A few weeks ago, I presented at the CLESOL conference in New Zealand. My talk was on a series of micro-skills building activities to help students adjust to structural differences in English aural decoding. Which is all just a fancy way of saying that I put together a set of four very short activities, run which help students listen to English a little more accurately.
When it comes to listening activities, a lot of classroom time is spent focused on what are usually called ‘top-down’ activities, or exercises that help students activate the knowledge they already have to better understand what they are listening to (Vandergrift, 2004; p.4). This usually means helping students recognize just what kind of text they are listening to (is it a speech, a casual conversation, etc.), predicting what they might hear before they start listening (will the speaker describe a process, will the description include a list of materials used in the process, etc), or teaching students to listen for specific pieces of information (on what day is the concert going to take place, what kind of presents would Jim like for his birthday, etc). However, these types of ‘top-down’ activities require that a student be able to decode the language they are listening to at a relatively high level. Unfortunately, my first year high school students do not necessarily have the basic skills they need to even to hear discreet words. Their listening skills are not quite good enough to work on these higher-level ‘top-down’ skills. In fact, focusing on predicting, listening for the gist and schema activation exercises might end up distracting lower level students from listening to sounds and building up meaning based on what they are hearing at a more basic level. Which is especially problematic when considering that high-level errors in comprehension are often the result of lower level listening errors (Fields, 2003; p. 325) such as segmenting words in the wrong place.
The four micro-skills building activities outlined in this post work together to help students develop segmenting skills, or the ability to hear when words start in spoken conversation. The activities take a total of about 10 minutes of class time during each lesson. In my school, I ran the activities during a five-week period, twelve classes in all, for a total of just under three hours of class time.
In the video, you can see that the student is drawing very neat and even loops. It is pretty hard to convince learners to draw loops in a particular way, but I would suggest to students that they try to be as free as possible when drawing their loops. It is really not worth students using up their working memory to think about the size and shape of their loops. In fact, that is one of the underlying ideas of loop writing. It is a low stress, low cognitive load activity. Students don’t have to worry about the size and shape of letters, spacing between letters, or spacing between words、all of which take quite a bit of energy for beginning learners and make traditional dictation activities overly-stressful. And there is a certain sense of fun that goes along with drawing big loopy-loops on a piece of paper. Here is an image which is a little more in keeping with the loose feeling I was hoping the students would eventually bring to loop writing:
If your experience was anything like that of my students, it was probably pretty difficult. But just what makes it so difficult? Part of the problem is that Japanese sentences are not usually broken down into words, but into sentence segments. A Japanese sentence segment is a word which can stand on its own or, more typically, is a word in combination with a piece of grammar such as ‘の‘ (pronounced ‘no’) which identifies possession. In the sentence you just heard, there were nine sentence segments. So if you managed to hear nine distinct components of the sentence, then you nailed it. In case you are wondering just what you were listening to, the sentence, translated into English is, “Ishikawa Ryo donated all of his winnings from the 2011 golf tour to the victims of the Great Tohoku Earthquake.”
In fact, the mean accuracy for the first set of loop writing sentences my students did in class was 4.8 out of 11 or 43.6%. The loop writing activity serves as a pretty good, if somewhat rough, indicator of how well your learners can segment out words while listening to spoken English. During your students’ first encounter with loop writing, I think it is important to explain just what makes it so difficult to hear the words that are being said. As a general rule, people listen using the skills they are trained to use when listening in their first language and make it difficult to accurately hear what is being said in a different language (Rost, p.8). The idea of sentence segments is one concrete example of structural differences in the spoken language that, when pointed out, can help students understand why they have difficulty hearing English. But any difference in structure between the L1 and English, such as stress regularly falling on a middle or last syllable, or pitch playing a prominent role in word recognition, is going to make listening to English difficult (Cutler, 1997, p.6).
