Then and Now: A Review of Teaching Listening by Mary Underwood

by Chris Bedwell 

National University of Singapore (Singapore) 

Underwood, M. (1989). Teaching listening. Harlow, England: Longman.

ISBN 978-0582746190, 128 Pages.


Mary Underwood’s book, Teaching Listening (Longman, 1989), has been recommended reading for many trainee and in-service teachers on ESOL Certificate and Diploma Courses. It provides a wide range of practical techniques (also conveniently summarised in an appendix) covering the pre-, while- and post-text stages of a listening lesson. Also included throughout the book are commonsense suggestions and observations on learner behaviour which can inform the teacher of the likely success, or otherwise, of a lesson. Since listening is considered by many ESOL practitioners to be the preferential mode of first exposure to English in the classroom (the rationale being that it is unfair to expect students to produce language verbally without ever having heard it beforehand), the text constitutes a useful initial point of reference.

The book is subdivided into three sections. The first explores the theoretical and pedagogical basis of listening in ESOL classes, including the features of spoken English and the problems typically encountered by lower-level learners. The last part of this initial section is concerned with the role of the teacher, and encompasses the physical and practical dimensions of the lesson itself while emphasising the need for varied and realistic listening texts and exercise types. This role includes areas such as materials selection and task design but also accommodates more pastoral themes such as understanding the students’ particular needs and building their confidence. There is also general advice for establishing a positive and encouraging class atmosphere and the provision of a suggested pattern for a typical listening lesson.

It is notable that Underwood recommends the inclusion of lots of pair and groupwork; that is to say, the listening lesson could and should include plenty of opportunities for students to listen to each other. Since most ESOL teachers already incorporate significant amounts of pair and group work into their regular classes, this recommendation gives rise to a somewhat philosophical question: what exactly is it about a listening lesson that differentiates it from a common ESOL class? Is it merely the presence of focused attention for a limited period of time on an audio tape (or video file as in today’s multimedia-oriented world)? In the course of a regular lesson, students have to listen and respond to each other and the teacher. To do this successfully, they have to exercise all their listening faculties, and ironically in a far more authentic way (see below) than purely listening to a pre-recorded listening script. One might be tempted to speculate whether a lesson absent of audio- or video- derived content but rich in pair or group work could still be considered a legitimate listening lesson.

Notwithstanding this issue, the second section of the book is concerned with the delivery of the listening lesson, and commences with the pre-listening (contextualising) stage. This includes a variety of possible activities. In this section one of the central themes is authenticity. Underwood suggests that teachers should ask students to listen to spoken content, and perform tasks, that are as close to the real world as possible. There are also plenty of practical hints which can be used to good effect, such as the observation that listening texts that enable students to make lists, discuss, speculate or give advice generally seem to work well.

Throughout the book, there are numerous examples of effective psychology that teachers may apply. For example, before students begin listening, teachers could tell them how many items they may expect in an exercise, or the duration of the tapescript, so that they can then mentally prepare themselves for the content to follow. The author notes how this kind of information helps focus minds and prevents a lesson from drifting. The instructional language recommended is always couched in a positive and encouraging way and advises a style that steers clear of being unduly judgmental. Students are therefore encouraged to help each other, and activities are to be treated as opportunities to learn and practise rather than as ways to test and evaluate performance. This again seems like good psychology: far better to tell students what they can do, and how this may be extended or improved upon, than focus on what they cannot.

The while-listening stage of the lesson is concerned with activities that students perform to maintain their interest in the midst of the listening task itself. These should be simple, do-able tasks such as ticking, circling, marking, ordering, drawing, labeling, selecting, form-filling, making a list, spotting mistakes, table-completing or predicting — there should be little or no extensive writing, which would be unduly distracting. Throughout this section and the rest of the book, there are plenty of illustrative examples and excerpts drawn from real textbooks of the day, such as Nolasco’s Listening (1987) or Abb’s and Freebairn’s Discoveries (1986).

