Ask your IELTS students which skill they are most worried about and listening will probably be top of the list. Most courses seem to put most emphasis on the productive skills, at the expense of reading and listening.
This post will examine the inadequacies of IELTS course books in preparing students for the listening test and suggest some alternatives, principally raising awareness of connected speech and giving students time to analyse what they have heard post-listening.
Most of the listening problems students face stem from unfamiliarity with certain pronunciation features. The four main areas of difficulty are:
- Weak relationship between sounds and spelling
- Rhythm patterns at sentence level
- Different ways of pronouncing the ‘same’ sound
- Changes in sound when they occur in natural connected speech
The biggest problem for IELTS students would appear to be connected speech because this will affect their ability to understand both overall meaning and specific information.
Many learners are used to sympathetic teachers talking clearly and emphatically. They often focus on how the individual word sounds and this problem becomes worse the more removed their language is from English.
Once words are used in a natural rapid-fire sentence, this dependence on how individual words sound causes big problems. Some sounds disappear, some sounds are added and others seem to join together.
- Weakening of Vowels
Many vowels that were previously stressed in isolated words become weakened and are replaced by the ‘schwa’.
What are you doing? The ‘you’ changes from /ju:/ to /jə/.
Talk to him. The ‘to’ changes from /tu:/ to /tə/.
A packet of crisps. The ‘of’ changes from /ɒv/ to /əv/ or /ə/.
Some sounds disappear altogether when said in a sentence. For example, you might teach your students that ‘probably’ sounds like /prɒlɪ/ when it appears in a natural sentence.
It is also common for the /t/ sound to disappear from the end of words. For example, /neks/ instead of /nekst/ in the phrase ‘I’ll see you next week’.
A lot of pronunciation is about efficiency and speakers often modify their pronunciation in order to save effort. An example of this is ‘ten bikes’ sounds like ‘tem bikes’. Say both. Which is easier to say?
When the last sound of a word is a consonant and the next sound is a vowel, they link. Think about how you would naturally say this sentence. Is it a boy or a girl?
‘Is’, ‘it’ and ‘a’ will all link; as will ‘or’ and ‘a’.
When the last sound of a word is a vowel and the next sound is also a vowel, we often add an extra sound which may be either / j /, / w / or / r /.
We / j / agree.
I’ll do/ w/it.
IELTS Course Books
I looked at six of the most popular IELTS course books from four of the main publishers. Four of these books specialised in teaching students listening skills. Wouldn’t you expect them to deal with connected speech? Only one had a very small section on it and merely one exercise. Both general books dealt with it, but only within the context of speaking.
I would argue that considering how much difficulty connected speech causes and how prevalent it is, this oversight is failing students. It may also influence how many teachers go about their lessons?
The other main problem is that most of the tasks in IELTS books focus on pre-listening skills. Course books seem obsessed with activating schema and asking the students to predict what they are going to hear. Although these are worthwhile things to do, if no post-listening work is done we are simply testing listening, rather than developing it.
Integrating Connected Speech
Many students and teachers are put off by the metalanguage associated with connected speech and it, therefore, needs to be made more student-friendly. I avoid using it altogether and instead use straightforward terms like ‘joining’, ‘missing’ and ‘adding’. If it is pointed out enough in all lessons, whether it is grammar, vocabulary or speaking, students soon get used to it and it becomes second nature.
IELTS students are often told to practice listening tests, identify their mistakes and listen back to see where they went wrong. Students may get frustrated with this advice because they can’t actually pinpoint where they went wrong and this can lead to a lack of confidence on exam day. I would say that connected speech is often the culprit and we, therefore, need to focus on this when going over mistakes.
When I give a practice listening test for homework we figure out the questions that caused the most problems. We then take these common problems and use a technique called micro-listening (Field, Cambridge 2008).
Micro listening involves taking a very short excerpt, maybe only one or two sentences, and listening to it in isolation. We allow students to listen to it as many times as is necessary for them to write the correct wording. There is no pressure on the students to get it right first time and this gives them time to figure out the connected speech and why they got the question wrong.
If you haven’t used these before, I would highly recommend doing so. They have a myriad of different uses in the classroom, but for connected speech I normally ask students to put one block for each word they hear in the micro-listening and then change it as they hear how words become connected. They can also use different coloured blocks for the different types of connected speech.
As you can see in the picture above, after the first listening the students could only hear two words and they have therefore placed two blocks above the words they hear. At this stage, it doesn’t matter if they are wrong and should just write exactly what they hear. After a few listens they have broken the sentence down into five words and placed five blocks above the words. They are then asked to think about the connected speech and place a different coloured block above each connection according to the type of sound that is added, joined or lost.
This really makes the students think about the sounds and connections and is even better if done in pairs or small groups as it leads to a lot of discussion. Most students also appreciate the visual element.
If you don’t have access to the rods you can use modelling clay, like I’ve down in the picture above, or post notes would work quite well.
Learning at Home
If you do this enough in class, students can start to identify and get used to connected speech when they are practicing at home. I ask students to listen to as much English as possible at home, whether it be movies, podcasts, songs or just the news. When they don’t quite get what someone is saying, I advise them to pause it and listen back until they have figured out exactly what has been said. This kind of active listening is far more beneficial than passively listening to songs or the TV.
If you have any more ideas on how we can help students improve their listening skills, I’d love to hear from you. Thanks.