Using Authentic Listening Material

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A report published in the Daily Mail a couple of decades ago gave reason for a light-hearted investigation. According to the report most foreign students who visited Britain or went there to study failed to understand English in conversations with English people! It was an outrageous claim and I was curious to see whether there was any truth in it. The investigation involved a sample of 100 students studying in two different language schools in Lamia at Elementary and Pre-Intermediate levels.

They were asked to listen to two conversations identical in context. The first conversation came from the cassette accompanying a coursebook, popular at the time, while the second one was read by an American and an English teacher and was recorded in a radio station. The subjects were asked to answer 5 m/c questions the first two of which concerned the content of the two conversations as well as the origin of the speakers. The remaining three questions examined the comprehension of the passage.

Their answers showed that they easily understood the EFL material. However, the majority of the learners failed to understand the “authentic” conversation with 90 of them stating that it was totally different from the EFL one! Surprisingly enough, unlike the EFL conversation, no one had managed to answer all questions correctly.   


By Aris D Mazarakis, M.A. in Applied Linguistics


There is then an obvious need to introduce in the syllabus, alongside with the EFL listening material, authentic discourse. This, however, is by no means an easy task and there are a number of issues teachers and course planners should consider.


It then became apparent that the learners’ failure to understand authentic discourse can be safely blamed on the listening material of the coursebooks. The language used, but also the RP pronunciation of most speakers, the speed and the clarity the passages and conversations are delivered in EFL material train learners to rely on a sort of acoustic signals which they will be denied when they are engaged in conversations with  native speakers, especially of non academic background. This is only natural, since real life discourse, apart from the different accents and natural speed, it is full of colloquialisms, false starts, self-corrections as well as paralinguistic features, pauses, regressions, hesitations, slips of tongue, etc. However, the idea that they are learning “real language” and not just an overly simplified ‘learner variety, seems appropriate to real communication. Actually, when it comes to listening comprehension, helping learners to understand authentic language should be the target of virtually all language teachers.

There is then an obvious need to introduce in the syllabus, alongside with the EFL listening material, authentic discourse. This, however, is by no means an easy task and there are a number of issues teachers and course planners should consider.


 What kind of authentic discourse?


The exposure of young learners to authentic listening should start gradually when they have acquired and mastered an adequate structural and lexical background. Otherwise they will not be able to cope with the difficulty of such discourse. The second issue concerns the kind of discourse. The radio and the internet offer an abundance of material which can be downloaded, evaluated, edited and finally stored in a material bank. News reports, broadcasts, debates, interviews with famous people, even commercials cover a wide range of interesting topics and offer the potential of extensive practice of the listening skill, both at intermediate and advanced levels. 


Organising authentic listening material


Finding the material is extremely easy nowadays but organizing it can prove a real challenge for the busy language teacher. Actually, many of the texts produced specifically for use in the EFL classroom are made in order to minimize these difficulties. Unfortunately, these ‘learner texts,’ which accompany many published course materials, often seem strikingly unnatural and overly-graded. In any case, it is important that teachers should have a clear mind about their aims and remember that such material cannot be used as a springboard for the introduction or practice of grammatical structures.


The first step then is to consider the usefulness and suitability of each ungraded passage. Once you have determined its use and exploitability, you can think of ways to cope with cultural and conceptual constraints some of the passages may contain. For instance, passages concerning current affairs will definitely need lead-in activities in order to introduce the topic in question. A five-stage planning procedure might prove useful: 


  1. The kind of discourse is determined.
  2.  Lead-in activities familiarize the learners with the topic and pre-teach crucial vocabulary.
  3.  Learners are exposed to short utterances from the passage in order to infer the speaker(s) goals or the content.
  4.  We plan suitable activities to check the gist and/or the understanding of Specific information.
  5.  We plan a number of post-listening speaking and/or writing activities to help students retain the most important information.


 Richards (1983) suggests another option for working with authentic listening texts: we can adjust the difficulty of the task itself to focus on the specific listening skill area that learners need to work on. Although many other features of the text itself may go unaddressed, the usefulness of the passage in improving the listening skill is undisputed.


Basically then, the teacher has two ‘levers’ in listening lesson design: manipulate the input or manipulate the task. Varying our aims and consequently the tasks is actually the way we can use a particular authentic listening passage with learners of more than one level. 


 Putting together a listening syllabus based on authentic discourse is definitely a time consuming and a difficult project but you can use it for years and certainly the merits outweigh the problems since the use of authentic texts in listening and reading skills instruction may have the added benefit of increasing motivation if students see “the relevance of classroom activity to their long-term communicative goals” (Brown, 2007).  





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