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Topic 7A – 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.

Spoken language. Listening comprehension: from hearing to active and selective listening. Speaking: from imitation to free production.



1.- Characteristics

q The need for accuracy

q Addressee in mind

q Same situational context

q Spontaneity and the speed

q Linguistic features

q Grammar and vocabulary


1.- Definition of the process

2.- Stages of the process

q Identify the phonic and syntactic patterning

q Identify and select them without retention

q Identification and guided selection with short term retention

q Identification and selection with long term retention

3.- Planning a listening lesson

q What to be learnt

q How to teach

q What material to use

q What activities will be done

4.- Guidelines to develop the listening skill

5.- Listening subskills

q Listening to confirm expectations

q Listening to extract specific information

q Listening for general understanding

q Inferring the speaker’s attitude

6.- Listening materials

q Songs

q Video recordings

q Tapes

q The teacher

7.- Listening activities

q Pre-listening activities

· Prediction exercises

· Vocabulary exercises

· Grammar exercises

q While-listening activities

· Ear training activities

· Global-listening exercises

– Completing diagrams

– Problem solving

· Selective-listening activities

– Answering display questions

– Following instructions

– Completion-type activities

– Identifying mistakes or contradictions

q Post-listening activities


1.- Definition of the process

2.- Planning a speaking lesson

3.- Speaking activities

q Activities based on repetition and imitation

· Repetition drills

· Substitution drills

· Transformation drills

· Guessing drills

– Controlled activities

· Question and answer

· Right / wrong statements and corrections

· Stating consequences

· Model dialogue and key words

· Gapped dialogues

· Cuewords

· Picture cards

· Language games

· Decision-making activities

· Questionnaires

q Autonomous interaction

· Functional communication

· Social interaction




In this topic, we’ll start from the idea that the Foreign Language Area Curriculum mentions a sequence which must be followed when teaching the different skills: the oral skills (listening and speaking) are stressed over written skills (reading and writing). That’s because learning to speak and to understand means learning the language, whereas reading and writing implies that the language is already known and that we are using its graphic representation.

Although it’s better to teach a FL following this sequence, teachers have to take into account that every skill should be reinforced by the rest and none of them can be taught in isolation.

In this topic we’ll concentrate on the oral language, analysing in the first part the main characteristics of it and the differences with the written language.

In the second part of the topic, we’ll go into detail about both types of oral language, listening and speaking skills, examining some of the activities we can do in order to improve them. We’ll take into account that listening is a receptive skill, while speaking is a productive skill.


Let us concentrate on the spoken language. We’ll explain its characteristics analysing, at the same time, its differences with the written language.

1.- Characteristics

· Perhaps, the most important difference between writing and speaking is related to the need for accuracy. Native speakers constantly make mistakes

when they are speaking: they change the subject in the middle of a sentence, hesitate an say the same thing in different ways,… These mistakes, except in extremely formal situations, are considered as normal. However, it’s expected that writing should be “correct”.

· Another characteristic is that speech is time-bound, dynamic and transient. It’s a part of an interaction in which both participants are present, and the speaker has a specific addressee in mind. Meanwhile, in most of the cases, the writer doesn’t know who the addressee is, so that there is a little expectation of a reply.

· In this regard, participants are in a face-to-face interaction and share the same situational context; as a result, they can rely on non-verbal devices, as body language, facial expression and gesture, as well as rely on the context, in order to help make clear what they mean. This does not happen in speech.

· Another characteristic is that speakers do at least three things at once: planningwhattosaynext, sayingwhatthey have planned, and monitoring

what they are saying in order to check that it is what they meant to say. On the other hand, in the speech prevails the spontaneity and the speed, so it’s more difficult to engage in complex advanced planning. Whereas, writers can be more precise and organised about what they have to say, and also because they have more time for planning and revision.

· Talking about the linguistic features, a speaker has a great range of expressive possibilities, since he can vary his intonation and stress. The writing system cannot directly represent the prosodic features of speech. Only a very few graphic conventions relate to prosody, such as question marks.

