Technology has a long history of supporting language learners, starting from the was cylinders produced by Linguaphone in 1901 and the phonograph records of the 1925. The revolutionary magnetic tape of the 1950s led to the establishment of language laboratories, with sound booths and the recording and playback of learners’ voices. Later came digital audio on CDs in the 1980s, but it could be said that things started to get interesting only with the rising influence of the Internet, through podcasting and other online audio. The aim of this chapter is to show you that technology, when used well and applied to listening, can help teachers help learners with the challenge of understanding spoken language in the real world.
The listening process is an active process in which listeners select and interpret information that comes from auditory and visual clues, in order to define what is going on and what the speakers are trying to express (Thompson & Rubin, 1996:331). Comprehension, which can be defined as ‘the process of relating language to concepts in one’s memory and to the references in the real ‘world’ (Rost,2002:59), is key to forming an accurate understanding of a situation. Given communicative language learning and teaching’s emphasis on speaking, it follows then that listening is an equally important skill.
However, listening is a skill which is difficult to teach successfully, and results are not easily demonstrable. Its intangible, transient nature, and a general belief that listening can be ‘picked up’ by passive exposure to language, means teachers often adopt a ‘practice makes perfect’ comprehension approach. Listening is usually neglected or undervalued in the classroom (Field, 2008:3), and it is often the skill which teachers cut when there is pressure on contact hours, because it is viewed as the least manageable of the four skills. This can lead to listening being tested rather than taught in the classroom.
How can using technology help? There is an argument that a focus on sustaining motivation, promoting practice and listening outside the classroom should be the goals. Teachers can use technology, especially the Internet, to prepare learners to take advantage of the sources of information in the real world, by getting them to engage with language and tasks which have personal relevance to them.
This chapter contains activities that help learners with listening for gist, listening for inference, listening for detail, and listening for information or understanding a range of different people speaking about different things. Some activities make use of the wealth of authentic listening material on YouTube; are aimed at improving listening skills; include listening to rhymes and listening for just fun.
Apart from the Internet, many of the activities in this chapter make use of voice recorders (mobile phones or mp3 players can also be used) for recording people known to the teacher and learners, or use the IWB, telephony tools (such as Zoom) or audio-editing software.
Technology can also provide variety outside of the usual ‘listening and comprehension-question’ approach. Using YouTube and other video-sharing websites, as well as Web 2.0 tools, such as the voice forums; or audio-guide websites, increases the opportunity for learners to get input, interaction and feedback, and are powerful in that they can connect people from different parts of the world instantly, without the restrictions of time and place.
Encouraging learners to listen to podcasts outside the classroom can also give learners exposure to comprehensible input while they are engaged in authentic listening. Podcasts are audio and video files made available on the Internet, designed to be downloaded and listened to on a portable mp3 player of any type, or on a personal computer. Podcasts can be used to increase the time a learner allocates to language learners and ‘provide a meaningful experience that is motivating, stimulating and useful for a language learners’ (McMinn, 2008).
Listening to podcasts can help learners to become more effective autonomous learners in the future. Most podcasts have not been produced primarily with language learners in mind, so learners have easy access to a repository of authentic oral texts and can choose subjects they are interested in. Listening can be repeated at will, and the audio on podcasts can also be slowed down, using tools such as Audacity.
Although not covered by the activities in this chapter, teachers should certainly encourage learners to listen to podcasts and can introduce them to ones that are relevant to the leaners’ level and interests.
I hope that the activities presented here can be fitted into whatever you are doing in the classroom. If these tools are used judiciously by the teacher, and integrated into the syllabus, it’s possible to move beyond the idea of technology as a novelty.