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Vol 37 No 2, April - June 1999
Page 15



Actively Involving Students in Listening
by Jiang Jingyi and Yang Ying

Listening, is one of the four fundamental skills in any language. Regrettably, here in China the teaching of listening has been neglected for a long time, but changes have been taking place very quickly. Each of the four language skills has been given its balanced weight in our national syllabus of English teaching.

Our National Test for English Majors Band 4 (TEM 4), an annual criterion-referenced test for second-year English majors, has shown that listening is an inseparable part when the comprehensive language skills of the students are tested.

Listening objectives

Our national syllabus of English teaching for English majors (1989) clearly states that after the first two years of studying in the university, a second-year English major should be able to

  • understand speeches by or conversations with native English speakers about daily and social life;
  • understand listening passages, with the difficulty level being comparable to that of the mini talks in TOEFL;
  • grasp the main idea, argument, or plot of the listening materials;
  • deduce or analyze the listening materials;
  • understand the writers’ attitudes and intentions in the listening passages;take brief notes while listening; and
  • understand the news broadcasts of BBC and VOA at normal speed.

(The listening part of the TEM 4 includes statements, short dialogues, and VOA and BBC news broadcasts.)

To fulfill all these requirements listed in the Passive to Active Listening syllabus and to ensure that our students can do well in the TEM 4 is no easy task. Moreover, most of our students have been taught under a language learning situation in which listening is treated as a purely passive activity. Thus, our students have maintained a passive and subordinate role in the classroom. Usually the teacher prepares everything for them, leaving no space for the students to act as participants in class.

Bearing in mind that there should be changes in the teaching of listening, we shift our focus from passive to active listening beginning the first day our students step into the university classroom. Since understanding the news broadcasts of the BBC and VOA is usually the part our students find the most difficult, we have designed the following activities to help them.

Let’s share activities

What our students find to be the problem in understanding BBC and VOA news broadcasts is their unfamiliarity with the background behind some of the news items. Moreover, some of the foreign names and places are unknown to them.

So before the listening class, we select a few recorded authentic news items with known background and well-known figures. During the listening class, we let the students listen to a recorded news item once or twice, then we pick out the words, phrases, and names of places or people that need to be discussed or explained.

The following short news item is an example:

The British minister responsible for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, has said that there is now an unrivaled opportunity to achieve peace, stability, and prosperity in the province. In a speech to a Protestant gathering, Sir Patrick said every day the IRA cease-fire continued could bring the government closer to a conclusion that is meant to last. Yesterday, the Prime Minster, John Major, said he was still waiting for a clear-cut assurance from the IRA that its campaign of violence was over for good.
                                                                                              (A news report from BBC in 1994.)

For this news item, we divided our students into several groups and asked them to hold a brief discussion about the problem of Northern Ireland: how the problem was caused and what the Irish Republican Army (IRA) has been doing. Discussions like this generally stimulate the students because they are eager to share their own knowledge. Usually the students can come to an explicit understanding after their discussions, so that the next time they come across a news item relating to this special issue, they will find it easier to understand.

In another activity, we encourage voluntary work from our students. The students can decide on any topic that is of interest to them and give a short presentation in class. They can choose from topics such as Cuban refugees, an introduction to specific organizations such as NATO, or world famous figures such as Nelson Mandela.

From what we have done so far, we have found that our students are very motivated; they have participated very seriously in these activities. We have heard many marvelous presentations. For instance, one student found some interesting information about World War II on a CD, and he recorded it onto a tape that he brought to the classroom for the whole class to enjoy. These class activities help our students deepen their understanding of the news items and enlarge their knowledge about the world as well.

What’s new this week?

Out of the three teaching hours assigned to listening class every week, we set aside 20 to 30 minutes especially to do the following pair activity. Each student chooses a partner, and every Thursday morning one pair gives a news presentation in class. The students who are responsible for the presentation have previously recorded some of the important news items of the week that they want to share with the rest of the class. Every pair is given 15 to 20 minutes to make a presentation, and the pairs can decide their own way of presenting the report.

Up until now, we have found that our students are actively involved in this class activity. Each pair has tried to do its presentation differently and better. Some start with the prelistening questions; some begin with the introduction of the background; others introduce the possible difficult words in the news; and still others offer the whole class the news summary that they have done.

During the activity the speaker might stop from time to time to explain an item or to answer any questions. If the speaker is not sure of some parts, he/she may ask the whole class for help. All the students become so active and competitive in class, since each pair wants to be better than the previous one. Finally, a brief summary from the teacher gives this activity a nice ending.

Reasons for listening activities

We have tried different ways of teaching listening because we feel that there is a need for variation. Some of our justifications for including these activities in our classroom are as follows:

Language requirement.
It is mandatory that every secondary school child learn a foreign language in China, and generally English is chosen as it is the language most people in the world use to communicate with.

Some universities even connect the certificate of TEM 4 with the bachelor’s degree. (If the student cannot get a certificate of the TEM 4, she/he will not be granted the degree.) Hence, the certificate for passing TEM 4, or later TEM 8 (in the fourth year), is a strong motivation. Difficult as the listening and understanding of genuine BBC and VOA news broadcasts may be, it is imperative that our students understand them. A reasonable amount of time assigned to this part is welcomed by our students, as this activity helps them to fulfill the language requirement.

Job prospects.
A certificate of TEM 4 proves a good mastery of English, which usually leads to the possibility of a good job after graduation. This is closely linked to our students’ motivation in learning English as a foreign language in China.

The actual results are much more significant. Experience has shown that a good mastery of English will lead to career enhancement. The applicants for well-paid jobs are expected to be able to use English competently. It can be safely said that employment opportunities contribute significantly to motivating our students to learn a foreign language, especially English.

The academic reason, on the other hand, is comparatively less important since only a small percentage of our students travel or study abroad.

Social prestige.
Mastering a foreign language is challenging; yet it has prestigious value, as not many people in China are skillful in using a foreign language. Anyone who has a good mastery of a foreign language has more prestige, is generally respected, and has more opportunities, thereby contributing greatly to his/her success in society. With the respect of the society, one has personal satisfaction.


Listening is no longer seen as a passive skill but an active one, because listening demands active involvement from the learners (Rost 1991:81). When we talk about practical classroom teaching, we must make sure that all the students are actively involved, because it is the best way for them to learn.

Our activities in this listening course have proven successful. Our students have done very well on the national test. All the students except one passed the test, and their scores on the listening part were excellent. Former students used to complain that the news section was very difficult. However, this class did not have the same feeling. For these students, it is no longer as difficult.

One of the main reasons for the success lies in the fact that what we are doing in class is what our learners really need. These activities have helped them in their academic studies, which ultimately will contribute to satisfactory careers. We have realized that only when our students have the motivation, which is one of the main determinants of foreign language learning achievement, and they are actively involved in the classroom, can we hope to see successful results in our students.


Designing Group of English Syllabus for English Majors. 1989. National Syllabus of English language Teaching for English Majors. Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Education Publishing House.

Rost, M. 1991. Listening in Action. London: Prentice Hall.




Jiang Jingyi and Yang Ying are lecturers of teaching English as a foreign language in the Department of Foreign Languages, South China University of Technology, the People's Republic of China.

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