· As grammar and vocabulary regards, the syntax of speech is much simpler than the syntax of writing. The lexicon of speech is also often vague, using words which refer directly to the situation (deictic expressions, such as that one, in here, right now). In written language these expressions are very unusual.


1.- Definition of the process

Let us concentrate on the listening skill. It is a receptive skill and it wasn’t until the development of the Communicative Approach in the 70’s when the listening skill took importance in the language acquisition. Some previous methods, such as the Direct Method and the Audio-Lingual Method, put emphasis in the oral comprehension, but listening was concentrated on the lower levels.

The Communicative Approach postulated the use of realistic and authentic language and learners were trained to match what they heard into a context; the context helped them to understand the meaning.

Nowadays it is accepted that listening plays an important role in Foreign Language Teaching because it provides a great input for the learner, it allows introducing new language and it can provide enjoyment.

2.- Stages of the process

The process of writing goes on through different stages, which we’ll analyse as follows.

· Firstly, the pupils have to identify the phonic and syntactic patterning, that is, to recognise the familiar elements in the mass of speech without being able to recognise the interrelationships within the whole system.

· Then, the pupils must identify and select them without retention, that is, listening for pleasure with no questions to be answered.

· After that, SS must do an identification and guided selection with short term retention, that is, they are giver a prior indication of what they are going to listen. They demonstrate their comprehension immediately in some sort of exercise.

· An the last stage is the identification and selection with long term retention, that is, SS demonstrate their comprehension developing activities which require the use of the material previously learnt.

3.- Planning a listening lesson

In order to achieve a successful development of the listening skill, it is essential to plan it very carefully. A listening lesson involves considering five aspects:

· What to be learnt; we have to decide the listening skills to be developed. In the early stages we should concentrate on listening at the level of recognition.

· How to teach; the procedure to follow.

· What material to use; we have to make a choice regarding materials, and it has to be made according to two criteria:

– The linguistic difficulty of the listening text; the text should be within the students language proficiency range.

– The learners’ motivation; the materials used should be motivating for the students.

We should remember that the teacher can also be a source of spoken language, he / she can also provide input.

· What activities will be done; they should also be motivating and relevant to the students needs.

4.- Guidelines to develop the listening skill

There are some guidelines that may be useful when planning how to develop pupils’ listening skill, which we’ll mention as follows:

· Firstly, we must try to give children the confidence; the SS should be told that they cannot always be expected to understand every word.

· Secondly, we must help the SS to develop the strategies for listening; the most important strategy is the use of “intelligent guesswork”, that is, they can use their background knowledge to work out the meaning of a word. They can also use other strategies such as predicting, working out the meaning from the context,… The SS should be encouraged to notice the body language or the way the speaker use his/her voice.

· Finally, we must explain them why they have to listen; this means spelling out which part of the message they need to focus on and what they are going to do before listening, while they listening or after listening.

We will now focus on two of the aspects when planning a lesson, the listening subskills and the listening materials.

5.- Listening subskills

The listening subskills are: listening to confirm expectations, listening to extract specific information, listening for general understanding and inferring the speaker’s attitude.

· Listening to confirm expectations. We can ask students to predict what they are going to listen and then, listen to it to confirm their expectations. In this way, the students’ interest is aroused and they have a definite purpose for listening.

· Listening to extract specific information. Extracting specific information when listening is a major subskill since a great deal of what is said in conversation in redundant and unnecessary.

· Listening for general understanding. Students listen to conversations in order to get a general idea of what the main points are. The students’ task is fairly simple but it is a vital skill (because they listen to authentic spoken language) that they must develop.

· Inferring the speaker’s attitude. An awareness of stress, intonation or any body language, such as facial expression or gestures, will help the children to work out meaning.

6.- Listening materials

Talking about the listening materials, the most useful ones are the songs, the video recordings, the tapes and the teacher.

· Songs are an important source of motivation. They may be used to change the pace of the lesson or to introduce cultural aspects. They reinforce the learning process since they are very useful to review and learn vocabulary, pronunciation, grammatical structures and patterns.

· Video recordings: When using the video it is essential to choose the right technique depending on the purpose: recognition, production or a combination of both. There are several reasons for using video to develop listening skills:

– It is a motivating type of material.

