Topic 7B – The oral foreign language. The complexity of understanding the overall meaning in oral interaction: From audition to active and selective listening. Taking word of imitative reproduction to autonomous production.

Topic 7B – The oral foreign language. The complexity of understanding the overall meaning in oral interaction: From audition to active and selective listening. Taking word of imitative reproduction to autonomous production.




Speech, or spoken language, is the most obvious aspect of language, it is the universal material of human language. For many hundreds of thousands of years human language was transmitted and developed entirely as spoken means of communication.

Using a foreign language eefectively requires having a number of different abilities. Linguistists have identified four major abilities, which are called linguistic skills. They are: listening, speaking, reading and writing. (about their classification and their integration, see topic 3).

In this unit we are going to study the listening and speaking skills, first how our pupils evolve from hearing to active listening, and second, from imitative speaking to autonomous talking.


Listening in a foreign language is hard work. It is a principle that listening should precede speaking. Clearly, it is impossible to expect our pupils to produce a sound which does not exist in their mother tongue or a natural sentence using the stress, rhythm and intonation of a native speaker of the foreign language without first of all providing them with a model of the form they are to produce. It is not possible to produce satisfactorily what one has not heard. The logical step, then, is attempting to achieve oral fluency or accuracy is to consider our pupils´ ability to listen.

At first sight it appears that listening is a passive skill, and speaking is an active one. This is not really true, since the deconding of the message calls for active participation in the communication between the participants. A receptive skill is involved in understanding the message. Understanding is usually signalled in a face-to-face conversation by the nods, glances, bbody-movements and often phatic noises of the listener. This visual and verbal signalling confirms to the speaker that listening and understanding has taken place so, while hearing can be thought of a passive condition, listening is always an active process.

Studies of classroom interaction show that children spend a large part of their time listening – listening to the teacher, to each otther or to pre-recorded material. Problems are likely to arise if teachers do not teach children how to listen, so that they can cope effectively with these demands. Besides, our work as teachers of young learners is much easier if the children are motivated and enjoy what they are doing. It is up to us to ensure that the activities they are engaged in are interesting and/or fun. We also have to be clear that our students cannot understand everything they hear. We should provide purposeful activities where learners are asked to focus on specific points. We must ensure that the children´s learning is supported wherever necessary. Learners will also of course listen just for fun, without having to do anything with what they hear.


The first stage in the listening skill learning process is ear-training, if we cannot hear we will not understand. Later on we must help our pupils develop their aural understanding abilities.

If we want our pupils to be efficient listeners in English we must give them enough practice in both intensive and extensive listening. Intensive listening is closer to ear-training. If we feel that our pupils are not producing satisfactorily a certain sound or they have not encountered it yet, we can get them to listen carefully for the sound in a given passage, as a first step towards imitation, then production of the sound. This is called intensive listening.

Onn the other hand, we may be aware that our pupils cannot understand ordinatry English of the type that is used in our coursebook tape. In this case a more general familiaritty with the lexis and grammar of the listening texts is required so we must prepare aural lessons which will not focus on a sound or two but on general features of the style of sicourse materials. This is called extensive listening.


Language comprehension is generally seen as part of an interactive process arising from the complex interplay of the three main dimensions of interaction: the social, the cognitive and the linguistic. Studies of young learners´comprehension skills show that many aspects of listening are mastered at an early age, particularly in supportive, conversational contexts where social skills are highlighted. However, when the listening focus involves more demanding cognitive skills, such as processing information or monitoring the adequacy of a message, children frequently encounter problems.

Many authors currently take the view that there are several parallels between the processes involved in L1 acquisition and L2 learning. It is felt that children have the ability to transfer some of the skills and strategies in their L1 acquisition to second language learning. The kinds of information source used in comprehension can be summarised under two main headings:

    1. knowledge about the content of the spoken message

– general knowledge to do with facts and information

– sociocultural knowledge to do with topics, settings and participants in interaction

– procedural knowledge about how language is used, for example, knowing that questions generally demand responses

    1. knowledge about the language used in the spoken message

– recognition of items of vocabulary and sentence patterns

– understanding of phonological features such as stress, intonation and sounds

The role of the teacher is to encourage children to draw upon different information sources, skills and strategies in order to learn how to help themselves understand. Once the teachers are aware of these processes, they will be able to include in their planning interactive or specific listening tasks focusing on one or more of these strategies. Six types of strategy are given below, described in the context of listening to a story:

1. Getting the general picture: this strategy is used when children are being encouraged to listen to a story simply for pleasure. In this case the learners do not attempt to focus their attention in or remember details but to listen for gist to get a general idea of what the story is about

2. Predicting: this strategy is useful when children are trying to follow the sequence of events in a story. If the children are motivated and have some support for their understanding, they can be encouraged first to predict and then to check whether what they hear matches their expectation. This is an example of a learning context where knowledge of the language system and general knoowledge based on previous experience of L1 stories work together to facilitate comprehension

3. Extracting specific information: the focus here is on recognising specific components of the language system, such as selecting relevant adjectives to describe particular characters in a story to fill in a tick-chart or recognising specific verbs and nouns when matching pictures with events in a story. If the aim of the activity is listening comprehension rather than memory testing, for this strategy to work the learners need to know what kind of information to listen out for. The support materials (pictures and charts) help the learner distinguish relevant from irrelevant parts of the message.

