Pictures of Listening

Nick_Dawsons Nick Dawson

“I prefer radio. The pictures are better.”
There are two sides to listening comprehension: recognizing the words in a stream of sound and creating the picture from the meaning of those words. Recognition is easier than production so we can start by asking students to recognize pictures.

Describing pictures
The teacher chooses a picture from the textbook which contains several people. The teacher describes one of the people in the picture. The teacher’s description starts with simple information. “This person is young.” Gradually, the teacher’s description becomes more specific. “She’s a young girl. She’s got short hair. She’s wearing a yellow blouse. She’s looking unhappy.” As the teacher adds detail to the description, students begin to target the person the teacher is describing.

If we want to go beyond describing people, we can choose a double page spread from the textbook which contains many different pictures. The teacher’s description will start with statements which may refer to three or four pictures. Gradually, as the teacher adds detail to the description, students get closer to identifying the chosen picture.

If you like, you may choose to show the students a page from a shopping catalog which contains many different items. You may choose a page showing gardening equipment. Your description will start from a general statement. Gradually, as you add details of color, material, price, etc. students will begin to target the item you are describing. If you choose a page which only contains handbags, your spoken description will need to be very detailed before students can identify the handbag you have chosen.

As you can see, the students’ level of comprehension is challenged by the complexity of the picture and your description.

Listen and draw
At a simple level, this can start with the teacher dictating a description of a house, the front
door in the middle, two windows on the ground floor and three windows on the first floor. The teacher’s description may go on to mention the path which leads to the front door, the plant pot on the left of the door and the two trees on either side of the house. Students listen to the teacher’s description, create a mental image and then draw their picture.

At a more complex level, the teacher may describe a town plan. Students may start with a basic plan of the streets or may draw the streets from the teacher’s description. The teacher then gives the name of each street and students add this to their plan. Then the teacher may add shops and public buildings. At each stage, as the students comprehend, they add details in the correct position.

Listening to voices
The two activities above involve listening to the teacher’s voice which is always the first source of listening material for learners. Learners also need to identify recordings of other voices. Are they adult, young, or elderly, male, female, confident, hesitant, angry, hurried or relaxed, happy or neutral? Can your students listen to a voice and identify the person? Comprehension not only involves understanding words in English, students need to be able to use non‐linguistic information to inform their comprehension.

Listening to places
When listening to sound recordings, a key aspect of comprehension is to identify the place.Learning to ‘read’ the location is a key skill for a foreigner trying to make sense of a conversation in English. Frequently, the location will be a clue to the topic of the interaction.Background noise may be a clue to the location. Students may recognize a few words which give a clue to the location.

From the acoustics of a recording, students may recognize that the location is a classroom, but which subject is being studied? Students may recognize the location as an airport, but who are the speakers? Are they passengers, airline officials, or family who have come to welcome an arriving passenger? The students may recognize that the recording is located in a shop, but what kind of shop?

Listening to roles
Once the students have identified the location, they need to identify the role of each speaker. What kinds of people are usually found in this location? What do they usually talk about? Which speaker is asking most of the questions? Which speaker is using the voice or authority? Which speaker is familiar with the location? Which speaker is a visitor to the location?

Building hypotheses
We need to train out students to build mental pictures from the recordings they hear. If they can identify the place, the role and age of each speaker, they will be better informed to speculate on the interaction which is taking place. Students can then bring their own knowledge of the world to creating a hypothesis about the purpose of the interaction.
Students should not expect to understand every spoken word. They will frequently need to guess. They will need to use their imagination to bridge gaps in their comprehension.
A hypothesis is not a detailed picture. It is a temporary sketch. The student will use linguistic and other information to fill in the details on the sketch. Gradually, the student will add lines, colors, shading and shadows to create the picture (or pictures) which is their

Listening Tasks
Signpost questions are designed to focus the students’ attention on specific elements of the listening text. Signpost questions should focus not on details but on those elements which help students to create the framework and begin to sketch in the details of the listening text.

1. Identify the location and the roles of the speakers.
2. Identify the communicative purpose of each speaker.
3. Identify the structure of the interaction noting the introduction, body and closing of the interaction.
With this information students have a framework within which they can build the picture of their comprehension.

Putting together the jigsaw pieces
When learners listen, they will understand some parts of the picture, but will not understand all. If learners know the communicative purpose, location, and roles of the different participants, they will have a framework which will allow them to place the recognized items in the correct positions. The correctly‐ placed, recognized items will allow the creation of a context. From their understanding of this context, learners will be able to place unrecognized items in their correct positions. Gradually, they will be able to place more pieces in the jigsaw puzzle, building their comprehension picture.

Repeated listening
In the classroom, repeated listening can be used as a skill‐building activity. With each listening, learners should refine their comprehension picture, adding more details as they understand them.