– The pupils’ imagination is fostered.

– This sort of communication has an image context.

– Paralinguistic features help comprehension.

· Tapes: We can use tapes adjusting the level to the pupils’ needs.

· The teacher: as a matter of fact, can also provide input. The pupils listen to the teacher most of the time, so he / she must have a good pronunciation.

7.- Listening activities

The listening activities can be divided into pre-listening, while-listening and post-listening activities. Let us see each one separately.

q Pre-listening activities

These activities aim to warm SS up and prepare them to achieve the most from the passage and to arouse their interest. We can distinguish three types of pre-listening activities: prediction activities, vocabulary exercises and grammar exercises.

Prediction exercises encourage the SS to draw inferences and increase the amount of language recognised at first hearing, for instance:

· The SS are told the topic of the listening passage and are asked to guess some of the words or phrases they think they might hear.

· The teacher plays the first few sentences of the recording and challenges the SS to work out what is going on. The SS call out their ideas, which are discussed.

Vocabulary exercises, for example:

· The SS are given a list of words that might occur in the listening text and are asked to listen for which ones occur and which do not.

· The pupils do a picture and word matching exercise. This has two advantages. Firstly you can bring certain words into the forefront of the SS’ minds, and secondly, you can ensure that they know the meaning of new words. It is not necessary that all the words which appear in the exercise should appear on the tape.

Grammar exercises, such as gap-filling exercises, involving grammatical structures. The sentences will be taken from the listening passage. The SS will check the answers from the tape.

q While-listening activities

While-listening activities aim to guide the pupils to handle the information in the passage. Three types of exercises are to be distinguished:

Ear training activities help SS in distinguishing between key sounds, stress and intonation patterns. They are most suitable in the early stages.

Global-listening exercises are aimed at helping SS to construct an overall sense of a text and they include:

· Completing diagrams

· Problem solving activities in which SS match or recognise information in a text, for example:

– The SS compare what they hear with the information given to them in a picture. They listen to see how far the information the speaker provides agrees with, or contradicts, the information they were originally given.

– Another problem-solving activity is storyline pictures sets: the SS listen to a story or set of instructions referring to a number of pictures and are asked to recognise the pictures described and to put them in the correct order according to the passage.

Selective-listening activities are designed to help SS derive specific information from a text, for instance:

· Answering display questions; questions testing understanding of detail. The questions can be answered individually or in groups and may take various forms: open-ended questions, multiple choice questions, true/false statements. The questions should be read and understood in the pre-listening stage.

· Following instructions, that is, listen-and-do exercises in which they must listen to what someone says, understand it and complete a task. They include picture dictation, where SS have to draw a picture which the teacher or another S talks about without showing it; completing a map or picture; tracing a route on a map in order to arrive at a particular place. These activities involve careful listening without requiring a verbal response.

· In completion-type activities SS have to complete a version of a story, a description or a song while they listen.

· Another kind of while-listening activity is Identifying mistakes or contradictions: SS hear two versions of a story or two accounts of an event and have to identify the points of difference.

Many games depend for their success on SS listening carefully to each other, e.g. Simon says, in which a S in front of the class gives commands, some preceded by the words Simon says and others not. The class obeys the former only.

q Post-listening activities

In post-listening activities SS take the information they have gained from the listening passage and use it for another purpose (composition, discussion).

Some extension work can also be done based on the content of the passage.


1.- Definition of the process

As follows, we’ll concentrate on the speaking skill. During the first half of this century, this skill was neglected, since in the FL teaching, the emphasis was on the written skills. Moreover, speaking has received more attention in the last twenty years.

Although in the Direct and the Audio-Lingual method the emphasis was on oral communication, students could not do free activities until they have mastered the new language in controlled exercises, in drills. Now it is accepted that some sort of dynamic and meaningful exercises should be included in speaking lessons from the beginning.

When SS are learning a FL, they want prompt results and speaking is the aim when they come to class. They want to speak and that’s the most important thing to them. When listening, the input received can be in a higher lever than expected; in contrast, when speaking, the speaker choose the language according to his/her level and that’s an easy aspect in comparison with listening.

