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Teaching language skills Part 4: Listening skills and subskills


This week we look at some different approaches to teaching ESOL Listening as a set of language subskills, going beyond simple comprehension exercises


When we listen to a speaker in any language, we are processing a lot more than simply the words being spoken. Fluent speech is transitory, filled with surface-level meanings and underlying implications, and contains hesitations, varied speeds, false starts and mis-steps, and that is just the language that we think about when someone is talking. On top of all that, a range of paralinguistic features of communication, such as body language, facial expression, emphatic stress and intonation, come in to play. Thus, teaching listening skills goes way beyond simple listening comprehension, as many ESOL textbooks rely on. This article proposes some ways in which listening can be viewed more broadly, leading to interactive and wider-ranging listening activities in class, to build the wider communicative skill-set of effective listening in English.


Listen with purpose


The first step to an effective receptive skills task, whether that is reading or listening, is to set a clear purpose for students to have in mind when they access the information you play or present for them to work with. Set up listening tasks carefully before launching into a recording, and give the students some context for what they are about to hear. In our everyday lives we rarely hear language that we have no context for - if we do, it is generally not processed the first time round (imagine someone coming up to you in the street without an ‘excuse me’ and saying ‘is there a bank near here?’; most people’s first response would be surprise, and probably a request for clarification. In this example, even the tiny chunk of language ‘excuse me…’ sets up a communicative situation and gives some sort of grounding for the following question).

Asking students to process a long chunk of speech on a topic they aren’t expecting, without any frame of reference is as stressful as that street situation, lasts a lot longer, and takes a lot of effort to navigate successfully. Before having students listen, tell them about the situation, the speakers and even the task they will be performing. Make sure everyone in the class is comfortable that they know what they will be listening for, and why, and they will perform to a much higher standard as a result.


Setting up listening tasks with purpose can help students to focus on specific aspects of language, such as a pronunciation feature, stress pattern or use of idiom, rather than having students answer a random set of unconnected information questions about what is said (another task we rarely have to do in real life outside of education). Alternatively, have students focus not on the individual words and phrases being used, but on the way the interaction unfolds between the speakers. Taking a functional listening approach can help students gain confidence with longer listening activities without focusing on the need to understand every single word, but to navigate through the interaction by what the speakers are trying to achieve with their messages.

When focusing on a specific language item in a listening text, it is a good idea to take some feedback from the students after one listen, and then play the recording again for students to confirm their understanding and notice (or re-notice) the features that arose after the first listening. This is another good way of increasing context for students as listeners.


Activity idea (stress and emphasis): Prepare a listening recording / video clip which contains some emotive, stressed or emphasised language for some reason (perhaps someone clarifying a message or correcting someone’s misunderstanding). Tell your students that they are going to listen to a conversation / argument / shop situation (or whatever) and think about the different ways that some words are spoken (loudly, softly, slowly, clearly, angrily…). Instruct the class that as they listen, they should write down any words or phrases that jump out at the as noticeably stronger than others. Play the recording once or twice and have students compare their lists, discussing why they thought these items were ‘overpronounced’ in the recording. Take some ideas from around the class, and play the recording again, stopping when an emphasis or over-stressed word or phrase is spoken. There will probably be a clear reason for that pronunciation, which can be discussed and practised in students’ own dialogues in a post-listening task.


Activity idea (functional summary listening): Tell students that they will be listening to a conversation that takes place in a (restaurant, bank, party, etc.), and that the speakers are trying to achieve something, do a job or get something done in that situation. Elicit a few functions (using a restaurant as an example situation, where different speakers usually greet, offer, request, order, complain, etc. to get through the process of ordering and enjoying a meal together. Ask students to listen / watch a situational dialogue and identify the different functions being performed. This activity works best with comedy clips from sketch shows, which often make fun of inappropriate functions being used in weird places in formal situations (a fancy meal that descends into chaos, or a date that goes horribly wrong). This kind of resource can test the students’ social knowledge and keeps them on their toes as the unexpected functional language comes along. As a follow-up activity, students can map out the functions of the situation and correct the inappropriate ones, rewriting the dialogue to be more (or even less…) appropriate for the setting in the recording.


