Saturday, 28 December 2013

Listening activities with the ESL Literacy learners: top-down and bottom-up

“Progress in reading requires learners to use their ears, as well as their eyes…”Williams (1985)

In this post, I have tried to compile a possible list of ideas on developing top-down and bottom-up listening skills in adult ESL Literacy learners. Some of the techniques I have been using in class, others I have thought of while researching this topic for an MA assignment. Please feel free to add, comment and share what you do in the classroom!

Although it is largely recognized that ESL literacy learners are aurally oriented and they learn best by listening, some students still need a lot of support in lexical segmentation (Field, 2003) in English. Working one on one, I often notice that while trying to repeat exactly what the teacher has said, some of them fail to produce a phrase or utter somewhat distorted sounds. These instances clearly indicate the 'low level listening' difficulties that literacy learners experience in processing the speech input including identifying sounds of the English language and word segmentation out of 'a piece of connected speech' (Field, 2003: 327).
The problem lies in the fact that being illiterate these students are heavily relying on their listening skills and are not yet able to use writing or reading to support their learning. In his article, Field suggests that once identified the difficulties may be re-mediated or in some cases prevented by a consistent use of short exercises (Field, ibid). He also emphasized the importance of the comprehension of the language rhythm that could be achieved by training learners to recognize lexical stress of the English language and this will eventually empower them to naturally recognize the word boundaries in the sentences (Field, 2003: 329). Inspired by the article, I came up with a list of possible activities that could be appropriate for the ESL Literacy learners:
Bottom-up processing
  • Students are listening to a naturally uttered sentence (must be meaningful for their reality) and fold fingers or draw sticks ( | | | | | ) to indicate the number of words in the sentence. The sentence can be repeated as many times as needed.
  • A more advanced stage of the same activity is to ask students to draw the sticks on the first listening and then circle the sticks that match with the most prominent (stressed) words in the sentence.
  • This exercise can be done as a separate activity for sounds or an integrated activity for vocabulary building. Students are taught explicitly a particular sound or some vocabulary, then they listen to a short text including the target vocabulary or the words that exemplify the target sounds, and they have to shout out 'STOP' every time they hear the target words or sounds.
  • A more advanced version of the same activity is to ask students to raise their hand whenever they hear the target words or sounds.
  • This is the activity that my students particularly enjoy. Listening BINGO: students learn a number of words. Then they were offered to choose X words that they like on flashcards and arrange these words in front of them on the table. When they hear the word, they flip the flashcard upside down. The student with all the cards upside down, wins the competition by shouting “BINGO”. It is a lot of fun if the students are listening to words in a song. For example, an introductory activity can be based on the song “Rock-a-bye Baby” and the possible vocabulary would include words such as baby, tree, crib, chair, mother.
  • Students listen to a word or a sentence and then clap to reproduce the rhythm.
Top-down processing:
An interactive storytelling listening activity that we often use in class involves the following steps:
  • Students are given a picture which depicts a situation or a set of events that are in the story they are going to listen. They look at the picture individually, in pairs, small groups or with the teacher and try to guess or describe what is happening. This is done to set a particular context and activate students' schemata. Context and schemata are powerful tools in enhancing learners' listening comprehension. There is a distinction made today between teaching listening and testing it. Therefore, if the goal is to develop listening skills teachers have to create the conditions for students to succeed and reduce the possibility of failure. One of the possible challenges experienced by the LIFE group is the inability to form mental representations from words heard do to the lack of language knowledge or some learning needs. Therefore, they usually process the information at a very slow pace and need more time to make sense of what they hear. In this regards, the picture in front of them is very helpful for students with language and learning needs.
  • The teacher then starts telling the story while some students are looking at the picture and others possibly looking at the teacher for non linguistic cues. Interactive aspect of this activity is that the teacher stops at certain points to ask a question in order to assess listeners' comprehension. In the introductory stage of the activity, Yes/No questions are asked and later on with some practice factual questions are used to encourage selective listening. Some difficulties such as inability to concentrate, lack of attention, quickly forgetting what is heard are very common among my learners. Therefore, knowing that at any moment the teacher can pause and ask a question the learners are prone to listening more actively. Ideally, the teacher stops after each sentence, as many students (especially LIFE) have difficulties in remembering larger chunks of information, to give them just enough input to answer the question. The second step can be repeated as many times as possible. A more advanced version would be telling the story with the picture upside down.
  • A follow up is the story reconstruction by the students with or without pictures.
While practicing interactive listening in class, I could notice how slowly but surely students started easily following the story and answering the questions. Often, I am able to observe that while concentrating on the question, the more successful listeners are able to grasp one or two words that they know and infer the rest of the question from it. For example: “How old is Grace?” Some students would say “Yes”. But others would repeat “OLD” a couple of times as trying to remember everything they know about this word. And then someone from the class would exclaim “YEARS OLD”. And then many of them would happily say: “65 years old”. Someone might correct by saying “No, she is 56”. And then finally, I hear “She is 56 years old.”
It is important to give students an opportunity to respond to the listening texts. While students are trying to process the listening and negotiate the meaning I am patiently waiting for their responses giving them enough time to express themselves and help each other. The example above shows how efficient students are in helping each other to answer the listening comprehension questions. I wonder if I can use peer collaboration as a means of promoting metacognition in class. More successful listeners may identify difficulties and share their strategies with other learners. At some extent, the example above, shows that it is already happening in the class but it needs further exploration.
Top-down and bottom-up:
Today’s technology allows teacher’s easily record a listening exercise and make it available in a matter of minutes. My students particularly enjoy reading-while-listening. They ask me to record some of the readings that we do in class, it may be a challenging text or a topic that they like or consider useful. They can access the recordings on our blog (I usually post the recording with the text and a picture) during the hours in the computer lab. Learners spend a lot of time reading while listening to the recording, stopping it occasionally, copying the text in their notebooks (working on their own pace and deciding what they want to do with individually). For an example check some of the recorded texts on My Home.

One of the latest exercises posted on Ms. Lana’s ESL Literacy, What’s your name?,  is a recording made by my dearest friend Katie Keith. The idea was to record the most commonly encountered questions by newcomers to Canada. Questions that you will find here are drawn from my own experience and brainstorming with Facebook friends (Iulia, Ellen and Tyson). I think that this recording can be used in a variety of ways (both segmentation and comprehension). I can see addressing one question at a time starting with some of the ideas from the bottom-up processing and then practicing possible responses (integrating all four skills).

One last thought...
Often, the only accessible means of the assessment of the listening comprehension by the students in my class is the direct observation of 'puzzled looks and blank expressions'  and also my personal inference of what is happening. This is caused by the fact that majority of the ESL literacy learners in our classes do not speak or write any English. But this analysis is very limited and tells me  ‘very little about mental processes'.
I wish that the learners could tell me about the difficulties they experience but it is not always possible even if I use the help of an interpreter. The problem is that due to the lack of previous learning experience, many of the students even if asked in their first language to think about their difficulties in perception and comprehension of listening texts are often confused and are not able to formulate their ideas. This is understandable and it clearly shows that building metacognitive skills will benefit both learning and teaching processes. My puzzle is finding a way to develop and then assess the application by the learners of the metacognitive skills and strategies such as the ability to notice how they are listening, what is happening while they are listening, identifying personal difficulties and possible solutions to enhance listening comprehension.
Field, J. 2003. Promoting perception: Lexical segmentation in L2 listening. ELT Journal, 57/4: 325-334

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