Although the speaker can choose the level, speaking is one of the most problematical skills since successful oral communication involves many things:

· To know some grammar and vocabulary.

· Ability to make the foreign sounds correctly.

· To master the suprasegmental features.

· Fluency.

· Some listening skills.

When a child is learning a FL, he usually makes mistakes. A solution would be to guide oral practice to avoid the SS’ mistakes, or at least to try that they make as few as possible. Then, the psychological aspect is important, because when children realise that they can speak without mistakes, they’ll be motivated to go on speaking properly.

The main goal of speaking will be fluency, which can be defined as the ability to express oneself intelligibly, reasonably, accurately and without too much hesitation.

2.- Planning a speaking lesson

When planning a speaking lesson, we must bear in mind that speaking activities should fulfill certain requirements:

· Activities must provide opportunities for language practice.

· They must be interesting.

· As regard to the subject matter, it must be within the students’ experience; it must be close to their lives.

3.- Speaking activities

Speaking activities fall into the following three categories: activities based on repetition and imitation, controlled activities and autonomous interaction.

q Activities based on repetition and imitation

Littlewood’s structural and quasi-communicative activities belong to this group. They are preparatory activities, intended to prepare learners for communicative activities. The former focus on the grammatical system and on ways in which items can be combined. The latter consist of two or more conversational exchanges.

Drills are an example of this type of structure-orientated exercises. They help to assimilate facts about new language and enable the student to produce the new language for the first time by helping him master the basic structural patterns of the language. They are usually very controlled and have a fairly limited potential. They shouldn’t be used either too frequently or for too long.

The teacher will insist on accuracy, correcting where SS make mistakes. In addition, the SS’ talking time can be notably increased in large groups. There are different kinds of drills:

· Repetition drills; SS have to repeat the sample pattern accurately and quickly; e.g. “I went to the market and I bought…”

· Substitution drills; SS are required to replace a word or phrase of the model sentence by the cue word/phrase provided by the teacher.

· Transformation drills; e.g. putting affirmative sentences in the negative or active sentences in the passive.

· Guessing drills; they get SS to try to find out through guessing. They are thus based on the information gap principle. Some examples are:

– SS think of something they did the previous weekend and then they take turns to find out what it is by asking.

– SS imagine that they have been ill and they take turns to find out each other’s illness by asking.

q Controlled activities

Controlled activities help SS develop confidence and the ability to participate in simple conversations. Texts (dialogues and prose passages) can be exploited for oral practice. The advantage of the activities based on them over the drills we have looked at is that they offer a well-defined context for practice.

· Question and answer practice is one of the commonest ways of giving language practice in the classroom.

· Other techniques are right / wrong statements and corrections. SS are asked to say whether a statement is right or wrong within the context of the text and, if it is wrong, they give the correct version; or they are asked to correct statements.

· A third technique can be stating consequences, in which the SS have to say what happened as a result of an event or action described.

T: Columbus discovered America.

S1: Other people followed him.

S2: It changes the story of the world.

Pairwork activities provide SS with a greater amount of meaningful practice. There are various types of pairwork activities: model dialogue and key words, gapped dialogues, cue words, picture cards, language games, decision-making activities and questionnaires. Let us outline each one of them:

· Model dialogue and key words: SS work with a set of 4-5 dialogues related to the same theme together with a list of key words which they can use to produce different dialogues.

· In gapped dialogues one of the speakers has to supply the missing utterances. The speaker’s missing words may also be cued by indicating what functions he has to express, e.g.

A.- ………. (invite somebody to go out with you).

B.- Sorry, I’m busy.

A.- ………. (suggest another day).

B.- Yes, that would be fine.

A.- ………. ( suggest a time).

B.- All right. See you then.

· Cuewords: SS are given cards with a number of cuewords on them, around which a dialogue can be modelled, and a model dialogue to work with.

· Picture cards can be used for a range of activities:

Finding uses; SS have to find uses for an object within a particular environment, to compare the uses for an object in two environments, or to find two uses for an object, one normal use, the other absurd.

