As a language learner, I have found that one of the most difficult skills to contend with is listening. I was never taught how to listen. It was simply assumed that listening skills would be naturally acquired. For my first few years as an English as a foreign language teacher, I assumed the same. However, as I reflected on my own language-learning experiences and those of my students, I rethought this assumption. I did more research on listening instruction, and,not surprisingly, I learned that listening in a second language is not something that is just picked up.
￼Instead, the research points to it as a demanding cognitive task that requires a breadth and depth of exposure that neither I nor my students had been given. Through the research, I also realized that my language teachers and I were not the only ones who had made some poor assumptions.
It seems that throughout the history of English language teaching (ELT), most students have never been taught how to listen. According to Thorn (2009), most listening is done for non-listening purposes, such as introducing grammar or vocabulary, for discussion, for testing comprehension (but not actually to learn how to comprehend), and for familiarity with different accents. Rarely will someone claim to use listening in class “to train students to listen more effectively” (Thorn 2009, 9). According to Brown (2011, 36), “playing audio and asking comprehension questions, or even playing audio and asking students to complete tasks, is merely testing.” Therefore, a great deal of listening practice focuses on testing listening, not teaching it. Testing a skill without first teaching it would not be acceptable for reading, writing, or speaking, and therefore it should not be acceptable for listening.
When listening instruction does occur, it is mostly a top-down approach. Thorn (2009) again points out that the focus is on schema building, gist, and guessing, not the words and sounds that actually make listening challenging. Furthermore, the listening texts themselves often pose a problem—Thorn (2009) believes that most texts are uninteresting from the students’ perspective, lack natural language features (e.g., linking or elision), and utilize one standard accent. None of this prepares students very well for the real-world listening challenges they will encounter.
While these methods of listening instruction still remain the dominant paradigm in ELT, they are slowly changing. Based on my experience as a language learner, on second- language listening research, and on some newer trends in listening instruction, I have designed a method that uses listening journals to deal with the challenges of learning to listen in a second language. This article introduces the concept of listening journals and explains how teachers can use them to focus on both the extensive and intensive aspects of listening in order to help students improve their overall listening skills.
(Download the attached PDF to read the full article.)