Time to Listen

Monica Brady-Myerov suggests scaffolding listening in the English learner classroom

Early Listening
Teachers tell me all the time, “My students don’t know how to listen!” They watch helplessly as students accumulate electronic devices, lose their ability to focus—and eventually stop listening.

And this trend is troubling, because the ability to listen is crucial to academic success. Whether children are being taught how to read, speak a new language, or use the Pythagorean theorem, they won’t develop comprehension without listening.

It’s most important when it comes to learning a second language. Noted linguist and educational researcher Stephen Krashen believes there are essentially two ways to acquire language: by acquisition and by learning. Learning is a conscious process that has lessons and a focus on grammar. Acquisition is a subconscious process—it shows how children learn to speak by listening or how some adults say they lived in a foreign country and “picked up” the language.

In the acquisition theory, which Krashen favors, listening is key. Acquisition is responsible for fluency. And most importantly, acquisition involves hearing authentic language.

Listening, Reading, and Speaking
The importance of listening comprehension cannot be underestimated. In her study “On the Importance of Listening Comprehension,” Dr. Tiffany Hogan of the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions explains that “listening comprehension, becomes the dominating influence on reading comprehension, starting even in the elementary grades.” This influence continues through the eighth grade, if not further. Thus, hearing unfamiliar words and concepts strengthens reading abilities.

Listening comprehension is also an integral part of second-language acquisition.

According to Taher Bahrani and Tam Shu Sim, “TV and radio are not just entertainment tools anymore, but can be used as pedagogically valuable technology that can provide authentic language input for language learning.”

Listening to stories on a variety of topics provides students with exposure to a wide range of academic language. It has been shown that incidental exposure to vocabulary through listening to stories helps students learn the meaning of unknown words. And presenting listening activities within the context of a content area is a more efficient way to promote second-language acquisition.

Listening—the Missing Link
This could be the missing link for our ELL students—especially for those who are intermediate to advanced speakers, or “long-term English learners.” One bilingual and ESL coordinator from Texas told me she’s constantly challenged by advanced ELLs who have mastered social English but can’t pass written and oral exams in academic English.

It’s a common problem. ELLs may become proficient in basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) but not in cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP). Academic language is more complex and develops more slowly, with students taking four to seven years before becoming proficient.

English learners, who are often moved to general education classes without having acquired necessary academic language, must develop literacy skills as they simultaneously learn, comprehend, and apply content-area concepts through their second language (Addressing the Needs of Adolescent English Language Learners). While the use of academic language may be more obvious for reading and writing, academic language is also necessary for listening to class discussions, lectures, and debates, as well as delivering speeches, presentations, and oral arguments.
So if they don’t have the necessary academic vocabulary, it’s understandably very difficult for students to comprehend and apply what they’re being taught.

ELL students are the fastest growing segment of the public school population—meaning this problem is only growing more acute. We need to find ways to help them conquer academic language.

Audio to the Rescue!
How can someone easily get access to clear, comprehensible, academic—even entertaining—audio? The radio. Specifically, public radio. For many years, public radio has been the gold standard for intelligent, well-constructed, engaging current-event stories.

I know, because for 25 years I was a public radio reporter. My job made me hyper-aware of how often I heard adults quote news reports and cite evidence they’d heard on public radio. Short-wave broadcasts from the Voice of America, the BBC, and CBC have long been used by some of the one billion people learning English at any one time. These services slow down the programming speed to help language learners listen and understand more easily.

Unfortunately, these broadcasts are usually short and only include a single speaker. The questions following the report (which can test and extend listening comprehension) are few, if present at all.

But most importantly, these programs aren’t meant for U.S. listeners.

Unsupported public radio is not a better choice. On the contrary, public radio is rather inaccessible to the segment of the population that needs the most exposure to it.

First, immigrant populations don’t traditionally listen to public radio. Second, the reporters and hosts don’t reflect the immigrant population. Third, public radio can seem fast, confusing, or jumbled to even advanced English speakers.

Yet if scaffolded properly for ESL students, it’s a different story.

Captioning the Listening
Any language teacher will tell you that if students can follow along with a transcript while listening, they will grasp the material at a much higher level. Studies show that pairing oral language with captions boosts literacy. Indian researcher Brij Kothari noticed that after functionally illiterate Indians watched Bollywood movies with subtitles, their reading skills improved.

In several controlled studies with school children in early grades—half of them exposed to videos with captions and half to the same videos without captions—researchers found that captions contributed to word recognition and comprehension skills.

