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TEFL Masterclass – How to Improve Learners’ Listening Abilities through Bottom-up Listening Exercises

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Cristina Nicolaou – Experienced CELTA Trainer, University Lecturer & Examiner.

Cristina Nicolaou, with 15 years in ELT, is a CELTA trainer, Cambridge examiner (IELTS, BEC, FCE), and a TESOL Master’s holder from the University of Manchester. She’s pursuing a Ph.D., focused on student-centered, enjoyable classrooms that enhance communication between learners and the world.

What you will learn

Listening is one of the four main skills taught in the classroom as often as reading, speaking and writing and yet, it is the one students like the least, and the one they are weaker at.

This workshop will show why and how the traditional way of teaching listening is not addressing all the problems students encounter when listening.

By analysing the nature of the English language and some of the features of connected speech, this workshop will identify practical ways to help learners become better listeners.

Workshop Summary

Enhancing Listening Skills Through Bottom-Up Exercises

Cristina, during a masterclass at Gallery Teachers, discussed the importance of bottom-up listening exercises to help learners enhance their listening skills. Traditional teaching methodologies often present broader context first (top-down approach). However, these methods sometimes test listening skills rather than teach them, and may not assist learners in decoding the intricacies of speech.

Challenges Posed by Connected Speech

English is a stress-timed language, where the duration between stressed syllables remains relatively consistent, causing unstressed syllables to shorten. This rhythm often makes learners feel that native English speakers speak too quickly or merge words due to the assimilation and/or elision of sounds, leading to confusion among learners.

Strategies to Address Connected Speech Issues

Traditional course materials seldom offer exercises that target connected speech nuances. An effective way to teach students is to have them listen to sentences at their natural pace and then compare them to their written form. This method enables them to identify weak forms or assimilations and aids in real-time comprehension of English.

Practical Teaching Techniques

Introducing fun activities can make the learning of connected speech memorable. By hearing words spoken naturally and then slowly by the teacher, students can discern the blending of sounds, a phenomenon often missed in standard teaching methods. Using genuine spoken content and replaying particular sections can also help students recognise how certain sounds are stressed or unstressed. Dictation exercises are invaluable, allowing learners to spot differences between what they hear and the actual content.

Integrating Teaching Approaches

Students, when introduced to these methods, often express surprise and wonder about their previous learning experiences. The goal is not to eliminate traditional methods but to combine both bottom-up and top-down approaches. This integrated approach caters more comprehensively to learners, recognising the simultaneous application of both strategies during the listening process.

Empowering Teachers with Resources

While the masterclass primarily centred on bottom-up exercises, it also emphasised continuous professional development for educators. Notably, teachers needn’t be experts in connected speech to conduct effective listening exercises. There’s a plethora of resources available, from books to digital content. Teachers can start by focusing on one aspect of connected speech, gradually expanding their expertise. Utilising existing course materials can often suffice in creating potent listening exercises, with the primary objective being to accentuate connected speech features for students.

Reflective Questions

Have a quick think about the reflective questions below in order to get the most out of the workshop:

  1. Should we replace top-down listening exercises with bottom-up exercises?
  2. What features of connected speech can bottom-up activities target?
  3. Doesn’t the threshold theory invalidate the need for bottom-up listening activities?
  4. Does small-scale practice in listening sub-skills transfer into learners’ performance in larger contexts, or when listening to larger comprehension stages?
  • Field, J. (2008). Listening in the language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

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