By Edward de Chazal

24 February 2014 - 11:31

Students need good listening skills to interpret what people are saying in various academic situations. Photo (c) Melvin Gaal, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 adapted from the original.
Students need good listening skills to interpret what people are saying in various academic situations. Photo ©

Melvin Gaal, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 adapted from the original.

Effective listening is essential in an academic context. English for Academic Purposes (EAP) specialist and author Edward de Chazal tells us how English language teachers can help students prepare. His live-streamed British Council seminar is on Wednesday, 26 February.

The four English skills in an academic context

English for Academic Purposes (EAP) entails helping students develop the English skills they need for academic study in a higher education setting. In EAP practice, it is unlikely that the four skills (reading, writing, listening and speaking) will receive equal coverage. Typically, academic writing receives the most attention. There are good reasons for this as many formal assessments at university are done through students’ writing. However, the other skills remain important, not least listening.

Listening skills in an academic context

Students need good listening skills to interpret what people are saying in various academic situations. For example, they need to be able to understand the content of a lecture at the speed it is delivered. Presentations also require good listening skills, as do seminars, where students are expected to understand and build on the contributions of others. Other events include tutorials, discussions, meetings with tutors and supervisors, group projects, and informal social interactions. In addition, students need good listening skills to interact with administration staff in the local context. In short, students exchange, discuss and apply critical thinking to a considerable amount of knowledge in oral/aural settings.

What are the challenges?

A lecture, for example, can present many linguistic challenges. These include speed of delivery, accent, academic and specialist vocabulary. There is also grammatical complexity such as false starts, long sentences, and complex noun phrases. An extract from a university medical lecture on stroke contains the following examples:

  • False starts and repetitions: an honour– honorary
  • Unnecessary words: So if I’d like to just go, go...
  • Long sequences with a number of items, including run-on sentences with multiple clauses which pile up layers of information: Furthermore, it’s the third commonest cause of death, with a third of strokes being fatal; one in six people in the world will have a stroke in their lifetime, it’s unlikely to get through life without knowing somebody, a first-degree relative or very close friend, who will not have a stroke.
  • Technical terms which can be difficult to hear, understand, pronounce, and spell: hemicraniectomy, thrombolysis
  • Words with dependent prepositions which express specific relational meanings: the impact on, of, of stroke on people
  • Embedded references to items mentioned before/after in the text: as I’ve said
  • Complex / convoluted structures such as noun phrases: the very exciting acute treatment which has now emerged over the past ten years as I’ve said with thrombolysis and hemicraniectomy
  • Abbreviations and acronyms: AIDS, EU, TB

There are other challenges too, including culture, dealing with the content of the lecture, the cognitive processing of numbers and statistics, working out detail from the main points, and visual challenges such as the use of PowerPoint slides. Students also need to know why they are listening, and be able to make a record of the content for future use.

How can teachers help students develop their listening skills?

To deal with such challenges, EAP students and teachers need to work with good materials. Authentic texts and tasks are important because they build up students’ competence and confidence in listening.

EAP teachers can use the following sequence of tasks to develop their students’ listening skills and language.

  • Task 1: Preparing for the lecture by reading a pre-lecture handout on the lecture topic
  • Task 2: Listening for essential factual information
  • Task 3: Academic language: a focused study of key language in the lecture, such as the language of association, speculation, and degree of certainty
  • Task 4: Listening for association and evaluation in the lecture
  • Task 5: Reprocessing information from a lecture using notes

What resources are available?

As well as the material in EAP course books, there are many online resources. These include the following:

  • MOOCs (massive open online courses), e.g., FutureLearn, Coursera, edX, Udacity
  • Open access resources at university EAP centres, e.g., lectures at the University of Reading
  • TED (Technology, Education, Design)
  • Other resources: YouTube, iTunes and iTunesU

It is good to use a wide range of resources. If students have only watched TED lectures, they might be disappointed by the less exciting delivery of some university lectures!

In short, listening in EAP is vital, yet challenging. Fortunately there are plenty of good resources out there for EAP teachers to use.

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