Association activities; SS have to link two objects e.g. in terms of use, material, etc.

· Language games also help to improve speaking skills, e.g. Hide and seek, where SS “hide” and object somewhere in a picture. They then take turns to find out where the object has been hidden by asking questions like Is it on the bookcase? Is it under the TV?

· Decision-making activities require SS to make certain decisions. They employ the information gap principle, that is, SS have to try to find out what each has decided. For instance, they are given a set of numbered places and they write the numbers on a street plan to indicate their positions, which their partners have to guess.

Non-pictorial aids such as maps, menus, radio and TV programmes are another way of getting SS to interact using fairly controlled language. For example, with maps SS can practise giving directions. With menus they can decide what they are going to eat and drink. With TV and radio programmes they can discuss what they are going to watch or listen.

· Questionnaires with mixed structures are effective ways of getting SS to draw on all their linguistic resources. They involve identifying somebody who corresponds to a requirement of the questionnaire. For example, the questionnaire may read:

Find someone who:


– is wearing black socks


– likes flying


– can’t swim


– has never been abroad


– would like to go to the moon

q Autonomous interaction

The last type of speaking activities is related to the autonomous interaction, that aims to get from the students a free production of language.

Communicative activities provide the learners opportunities to use the language for themselves. The opportunity to say something has to be given to them, so that they can see for themselves the value and use of what they are learning. The activities must be geared to the learners’ needs and the teacher should formulate the tasks in terms that SS can understand and ensure that the instructions are clear. If the task is very complex, it is advisable to set up a rehearsal before asking SS to start. Moreover, the teacher should:

· make sure that everybody speaks English and that everything runs smoothly.

· set up mixed ability pairs/groups because SS learn from one another.

· elicit or pre-teach the language SS will need during the activity.

· monitor the task discreetly. H / S should intervene only if he/she is quite certain that learners cannot manage on their own.

· should not keep correcting and demand too high a standard of accuracy.

Littlewood distinguishes two types of communicative activities: functional communication and social interaction.

a) Functional communication activities involve the communication of information. They have to overcome an information gap or solve a problem. By ‘information gap’ Littlewood means a type of activity in which one or more of the SS has to get information from someone else. Some examples of these activities are the following:

¨ Discovering identical pairs: one S has to find which of four other has the same picture as his.

¨ Discovering missing information: two SS each have an incomplete table and each has to get missing information from other.

¨ Discovering secrets (guessing games). These games are accuracy-focussed games chose purpose is to reinforce what has already been taught. For example “Twenty questions” (one player thinks of a famous person or place and the others try to find out what by asking no more than twenty questions).

b) Social interaction activities involve simulation and role-play. In a simulation SS act as themselves (giving directions to a passer-by outside the school), while in a role-play they act as someone else. For role play the class is usually divided into small groups who are given situations and roles to act out.

They are different ways of providing a framework for role-play practice:

¨ Open-ended dialogues, e.g. dialogues which leave the learners free to decide how to develop them.

¨ Mapped dialogues: SS are given functional cues on separate cards. We may define the relationship between the two speakers, e.g. they are friends.

1 Invite B to go out with you 1 Decline

2 Suggest another possibility 2 Accept

3 Confirm arrangements 3 Agree

¨ Role instructions describe the situation and tell the participants how they should interact. Example: you go into a bookshop to buy a book (describe author and title). Ask the bookseller is he has the book. If the book is not available, decide whether to order it.

Other activities are discussions and fluency-focussed games, i.e. games in which SS use language rather than simply practise it, for example in a debate to choose the SS that will controll the class library.


To summarise, in this topic we have dealt with the oral skills (listening and speaking), which, in the Foreign Language Area curriculum, are stressed over the written skills (reading and writing). We’ve given some guidelines in order to make a proper planning and we’ve suggest some of the activities we can do when teaching both skills.


· The techniques of Language Teaching by Billows, F.L.

· Teaching Language as communication by Widdowson, H.G. Oxford University Press.

· Teaching Oral English by Byrne, D. Published in 1986.

· Getting Students to Talk by Golewiowska, A. Published in 1990.