One of my colleagues asked me earlier this week for some advice. He was teaching a private student who got totally hung up on unfamiliar vocabulary when listening. He got so caught up on trying to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word that he stopped listening to the rest. This really affected his listening comprehension. The teacher asked me if I had any suggestions for activities he could do with this student to help him.
Here are some possible suggestions that I thought of:
1) To try to increase his awareness and comfort of dealing with unfamiliar vocabulary, try using a listening passage (you will have to read it) in which you have substituted some difficult words for nonsense words. Let him know you will do this and what the nonsense word is (use the same for all of the substitutes). Then set listening tasks (that he can complete without knowing those words). The aim of this would be to show him that he can understand most of the text without knowing every word.
2) To try and train him to maintain focus on what he is listening to rather than getting distracted by thinking about unknown words, try stopping a text (CD or reading) every so often and asking him to identify the past 4 words that he heard. If he knows if will need to do this, hopefully it will help train him to focus on every word that he hears (and not worry if he doesn’t know a word). Make sure you stop after 4 words that he is likely to know so he doesn’t freak out with an unfamiliar word.
3) To try and focus him on the importance of top-down processing (relying on background knowledge, predictions etc. rather than understanding every word), you could also combine (2) with a prediction task – based on these 4 words, what do you the speaker will say next? You can then check if he was right, so he can see how helpful it is to use this way of processing of information.
4) To try and improve his ability to infer meaning from context, so he doesn’t need to rely on understanding every word, give him inference tasks. Choose a difficult word that he probably won’t know BUT there is enough information in the context to guess/ infer. Set some comprehension questions that the answers will identify that key information. Then, based on these answers, he can infer the meaning. This will hopefully help guide him to infer the meaning of vocabulary from the context. (This is not possible for every unfamiliar word, of course, since sometimes there aren’t enough contextual clues).
I would love to hear from you for other suggestions or things that have worked for you with students with similar difficulties.