The listening skill is the most neglected one, both in first and second language teaching. Teachers tend to focus on the rudimentary elements of listening briefly, and pass over to other aspects of language teaching. Discrimination of sounds and intonations often form the major part of listening practice in the classroom. Listening for content is often assumed. In reality, the listening skill is fundamental to the entire process of mastering and using a language, whether first or second or foreign.
Listening is like painting, like color, in day to day environment. You don’t notice, but it is always there in every linguistic activity. Listening is important for casual chats, face to face encounters, telephone messages, for enjoyment of radio and television programs, formal lectures, and many other activities.
In the past, listening was labeled as a passive skill, along with reading. No doubt, it is a receptive skill like reading. Speaking and writing were considered to be productive skills, but also active skills. While this categorization is somewhat justifiable because the focus of listening is on reception of information, listening itself cannot be fully and correctly characterized only as a passive skill.
There is a need for an active involvement of the self for the efficient performance of listening. The listener is often forced into guessing an approximation to what the speaker is communicating. The listener expects and anticipates what may be the form and content of the immediate message being delivered. He actively avoids the redundancies in the process of listening, focuses himself on the relevant, interesting and/or crucial points, and engages himself in some critical analysis of content. Listening becomes the stepping stone for action. In view of all these and other activities that are involved in listening, we should consider listening as an active skill demanding active participation of the listener.
How do we organize teaching the listening skill for the TESOL audience? Remember that fluent listening results only from wide exposure to the target language. Listening, like other language skills, is acquired only by doing it.
Remember also that listening is an integral part of any type of language performance. For this reason it should be taught from the beginning classes of TESOL. It should not be postponed for special treatment at a later date or for special occasions. Fluent listening is important from the beginning, if a student is to succeed in his TESOL class and succeed using English outside his class. Teachers should enable the students to listen to native speakers’ speech from the beginning.
More often than not, English is taught through the eyes rather than through the ears in Third World countries. As a consequence, students would have mastered reading and writing with some relative competence, but their skill in listening to natural and native English will be poorly developed.
Where do we practice Listening Comprehension? In all places and in all classes. We must begin with the identification of natural listening situations both inside the classroom and outside.
The students are always required to listen to the teacher’s instructions and questions, and answer them. They may listen to conversations between a student and the teacher and understand what is going on. They may like to participate in a discussion between students and understand what is being discussed. They may like to listen and enjoy the story told by the teacher, and answer questions raised by the teacher. They may listen to simple questions eliciting information about them and their families and understand what the speaker wants to know from them. They may enjoy the jokes told both in the class and outside.
Outside the classroom, the students have many needs which they can meet only by listening to the speech around them and by expressing what they need. They need to understand the native speakers of English they come across in their day to day life, if they are studying and/or working in an English speaking country. Where there is no opportunity for them to come across native English speakers, they will need to listen and comprehend the native English used in the movies and TV programs.
We practice listening comprehension in all places and in all lessons and in all language skills (although at advanced levels of other language skills the role of listening could be minimal). There may be listening comprehension exercises on the phonological elements when pronunciation is taught. There may be exercises for listening comprehension when exercises on grammar are done, as well as in vocabulary teaching. When varieties of speech in various communicative contexts are introduced, there will be ample scope for listening comprehension exercises.
So, begin with the identification of listening situations appropriate to the need and age of the students and the level of English competence already achieved by them. Start with a focus on an ability to understand the formal code of classroom style English, because this is what is absolutely needed for the learner to benefit from classroom instruction. Focus on the goal of the TESOL learners and progress towards achieving the goal in small graded steps. Proceed to less formal varieties of spoken English to enable students to understand people outside the classroom.
Often a simple progression is suggested: classroom style, outside spoken English, how to listen to lectures and take notes, comprehend native speakers in all situations, including radio and TV, cultural language, etc.
Identify the listening medium: is it face to face interaction, or is it a movie or a TV program? Or is it a lecture situation? Or is it a telephonic conversation? Face to face interaction requires a different listening orientation than watching (and listening) to a movie.