There is an urgent need for better ways to teach students to listen. While we all know that listening is one of the four focal skills, in my own opinion it is both the most essential and the most neglected. Teachers who privilege Comprehensible Input know that students have to be either listening or reading to acquire language through CI. Speaking and Writing are production skills that are easy to test, but do not advance Acquisition. Pushing students to speak or write before they are ready to produce does not improve their language abilities. (Quite the contrary.) On the other hand, students who are readers, who read adequate quantities of texts, stories, books and articles, become good writers. Students who are listeners, who listen to their teachers, to podcasts, to TV, to films, to the radio, become good speakers. We often hear CI teachers talk about the language “falling out of their mouths.”
But. But how do we teach our students to listen? A look at the “listening exercises” found in manuals and test preparation materials seem to be nothing more than practice tests. Students listen to recorded conversations and answer questions. They may be given hints that help them guess about the content, but basically they either understand or they don’t. If they don’t understand, the only solution seems to be to do more exercises, to practice more. The problem with this approach is that “Weighing the pig won’t make it heavier.” Testing a student’s level does not help them improve that level. It’s like telling a deaf person to listen more. There is a great need for listening activities that improve our students’ ability to understand what they hear.
Of course CI teachers give their students many opportunities to listen and improve their listening skills. We begin simply by talking to them; the teacher is their first source of Comprehensible Input. Whatever CI method we may be using, Story-Asking, Story-Listening, ALG, etc., students are asked to listen to their teacher. CI teachers are not afraid of the “sage on the stage” accusation because we know that input from other students is of extremely poor quality. The teacher is the first and the best source of compelling comprehensible input in the classroom. The teacher’s challenge is to be so interesting, so compelling, that students are actually listening and not carrying on side conversations or daydreaming.
But. But our goal is not to carry on life-long conversations with our students. We want them to be able to go out into the world where they will meet and converse with other speakers, other sources of comprehensible input. And that is where the problems start. Our students find other speakers incomprehensible. “They talk too fast. They don’t articulate. They swallow half the syllables. They have a strange accent.”
I have often told the story of my own experience, the first time I heard someone other than my French teacher speak French. This was in the late fifties and although my teacher was using the Natural Approach, speaking French for at least 99% of our class time, she did not have tapes or films to allow us to hear other speakers. Since I was a good student, she enrolled me in a regional competition, a dictation. The text was read by a native speaker who happened to be a man. I had never heard a man speak French and I assume that my teacher’s accent, however good it may have been, was not quite the same as that of a native speaker. He read the dictation three times. The first time I understood almost nothing. The second time I understood a few random words, but no complete sentences. I thought I heard him say several times, “il pleut”, which means “it’s raining.” Then he read it a third time and did not say “il pleut” once. I realized that what I had heard as “il pleut” was actually “virgule” or “comma”. Needless to say, I did not score very well on the dictation.
So, when my students complain about the poor articulation and strange accents of native speakers, although I know exactly how they feel, I also understand that they are trying to blame the other person for their own difficulty in understanding the language. As teachers we have learned to speak in ways that are easily comprehensible. We facilitate comprehension by speaking slowly, articulating and enunciating. The question is: how do we prepare our students to better understand speakers who are not their teachers, speakers who have not learned to facilitate comprehension?
Today we have technical aids that my first French teacher did not have. We can use films and videos to give our students the opportunity to listen to other speakers, to other accents. As an English teacher, I have all the movie industry and its great actors working for me to give my students fabulous, highly compelling films.
But. My students complain. “They speak too fast.” “They don’t articulate.” “They have a wierd accent.” What my students are saying is that they don’t understand, that the films are not comprehensible. How can we make input from commercial films comprehensible to our students?
Some textbook companies have made films for language learners. I tried some many years ago but did not find them helpful. The biggest objection is that they are neither entertaining nor compelling. The actors talk like teachers, over articulating and too slowly. While the teacher in the classroom must make an effort to be understood, the films we use should reflect the natural speech patterns that our students are likely to encounter in the world. The topics are not particularly interesting and the content seems more focussed on introducing new (low frequency) vocabulary than on being compelling.
When I decided to use popular commercial films with my students, the first difficulty was the vocabulary, which was all over the place, some very low frequency. Should I make lists to preteach words I didn’t expect my students to know?