In the sense group identification micro-activity, I write up the number of words in a sentence as a series of numbers on the white board, one number for each word. Then I say the sentence aloud. While listening, students simply put a slash between the appropriate numbers when they hear a pause in my speech. In English, natural pauses occur once about every 12 syllables (Field, 2003, p. 327) and fall almost exclusively between sense groups. If students are actively listening for these pauses between sense groups, they are usually good at hearing them. Even during their first attempt, students in my class had a mean accuracy rate of about 75%. As opposed to developing a new skill or focusing on a new way to listen to English, this activity serves as a confidence booster by helping students to recognize that they already have an important skill they can apply when listening to English. If you look at the above image, it becomes clear that sense group recognition practice also helps students to not only hear, but to see that what sounded like a continuous line of speech, is in fact broken up into smaller chunks. By comparing the number of loops they drew with the numbers and slashes between numbers below them, students can see that they are indeed able to segment out these chunks of language without too much difficulty.
You can see that the student has a lot of confidence when it comes to identifying sense groups. I especially love that little pencil flick at the end. As a side note, I would not hesitate to slightly extend the amount of time you give to your pauses. While it might seem unnatural, in actuality extended pauses, as well as including a few more pauses than usual between sense groups, is an extremely useful aid in comprehension (Rost, p. 10) and a form of foreigner speech that our students will most likely encounter often during English interactions with native speakers. Still, as learners adjust to the aural structure of English, both the number and length of pauses between sense groups can be diminished until they approach the short pauses found between every twelve or so syllables.
While structural differences between the L1 and L2 make lexical segmentation, or recognizing words as words, difficult in English, there is some good news. In spoken English, 90% of words are likely to start with a stressed syllable. Put a different way, “We hear six times as many lexical items beginning with strong syllables as with weak syllables. (Cutler, 1987, 1988. P. 114)” And experimental evidence shows strong support that native English speakers do in fact segment spoken English based almost entirely on recognition of stress (Cutler, 1988, 1997). John Fields has even gone so far as to state that through training students can become sensitive to, “the value of inserting word boundaries before stressed syllables. (2003, p. 329)”
Here is a video of a student during a second read of a sentence:
The student was only able to identify a few stressed syllables during the first listening and a second listening did not significantly alter her ability to identify stressed words or syllables. But while the level of accuracy at the beginning was quite low, over the course of the five weeks students were engaged in this listening practice, they did show significant improvement and there attention levels remained high. In fact, the number of non-participating students in this part of the activity was only one out of twenty-two, which is an excellent participation rate for any activity at my school, let alone an activity which is extremely challenging. In addition, even small improvements in stress recognition will potentially lead to big gains in understanding.
As you might have noticed in the video, I do overly exaggerate stress during the first few times I run this activity. While slightly unnatural, this over-stressing is in keeping with many of exercises found in Adrian Underhill’s Sound Foundations around prosody (2005). The point of the listening for stress activity, at least in the beginning, is not to train students to hear subtle levels of stress within a sentence, but simply to get them to recognize stress at all. As students become familiar with the rhythm and stress timed nature of English, you can tone down the over-stressing and speak in a more natural manner.
When I started running these micro-activities, I simply wrote the sentence on the board underneath the word/syllable dots and had students copy the words from the board. As students become more comfortable writing in English and their skills developed, I decided to include a partial dictation component as a final step in the process. On the whiteboard, I wrote the unstressed syllables beneath the corresponding numbers in black and directed the students to write the missing stressed syllables or words in red.
After the exercise is complete, the black and red writing is like a stress map and a good visual aid if you want to work with your students on suprasegmentals. That is usually how I would wrap up this series of micro-activities during class. Students would say the sentences to each other while focusing on stressing the appropriate words or syllables. Sometimes, to make it a little more interesting, I would ask the students to try and stress only the words or syllables written in black. This proved to be nearly impossible and lead to a whole lot of laughter. While this post is focused on listening skills building, I think it is pretty hard to completely separate out listening from pronunciation work. One naturally leads to the next. In this case, a silly activity which gives students just a little bit of time to practice speaking with the right stress patterns can be highly beneficial. Appropriate use of stress has a major impact on word recognition ((Field, 2005) and training in prosodic features (Derwing and Rossiter, 2003) has a major impact on students English comprehensibility.