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What is While-Listening or While-Reading?

While-listening or While-reading is a stage, or group of stages frequently found in lessons that aim at helping students develop receptive skills, such as listening or reading. This is the moment where students are actually exposed to the recorded or written text.

More than simply listening or reading the text, however, it is important that students are given a clear task (or tasks) before tackling the text. The aim of this stage is to help learners become more effective readers/listeners, usually through raising their awareness of reading/listening sub-skills and strategies.

The broader while-listening stage is usually divided in two parts: a gist stage in which students read/listen for general information; and a specific information or detail stage, where learners try to process smaller pieces of information. A reading or listening lesson may include tasks that focus on gist, specific information, detail or a combination of these.

Reading/listening for gist:

Focuses on more general aspects of the text, such as genre, target audience, intention of the writer, context, main points etc. It usually requires learners to listen/read the text only once and doesn’t require them to focus on specific pieces of information or words.

Examples of gist tasks:

  • Listen to the conversation and identify who the speakers are (e.g. mother and daughter, customer/sales assistant;

  • Read the text and identify what kind of text it is (e.g. an article from a scientific journal, a blog post or an article from a popular magazine);

  • Listen to the news report and decide whether it aims at (e.g. warning the population of a possible danger, promoting a positive initiative, or revealing a recent discovery);

  • Read the article and decide whether it is overall positive or negative;

  • Watch the scene from a film and summarise it in three sentences;

  • Read the classified ads and identify what types of products they are selling (e.g. cars, houses, electronic equipment).

  • Match the paragraphs with the headings.

Tips for gist tasks:

  • Keep them simple. Complex tasks may lead students to understand specific pieces of information to answer them.

  • If implementing more than one listening tasks, make gist the first one. Raise awareness of the importance of gist reading/listening.

  • Elicit examples of real-life situations in which we listen/read for gist (e.g. browsing a magazine, zapping channels, scrolling their Facebook timeline etc.).

  • Consider allocating a time limit for tasks, explaining the rationale behind this decision and discouraging students from trying to read every word in the text.

  • Help students with strategies to use in the task before they actually do it. Here are some examples:

  • Ignore words you don’t know/understand;

  • Take tone of voice, intonation and body language into consideration;

  • Notice the layout of the text;

  • Once you get the general topic/point of the paragraph, skip to the next one.

  • Check whether you can underline the part of the text or transcript where the answer is given. If so, this is probably not a gist task, but a specific information one.

Reading for specific information:

  • Focuses on information that is explicitly expressed in a small part of the text, such as facts and figures, arguments, examples etc. It usually requires learners to identify the relevant part of the text where the information is and focus their attention.

Examples of specific information tasks:

  • Listen to the conversation and complete the gapped dialogue with the words used by the speakers;

  • True or False exercises containing a paraphrased version that is not so different from the original text;

  • Multiple-alternative questions that require recognition of information rather than interpretation of the text (e.g. “What is the second film they’ve watched?” a) Titanic; b) Avatar; or c) Inception);

  • Gap-fills in which learners complete the sentence with the words they hear (e.g. “On Tuesdays she works until __seven__ o’clock”);

  • Open questions (e.g. “What are the three type of food she mentions?”);

  • Underline the parts of the text that contain the reasons for his actions.

Tips for specific information tasks:

  • Ensure you set the task before students read/listen to the text.

  • Consider allowing students to prepare for the task by looking at the questions before listening/reading.

  • Help students identify real-life situations in which they have to read/listen to specific information (e.g. watching the weather forecast, listening to airport announcements, searching for a specific product on a website, revising school notes to find an answer to a quiz).

  • It might be a good idea to raise learners’ awareness of strategies to tackle the text before they start doing the task:

  • identifying the type of word missing, such as a verb, a noun or a number;

  • brainstorming possible answers based on background knowledge;

  • underlining keywords in the questions.

  • Make sure you ask students to justify answers with evidence from the text.

  • Consider asking students to underline parts of written text that provide the answer. For listening, you could play the recording one more time and ask students to tell you to stop at the point that the answers are given.

Reading or listening for detail:

  • Focuses on information that is explicit in the text and requires learners to interpret the information or establish connections between ideas in the text they read/listen. One of the main differences between listening or reading for detail and listening or reading for specific information is the level of complexity of information that is processed.

Examples of detail tasks:

  • True or False exercises that require interpretation of the text, rather than simple recognition of paraphrased versions (complexity can be increased by turning the activity into a True, False or Not mentioned task);

  • Multiple-alternative questions that demand deeper understanding and interpretation of the text (e.g. “Why does the author say they had a happy childhood?” a) Their family was loving and he was successful at school; b) Despite the failures at school, they felt supported by his family; or c) Their family was more supportive than most and they managed to get by at school;

  • Gap-fills in which students complete the sentences with their own words (e.g. “On Tuesdays she works until late/until 7 o’clock/more than on Mondays ‘”;

  • Open questions (e.g. “Why do they think Joanne was responsible for the accident?”)

  • Matching paraphrased statements to the paragraphs where the same idea appears or the characters who conveyed the same message in the original text.

Tips for detail tasks:

  • Ensure you set the task before students read/listen to the text.

  • Consider allowing students to prepare for the task by looking at the questions before listening/reading.

  • Help learners identify pieces of information in the questions that may contain distractors of be misleading.

  • Raise learners’ awareness of real-life situations in which they read/listen for detail (e.g. studying for a test, giving advice to a friend, watching a fil, reading an article online etc.).

  • Ask students to provide evidence for their answers. The evidence may not be one specific word or group of words, but may require attention to different parts of the text.

  • Consider asking students to share what clues form the text led them to the conclusion. This could also be used to investigate why wrong answers were selected.

Rubens Heredia is an academic coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo and one of the co-founders of What is ELT?

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