One of the most important skills which helps students to pass a listening exam is the skill of discriminating among sounds. If you want to be a good listener, you should be able to discriminate and distinguish among sounds and phonemes; this can make you understand speech, prosody and can help you grasp the meaning of words which are very similar; one vowel or consonant can make the difference between these words.
Learners of English have difficulties in so far as regards the quality and the length of vowel and consonant sounds. There is a lot of material that helps students to pronounce and recognize consonants, short or long vowels often in pair practice; learners are helped to make the distinction between words such as “but” and “bat” or “feel” and “fill”.
There is a variety of games which can motivate students to make the above distinctions; one can mention games such as noughts and crosses, collaborative writing and snap. There are features of everyday speech which raise difficulties for most listeners even if these listeners have already reached an advanced or an intermediate level. Let us take a look at these features and let us define them so that students can understand them better.
One of the features is called “assimilation”. Assimilation is the change of the sound in such a way that the sound resembles another sound which can be found after it or before it; for example, the sound “n” from the collocation “in bed” is pronounced “m” because the consonant “b” is bilabial.
Another feature is called “elision”; in this case, the speaker omits a sound or more sounds; for instance, in the collocation “can’t walk”, the consonant “t” is not pronounced in fast speech. There is a feature which is called “linking”; this feature implies the fact that the sound which can be found at the end of a word is connected to the sound with which the following word begins; the two sounds can be uttered as one unit; for example, when we say “a piece of news”.
Another feature is “intrusion”. This means that an additional consonant is introduced after a lexical unit just to connect this lexical unit to a unit that follows. “Juncture” is another feature; it is a linking between two phonemes which permits us to discriminate among groups of lexical units which contain similar phonemes.
“Contraction” is also a feature worth mentioning. It is easier for learners to notice and understand contractions in written English but it is much more difficult for them to recognize and understand contractions in spoken English. An example of contraction is the following: instead of saying “She could not do it”, we may say “She couldn’t do it”.
These speech features are not well assimilated by listeners when teachers perform activities involving productive skills centered upon them. However, these features will not represent a difficulty for learners when listening if teachers perform receptive activities involving reading and listening.
Teachers and students need to pay attention to word stress and also to sentence stress when performing productive and receptive activities. Teachers must indicate the word stress when they introduce vocabulary. The word stress can be indicated by using that apostrophe as a symbol or by writing a square on the stressed vowel.
Vocabulary is very important in all types of activities. It is advisable that teachers should encourage students’ innate ability to make use of clues in order to guess words they didn’t recognize in free speech. In other words, the context in all its forms is important including that type of context in which the listener can detect feelings and attitudes. The technique of detecting feelings and even attitudes is essential for successfully passing a listening exam. A lot of feelings and attitudes are conveyed by speakers of English and learners have to practice in detecting them.
Teachers will face a great challenge when they have to teach their students the listening skill of detecting feelings and attitudes. It is difficult for teachers to explain to students rules according to which listeners detect feelings and attitudes throughout a listening material.
Instead of rules, learners should be provided with enough practice; this means that the more students will listen to texts, the better they will be at detecting attitudes and feelings expressed by speakers. After enough listening, a type of tacit knowledge of feelings and attitudes will be developed. The ability to detect feelings and attitudes in a listening text is first of all developed in the native tongue and then it is transferred in time to the communicative situations which involve the foreign languages.
Rules about identifying feelings and attitudes in listening texts can hardly be taught in a systematic manner or in detail. It is almost impossible for teachers to perform an open teaching of indicators of feelings in a listening text. Indicators of attitudes and feelings are very subtle, very numerous and very dependent upon the speakers’ characteristics. The good part about feelings, moods and social behavior is that they are generally international; if they hadn’t been international, listeners wouldn’t have fully understood films and books in foreign languages.
When a student tries to identify feelings and attitudes in a listening text, they should also try to interpret the speakers’ intonation. The problem is that there is not always a strict connection between a certain type of intonation and a certain feeling and attitude. Intonation can be misleading and has to be interpreted in the actual context of the listening text.
Because the indicators of attitudes and feelings can hardly be taught explicitly, learners should be given much practice; this means that they should listen to texts as much as possible and they should interpret and discuss speech examples. While listening, students need to figure out the real relationship between speakers; learners will also have to see why, where and what the interlocutors speak and to establish who is speaking to whom.
A lot of interesting activities can be performed here. The class can be divided into two teams. The former team is watching a film extract without hearing any sound and is trying to guess the words and sentences uttered by the speakers. This team has to interpret gestures, expressions of faces, the distance and positions between the interlocutors.
The latter team is listening to an audio recording and they do not see any image on the screen. This team interprets only linguistic information and try to identify the context, the subject matter and the relationships between the interlocutors. Apart from conclusions about grammar and vocabulary, this team will analyze the intonation and will detect attitudes and feelings the intonation conveys; this process of recognizing attitudes is based on assumption.
The assumptions of the latter team will be confirmed, refined or denied by the former team which have already interpreted the images. In the end, both teams will listen and watch the film enjoying both sounds and pictures. The conclusion of this work is that sounds, words, phrases and clauses lead to feelings and attitudes and this makes a listening text interesting; if students see a listening text like this, they will get rid of stress and tension to a great extent and they will be more confident.
Harmer, J., 2007. How to teach English. Harlow: Pearson/Longman.
Jones, L. 2007. The Student-Centered Classroom. New York: Cambridge University Press.