Well, out in the real world, outside the classroom, what happens when a language learner encounters unknown vocabulary? Either it’s not vital to the conversation and they ignore it, or it’s important and they ask for an explanation. If the same word keeps popping up because it’s actually high frequency, they eventually acquire it. This is how readers acquire a large vocabulary and it works in the same way for listeners. The purpose of the exercise I call Very Narrow Listening is not to teach new vocabulary, although that can be a side effect. When students see in the script a word they don’t know, I quickly give them a synonym or translation, which they can note if they like, but I don’t expect them to recognize it the next time they hear it.
Thus, I began using films with my students, choosing films that I hoped they would find compelling. Sometimes my students brought their favorite films to me, which is how I discovered The Mighty. As time went by, I found ways to exploit the many possibilities of films and I am sure that other teachers have developed other techniques. Personally, I like to go through the entire film, scene by scene, adapting my use of the story to the different possibilities of each scene. Sometimes we simply watch and discuss what is happening. Sometimes we read the subtitles in the target language and I explain words or expressions that are unfamiliar to them. Sometimes I ask them to translate the subtitles. Of course, most of them are already translating the written words in their heads. Doing it together helps the weaker students and eliminates some misunderstandings.
Students soon realize that the subtitles are often inaccurate. I once met a woman who wrote subtitles for a film company. She explained to me that there was a technician who gave her a maximum number of characters that she could use on each screen shot. No matter how long the line of dialogue, her text had to fit into that number of characters. This explains why words are often left out or rearranged. It also explains why you see “wanna” and “gonna” so often. (I always warn students that writing these shortened forms in a graded paper will lose them points.) But when the subtitles are not accurate, we can ask students to listen and tell us what the actors really said. “Correcting the subtitles” is an exercise that students enjoy and which teaches them that they do not have to depend on the subtitles.
Dr. Krashen has encouraged language learners to do what he calls “Narrow Listening.” He advises them to select a specific topic which interests them and to listen to short recordings discussing the topic. Someone interested in raising parakeets would collect and listen to several discussions of how to raise parakeets. The vocabulary would be limited by the topic and the student who listened to several recordings would improve their listening ability. Over the years I have developed a specific exercise which I call Very Narrow Listening. The scenes I use may be less than three minutes long and the student hears the same vocabulary repeated many times. I’ve discussed it with Dr. Krashen and he has authorized me to use the name “Very Narrow Listening.”
Very Narrow Listening is suitable for a scene which shows a conversation between two or three characters. It is possible to have more speakers, but the exercise becomes more difficult with several different voices. Since the goal is comprehension of the spoken word, I avoid action scenes with a lot of shouting. With A2/B1 students I advise keeping it short, little more than half a page of double-spaced script. More advanced students can work with two pages of script.
I sometimes begin by narrating the scene with no sound, as a Movie Talk. Students have told me that such a narration can help them identify the actors’ emotions, not as obvious to them as you would think. Narration also allows me to intoduce some vocabulary which will be encountered later. Then I play the scene through with sound but with no subtitles and no script. Often the students complain and are discouraged because they understand very little of what is said. It’s important to have this first viewing of the scene with no aids to comprehension of the spoken dialogue. It allows students to measure their progress at the end of the exercise.
Then I hand out the script to the scene with blanks for some of the words. I ask them to read it and to ask me for any vocabulary that they don’t know. I write definitions on the board and let them make notes on their papers.
At this point we are reading the script as a text. My role is simply to make it comprehensible. Sometimes it is not the vocabulary which hampers understanding but the sentence structures. I rephrase the sentences as needed. In general, students are more willing to work on comprehension of the script than they would be with a normal written text or article, because they have an immediate goal: to be able to understand the dialogue of the scene they are expecting to see again.
During this first exploration of the text we ignore the blanks but I sometimes tell students that if they can guess at the word in the blank to write it in in pencil. The blanks are an essential part of the exercise and choosing them is not always easy. First, the word in the blank must be very high frequency, a word that I am sure my students have already acquired. Also, it’s important that it be clearly pronounced and articulated. I tend to choose words for the blanks by reading through the script, but it is important to listen to the scene again once you have chosen words for the blanks. Sometimes there will be a noise that hinders comprehension or the actor will not have stressed the word enough to make it easily understandable. In such cases I choose a different word. The students will see the blanks as a listening test, but it is a test you want them to pass with flying colors.
Usually one blank for two or three lines of dialogue is enough. With weaker stuents I use fewer blanks and with more advanced students I use more.
Once the script is understood, I play the scene without subtitles, and without stopping, asking the students to follow with a finger. Just following the spoken dialogue with the written text is not easy. I insist that they put down their pens and do not try to write in words that they understand. Quite simply, if they try to write while the actors are speaking they will be lost and not able to catch up.
