Improving LLM students’ written grammar through listening practice

It sounds a bit counter-intuitive, but is it possible that a number of grammar issues we see in LLM student writing could be addressed by listening practice?

Missing articles. Incorrect prepositions. Dropping an “s” at the end of a plural noun or third-person verb.

What do all of these have in common? They’re all soft, unstressed sounds that are often reduced and connected with sounds from other nearby words. Say the previous two sentences aloud and notice which sounds are stressed clearly and which ones are soft, reduced, or connected.

Why does this matter? Because being a native speaker of a language essentially boils down to knowing what sounds right. Articles and prepositions in particular are notoriously challenging to teach in accordance with clear rules. They are very arbitrary and capricious, and if you look at article and preposition usage in other languages, you quickly see that. Did we learn how to use all these small words by studying rules? No, of course not. We just had a lot of exposure to what sounds right and it’s jarring to our ears when it sounds wrong.

So how can listening practice help? If LLM students hear these sounds, then it’s more likely that the voice inside their head will absorb them and start to incorporate them. The problem, however, is that because these are often soft sounds, students do not absorb them and incorporate them. When they are listening to professors or classmates or a tv show, they’re focused on the main content. Their ears are not attuned to the soft sounds if they aren’t already on the students’ radars.

Through listening practice, however, you can help draw students’ attention to the soft sounds. This can work well with a short recording (30 seconds?) of someone speaking together with a transcript of the recording. (Note: It’s important that the student understand close to 100% of what’s being said so that comprehension is not an additional barrier.) You can edit the transcript to remove soft sounds as desired. Then play the recording and give the students two or three chances to listen for the soft sounds. That’s not the practice, though. That’s just the assessment.

Next, give them a correct version of the transcript and ask them to check their answers. Then play the recording again one or two more times so they can practice listening for the soft sounds. Then, go back to the beginning and give them a clean version of the transcript sans soft sounds and see if they can catch them all. They should be able to at this point. But in listening multiple times, knowing to expect the sounds, they are training their ears to hear those sounds. That is the practice that can really benefit them.

In using this approach this semester, I had students interview a native English speaking JD student each week with a short question (e.g., “How do you keep yourself organized in law school?”) The students had to try to write a transcript of the JD student’s response and submit it before class. I then used some of the recordings and edited versions of the transcripts for various types of listening practice, often with a focus on soft sounds.

I’m still working on a way to accurately assess their improvement with regard to these soft sounds in their written grammar. (Any and all suggestions are welcome.) But based on their feedback and reactions to the activities, it seems like the students appreciate the focus on these soft sounds and are feeling more comfortable and confident in using them.




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