How To Do Listening in the ESL Classroom

Baby listeningWhat can be done at different stages of a listening activity to help our students?
It is helpful to divide a listening activity into three distinct stages: the pre-listening, the while-listening and the after-listening.

The pre-listening stage is vitally important if we want our students to get as much as possible out of the listening. Choice of listening is the first thing. We ourselves would not sit down and listen to a radio documentary on a subject we had no interest in and we should not expect our students to be any different. Teachers thus shouldn’t inflict on their students listenings they believe will be of little or no interest to their class as students are less likely to gain anything useful from it.

Once we have decided on a listening to use with our class, the next stage is to prepare them as much as possible. As in real life again, when we listen to something on TV, we are usually in the position where we know the subject area and can predict a lot of what is going to be said. In the class, we must try and prepare our students similarly.

Students should be given a reason to listen, a chance to discuss and predict what they are going to hear. Any “holes” in their content schemata must be filled. What we mean is – if you are going to play a listening about British politics, it is important they not only know what the Boundary Commission is, but its political importance. You, as a teacher, know this and this information must be given to your students. They cannot be let do a listening, “blind” of information.

A student forewarned is a student far less likely to panic during a listening, one of the most common problems reported by teachers during listenings. If we were put in front of a tape recorder, played three minutes of speech in a random context and then asked questions about it, we too would struggle. The pre-teaching of some vocabulary which may be problematic can also be a useful part of this pre-listening stage.

We now move on to the while-listening stage. There are similarities between reading and listening but also large differences. Whilst reading is a static medium which can be and usually is re-drafted again and again to read well, listening is transient and sometimes a little jumbled and confusing. Students can read at their own speed whereas listening can pass them by somewhat. Listening therefore is difficult for students and there are other factors which make it even more so.

Most teachers use tape recorders for their classroom listening practice. The students are denied all the physical, visual clues that make face to face conversation easier. Students are left only with a disembodied voice on what may be a technically poor piece of equipment. Video can solve some, but not all of these problems. Teachers should be encouraged to offer visual clues to help students when using tape recorders. This can be in the form of flashcards or maps on the white-board or whatever is felt appropriate.

The tasks required of students should be set so as to aid and encourage effective listening, not to set traps for students to fall into which will only be detrimental for their motivation. As with reading skills work, different types of listening can be encouraged: gist for general meaning and listening for specific information for example. Students can be asked to convert information heard into a map, a picture or a form to be filled out.

Listenings can be divided up to make them more manageable or the tapescript can be used (perhaps in cut up form) to ease students into a task. If a teacher withholds this help and, for example, insists on only one playing of the cassette, then this will just increase the likelihood of students getting more panicked and discouraged by listening activities in general.

Finally, we move to the after-listening stage of the lesson. It is better if students first check answers to any comprehension tasks in pairs or groups which is less demotivating for the many students who find listening difficult. The feedback to a listening activity in general is important. It is good for the students to realise they have been doing something useful and interesting. If a teacher merely stops the cassette, checks the questions and moves on, it makes a mockery of all the pre-listening preparation that has been done. For this reason, it is a good idea to use listening as part of an integrated skills approach where the listening is used as a springboard onto other activities such as writing or role-plays that share the same topic.

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