Monday, March 03, 2008

Why Your English Language Learners Listening Comprehension is Bad and What to Do About It

"Teacher, I don't understand."

“Huh?”, “What?”, “Can you repeat that, please?” “What did he say?”, “Teacher, we don’t understand.” Do any of these sound familiar? Undoubtedly they do.

When English EFL language learners have listening comprehension problems it can be frustrating. If you use videos, CDs or audio cassette tapes, or even perhaps when speaking your learners can have their lesson input interrupted by a lack of listening comprehension skills. Comprehensible input (Krashen, 1989) is an integral part of any English or foreign language class.

Contributing Factors

These seven factors can directly or indirectly contribute to your learners’ listening comprehension skills and comprehension.

1. Vocabulary
ELT author, researcher and lecturer Scott Thornbury said, “… count one hundred words of a (reading) passage. If more than ten of the words are unknown, the text has less than a 90% vocabulary recognition rate. It is therefore, unreadable.” (S. Thornbury, 2004) The same then is likely true for a listening passage. Remember, “You can never be too rich, too thin or have enough foreign language vocabulary” as the old saying goes.

2. Rhyming Sounds
Have you ever taught or learned poetry? If so, you’ll remember that there are several types of rhyming patterns which can be used. Alliteration, onomatopoeia, assonance and consonance, simile, metaphor and allusion, among others, all lend their particular ambience to written or spoken language in English.

Note: If you’d like or need a quick refresher on these poetic elements, you should read, “How to Evoke Imagery, Emotions and Ideas in Writing Poetry That Captures Your Readers Imagination” and “How to Write Poems That Capture the Heart and Imagination of Your Readers” by the author. (L.M. Lynch, 2007)

3. Idioms and Expressions
In every language there are frequently-used idioms and expressions that allow its speakers to convey nuances of thought to one another effortlessly and with greater clarity that simply “explaining” everything verbally. Not only is it helpful to know as many of these as possible, but if you don’t, the meanings of many conversations or spoken exchanges may just be “lost” to the listener.

4. Pronunciation
Everyone speaks differently and uses forms of connected speech in distinctive ways. Elements including elision, contraction, juncture, liaison, register, accommodation, aspect, intonation and others, affect pronunciation and speech patterns on an individual basis. When learners are unfamiliar, or even ignorant of, these elements, listening comprehension can be significantly impacted.

5. Regional or National Accents
The same sentence when spoken by people from different first language (L1) backgrounds, regional locations, or ethnic backgrounds can be decisively varied. Unfamiliarity with such on the part of EFL learners can cause a definite lack of listening comprehension or “comprehensible input” as mentioned earlier.

6. Grammar in Context
When grammar and its aspects are taught as “separate” themes, that is, outside of a relevant context, learners can be “handicapped” as it were by not understanding just how and when particular grammar structures are used by native speakers during an oral discourse or verbal exchange. So when they, the learners, hear a grammar structure that they “know”, but learned “out of context”, they can often “miss it”, misinterpret it or simply not understand what they’re hearing.

7. Language Rhythms
One of the big differences between English and say, Spanish, is that one language is “syllable-based” while the other is “accent-based”. This accounts for non-native speakers sounding “funny” when speaking a language other than their mother tongue.

With epithets like, “oh, she luv-ed him but chew-no it wuzn’t not no guud, mahn for demm boat.”

These types of epithets derive not from a lack of English or other foreign language skills in particular, but rather from pronunciation based on using an “incorrect” spoken language rhythm.

In the next segment, we’ll briefly consider what approaches might be taken to address these and other related problems in developing fluent oral discourse and spoken exchanges in English or other foreign languages.

Prof. Larry M. Lynch is an EFL Teacher Trainer, Intellectual Development Specialist, author and speaker. He has written ESP, foreign language learning, English language teaching texts and hundreds of articles used in more than 80 countries. Get your FREE E-books,"If you Want to Teach English Abroad, Here's What You Need to Know" or "7 Techniques to Motivate Your English Language Learners and Make Your Classes More Dynamic" by requesting the title you want at:


Anonymous said...

I agree that the lack of vocabulary is one of the most evident problems not only on listening
comprehension but also on reading and speaking skills; which also includes Idioms and expressions
and grammar in context. I also think that the accents, pronunciation and rhythms are one of the main issues
to have in mind when listening comprehension is at stake, but I am not pretty sure about what you really meant
with "Rhyming Sounds" I think you miss some important points here like that listening and understanding
are two separate processes that must be distinguished between listening as a process that may not need
interpretation or that DOES involve interactive and meaningful understanding.


Anonymous said...

To each and every one of us as students of the English language have affected us greater or a lesser degree each of the items mentioned in the today’s blog and all of the above is valid even for the current mother tongue of us having as aggravating of the situation the fact that many people pronounce any bad language not only because of physical defects but by faulty pronunciation originated in regional customs.

Aritul said...

Is it me, or is there not a sequel to this post?