‘I don’t understand nothing!’

How many times have we hear this phrase coming out of one of our student’s mouth? The student who feels she can’t understand ‘nothing’ because she missed a word — or even a phrase — and so switches off completely for the rest of the listening activity, or of the whole lesson.

Recently, one of the tasks I have completed for Delta module 1 preparation asked me to suggest remedial strategies and activities to help such student, so here is what I usually do.

Cause of the difficulty

First of all, it is of course paramount to understand the cause of such difficulty. In this case, the learner is clearly trying to understand each word, and once she encounters a new or unfamiliar word, she spends time trying to decode it, thus losing the thread of the conversation. This is causing her stress and low self-confidence. There can also be perception or comprehension problems at play, so I think it is really important to assess exactly what the student is having difficulty with.

For instance, once a French speaker told me she couldn’t understand the recording we were listening to in class. After asking her some questions and getting her to listen to specific parts, we pinned down the problem: she couldn’t understand the pronunciation of the word meal /miːl/ because of the dark /l/ at the end. She was expecting a light /l/ sound as in lane. In addition, she didn’t know the meaning of the word. And this had completely put her off.

Possible remedial strategies or activities:

Here is what I would generally do:

  • Invite the learner to relax and enjoy the activity, without worrying too much. I try to stress that this is not a test, but an exercise.
  • Try to find listening material that is particularly interesting for your learners. This usually motivates them to listen for the main points, because they really want to understand what’s being said.
  • Practice listening for gist. This could initially be done using authentic texts and tasks graded at a slightly lower level than the learner’s. This would boos her self confidence, and prove that she can indeed understand the main information conveyed by a text spoken by native or proficient speakers, without necessarily understanding each word.
  • I also try to speak at a more natural speed in class, in order to give the learner plenty of exposure to naturally occurring spoken language.

In the case of the French learner described above, I also helped her with her perception problem by:

  • drilling the two different /l/ sounds and explaining that, in most* varieties of English a final l is pronounced as a dark /l/.
  • Creating a quick exercise to get her to recognise the two different sounds.

[* I think this is true for British and American English, but unfortunately I am not so familiar with other English varieties.]

This seemed to help in this case, but in other cases the students were much more stubborn, and one once even left the classroom in distress during a listening activity.

If you have experienced this, please leave a comment explaining what techniques and remedial strategies you used to help learners with these difficulties, and if you think my ideas have value or should be improved/tweaked.

Thank you!

PS: I already submitted my task to the tutor, so this is out of sheer curiosity 🙂


4 thoughts on “‘I don’t understand nothing!’”

  1. I really like this. I am researching some theory on this and I think students are focused on the citation forms of words but don’t understand the variability of actual pronunciation in connected speech.

    I would think about doing some microlistening with single word(s) edited from recordings then playing the word(s) in context.

    But I could be wrong. 😉

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