I’m always telling my students to listen to the radio, so much so that it’s become something of a joke between us and they know what’s coming each time we get into a group discussion about improving listening skills outside the classroom. A while ago and on the spur of a moment, as the laughter was just petering out following one such occasion, I flicked the CD player to ‘radio’ for the first time and tuned in to a discussion programme on BBC Radio 4.
In fact, it was only the tail-end of a programme, but long enough for the students to pick up the gist of things so that a meaningful follow-on discussion could ensue. ‘Gist’ listening, set against that of ‘detail’, which most course-book exercises are concerned with, is a skill somewhat looked over in my experience. Understandably, when one considers the gambit of ‘detail’ questions and tasks that appear in the internationally recognised English exams we all know and love.
But if listening for detail or ‘specific information’ is a survival skill that enables the learner to ‘get things done’ in the real world, then gist listening is an integrating, socialising one, imperative to participating in even the most mundane of conversations in the street, cafe or bar.
‘Listening for gist’, however, is rather a shoddy and unbecoming name for the actual skill in that it assumes no detail is in fact listened for, and suggests a vagueness that is altogether unattractive to the learner (exam candidate) bent upon honing their powers of listening. Further thought might suggest the opposite is true. To capture the gist of a recording, the learner is required to take the initiative in filtering what is heard in order to retain those elements most beneficial to the reinforcement of their understanding. This is done without the help of gapped-sentences or summary completions to indicate precisely what is important in the recording and what the learner ought to be waiting for.
With regard to setting up an interesting discussion with a class, the teacher may be well-advised to reach for the frequency dial before the course-book CD on occasion. With the freedom of each student to listen to a programme excerpt without stricture, different ears will pick up on varying points of interest and give students the opportunity to explain to their classmates exactly what they themselves heard and understood that the others might have missed or taken differently.
The teacher could even select a particular programme online so that it’s featured debate or monologue could be factored into the lesson, or the lesson otherwise built around it. Alternatively, a three-minute listen randomly selected from the static, followed by twelve minutes of discussion, error correction and vocabulary building, can make for an enthusing and productive final fifteen minutes of a lesson.
Director of Studies
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