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Review ~ Listening in the Language Classroom

An impressive and thorough account of listening in a foreign language, with compelling arguments as to its importance, detailed analysis of theoretical issues, and accessible practical activities to be used or adapted. It is, however, not for the causal reader.
Reviewed for TEFL.net by Tom Alder

Listening in the Language Classroom

Listening in the Language Classroom

Listening in the Language Classroom is, as the title suggests, a book with a very specific focus. The author considers ‘listening’ as a neglected area in language teaching, and a skill sufficiently independent of others to warrant special consideration. He also rejects the idea that listening abilities develop naturally through repeated exposure to language and believes that listening classes involving CDs and accompanying comprehension questions do little more than test listening, rather than teach listening. Listening is seen, first and foremost, as a process- and a complex one at that, involving factors that native speakers take for granted and therefore neglect when trying to teach it.

The back cover tells us that ‘the book proposes a radical alternative to the comprehension approach’. This might suggest that Field recommends burning books and melting down the CD player. But Listening in the Language Classroom takes a more measured approach. Certainly, Field is sceptical of current practices, but a fair amount of what he recommends is compatible with existing listening materials, although from a different perspective, and adapted by the teacher. There is also recognition of the rationale behind traditional practices, and this is given balanced consideration.

The book is well laid out and structured. Field has a readable, easy-going style, and methodological gobbledegook is kept to a minimum. The text is accompanied by numerous tables and classroom exercises. The latter are intended to show the kind of activities that could be designed to target the skills under discussion, rather than form a comprehensive ready-made collection of listening tasks. Nevertheless, they are very usable even in their raw form, and I have had positive results from trying some of them in class; students found them enjoyable and they seemed to welcome such a specific focus on listening. The exercises serve another purpose; whenever the text veers off into theory, they come to the rescue of the feeble-minded reader, clearly showing the point through concrete application and example.

The book is divided into specific sections, moving through a brief history of listening practices; a critique of the comprehension approach; diagnosis of listening problems; the view of listening as a process; authentic speech; problems of the ‘real world’; and listening strategies. Field contends that listening is the language skill that is most useful outside the classroom, and highlights the often-overlooked role it plays in conversation. He compares L1 and L2 listening, and examines the skills that are transferable from L1 to L2- and those that are not. When he looks at listening strategies, he compares skills that are natural to use in L1 with ones that foreign listeners do or could employ. There is also some thoughtful discussion on how- or whether- listening strategies should be taught directly.

A recurrent theme is the two-sided nature of listening problems. Incomprehension could be a matter of decoding -the word or idea is simply not interpreted correctly or recognised. But it could also mean problems with meaning building – the word is recognised, but it is not made sense of in terms of its relationship with the unfolding discourse or ‘co-text’. There is also deep processing, when listeners not only comprehend facts and information, but also infer meaning or take angles. But crucially, the struggling listener is not able to distribute attention equally between these different aspects, much like a learner driver being too busy dealing with the clutch and gear-stick to pay attention to road signs or instructions, resulting in the irritation or fury of an impatient teacher-passenger.

There is an excellent example of ‘deep processing’ later on in the book, based on an authentic transcript of a radio interview concerning the then proposed smoking ban. The main speaker is identified as a doctor. But Field draws our attention to the fact that the only evidence we have for this is the line ‘…we in medicine believe…’ This would not such an obvious clue for a foreign learner whose attention is focused on decoding the words and phonemes themselves.

For this reason, Field gives considerable focus to the need to target decoding skills- such as identifying phonemes in their various realisations and distinguishing between minimal pairs. Some of the accompanying exercises in this area are rather like inverted pronunciation activities, and would be an excellent counterpart for these.

Learner levels are only sometimes referred to, and it is generally up to the reader to see which groups of students a certain skill would be relevant to. This is a book that keeps one foot firmly in the methodological camp, and readers are not spoon-fed. Rather, they are expected to follow the arguments and adapt any practical exercises as they see fit, based on an understanding of the underlying rationale. In fact, this is perhaps a key idea in the book: we should be teaching listening with awareness and proper consideration, rather than just ploughing on regardless with what we carelessly assume are tried and tested methods.

John Field has certainly researched this area; there are many references to studies and methodologies that support the theories he expounds. Nevertheless, the book remains pragmatic throughout. It is also comprehensive, covering almost every conceivable angle.

But Listening in the Language Classroom is not for the casual reader or teacher. It is pretty long (over 350 pages) and it requires diligent study. Yet, once read -preferably cover to cover- it is the kind of book that you can dip into again and again to focus on particular points, or use one of the exercises.

Listening in the Language Classroom is valuable both as a summary of existing knowledge and research, and as a contributor of important original ideas. For TESOL diploma students, DOSs, methodologists, or just pretty dedicated teachers, it will shine a light on the area of listening- or at the very least make the reader more aware of its importance in language learning. It might also have a place for those wanting to learn a foreign language but daunted by the difficulties of understanding its native speakers. On the other hand, it is unlikely that your more casual teacher would be prepared to wade through it all- it is not the sort of the book you can cherry-pick, at least not without first absorbing a good deal of its central arguments. But, for the right reader, I would definitely recommend this book as a useful and illuminating study of TEFL’s poor nephew.

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

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