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
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.
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
- 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
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.
Lets 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.
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
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.
Whats 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:
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
Some universities even connect the certificate of TEM 4 with the bachelors
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.
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,
The academic reason, on the other hand, is comparatively less important since only a
small percentage of our students travel or study abroad.
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
Rost, M. 1991. Listening in Action. London: Prentice Hall.