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Review ~ English for Academic Study: Listening

Authentic lecture recordings form basis of highly-usable course book with intensive focus on second-language listening skills.
Reviewed for TEFL.net by Tom Alder

English for Academic Study: Listening

English for Academic Study: Listening

Listening in the English For Academic Study series published by Garnet Publishing is aimed in the general area of EAP (English for Academic Purposes) although, as explained below, its scope is probably much wider. It is designed to form a 5 to16 week course- the accompanying teacher’s book gives a few suggestions for how this can run. It could also be used as a supplement in other classes, especially IELTS or CAE preparation classes. Transcriptions of all recordings appear in both student’s book and teacher’s book, and the latter also includes photocopiable exercise and resources.

The outstanding feature of this book is the authentic listening materials on the accompanying CD, around which the text is based. These have been taken from various lectures at the University of Reading. While these have been re-recorded for clarity, the original wording has been retained and the speakers are real academics, not actors. Believe me, this makes a difference!

The ‘book map’ at the beginning arranges the eight chapters into three sections; topic, skills focus and micro skills. Among the topics are linguistics, business, education and politics, with various sub topics such as the UK judicial system, franchising and health care. The great thing is that the material is actually interesting. Teachers can actually engage with the material themselves, and their conviction may well encourage the conviction of their students. I personally would liked to have seen a greater variety of topics covered, although there is a website where free additional lecture podcasts can be downloaded, some with accompanying exercises.

The ‘skills focus’ aspect of the book concentrates on such things as the function of introductions, identifying focus, cohesion/signpost words, note-taking, seeing structure and dealing with unknown vocabulary. These are the broad ‘macro skills’ that are said to involve the listeners’ overall understanding of the unfolding discourse. Most of the related exercises are clearly aimed at academic students, but many would also have value for the general listener, perhaps with some adaptation. The third category, ‘micro skills,’ covers recognition of weak forms and stress, identifying word boundaries and other issues at the ‘processing’ or phonetic level.

The balance between ‘macro skills’ and ‘micro skills’ is maintained throughout, with work on, say, stress patterns interspersed with skills such as identifying counter-arguments. This is based on the theory that second language listening involves a balance between the two types of skill, with comprehension problems arising from attention being focussed on one at the expense of the other. For example, a listener might not be able to identify some feature of connected speech such as elision. Struggling with this, it is very easy for them to lose sight of the unfolding meaning, the auditory equivalent of staring at the words on the page hoping that they will make sense. On the other hand, focussing on the bigger picture may mean loss of detail. Some function words can strongly affect the meaning of a sentence yet be scarcely noticeable, and ‘can’ can seem very much like ‘can’t’ in some accents. This two-pronged-approach gives teachers some solid work to do here in maintaining a balance.

One of the main things that came across from trying out this book in the classroom is its usability. From the very beginning, it presents activities that are very approachable and accessible, and could easily be adapted to other recordings or broadcasts. One of the first lectures concerns the difference between the lecturing style in China compared to that in the UK. As well as being used to focus on certain skills, this got the students’ attention and became a talking point. The value of having authentic materials cannot be overstated- it was a genuine relief to realise that there was no patronising ‘graded’ language, or any of the other ‘EFL-friendly’ horror that permeates listening resources.

That the recordings and exercises utilise specific procedures to teach listening is itself significant. There are few course books that are comparable in this respect. Obviously, some of the skills are specific to university (like taking notes in lectures), but others have more general application, and the content itself would recommend it to many teaching situations, so long as the students were upper intermediate or above and pretty focussed. It would of course depend on the nature of the class. An obvious application is IELTS preparation, where they could be used to break up the repetition of ‘exam practice’, and provide a good alternative to section four of the listening test (a kind of artificial ‘micro lecture’.) This could also emphasise the ‘university preparation’ aspect of IELTS.

Listening materials are often the bane of the life of EFL teachers. The scripts are inane, the acting abysmal and artificiality is their most obvious feature. All this in an era that supposedly extols natural communication and authentic practice! A listening class often amounts to little more than students ‘eavesdropping’ on preposterous conversations while filling in questions that test their comprehension. The assumption is that this will somehow develop their listening abilities outside the classroom, but is there any evidence for this? It is quite obvious that nobody in their right mind would play an EFL ‘listening’ recording for any other purpose than to teach (or, at least, to get through a class). The idea that these materials have any intrinsic value (aside from their educational purpose) would hardly be considered at all, unless one were exceedingly depressed.

This is where this book stands out. It is not the only EFL course book to use authentic material, but the satisfying nature of the content and the relevance of the work give it a real value, which I suggest is beyond simply being an aspect of academic study. It would be nice to see this idea developed further and brought more into the ‘mainstream’ since, as it stands (as ‘EAP’ material), this book is unlikely to get the attention it deserves.

I’d definitely recommend this book if you want to actually do something with listening and introduce some genuinely interesting content into your classes.

Reviewed for TEFL.net by Tom Alder
June 2010 | Filed under Skills: Listening

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