4. Inferring opinion or attitude: an awareness of stress and intonation, combined with knowledge of lexical items and grammatical patterns, enables the learner to determine whether a character is happy, angry or sad and therefore to work our some of the context of the story

5. Working out meaning from context: it must be made clear to children learning English that they will not be able or expected to understand every word in a story. Thus the teacher needs to develop their confidence in facing texts with new vocabulary. Key words may be glossed beforehand while visual support or written framewords (charts, for instance) will help the learners understand detail. Some learners might be able to draw upon their knowledge of the langauge system.

6. Recognising discourse patterns and markers: every story will have certain story-tellinng conventions, for example an introduction beginning, “Many years ago there was a wicked witch…” The recognition of discourse markers used in logical relationships, as well as the use of appropriate intonation, will help learners to work out some of the storyline.


It is important to make a distinction between the teaching and testing of listening. The practice of asking the childrren to listen to something with no support other than questions to answer after listeniing has many drawbacks. It concentrates too much on the testing of comprehension or memory rather than encouraging children to develop strategies to coping with the spoken message. This kind of methodology tends to overload the child´s capacity for porcessing and retaining information. Thus the emphasis is placed on assessing what the children have understood rather than in supporting their understanding so that they can show that they have understood.

It is only when teachers direct the children´s attention to the pupose of the listening task beforehand and procde a suitable framework for providing acees to the spoken message that they can be said to be teaching listening. Possible frameworks to be used can take the form of pictures, charts or questions which aim to create interest and supply motivation and support for the successful completion of the task. This kind of methodology reflects the view that the listening process is a form of interaction between the listener and the text. The meanings which learners construct in this interactive process depend on the one hand on their “set” to the text and on the other hand on the content and the language contained in the ttext. The “set” can be described in terms of what the learner brings to the text, that is, the schematic knowledte described earlier such as background knowledge and feelings, attitudes or interest. The content of the text will of course draw upon linguistic items such as vocabulary and grammar as well as discourse geatures such as refference, lexical relations, logical connectors and intonation. The linguistic content may serve to refer to events, people, animals, places, objects, feelings, attributes, concpets and so forth. With the help of the teacher, who creates a context and a purpose for liistening, the focus of the comprehension activity can be on any of these aspects.

The teaching of comprehension is said to have three phases: pre-, while- and post- listening activities. The first stage is an introduction or orientation to the text during which the teacher might elicit what the children already know about a topic by asking them questions, or create interest by relating aspects of the content to the children´s own experiences.

The second stage involves an explanation of the pupose of the listening task so that the children are quite clear what their role is and whether they need to focus on specific aspects of the text. The purpose mau be simply to listen and enjoy a story, song or rhyme in which case they can participate if the teacher wishes. If the listening purpose is to extract specific information it is at this point that the teacher will explain the task and refer to any visual or written support he/she has planned. The learners will then listen to the text, which may be pre-recorded or spoken by the teahcer or another child, and complete the activity.

The stage after this is then concerned with checking information by asking questions (oral or written) or by asking for feedback on any other outcomes the learners may have produced, such as completing a game, finding the correct sequence of events or drawing and labelling a picture.


It requires patience, imagination and skill to create an interesting environment for young learners to develop confidence in listening. The teacher´s role is this respect is fourfold:

1. Planning for listening

2. choosing appropriate texts and tasks:

3. Providing support

4. varying the learning context


Listening and speaking tasks should always be properly introduced: the context of the text and the task involved needs to be clear to the students before they start an exrecise. Teachers should beware of setting artificially high standards of correctness. Experienced teachers accept different degreees of variation from the “perfect” model. Additioanlly, there are teachers who use “teacher talk” at certain moments of the lesson. “Teacher talk” is using a very simplified version of the target language so that the students can understand better. There is no harm in doing this, as long as studnets also receive natural language input as well. A teacher might use “teacher talk” when presenting a langauge item; an unnaturally slow pronunciation would help the students to identify the sounds better. However, during the development session, oral drills practice should be done using natural speech patterns.

As for fluency and accuracy, the listening and speaking skills should be approached from both of these perspectives: there are moments in the lesson when accuracy is imperative. For example, when a language item is presented, accuracy is of the utmost importance; it is equally important during oral drills sessions. However, during productiooon, especially during free pair work and groups work activities, practice for fluency is preferable. The teacheer can monitor the production of the studnets, noting language weakness which need to be dealt with in subsequent class sessions.

Listening entails the following aspects: guessing the meaning of unknownn vocabulary; folowing the main ideas of something spoken using natural speeach; summarizing a speaker´s intention; recognizing style and register differences; identifying the structures of a spoken statement; making inferences; formulating a personaly opiniionn about a text; formulating an intellectual attitude and an emotional attitude towards a text; taking notes while listening to a speech; identifying the amin phonological aspects of the English language (vowels, dipthongs, tripthongs, consonants, rhythm, stress, intonaation, word junction); comparing pre-kowledege with what is being said; the speaker´s intention; the speaker´s attitude; phonological aspects.

Speaking entails the following aspects: formal and informal manner; preparing and giving oral reports; asking and answering questions (interviews); telling a story and expanding narratives; connecting sentences; dividing speech into paragraphs and main ideas; constrciting dialogues; making correclty formed declarative and interrogative statements; interpreting a picture story; summarizing a peech hard using notes taken; paraphrase what another person has ssaid; tell a story (invented or retold).