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Topic 7 – 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.


Using a foreign language requires having 4 abilities or skills. They are: listening, speaking, reading and writing. In order to introduce our topic we will say a few words on how the four basic skills can be classified :

(1) according to the medium, they are oral or written,

(2) according to the role of the language user, we speak of the encoder, the one who speaks or writes, and the decoder the one who listens or reads.

(3) they are also classified as receptive: listening and reading, and productive: speaking and writing.

Very often we use these skills in combination. For example, a participant in a conversation is involved in speaking and listening.

In this essay we are concerned with the skills that are classified as ORAL according to the medium, listening and speaking, and we will see how learners evolve from hearing to active listening, and from imitation to autonomous speaking.

First of all, we need to mention the natural order in which children learn their mother tongue, as this natural order is usually taken into account when teaching a second or foreign language: Babies or very young infants listen to the sounds they hear without understanding, then little by little they can understand words. As they grow up, they start to speak by imitation.


Following the natural order model, most pedagogical experts believe that listening should precede speaking. Clearly, we cannot expect our pupils to produce a sound which does not exist in their mother tongue, or to produce a natural sentence using the stress, rhythm and intonation of a native speaker of the foreign language without first providing them with a model of the form they are to produce ( = que han de producir). It is not possible to produce satisfactorily what one has not heard. The logical step, then, is to help our students achieve oral fluency by first developing their ability to listen.

At first sight, one might think that listening is a passive skill, and speaking an active one. But this is not really true, since the decoding of the message (on the part of the listener) requires active participation. We might say that “hearing” is a passive condition, but “listening”, which implieds understanding, is an active process. Understanding is usually signalled in a face-to-face conversation by the nods, glances, body-movements and phatic noises of the listener (sounds such as hmmm, aha! etc). This visual and verbal signalling confirms to the speaker that the listener is understanding.

Studies of classroom interaction show that children spend a large part of their time listening – listening to the teacher, to each other, or to 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 and more rewarding (satisfactorio) 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 must also bear in mind that our students cannot understand everything they hear. This implies that we should provide purposeful activities where learners are asked to focus on specific points.

FROM HEARING TO UNDERSTANDING. The first stage in the listening skill process is ear-training. Ear-training is different from listening. Listening implies understanding or trying to make sense of what you are hearing, whereas ear-training is carried out to help students become aware of the characteristic of the spoken language. The main aims of ear-training are the following:

● to recognise and distinguish sounds which may sound similar to a Spanish speaker. For example, long and short vowels as in “ship” and “sheep

● to become aware that stress can influence meaning. For example, the sentence “ I opened the door” can mean, or imply, different things depending on which of the elements of the sentence is stressed (the words underlined are pronounced with a strong stress) :

I opened the door (not you) I opened the door (not closed) I opened the door (not the window)

● to become aware of meaning carried by tone of voice. For example in order to distinguish the mood (estado de ánimo) of the speaker, the speaker may be bored, tired, angry, frightened, etc.

● to distinguish different intonation patterns in order to distinguish questions and commands from ordinary sentences.

Ear-training is a first step in listening comprehension that precedes “listening”. But in fact, the two are inseparable and whenever we are listening we are also “training our ears” or our “hearing”. For example, an 11-year old child who has already had several years of English at school needs to be ear-trained for intonation and stress patterns.

Ear-training as a first stage in listening comprehension refers mainly to the need of ear-training for sounds. This, of course, is very important since there are a lot more vowels in English (12) than in Spanish (5)

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 close to ear-training. If we feel that our pupils are not producing satisfactorily a certain sound or if 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, as opposed to (en contraposición a) extensive listening, which normally involves longer texts and students are not required to understand every single word.

As regards THE ROLE OF THE TEACHER, we need to say that 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. making the learning context rich, varied, and motivating

(también se puede meter esto que está tomado del tema 3) When we are planning a listening session, we need to decide whether we are going to carry out the activities planned in the usual classroom or in the language lab –if there is one. We will also have to consider the time available and the level of the group.

Underwood states that there are several steps the teacher has to follow. They are the following:

Choosing an oral text and adapting it if it is necessary, for example by shortening its length

Checking that the activities planned are suitable.

Adjusting the level of difficulty of the activities.

Considering whether the listening work we are planning will fill the time available.

