Harmer (2001) describes receptive skills as “the ways in which people extract meanings from the discourse they see or hear”. Recent approaches to FL teaching recognize comprehension as a fundamental skill. Thus, the current instructional frameworks, including the Spanish official curriculum, pay special attention to listening and reading.
According to Michael Rost (2005), listening refers to a complex cognitive process that allows a person to understand spoken language and encompasses receptive, constructive and interpretative aspects of cognition. In the development of a second language, listening represents the channel through which language is processed in real time.
Listening can be considered as a complex and active process which involves a combination of sub-processes.
- Hearing: the auditory perception of acoustic signals, in which the learner hears noises and silences.
- Categorisation of sounds: categorising incoming sounds according to sound categories of the language.
- Word recognition: isolating sounds into linguistic units and extracting their meaning from memory.
- Comprehension: integrating the meaning of words in a longer sequence (phrase and sentence).
As opposed to traditional views of FL teaching that tended to identify receptive skills as “passive” stages of learning, communicative approaches to FLT consider listening and reading as active and complex processes involving perception, linguistic knowledge and semantic intuition. In this same light, Anderson and Lynch (1988) noted that “understanding is not something that happens because of what a speaker says: the listener has a crucial part to play in the process, by activating various types of knowledge, and by applying what he knows to what he hears and trying to understand what the speaker means”.
According to Lynne Cameron (2001), speaking and listening are both active uses of language, but differ in the mental activity involved and demands that they make on learners of language in terms of finding and sharing meaning. Listening can be seen as the active use of the language to access to other people´s meanings, whereas speaking is the active use of language to express meanings so that other people can make sense of them. Nevertheless, in children´s language, there is evidence pointing to general superiority of comprehension over production; children seem to understand much more than what they are able to produce.
As it happens with comprehension in the L1, the starting point giving sense to linguistic reception in a FL (reading or listening) is the initial purpose to obtain certain information. This means that we must provide our students with reasons to listen or read, especially because receptive skills, as we have already pointed out, have an active nature. Therefore, the learner must be motivated by a communicative purpose. In particular, young learners need plenty of opportunities to practise receptive skills in engaging and meaningful contexts. In this process of construction of meaning, children have to make sense of what they listen or read using not only their linguistic knowledge, but also their knowledge of the world and the clues provided by the context or teacher´s support.
As an example, when students are engaged in understanding an oral or written text, subconsciously they receive information from different sources:
- Their own expectations about the oral or written text.
- Their predictions about what they will be listening to or reading.
- Nonverbal information or paralinguistic written clues which facilitate understanding.
- Other information stemming from visual or aural support.
- construction of meaning does not only concern the oral or written text; rather, meanings are derived from the active interaction amongst reader or listener and the text. Through this interaction, learners obtain the information they need or the one they are able to interpret according to their knowledge. In other words, any text is interpreted in a context due to the previous mental schema of the students. Depending on their ability and degree of previous schemata, this interpretation can be literal or according to the real intention of the text.
This idea of interaction and value of the learner´s previous knowledge to interpret a text leads to an important concept: schema (plural schemata). The schema theory describes the process by which learners combine their own background knowledge with the information they receive from a text to understand that text. This means that the schema theory is based on the idea that in every act of comprehension, our own knowledge of the world is involved; thus, the extent to which we interpret a text correctly may depend on our previous knowledge about the reality the text refers to.
Harmer (2000) provides a practical example to explain that understanding a piece of text involves much more than knowing the language. If a British reads in a newspaper: “England in six-wicket collapse”, he will probably guess that England has been beaten in an international cricket match; since his pre-existing knowledge of newspapers and how headlines are constructed, his understanding of “wicket” as a cricketing term and probably his knowledge that England has not been doing too well lately, will lead him to that conclusion. When that person reads the article, he will be applying all this pre-existing knowledge to predict content before and after reading it. On the other hand, it is very likely that a reader who did not have that previous knowledge about cricket would not have reached such conclusions. And certainly, if the reader was a Spanish student of English, he would probably have to read the whole article before understanding the headline.
From the previous example, we can draw to some conclusions: activating the students´ schematic knowledge is essential to ensure correct understanding; to do so; FL teachers must provide the opportunity to enlarge the students´ schemata through some activities before facing the text itself; that is, pre-reading or pre-listening. Therefore, in order to enhance the learners´ comprehension competences, we should start by ensuring that our learners´ schemata will help them understand the text adequately.
Listening is vital for FL learning because it provides input for the learners. However, teachers should bear in mind that children concentrate and listen with understanding more effectively if they are motivated and engaged in meaningful and enjoyable activities while listening. An interesting strategy from a methodological point of view is to involve children in the active process of listening through purposeful tasks, so that they can see the usefulness of the FL. We can do this by using activities which actively support learners’ understanding and guide their attention to specific parts of the spoken text.
Sabrina Peck (2001) highlights that children need to listen and speak about something that interests them (children-centred). Many authors advise the holistic perspective focusing on the child and point out some hints about the matter:
- Focus on meaning, not correctness.
- Focus on the value of the activity, not the value of the language.
- Focus on collaboration and social development.
- Provide a rich context, including movement, the senses, objects and pictures, and a variety of activities.
- Treat the learners appropriately in light of their age and interests.
- Use language for authentic communication, not as an object of analysis.
Video by ESL Resource Bank
- Anderson, A. and Lynch, T. “Listening”. Oxford University Press. 1988.
- Cameron L. “Teaching Languages to Young Learners” Cambridge University Press. 2001.
- Harmer, J. “The Practice of English Language Teaching”. Longman. 2001.
- Rost, M. “Handbook of Research in Second and Language Teaching and Learning” LEA PUBLISHERS. 2005.