Listening to the Universe of Discourse: 03

white-flowersSo, let’s take an example I gave on that forum mentioned a couple of posts ago: the word “hello”.

Most of our students will be quite familiar with the word “hello”, both the string of sounds that make up the word, as well as the correct usage of the word and the possible responses when that word is “heard”. Upon “hearing” the word “hello”, most students will automatically slip the sound into the “well-known” box and lift from that same box an appropriate response, like “hello” or “hi” or maybe even “good morning” or “good afternoon”, depending upon the time of day. The student will recognize the string of sounds that make up “hello” as a greeting upon seeing someone for the first time after a period of not having seen that someone.

I suggested that teachers try using that word, “hello” at the end of the class, just to observe the reactions their students will have to the word. These reactions can run from total misunderstanding to a cognitive questioning as to why a word usually reserved to greetings has been uttered at a time that is obviously a farewell.

This is where “listening” differs dramatically from “hearing”: though those same students may hear what has been said, may even recognize the word, they will necessarily find it out of “context” and thus not really understand what is being said to them.

This, then, would be true of passive listening exercises. If a student is unaware of the “setting” in which a listening exercise is taking place, they may well “hear” what is being said, but will be lacking in clear, surrounding clues that add to understanding what is being said. Here is another example of a type of listening exercise and two ways to carry it out.

Passive Listening Exercise

  1. Five old-time radio commercials are played for the students.
  2. The students listen to the five commercials.
  3. Students then answer a series of questions about them.

In the passive application, the teacher will tell the students that they are going to do a listening exercise. The tape is played, once, twice, thrice. Then the students are given five to ten questions based upon the content of the exercises.

Active Listening Exercise

  1. Students will be told that they will hear five radio commercials, recorded in the days before television, that they will include music, perhaps some catchy phrasing, an artificial dialogue or two.
  2. Students are instructed to identify only two aspects of each commercial:
  • the product being sold;
  • the reasons given for buying said product.

The more active application will also include a work-through of the material. Perhaps one commercial is listened to and the teacher opens the floor to student suggestions as to what the product is, without giving away the real answer.

The teacher may ask if anyone has identified a buying point that has been made. These can be single word answers, vocabulary terms that students recognize during the hearing portion of the exercise. All of these “answers” are marked on the board for all students to refer to during later listening.

Before the actual listening takes place, the teacher can present some of that same vocabulary that will be heard in the commercials. The end is not some tricky quiz to see how well the students pick out answers from hundreds of thousands of possibilities; the end is to help them learn new vocabulary or apply already learned vocabulary to new situations and recognize it when they have “heard” it, greasing the way for the “interpretation” of the material.

Possible results

Teachers will not be surprised if, in the passive exercise the students show a very low listening comprehension rate. Those same teachers should not be surprised either if, after having prepared the students properly for the exercise, those same students shine with comprehension of what they have heard.

Such an exercise would not be a one-time shot either. It would be done again in a week’s time, with the same two original questions to be answered as well as a new question, for example, what kind of client would purchase the product—who is the ad aimed at?

The point being made is that “listening” is not “hearing” but rather recognition.

Just look at that little word “recognition”—to cognate again. Listening is not an original cognition, it is based upon the familiar, not the odd, strange or new. Even native speakers of any language will sometimes ask “what was that you said?” because they have not captured a string of sounds, did not expect the string of sounds that they have heard.

Learners of language should not be expected to score on tests based upon unknown factors, such as who is speaking, what they are speaking about, where the conversation is taking place etc.

It will be those “unknown factors” that I will try to explain more clearly with a couple of examples in the next post on this theme.


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