Thinking about using visual aids.

Deciding whether any special equipment will be needed.

Deciding what procedure we will adopt for the listening session: number of stops, replays, type of grouping, etc.

Practise reading the text if the teacher is going to read it aloud.

Listening comprehension activities have three parts or stages: pre-, while- and post- listening. (ver tema 3) The first stage is an introduction 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 the listening task. The purpose may 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. (tambien podeis utilizar lo que viene en el tema 3)

The third stage is concerned with checking students’ comprehension by, for example, asking students to complete charts, identify relationship between speakers, etc. Other past-listening activities include role play, simulations, etc.

Our students need a lot of listening practice in order to get used to English sounds, as well as English stress, rythm and intonation. The texts should be relatively short, and they should listen several times. As pupils progress in their listening skill, we can use longer texts. Listening to songs is also very useful, as pupils find songs very motivating.


We will now focus on the speaking skill. Throughout the history of FL teaching (foreign language teaching), the speaking skill was neglected. Emphasis in oral communication in the FL classroom started with the Direct and the Audio-Lingual methods. But in both of these methods, students could not do free activities until they have mastered the new language in controlled exercises or drills. Nowadays everyone agrees that some sort of dynamic and meaningful exercises should be included in speaking lessons from the beginning.

As regards our students of Primary School level, first of all we must take into account that the level of language input (listening) must be higher than the level of language production (speaking) expected of the pupils. So we have many speaking activities used in the first levels that enable pupils to participate with a minimal verbal response. However in the last levels, pupils are encouraged to begin to manipulate language and express themselves in a much more personal way.

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

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

· Activities must provide opportunities for language practice.

· They must be interesting.

· The topic should be within the students’ experience; it must be close to their lives.

Types of activities. Speaking activities fall into the following three categories: activities based on repetition and imitation, controlled activities and autonomous interaction. We shall now look at each one of them.

q Activities based on repetition and imitation.

Drills are an example of this type of exercises, which are normally structure-based. They help to assimilate and produce new language items for the first time by helping students master structural patterns of the language. There are different kinds of drills:

· Repetition drills; students have to repeat the sample pattern

· Substitution drills; students are required to replace a word or phrase

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

· Guessing drills are based on the information gap principle. For example, students think of something they did the previous weekend and then they take turns to find out what it is by asking.

q Controlled activities

Controlled activities help students develop confidence and the ability to participate in simple conversations. Dialogues are often used in this type of activity. Typical examples are:

· Question and answer practice, and

· right / wrong statements and corrections. For example, students are asked to say whether a statement is right or wrong and, if it is wrong, they give the correct version.

These activities are normally done in pairs. Pairwork activities provide students with a greater amount of meaningful practice. There are various types of pairwork activities: model dialogue, gapped dialogues, cue words, picture cards, language games, decision-making activities and questionnaires.

q Autonomous interaction

The last type of speaking activities is related to autonomous interaction, which has the aim of getting from the students a free production of language. They are fully communicative activities and are very important because they give students the opportunity to use the foreign 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 students can understand and ensure that the instructions are clear. Moreover, the teacher should:

· make sure that everybody speaks English.

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

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

· monitor the task discreetly, intervening only if the students cannot manage on their own.

· Avoid over-correction, as this can interfere with students’ confidence.

In primary schools two main types of speaking activities are used. The first type, songs, chants, and poems, encourages pupils to mimic the model they hear on the cassette. This helps pupils to master the sounds, rhythms, and intonation of the English language through simple reproduction. The games and pair work activities on the other hand, although always based on a given model, encourage the pupils to begin to manipulate the language by presenting them with a certain amount of choice, albeit within a fairly controlled situation.

In order for any speaking activity to be successful children need to acknowledge that there is a real reason for asking a question or giving a piece of information. Therefore, make sure the activities you present to the pupils, provide a reason for speaking, whether this is to play a game or to find out real information about friends in the class.

Once the activity begins, make sure that the children are speaking as much English as possible without interfering to correct the mistakes that they will probably make. Try to treat errors casually by praising the utterance and simply repeating it correctly without necessarily highlighting the errors. And finally, always offer praise for effort regardless of the accuracy of the English produced.

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 suggested some of the activities we can do when teaching both skills.

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