First of all, ListeningMost textbooks include listening activities where students listen to a recording repeatedly, answer questions, then check the correct answers. What they do not teach is listening skills. And how often in real life do you get the chance to hear every word of something 2 or 3 times over, with exactly the same pace, intonation and emphasis, until you capture every nuance of it? Book listening activities, however useful they may be in preparing for an exam (where you also typically hear everything twice) are a very poor imitation of real-world listening.
So how can students be helped to bridge the gap between graded recordings made by actors, and real-life speech with all its variety, not to mention messiness? What skills do they need to practise?
Active Listening is one important area. Imagine the difference between a classroom of students listening to a recording because they have to in order to complete a worksheet, and a group of people listening to something that interests, enrages, entertains, enthralls, or provokes them. Which group is listening better? Imagine also two conversations between friends: one in which A talks while B is silent and has a blank expression, and one where B responds to A constantly, with words, facial expressions, non-verbal expressions, but above all with their clear attention. Which friendship is likely to grow stronger?
In this video from Ted.com, Julian Treasure discusses why we all fail to listen, and recommends tactics to improve listening skills.
This video works well with high level classes to get them to think about how they listen, but even Elementary students can be taught the acronym RASA (Receive Appreciate Summarise Ask), and learn to apply these steps both when they listen to recordings, and in conversation.
Receive - Take it in
Appreciate - Think about it, absorb it, what does it mean to me? do I agree? / Hmm, Really? - ways that we show we are listening
Summarise - So you mean...
Ask - Find a question to ask about what you've heard. (When teaching this method to students, there is no such thing as a stupid question. A tiny step in developing Active Listening skills is still a step.)
I've touched on Social and Emotional Cues above, which is another key area where students need practice if they are to be able to talk with native speakers without causing unintentional amusement or offence. Authentic resources are much better for this than textbook recordings made by actors, which typically have exaggerated intonation, and very few interjections or hesitations. Try using video of real conversations, such as this excerpt from the BBC documentary The British Family.
I showed this to a Pre-Intermediate class, without any preparation other than telling them that they would see two people being interviewed. After watching it, I asked them how the man and woman felt during the interview. The students were unanimous that in the first section of the interview, the man disagreed or was angry with what the woman was saying, because he was completely silent, and stood with his arms folded and a frown on his face, not looking at her. In the second section, he was still silent, but you could tell that now he agreed with her, because he smiles and makes eye contact with her, and at the end of the section he laughs. In the final section, they both speak, overlapping and interrupting each other, and both are smiling, so you know that these are positive interruptions, not rudeness. In other words, they understood a great deal from the recording, without even looking at the language.
Another area where textbook listening exercises fall down, is that they ask you to listen for 6 things during a recording, which will probably be spaced at fairly regular intervals. In real life however, we frequently have to listen to a long spiel of information, most of which is not relevant to us, without drifting off sufficiently that we miss the One Detail that is not only relevant, but frequently vital. Train announcements are an excellent example of this, such as the one below.
Which platform is this train going to be at? Is this the train for Arundel? If it is the train to Arundel, where in the train do I need to sit?
(OK, so the visuals aren't great, mostly it's someone's finger, but the audio is useful - you get some background noise, a lot of unfamiliar station names, and the answer you want towards the end of a long list. And if you get it wrong, maybe you won't get home tonight!)
(NB - I did not create any of the videos linked or embedded here, all rights remain with the creators.)