The Many Skills of Listening
Listening is Complex
You might think listening is just catching the sound and turning it into a word (read more about why listening is important here). Many of my students thought so before they met me. After working with me they discovered that written English does not sound the same as spoken English. What I mean is, when I write a sentence and speak each word clearly it sounds different from when I read the sentence as a natural English speaker. There are all sorts of difficulties for listening. So we need several skills to help us.
One of the many skills is rhythm. When we use rhythm we can easily hear the strong beat words. It takes quite a bit of practice listening for only the strong beat words at first. I think that many students are trying quite hard to hear the weak beat words. That is, they are trying to hear the words in sequence and get stuck. Then they don’t move to the next strong beat word which is easy to hear.
We need a lot of experience with English to build the next skill: chunks. We can start to think about the chunks that naturally occur, and put them around the strong beat words. Knowledge of chunks is similar to knowledge of vocabulary except that there are no chunk lists like there are vocabulary lists. You have to listen to a lot of English and then you gradually start to see patterns. These patterns are the chunks.
Flow and Memory
Another skill is remembering. We have to think about and remember the meaning of the prior conversation. This is more difficult. It means that you must have a stronger memory in English. The sentence we hear may be talking about a point earlier in the conversation. This is common with words like ‘it’, and ‘that’ and ‘they’ which refer to a noun earlier in the conversation. If you can’t remember the earlier conversation, you will not be able to recognize these words or understand what they mean. This memory is developed only by listening… a lot.
But another skill is grammar. If you have a good understanding of grammar, then you can use that to ‘find’ the words that you cannot hear easily. This does not mean super fancy difficult grammar. Basic points like the tense of the verbs, the word order of the sentence, and what kind of noun (or other kind of word) should be in a place is all you need.
The other day one of my young students was listening to me. He has many skills for listening, but still needs a bit of help.
The sentence I said was, ” what do you have in your bag? “
However, he heard, ” What are you having your bag? “
I asked him to write the sentence on the board. Even before he wrote, he knew it was strange. When he wrote it I said is it okay, and he said no. Then I asked him, ” which point is wrong?”
He pointed out the part that he thought was wrong.
I can’t remember which part it was but he had difficulty with it. Then I said, “can you hear the word ‘having’?”
He agreed that it wasn’t quite having and also that the first word was very definitely what. Since there is a what and a have, he began to think of it deeper. I gestured in his bag. And then I reminded him of our conversation so he could think of the context. At this point he realized the second half was “have in your bag”
Then he could see he needed the verb “to be”. Then he arranged it and he found the answer. He got the correct sentence that I asked him. He needed to use context, and grammar, and rhythm, and his knowledge of vocabulary. Listening was really difficult before he could use all four of those skills together. Now he’s becoming a very good listener.
Just in case you are interested, this student is a first year junior high student. His main exposure to English has been my class, and some classes in Elementary school. I generally introduce basic grammatical explanations in upper elementary school (grades five and six) as patterns, so he was familiar with the pattern that was necessary here.