Then I tell them to take up their pens and I restart the same scene from the beginning. At the end of the speech containing the first blank, I stop. I encourage students who have understood the word to shout it out, and I write it on the board. If no one has heard it correctly, I play that bit of the scene again.* I repeat the snippet as often as the students request it, until someone actually hears the word they need. I find it very interesting that often the students who have the best ears, who identify the most words, are NOT the usual leaders. I never fail to congratulate the “C” student who has identified a word that stumped all the “A” and “B” students.
*Warning: The exercise requires stopping and starting repeatedly at very precise points. This is much easier to do with a DVD than with a downloaded film.
When we have found the missing word I play the line of dialogue one more time as a confirmation for those who have not identified it. Their difficulty often comes from a false expectation of what the word sounds like. Since we frequently have students reading more than they listen, their pronunciation and expectations can be far removed from what the word actually sounds like, so they fail to recognize it when they hear it.
Once we have filled in the first blank, we continue to the next, listening, listening again, and filling in the blanks. Sometimes the blank may be an entire phrase or sentence that students are familiar with. The entire exercise may take up most of an hour, but at lower levels I use shorter scenes.
Once we have filled in all the blanks, I let the students listen to all the scene without stopping, with the script in front of them. We may discuss some aspect of the scene, the story, what is happening, but often the actors’ skill make such interventions unnecessary.
Then I ask the students to turn over their scripts or to put them away, and they listen to it one more time. As they listen without any aids, I hear some of them say, “Wow!” “It’s magic.” The audio that was incomprehensible to them less than an hour ago is now comprehensible.
Actually the exercise does more than improve their listening skills. It’s a bit like a magician’s trick. The magician uses gestures and bright colors to draw the audience’s attention away from what he’s actually doing. While students are concentrating on the blanks and trying to hear the word that goes into the blank, they are receiving comprehensible input that is repeated over and over again. It always amuses me to have students begging me to replay the sequence again and again. If I had forced them to listen to the same phrase five, six, seven times, you can imagine their indignation. With the repetition of the scene at least five times, the repetition of lines of dialogue that are now comprehended, they are acquiring vocabulary and grammatical structures without realizing it, painlessly, and the strong emotions which films create often serve to reinforce their acquisition.
The ultimate goal of this exercise is to encourage students to listen to films, videos and podcasts in English on their own, for their own pleasure. Once they feel confident enough to choose their own sources, there is no limit to how far they may progress. I once had a fourteen year old girl student who spoke excellent English with a pronounced American accent. When I met her, I was convinced she had lived abroad for many years and asked her where she had lived before. She told me that she had never lived anywhere but Agen, France. But she was a great fan of the Friends series and, wanting to know what happened before the dubbed French version was out, had spent all summer listening to it in English. At no time did she do any speaking practice, but the result of listening to and understanding American actors was her excellent level of fluency in spoken English.
Using popular, engaging, compelling films can lead your students to follow their own passions and acquire advanced language skills. I have found the time needed to prepare a Very Narrow Listening exercise well invested, since I can use the exercise over and over again, with different students.
In conclusion, I hope you will try Very Narrow Listening as a way of improving your students’ comprehension. I also hope that you will find other ways of improving listening skills. The formula for Acquisition is simple:
1 – Give your students Compelling Input.
2 – Make it Comprehensible.
3 – Repeat it again and again.
P.S. I think it would be interesting to share scripts. I’m attaching some examples of scripts that I have used in the past. Your comments and questions are most welcome.
The proposal scene from Pride and Prejudice, 1995, with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle
For Advanced students
Mr. Darcy : Forgive me, I hope you are feeling better.
Elisabeth: I am, ______________. Will you not sit down?
Mr. Darcy: In vain I have struggled. It will not do! My ____________ will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and _______ you. In declaring myself thus, I’m fully aware that I will be going expressly against the wishes of my _________, my friends and I hardly need add, my own better judgment. The relative situation of our families is such that any alliance between us __________ be regarded as a highly reprehensible connection. Indeed, as a rational man I ___________ but regard it as such myself, but it cannot be ________________. Almost from the earliest moments of our acquaintance, I have come to feel for __________ a passionate admiration and regard, which despite all my struggles, has overcome ______ rational objection. I beg you, most fervently, to relieve my suffering and consent to be my ______.
Elisabeth: In such cases as these, I ________ the established mode is to express a sense of obligation. But I __________. I have never desired your good opinion and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. I’m ________ to cause pain to anyone but it was most unconsciously done, and I ________ will be of short duration.
