Picture this: you’re in your classroom, you play a video, your students watch it and then you see a group of blank faces, looking at you in disbelief: they didn’t understand much. Sounds familiar?
Teaching our learners how to listen and understand is one of the hardest parts of a language teacher’s job. We can’t see what’s happening in the student’s head, we can’t correct them like we would with speaking or writing: all we have is their blank faces looking at us and a feeling of frustration.
So what can we do?
As we explain in our article on listening as the “Cinderella skill”, listening researcher John Field and many others have been saying something for a while: there’s a tendency to “do” listening in the foreign language classroom and continuously “test” comprehension through the use of comprehension questions, rather than teach how to listen.
Answers to comprehension questions are often taken at face value as a sign of successful understanding, then the teacher moves on to teaching vocabulary or doing a speaking activity.
Learners’ difficulties, the actual hindrance to successful understanding, are overlooked. We don’t know what caused the learners’ problems and as a result, they don’t know how to improve.
Well, fear not, because there is a simple way to diagnose and use learners’ difficulties to improve their listening: a diagnostic Dictogloss.
A dictogloss is a task in which learners reconstruct a text. I find Magnus Wilson’s (2003) proposal for a “discovery listening” task particularly illuminating. The format, which I’ve slightly modified, goes roughly like this:
- Learners listen to a short text (ca. 30 seconds)
- Learners listen again and take notes
- Learners use their notes in groups to reconstruct the text
- Possibly repeat steps 2 & 3
- Learners read transcript and compare with their own reconstructions
- Learners reflect on and classify the sources of their difficulties
According to Wilson, step 6 should be based on a list similar to the following and learners should select the sources of their difficulties:
a) I couldn’t hear which sound it was. (sound perception)
b) I couldn’t separate the sounds into words (lexical segmentation)
c) I heard the words but couldn’t remember their meaning quickly enough (word recognition/parsing)
d) This word was new to me (word knowledge)
e) I heard and understood the words but not the meaning of that part of the sentence (grammatical/contextual issue)
f) Other problems. (write here)
I think that some useful additions to this list would be:
g) When I read the transcript, I realised I knew the word, but I couldn’t hear it (word recognition)
h)I heard a word and thought it was a different word (word recognition)
i) When I couldn’t hear a sound or word, I lost my concentration and missed what came next (affective factor)
j) I heard and understood the words but I didn’t know what they meant in that context (meaning-building/world knowledge)
How to use a Dictogloss in the classroom
Just to give you an example of how this can play out, let me refer to one of the lessons that we talk about in the Language Teaching Methodology course. It is based on an interview with Barack Obama. In this video, Obama talks to Jimmy Kimmel about running for a hypothetical third term. Here’s a part of the transcript:
Obama: so… I… and I… [laughs] so, so it it’s it’s useful that I don’t have that choice to make
Jimmy: I know you have to leave, but can we keep her for another four years? [..]
Obama: I still remember when I was thinking about running for president, she said you know, I think you would make an outstanding president… and I would work so hard to, to make sure you were president, you’re the kind of person we need, if I weren’t married to you! [laughs]
Even just in this small section, a learner of mine reported the following issues at the end of the Dictogloss:
- “Can we keep her for another four years” initially sounded like “can we keep it for another four years” – a word recognition “mistake”, possibly arising from a difficulty decoding words: he confused the weak form of “her” with “it”. He also probably suffered from a problem using the context (i.e. using what was said before in the video about Michelle Obama + using world knowledge of four years = one US presidential term)
- “when I was thinking about running” sounded to him like “I memorised” (word recognition) – I have to wonder here whether he was influenced by the semantic content of the words coming right before this bit, “I still remember”. I feel like he may have “hyper-connected” to it.He wasn’t sure what
- “four years” meant in this context (world knowledge) and he had to talk about it with his group to recall that four years = one US presidential term
- He didn’t know the word outstanding (word knowledge); however, he initially hypothesised that the connotation was probably positive and he could move on with his listening without getting stuck on it.
Why a Dictogloss is a good idea
Diagnosing these difficulties is a crucial step for listening development. Learners can be asked to prioritise the difficulties that they feel are most pressing: for instance, this one learner prioritised no. 2 and now he knows he needs to pay more attention to the actual sounds he hears and not overcompensate with his own hypotheses. We also focused on how the phrase that caused the issue is pronounced by different speakers in spontaneous speech using Youglish.
I think this kind of Dictogloss has a number of advantages:
- It allows learners to focus on sounds
- It provides important information on individual difficulties, which can be used to build micro listening exercises in the future
- It is low-prep and highly adaptable: you can do it with your own voice, with your voice recorded, with a short video or audio, with a short video/audio that your learners are interested in
- It fosters collaboration among learners, something that is severely overlooked as we tend to assume listening must be a very individual activity
- It frees learners from the constraints of fixed comprehension questions and having to read and understand them
- It fosters learners’ metacognitive awareness
If you try it out too, let us know how it goes!
Field, J. (2008). Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Jimmy Kimmel Live, President Obama Says First Lady Would Divorce Him if He Ran Again (2016). Available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDujVSXYcrY&t=34s
Wilson, M. (2003). “Discovery listening—improving perceptual processing.” ELT Journal 57(4): 335-343.