My trainees often complain about having problems in listening comprehension. It’s not because they have hearing problems, they just said that it’s difficult to understand listening passages in English. Well, this is a kind of mental block that all trainees should avoid, but I think I know why:
1. They are trying to understand every word
I said to them that they just can’t rely much on their bottom-up strategy in listening to an audio passage. Sometimes they have to use their top-down strategy to understand the gist of the listening: get the main idea and don’t be bothered by every single word they hear.
2. They get left behind trying to work out what a previous word meant
Vocabulary is very important here. To save energy, they just need to guess the meaning from the context. I also provide my trainees with a vocabulary list for their pre-listening activities.
3. They just don’t know the most important words
Again, doing vocabulary pre-teaching before each listening as a short term solution and working on the skill of guessing vocab from context can help. I also encourage my trainees to read a lot so as they can enhance their range of vovabulary.
4. They don’t recognise the words that they know
This is because they are not able to distinguish between different sounds in English (e.g. /l/ and /r/ in “led” and “red” for many Asians), or conversely trying to listen for differences that do not exist, e.g. not knowing words like “there”, “their” and “they’re” are homophones. Other problems include word stress, sentence stress, and sound changes when words are spoken together in natural speech such as weak forms. Therefore teaching pronunciation is the most important part of listening comprehension skills building.
5. They have problems with different accents
They find that European, British, and Australian accents are hard to catch, but not American one. My suggestion is try to use news program on television to get them used to different accents, such as BBC World Service, CNN News, French Tv. etc. Frequently listen to them, just for ear training.
6. They lack listening stamina/ they get tired
This is especially when English is not their first language: listening to English for several hours causes their brain to reach saturation point and from then on nothing goes in until they escape to the toilet for 15 minutes. This means they need some energizer in listening: I can play some games that involve speaking-listening, or just play some songs and they can sing along with it (so they are still learning anyway, in a fun way).
7. They are distracted by background noise
Like it or not, trainees need to listen to authentic passage (for example conversation at public places), not only scripted, recorded audio in a quiet studio.
8. They can’t tell the difference between the different voices
This was the problem that took me longest to twig, but voices that are clearly distinct to a native speaker can be completely confusing for a non-native speaker like my trainees. So repetition is a must for me, and I said to my trainees that to build this ability is not an instant thing, it takes patience and a process to improve it. I also suggest them to watch drama or comedy movies to get them used to different voices.
Above all, the Great Wall wasn’t built in one day. So the key success in improving is just to keep on practicing intensively with whatever resources around us: the Internet, television, CD, DVD, and so on.