How to teach listening: 3 ways to make listening activities more purposeful
Listening in a second language involves a lot more than identifying keywords and answering information questions, so why are most listening tasks limited to comprehension? In the world outside the classroom, we listen at the same speed as a speaker talks. There are usually no second chances to hear what is being said, and we care about so much more than factual information when we are interacting with others. In order to help learners develop this important communicative skill, we need to be sure that listening tasks represent the wide range of activity that an effective listener has to perform.
Can we teach listening?
There is an argument that listening skills cannot be taught, only practised. In a way, this is true. Unless someone is recovering from deafness, we do not learn to understand spoken messages in our first language, though there are learnt listening behaviours which can be developed through practice and conscious thought: recognising key vocabulary, paying attention to certain information and glossing over less important points, responding appropriately and knowing when to speak and when to listen are all examples of listening skills which can be taught. This is as true in second language learning as it is for a first-language speaker.
However, in second-language English listening, the main skills which are a challenge for learners are recognition of vocabulary, grammar and especially decoding of pronunciation. Pronunciation is one of the major barriers to understanding of even words and structures which a student may already know. This is due to the fact that spoken English varies so much from the written form, and because of the range of accents that exist in different varieties of English.
To address the pronunciation issue, there are two solutions:
Make students aware of natural English pronunciation, spoken at speed and in a connected way. Features of connected speech include: reduction (where unstressed vowels get reduced to the tiny, effortless schwa sound), juncture (where sounds change or are inserted at the boundaries between words), and elision (where sounds are removed from speech altogether in order to save effort in the continuous production of speech).
By teaching these features of pronunciation directly, as you would with grammar or vocabulary items, students awareness of these features can be developed not only in their own pronunciation, but in their listening too. When pre-teaching vocabulary for a listening task (see the task cycle below), drill new words in connected phrases, not just in isolation, perhaps in the same phrases which appear in the task itself, to familiarise students with the sound changes that can occur when the word is spoken in the context of other language.
Expose learners to a wide range of different accents, both native and non-native, to enable them to listen to different varieties of English with a flexible ear. If the only voices your students hear are your own and that of a voice actor speaking standard British English, they will have real problems decoding any of the hundreds of other accents of English, which are becoming more and more common in English language assessments such as Trinity College GESE and ISE assessments, Cambridge Suite and IELTS exams.
A task cycle for effective listening activities
Another way of ensuring more effective listening work in your classes is to implement a routine for listening tasks which gives the necessary support for any listening activity that you lead, and explores a range of linguistic and attitudinal aspects of audio or video recordings:
introduce the topic of the listening, the speakers and their purpose for speaking. This will give the learners a head start in what they are listening to, and will ready them for the content that they are listening for
Outline the type of content that the learners will be listening for - will they be thinking about information, attitude, dates, numbers or other content which is communicated by the speakers? Any such support will help learners o contextualise what they hear.
Pre-teach any words or phrases that appear in the recording which may be new to your learners. Elicit, drill and check the meaning of these forms as you would in a vocabulary-focused lesson, and present the items in context, highlighting any specific features of pronunciation and drilling in chunks or phrases to focus on connected speech features.
Set the questions that students will be answering before you play the recording. Simply pressing play and asking students to ‘listen to this’ is not an effective task, and requires learners to remember the information they hear, rather than to listen in a focused, purposeful way for specific information. The only exception to this stage is where you are practising listening and note-taking skills, in which case, learners should be able to answer following questions from their notes rather than during the recording itself.
After the first listening, get students checking their answers with each other (pair-checking). Don’t give the correct answers too soon - let them listen to the recording a second time to check their ideas.
Finally, ask students in turn for their responses, and check that others in the class agree. If no-one can agree on the answer, replay the specific part of the recording which contains the answer, and focus on what caused issues for the learners - was it the pronunciation, an unknown word, or the speed of the speaker which was the problem? This will give you an idea of what to focus on in future listening sessions.
In summary, by providing a range of different accents and varieties of English for students to work with, incorporating pronunciation work into your teaching in general, and presenting chunks of language in pre-teaching stages before listening, and allowing students more opportunities to hear answers through multiple listenings, learners will develop more flexibility with their listening and can perform better in the tasks that you set.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with a specific focus on specific strands of TESOL, such as EAP, CLIL, exam preparation and working towards specific language assessments.