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Controlled exercises - How lower level students develop listening ability

When learning Chinese, listening abilities are the most difficult to develop. To push the needle from understanding nothing to everything takes lots of time and effort. 

There are suggestions all over the place for how to improve listening abilities, such as, talking to your Chinese friends or colleagues, or watching Chinese YouTube videos. Unfortunately, most of the time, this kind of listening practice is too advanced for beginner students. 

It is unrealistic to expect lower level students to engage with native Chinese speakers or to watch Chinese shows. The primary goal of listening for them should be understanding content that they have learned. 

It is easy to say but hard to achieve.

Very often, students don’t understand things they’ve just learned. It takes numerous repetitions for them to achieve a good level of listening comprehension. 

Below are some techniques I find particularly useful.

#1: The listening materials contain zero, or close to zero, new words.

The content covered in Chinese textbooks is the core content of all listening exercises. Each exercise is short. The speed is relatively slow. And the pronunciation is standard. Unfamiliar words are restricted to names of people and places. 

#2: Listening materials are content appropriate.

Adult students don’t have to listen to materials tailored to young children. They won’t get excited by high pitches and fake excitement. Adult students listen to materials related to them. The more engaging the content is, the better.

#3: Students learn through repetition.

Listening ability improves when students listen to the same content a few more times. Sufficient repetition brings out remarkable progress. 

However, there are two kinds of repetitions. One is mechanical repetition, such as listening and repeating after the teacher a few times. This kind of repetition is predictable. Students know what is coming. The other one is active repetition, such as listening to words in an unknown sequence. This kind of repetition comes with a certain degree of unpredictability. Students do not know what is coming and they must stay alert. 

Both kinds of repetition are required to create a diversified listening environment.

#4: Mixed listening formats capture more attention.

It works the best when the formats of listening exercises are varied. One exercise focuses on words, while the next one on sentences. One exercise requires answering questions, while the next one is asking questions. And so on.

#5: Students improve listening ability by listening frequently.

Spending 10-15 minutes every day on listening exercises brings a better result than 90 minutes in one day for the whole week.

#6: Teachers must speak Mandarin during lessons.

Quite often, teachers speak too much English. If a teacher teaches everything in English, she is not teaching. She is translating. There is a big difference between “teaching Mandarin” and “translating Mandarin”. The less translation there is, the better. The more Mandarin communication there is, the better.  

To reduce the amount of English used in classes, teachers and students can start with some simple and frequently used classroom languages, such as 我有一个问题 (I have a question) and 请你再说一遍 (please repeat), and gradually increase the genuine communication.

#7: Where to find appropriate listening resources.

The first reliable resources are teachers. They know what students have learned and where the difficulties are. So teachers can write suitable listening materials. 

The second best are Chinese textbooks with appropriate and adequate listening exercises in various formats and with close to zero new words.

Don’t use the textbooks with pages and pages of reading exercises to train listening skills. These books are good for reading, but not for listening comprehension. 

Also avoid textbooks which the listening exercises contain too many new words. It defeats the purpose of listening to the learned content.

YouTube videos and TV dramas are not very useful for lower level students. But they are great resources for higher level students. 

There are also a lot of Chinese podcasts available on the internet. Many of them use a lesson format. Some lessons are quite useful. The speed is slow and the pronunciation is clear. But the over-all structures are not there. Lesson topics are selected randomly, and there is a lack of sufficient re-enforcing exercises.

Further thought

Many teachers are familiar with the “i+1” theory of linguist Stephen Krashen. He says that we should be exposed to materials at a “i+1” level in order to learn a language. The “i” is our previously accumulated knowledge. And the “1” is the new knowledge. 

This is a great insight on how to structure an effective curriculum. But it does not give us much guidance on training listening skills. What is this “1” in listening exercises? If it refers to new words and expressions, it is really a bad idea. 

I propose a different formula “z+1=i”, where the “z” refers to the words and structures in textbooks, the “1” is the listening exercises focused on these words and structures, and “z+1” will bring students to Krashen’s level “i”. 

Improving Chinese listening skills