Watch and listen


So far I have mentioned some activities which involve listening and/or watching. I feel that watching as a language skill often gets left behind, with video clips used as entertainment, warmer activities or light relief rather than for serious language work. However, video mirrors how we interact with others in the world, speaking and listening along with the huge amount of communication which goes on visually with our eyes, hands and faces, which cannot be communicated through audio alone. So much can be made of visual cues on video, and in my opinion watching activities should be used as much as, if not more than listening tasks.


Activity idea: What happens next? Find a video clip with a sudden or unexpected ending (home video pranks or hidden camera shows are good for this, though for a listening class, make sure the clip is based around dialogue, not just animals doing stupid things on camera…). Tell the students the basic situation that they will be watching, and the topic the speakers will be talking about, and play the clip. Pause just before the unexpected or funny ending happens and ask students to guess what will happen next, and why, based on what they saw. Make sure the surprise ending isn’t too random, or students will have nothing to use in predicting it. Importantly, they should justify why they think that thing is going to happen, based on the speakers at the beginning. What clues were there? How did the speaker talk before the surprise event? Why? Was something suspicious there? This kind of clip contains a lot of attitudinal or emotional content which is a really useful cue to different levels of communication, important factors to listen out for in speech with others.


Listen with attitude


So much of what we mean is unspoken. The way we use cultural phrases, idioms and metaphor, the tone of voice, facial expression and emotion are incredibly important additions to any message, and students who process words alone will miss out on a lot of a message as a result. It is definitely worth practising attitudinal work in receptive and productive skills lessons, and a lot can be achieved with listening and watching tasks in this way.

Idiomatic language is a great linguistic marker for attitude, as the choice of expressive language we make can tell a listener a lot about how someone feels. Idiom, being a common marker of extreme or highly emotional messaging, often gets communicated along with other emotional markers (the paralinguistic cues of stress, intonation, gesture and expression we mentioned before, so quite challenging messages can be decoded this way, with attention tot he visual cues which accompany them.


Activity idea (Idiomatic language): Run through a quick definition of ‘idiom’ with the students, to ensure they know what the activity will require of them. Focus on the fact that a word can have a ‘dictionary’ meaning, and then other meanings depending on the culture where it is used. Give a couple of examples and check that the students understand the difference between literal and idiomatic meaning. Tell the students they will listen to people speaking on whatever topic, and that they will be using some words, but not really talking about that thing. Have the students listen and write down any words that they hear which they don’t think are really being discussed (as in ‘moon’ in the phrase ‘I was over the moon’). Based on the context of each idiom in the dialogue, students should ‘translate’ each idiom into a phrase that they think has the same meaning, so that it fits into the conversation in the same place. Use a written script of the dialogue for this, if it is easier. Then play the recording again and ask students to paraphrase the idioms by reading out chunks of the dialogue before listening to that part in the recording. The goal is to match the emotion in the ‘translation’ with the emotion being displayed int he original recording. Ask students to rate how closely they think the ‘translations’ do the same job as the original words and explore the shades of meaning between student ideas and those from the original speech.


Activity idea (paralinguistic cues): Find an emotive scene from a famous English-language TV show (Friends or similar), and watch with the volume muted. Ask students to guess the emotions, attitudes and feelings portrayed by the characters. Then, show the clip again and ask students to suggest the themes being spoken about in the scene, thinking about why the characters might be feeling those emotions. Then, play the scene with volume and see how close they were to the real thing. They may well have guessed the attitudes correctly, though not the topics. This activity highlights the importance of non-linguistic cues in communication, and can lead to some interesting follow-up work where students build emotional dialogues, adding stress and intonation along with gesture and expression, to build more communicative exchanges in their own dialogues.



Tom Garside is a teacher trainer and education developer who works with trainee teachers on his blended Trinity CertTESOL course, which is delivered at partner locations around the world. He also consults for international schools and universities, helping teachers and tutors to develop their skills in their local teaching settings and advising on curriculum development in language and content areas. He has written a reader-friendly e-resource for developing teachers: TESOL, A Gateway Guide, and a pronunciation teaching resource pack: Pronunciation Card Games, as well as a teacher development resource based around peer observation tasks.

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