Mr. Darcy: And this is all the reply I am to expect? I might wonder _______, with so little effort at civility, I am rejected.
Elisabeth: And I might wonder why, with so evident a ___________ to offend and insult me, you chose to _________ me that you like me against your will, against your reason and even against your character! Was this not some _________ for incivility if I was uncivil? I have every reason in the _________ to think ill of you. Do you think any consideration would tempt me to accept the ______ who has been the means of ruining the happiness of a most beloved ___________? Can you deny that you have done it?
Mr. Darcy: I have no wish to deny it. I did _______________ in my power to separate my friend from your sister. And I rejoiced in my ___________. Towards him I have been kinder than towards ____________.
Elisabeth: But it is not merely that on which my dislike of you is founded. Long _________ it had taken place, my dislike of you was decided when I heard Mr. Wickham’s __________ of your dealings with him. How can you defend yourself on that subject?
Mr. Darcy: You take an eager __________ in that gentleman’s concerns!
Elisabeth: Who that __________ what his misfortunes have been can help feeling an interest in him?
Mr. Darcy: His misfortunes! Yes, his misfortunes have been _______ indeed!
Elisabeth: And of your infliction! You have reduced him to his present state of poverty and _______ you can treat his misfortunes with contempt and ridicule!
Mr. Darcy: And this is your opinion of _____? My faults by this calculation are heavy indeed. But perhaps these offenses might have been overlooked, had not your pride been hurt by the honest _________ of the scruples which have long prevented my forming any serious design on you, had I concealed my struggles and flattered you. But disguise of every sort is my abhorrence. Nor am I ashamed of the ____________ I related. They were natural and just. Did you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your _____________? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations whose condition in __________ is so decidedly below my own?
Elisabeth: You’re mistaken, Mr. Darcy. The mode of your ____________ merely spared me any concern I might have felt for refusing you had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner. You ___________ not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible _________ that would tempt me to accept it. From the very beginning your manners impressed me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit and your selfish disdain for the feelings of others. I had not known you a month before I felt you were the ________ man in the world who I could ever marry!
Mr. Darcy: You’ve said quite ____________, madam. I perfectly comprehend your ______________ and now have only to be ashamed of what my own have been. Please forgive me for having taken up your ___________ and accept my best wishes for your health and happiness.
The Fellowship of the Ring
Gandalf and Frodo in the passages of Moria
Gandalf: I have no memory of this ____________.
Pippin: Are we lost?
Merry: I ____________ we are.
Strider: Shh. Gandalf’s _____________.
Pippin: I’m _________________.
Frodo: There’s something ___________ there.
Gandalf: It’s Gollum.
Gandalf: He’s been following us for ____________ days.
Frodo: He escaped the dungeons of Barad-dur?
Gandalf: Escaped Or was set loose. Now the Ring has brought him __________. He will ____________ be rid of his need for it. He hates and ______________ the Ring, as he hates and ____________ himself. Sméagol’s life is a sad ________________. Yes. Sméagol he was once _________________. Before the Ring ___________ him. Before it drove him _____________.
Frodo: It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t _______________ him when he had the chance.
Gandalf: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s _____________. Many that ____________ deserve death. Some that ______________ deserve life. Can you ____________ it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal ____________ death and judgment. Even the very wise cannot __________ all ends. My ___________ tells me that Gollum has some part to ______________ yet, for good or ill, before this is over. The __________ of Bilbo may rule the fate of ______________.
Frodo: I wish the Ring had ___________ come to me. I _____________ none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who ______________ to see such times. But that is _________ for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the ____________ that is given to us. There are _____________ forces at work in this ________________, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to ___________ the Ring. In which case, you were __________ meant to have it. And that is an encouraging _____________. Oh! It’s ______________ way.
Merry: He’s remembered.
Gandalf: No. But the air doesn’t _____________ so foul down here. If in doubt, Meriadoc, always follow your ________________.
For lower levels
After learning that Kenny Kane has been paroled, Gram finds Max crying in his room
Gram : Max ? You ok ?
Max : I’m just ________ him.
Gram: Just like him? Oh, Lord. I thought I had gotten rid of every last ____________.
Max: I look in the mirror and I _______ him. I hear my _________ and I hear his. It’s no use. You _______ who you are. And nothing else. Killer Kane! Killer Kane had a _______ who’s got no _______.
Gram: Now, listen to me. You are __________ like him. You will __________ be like him. You know why? _________ you have your mother’s __________. You’re my noble __________, that’s what you _________.