Tips for improving listening
Like many students, you may be initially very worried about your listening skills. Academic listening usually involves trying to follow a lecture or discussion in English and writing adequate notes on it. If you have difficulties in doing this, you may not be sure whether the problems are listening problems or language problems. In any case, much listening to lectures or similar texts is essential. There is also a need for you to be aware of the way lectures are organized, the particular kind of language that is used in lectures and making sure you know the language, particularly the pronunciation of familiar words, of your own subject. I think the most important skill is for you to learn to recognize the structure of lectures – the main points and subsidiary points.
You need to practice:
- How to take notes.
- Recognizing lecture structure: understanding relationships in the lecture – reference; understanding relations within the sentence/complex sentences; importance markers, signposts.
- Deducing the meaning of unfamiliar words and word groups – guessing.
- Recognizing implications: information is not explicitly stated; recognizing the speaker’s attitude. Evaluating the importance of information – selecting information.
- Understanding intonation, voice emphasis etc.
- Listening skills: skimming – listening to obtain gist; scanning – listening to obtain specific information; selective extraction of relevant points to summarize spoken text; learning various ways of making sense of the words you hear.
Your listening will improve quickly if you hear English often – so make sure you do – films, television, anything. Any kind of comprehension is also part of a circle:
- understand learn have knowledge understand more learn more have more knowledge understand more etc.
For academic listening, particularly listening to lectures, it will also be useful to learn about how the language works in lectures in your subject. You can learn the language you need, learn about how lectures are structured, and the various processes you go through to make sense of the words and phrases you hear.
The process of listening
You listen with your brain and your ears. Your brain makes meaning out of all the clues available. When you are listening sounds are an important clue. But you also need to make use of your knowledge.Your ears pick up sounds; your brain makes the meanings.
The two main parts of the listening process are:
bottom-up listening and top-down listening
This means making as much use as you can of the low level clues. You start by listening for the individual sounds and then join these sounds together to make syllables and words. These words are then combined together to form phrases, clauses and sentences. Finally, the sentences combine together to form texts or conversations.
Top-down listening means making as much use as you can of your knowledge and the situation. From your knowledge of situations, contexts, texts, conversations, phrases and sentences, you can understand what you hear.
Of course, good listeners need to make use of the interaction between both types of listening. For example, if you hear the sound /ðɛə/, it is only the context that will tell you if the word is “there”, “their” or perhaps “they’re”. Your knowledge of grammar will tell you if /kæts/ is “cats” or “cat’s”, which may be “cat is” or “cat has”.
Summarising and note-taking
Listening is purposeful. The way you listen to something will depend on your purpose. You listen to different texts in different ways. In everyday life, you usually know why you are listening. You have a question and you read to find the answer. You usually know how the news programs on the radio or organised – usually a quick headline followed by details. You know the sports results follow the main news items, so if you want to know the sports results, you wait until it is time. You do not listen to every word of the news items. When you read a story or a play, it is different. You start at the beginning and listen to the end. In academic listening, you need to be flexible when you listen – you may need to listen carefully at the beginning to find out what is going to come, then listen less carefully until you hear what you want to know. General efficient listening strategies such as scanning to find the correct part of the lecture, skimming to get the gist and careful listening of important passages are necessary as well as learning about how texts are structured in your subject.
Listening is an interactive process – it is a two-way process. As a listener, you are not passive but active. This means you have to work at constructing the meaning from the sounds heard by your ears, which you use as necessary. You construct the meaning using your knowledge of the language, your subject, and the world, continually predicting and assessing. You need to be active all the time when you are listening. It is useful, therefore, before you start listening to try to actively remember what you know, and do not know, about the subject and as you are listening to, to formulate questions based on the information you have. Title, subtitles and section heading can help you formulate the question to keep you interacting.
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