In fact, the linguist and researcher Martine Danan calls captioning an “undervalued language-learning strategy.”
However, most of the existing studies are looking at videos with subtitles or karaoke-esque captions. Why not add subtitles to radio?

Listen Current is a listening-focused literacy tool that provides live interactive transcripts with selected public radio stories. The transcript feature allows students to follow along, stop and hear a word again, and see the spelling of words as they are read. It progresses in sync with the audio and highlights the words as they are read. It can also be downloaded and printed for students.

In a unique feature, the audio can be slowed down for students whose listening comprehension increases when they hear the content at a slower pace. The reading, the voices, and the content are still authentic.

Any teacher can apply this research in his or her classroom by finding audio stories that have verbatim transcripts. At one school, I watched students do a dramatic reading of a public radio story about how Nutella was driving nut production. They printed the transcript and assigned roles to students who read the story out loud before listening to the audio. The teacher reported that after reading the story together first, their comprehension was much higher. There is also tremendous opportunity for building academic vocabulary with public radio.

Vocabulary Development in ELLs
Students’ receptive vocabularies can be at least two grade levels higher than their expressive vocabularies. So when students listen, we can use more difficult vocabulary to stretch their receptive abilities. The exposure to words in this way helps students, since they need to recognize a word in reading or listening as a prerequisite for using it correctly in speech and writing. This also helps them develop a personal context for the vocabulary and retain the meanings.

Certainly listening is key for beginning language learners. But I want to focus on intermediate to advanced learners—who need vocabulary and authenticity. Kate Parry’s study, “Building Vocabulary Through Academic Reading” found that reading wide and varied texts influences the amount of vocabulary one encounters, therefore giving one a wider and more varied vocabulary.

Academic language takes more time for students to develop than social language. Even though students can learn the meaning of unknown words through incidental exposure when listening, the vocabulary that is critical for educational success, academic vocabulary, is provided for instruction. Public radio stories naturally have many words on Coxhead’s Academic word list. They also have idioms, adjectives, and metaphors. And because the stories are authentic, they use language in specific content areas, so students can understand discipline-specific concepts as they simultaneously learn English.

Listening to a variety of nonfiction stories, such as public radio or podcasts, exposes the language learner to:

• Natural authentic language
• Engaging and current topics
• Variety of voices
• Diversity of ages, accents, and dialects
• Gender diversity

When reading, the dictionary is the primary tool for language deciphering. But a dictionary isn’t very handy when one is listening. The listener must rely on herself to decode the meaning of words, based on their context. While this approach is understandably more challenging, it also enables the listener to tap into her background knowledge. And if a word just doesn’t make sense, the story goes on and the listener is forced to keep up.

Listening is stimulating, engaging, and will push English language learners to new levels of comprehension.

Bahrani, T. and S.S. Tam (2013). “Authentic language input for language learning in EFL/ESL contexts.” The International Journal of Language Learning and Applied Linguistics World. 3(2): 67-72.

Biemiller, A. & Slonim, M. (2001). “Estimating root word vocabulary growth in normative and advantaged populations: Evidence for a common sequence of vocabulary acquisition.” Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 498-520.

Cummins, J. (2000). Language, Power and Pedagogy. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

Hogan , T. P. , Adolf, S., & Alonzo, C. (2014). “On the importance of listening comprehension.” International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 16(3): 199-207.

Kothari, Brij, Takeda, Joe, Joshi, Ashok, & Pandey, Avinash (2002). “Same Language Subtitling: A butterfly for literacy?” International Journal of Lifelong Education. http://www.planetread.org/pdf/Journal of education.pdf

Krashen, Stephen (1982). Second Language Acquisition. (Univer­sity of Southern California). Printed edition by Pergamon Press Inc.

Neuman, S. B., & Dickinson, D. K. (2011). Best Practices in Literacy Instruction. New York: Guilford Press.

Parry, Kate (Winter, 1991). “Building a Vocabulary Through Academic Reading,” TESOL Quarterly: Vol. 25, No. 4, pp. 629-653.

Short, Deborah J. “Developing Academic Literacy in Adolescent English Language,” Best Practices in Secondary Education. Cengage.

Monica Brady-Myerov is founder and CEO of Listen Current, an education technology company that brings the power of public radio into the classroom. For 25 years, Brady-Myerov was an award-winning public radio reporter. She was a senior reporter at WBUR in Boston, and her reports could be heard on NPR and Marketplace.