Repeated listening is not usually an option in everyday life, but learners can be taught to ask speakers to repeat their statements. Learners can also offer the speaker a partial understanding with “Do you mean …”, and then asking for confirmation, correction or clarification.

Learners should be encouraged to use these coping strategies in the classroom. These strategies are not considered impolite because the listener is demonstrating a desire to understand and understand accurately.

Most listening texts are procedures which will follow a predictable linear framework.

1. Phone inquiries
a. Identify self and state purpose of call.
b. Ask for contact with specific individual.
c. Make contact, re‐introduce self and re‐state purpose.
d. Get response.
e. Repeat response for confirmation.
f. Thank and give parting salutation.

2. Stories
a. Introduce the setting and the main characters.
b. Develop the plot through a series of events.
c. Arrive at a conclusion which leads from the main events and affect the characters.

3. Shopping
a. Starts with a greeting and general offer.
b. Continues with a specific request.
c. Salesperson shows requested item and checks that it meets the specific request.
i. Salesperson shows range of available options.
ii. Salesperson prompts customer to choose.
iii. Customer chooses.
d. Customer pays.
e. Salesperson accepts payment.
f. Thanks and parting salutation.

4. Ordering food
a. Waiter greets and supplies a menu.
b. Diners make individual choices, waiter makes notes.
c. Waiter confirms details of order.

5. Presentation
a. Speaker greets listeners and introduces self.
b. Speaker introduces topic and states aims of presentation.
c. Speaker develops topic.
d. Speaker summarizes with a conclusion.
e. Speaker invites questions.
f. Listeners ask questions, speaker answers.
g. Speaker repeats summary and conclusion.
h. Parting salutation by speaker.

6. Bonding with strangers
a. Greeting and salutation.
b. Introduce self.
c. Listen to introduction.
d. Refer to personal experience which link to items in introduction.
e. Expand on links to create a bond.

7. Making arrangements
a. Suggest time and place of future meeting.
b. Agree or refine suggestion making alternative suggestion.
c. Agree and confirm details.
d. Parting salutation with reference to future meeting.

Noticing frameworks
When we teach listening, we need to make learners aware of these predictable frameworks, perhaps with reference to frameworks in mother tongue interactions.

Using video
Up to now, we have talked about blind listening; listening without pictures. When students are listening to the soundtrack of a video, they do not need to create the pictures. They can see the pictures on screen. They can see the age and gender of the speakers, they can see how the speakers are dressed, they can see their facial expressions and body language.

When using video, students need to use the skills mentioned above as well as specific skills related to video. Video skills include interpreting meaning from location, clothing, proximity, facial expressions, eye contact, gestures and movements.

All of these factors can add information which the viewer can use to form and add detail to a hypothesis of comprehension.

Cultural factors
Our hypothesis of comprehension is built partly from the visual and audio information but our own knowledge of the world also informs the creation of our comprehension hypothesis.

If your experience of the world suggests that policemen are always threatening and authoritarian, then a police uniform will always suggest this type of behavior. If however you have been brought up to believe that policemen are friendly and helpful, you will bring this expectation to your comprehension. If you believe that young men with long hair and earrings are likely to be poorly educated, this idea will also inform your comprehension.

If you are watching a video set in a different location, in a different culture, you need to
recognize that different rules apply. If apply our own cultural expectations, we may misinterpret the video we are watching.

Drama and documentary
When we watch video drama, the camera usually allows us to see the speakers which we can hear on the soundtrack. Sometimes the camera will cut to allow us to see another character’s reaction to the spoken words. When dialogue is taking place, the camera is usually in the same location.

In video documentary, the screen image may supply different information from the soundtrack. The soundtrack may be a commentary on the screen pictures. When watching documentaries, students need to interpret two separate streams of information. In old‐ fashioned documentaries, the spoken commentary stays in close contact with the visual images. In modern documentaries, the commentary may be adding information which is not directly related to the pictures.

Luckily, most students have been brought up learning the ‘visual grammar’ of film and television and so they are able to accommodate and put together the jigsaw pieces from these multiple information sources.

Listening involves recognizing sounds as words and putting the words together to create a picture of comprehension. Like in the jigsaw puzzle game, learners need to recognize and create frameworks for their comprehension pictures. These contextual frameworks allow learners to place recognizable elements in the correct position and from their partially completed images, they can use these contexts to discover the meaning of unknown items.

About the Author
Nick Dawson qualified as a primary school teacher from Oxford University Institute of Education in 1967. After three years teaching in a primary school he started full time EFL teaching in Bournemouth. He worked in Libya for five years teaching adult oil company employees followed by a post-graduate Diploma in TEFL at London University. After two years as DOS of a private language school in Turin, Italy he joined Longman Italia as a teacher trainer. With over 25 years with Pearson – starting from when he worked as a trainer for Longman – he has trained teachers in more than forty different countries. He has written or contributed to more than 30 different books of methodology and language practice. His main interest is in the psychology of learning.

First printed July 2012. Copyright Pearson



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