students have ALREADY acquired. The EASY words. I usually pick common nouns and high frequency verbs. I want my students to be able to recognize them, so I make it as easy as possible. Please, don’t try to trip them up, testing if they remember a particular grammatical structure. Set them up for success. You will find that it’s never as easy as you thought. After all, you can hear all those words, while your students hear mostly noise. You will often realize that you need to change some blanks, that they were not as obvious as you thought.

I hope you will try Very Narrow Listening and see for yourself how effective it is and how engaged your students will be. Let me know what films you used and how it went for you. Let me know if your students also say, “It’s magic!”

P.S. At my presentation at the TESOL Colloquium 2016 in Paris, someone suggested creating a site that would have transcripts that could be shared. I have nothing against the idea and would gladly share the ones I have, but I suspect that each teacher knows the interests and level of her students best. I constantly adapt scenes and create new ones to match my students’ needs. I wonder if maintaining such a site might not be more work than creating new transcripts as needed.

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