Top Up Listening
Over my teaching career, I think the one skill my students have said they wanted to improve more than any other is listening. Maybe that is because nationalities I've spent a lot of time teaching, such as Spanish and Japanese, have little access to English speech on the TV etc. and education systems that concentrate on grammar and reading. For almost anyone, though (and certainly for me learning foreign languages) understanding fluent speech by native speakers is the ultimate challenge - and how much I can understand of a dubbed version of the Simpsons TV show is how I judge my level more than anything else. Too often, the textbooks and self-study material on the market do little to help with these ambitions. I was therefore intrigued to see three levels of listening texts that have the size and chapter titles of textbooks - by their thickness at least it certainly looks like the publishers of these books are taking listening seriously!
Top Up Listening 1 is aimed at lower Elementary students and starts with topics like 'Nice to Meet You!' and 'Do You Have a Reservation?'. 250 pages later at the end of Top Up Listening 3 we are up to Pre-Intermediate level and topics like 'Boyfriends and Girlfriends' and 'Things Have Changed'. Just that little list should point out a couple of unusual points here - there is a level spanning Elementary and Pre-Int, and all the listening texts are based on conversations rather than radio programs, presentations etc. This biggest difference between these books and equivalent textbooks and listening skills books is also to be found on the Contents Page - every unit has a very precise listening focus, and most of these would seem to be more at home in a pronunciation book. Examples include Lost and Joined Sounds, Stressing Important Information, Intonation: Finished or Not Finished, Stress and Certainty, Helping Sounds, and Weak Vowels. Each unit starts with some kind of vocabulary and/or speaking work to introduce the topic, has a variety of tasks to do while listening to the conversations a couple of times (e.g. identify the correct picture, tick things that are mentioned), a couple of Listening Clinics on the language focus with a chance to listen to the text again, a speaking task to practise the topic and language point(s), and finally tips for more self-study. Each book also contains the tapescripts, word lists, CD and an introduction explaining the jargon etc. and how to use the book.
The most important question, of course, is whether breaking the language down into individual points of pronunciation of natural speech helped my students to understand what they were listening to. Well, when they listened again between examining the Listening Clinic points they certainly understood more than when they listened to it before, and they found this very motivating. Partly this could be put down to the fact that they were listening again after their brains had had a chance to subconsciously digest what they had been listening to, and stopping for a cup of tea probably would have had at least 50% of the effect. The other 50%, however, as well as the boost students get by realising listening is something they can study and improve rather than just passively waiting to get easier, makes this language well worth looking at.
From my own experience as a teacher and learner, I am also convinced that examining the way people speak has more benefits than just lots of listening over the long term - although I must admit I have no data to back me up! I must also admit that I have taken the ideas I have learned from this book and adapted them to my textbook listening texts and my own voice rather than continuing to use these Top Up Listening books day-to-day in the classroom. This is partly because the topics and texts are not the most interesting for my students, especially with the very limited range of genres available and the fact the texts are all scripted (if natural sounding), and partly due to restrictions on our classroom time. This means I want non-textbook material to focus more on fun and free speaking than more language presentations - even if on different language points to those in the textbook. These books did, however, provide a great impetus and training course for me and the students to work on listening in a much more systematic way than before - and I would recommend every teacher to try them out. They would also be good for a Self-Access/Multimedia Centre or for self-study for a very motivated student.Alex Case has worked as an EFL Teacher, Teacher Trainer, Director of Studies and EFL Editor in Turkey, Thailand, Spain, Greece, the UK and Japan. Alex Case is Reviews Editor of TEFL Net.