Again, the author emphasises that listening exercises should focus on the core skills of predicting, matching and interpreting rather than on comprehension and testing, which she suggests may demotivate students if over-used. These skills work at the micro- (sentential) as well as the macro- (discourse) level, and therefore, the exercises chosen should reflect this underlying reality. Even though the tasks may be simple, they can still focus on actual or potential sticking points if necessary. They should also be self-contained, so that students do not have to rely on prior knowledge to perform the exercise.

Post-listening activities may extend the work already done or move the class in a different direction entirely. These tasks are recommended to be more global in nature, and cover such areas as interpreting the attitude and manner of speakers, solving problems related to the text, and role-play. The ability to read between the lines is not easily achieved for lower-level or even more proficient learners, since to some extent it requires a well-developed sense of cultural awareness. Nevertheless, the inclusion of this kind of task seems laudable and worthwhile. These tasks may extend those used above, and may present good opportunities for students to work in pairs or small groups, and utilise any or all of the four fundamental skills. Dictation, unfashionable to many, is also mentioned here as a useful task, though not necessarily or exclusively as a post-listening activity.

The third section of the book guides teachers in the selection of materials appropriate to their students, and weighs the relative pros and cons of recorded and live listening in the classroom. It also gives rise to another interesting ‘philosophical’ issue: the use of so-called authentic materials in the classroom. ‘Authenticity’ means using, as far as possible, exercises and materials that resemble real-life situations, and it seeks to avoid restricting students to activities concerned with the mere manipulation of language. At first glance, this would seem to invoke a somewhat purist attitude towards lesson content. One obvious counter-argument is that the classroom by its very nature renders all materials inauthentic to a large extent by removing them from their natural context. For example, how authentic can a listening text really be in the absence of any paralinguistic cues from the speakers? An alternative litmus test might prove more realistic and practical: how useful, beneficial or enjoyable do the learners find the materials to be? To answer this question, whether or not ‘authentic’ is always better or preferable is something possibly best left to the learner, with some mechanism made available to them to express their (dis)satisfaction regarding the lesson content.

Another noteworthy feature of the book is the inclusion of a series of discussion themes at the end of each chapter followed by a set of pedagogically-oriented exercises which the teacher could consider on his or her own. These are both interesting sets of questions to reflect on and useful topics to consider for teacher-training courses. From a practical standpoint, much of the text is better suited to teachers of lower proficiency students since those at higher levels are more likely and capable of finding and deriving benefit from their environment beyond the classroom. In universities where non-native English-speaking students take content modules in English already, the amount of exposure to authentic listening may far exceed that encountered in their ESOL classrooms. Higher-level students are also more likely to derive benefit from other sources such as social interaction, TV and the Internet. Indeed, one area where the book is naturally deficient is in relation to the use of new technology that has become widespread since the text’s initial publication.

In conclusion, this is a readable and informative book, with continued relevance for today’s classroom. Its main value lies in the wealth of the practical advice and sound psychology that can be applied by a teacher in a listening class, or for that matter in any other tutorial where the students’ skills are being exercised. Teachers with substantial experience can benefit from the ideas presented here, even in today’s multimedia context. In this respect, much of the book stands outside time even though contemporary technology has significantly impacted many aspects of pedagogy. This area of novel multimedia has substantial implications for ESOL instruction in general. Thus, an updated edition covering this area, should one ever be written, would be interesting to read. However, the general pedagogical principles governing the text and the exercise types illustrated within are still very much valid. For that reason the book is recommended reading for anyone who has to teach dedicated listening classes. 


About the Author

Chris Bedwell received his MA from Essex University. He has taught in Japan and the Middle East and is currently a Teaching Fellow at The National University of Singapore. His research interests are centred on materials development and exercise types that can be employed in or outside the English language classroom. He is also interested in learning strategies and the reduction of learner anxiety in educational environments.

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