Listening activities in another language are difficult. For anyone who has ever been to a foreign country and only knows a little bit of the language, simple tasks can often seem daunting and minor mistakes can sometimes lead to big misunderstandings. In the classroom, teachers have the ability to control the environment and help students build their listening skills.
When I first started teaching, I didn’t really know how to deal with listening sections in the book. I usually had a lot of speaking activities in my lesson plan, and would do the listening section as a kind of afterthought. Looking back, I just don’t think I had the empathy to know what my students needed from these activities. Also, I didn’t know how to make these activities engaging.
Read on for my tips on recognizing learner difficulties for listening activities and for my best practices for building students’ listening skills. Also, if you’re looking for some fun listening games and ways to make these activities more engaging, you can download some of my favorites by clicking on the button below.
Recognizing Learner Difficulties
I imagine that most of us teachers, at one time or another, have had a student who, after the listening has been played, throws their hands in the air and says that they give up. When asked how much they understand, they say “nothing”. However, these same students are often able to answer some simple questions about the listening. How is this possible?
Many times, larger listening sections, can seem like too much at once for students. They only understand a few parts of what they are hearing, so they simply give up. Without a listening context (topic or situation) the words lose meaning.
Another thing that often happens is that the listening activity may simply be at too high of a level for the student. While there are ways as a teacher to work around this, it isn’t very good for the students confidence.
To summarize, what I’ve found as both a student of languages and an English teacher is that in order for a listening activity to be useful, students need to: know what they are listening for, have a context, hear the audio several times and have someone to encourage them.
Best Practices for Teaching Listening Skills
In general, I tend to play a listening track three times. However, it is essential that this not just be three times in a row. As a teacher, I have found the most important thing is to set a listening task.
In the previous section, I mentioned that one learner difficulty is getting lost in the words. Giving the student something to listen for will help guide them. Generally, I go from general to specific. For example, the first time I play the track I will have them simply listen for who is talking or where they are? If it’s a news report, I might just ask for the general topic.
After they figure out the general situation, the student has a context. Now it is useful for them to listen for specific information. This can be done in a variety of ways: true and false questions, fill in the blank, multiple choice, fill in a chart, etc. Many textbooks are formatted in this way, the important thing to remember is not to rush your students. Don’t have them answer everything at once.
First listen: Listen for gist. General information about what is happening regarding the topic or the conversation.
Second listen: Listen for specific information. Students answer a series of questions about the listening as set by the teacher or that come from the book.
*NOTE* the teacher should make sure that the students read and understand these questions BEFORE the students listen for the answers. If the student is listening and trying to read the questions, it makes the task that much more difficult.
Third listen: Check your answers. Often times, there will still be a few questions that the students missed the answer to. This is also good for boosting students’ confidence as they now can understand a good deal of the listening.
*NOTE* If students still don’t have the answers at this point, don’t simply answer for them. Use the tapescript in the back of the book and have them look for the answers. Usually, when they see the answer in print a lightbulb goes off and the student says “aha!”.
Before and after the listening activity
There are also a few simple things that a teacher can do before an activity to help students out. One simple thing that is often overlooked is to pre-teach difficult vocabulary. I usually look at the tapescript and choose a list of key words that my students will likely have trouble with. I make sure to teach these words through pictures, explanations and examples before we listen the first time.
Another thing to do before the listening activity is to raise the learners’ interests and give the listening a context. Let’s say that the activity is to listen to a news report about natural disasters. I would first bring up some recent examples that the students would be familiar with, and have a short discussion. Then, I would tell them that they are going to listen to a news report about a natural disaster. The first time the students listen, I would probably ask them to simply tell me which natural disaster the report is about.
Ok, so you’ve pre-taught the vocabulary, you’ve given the students a context, you’ve set tasks and listened to the track three times. Now what? Is it time to forget about the listening activity and move on to something else? If you ask me, that sounds incredibly wasteful.
After the listening, it’s a good time to do some concept checking. I usually check their understanding of the vocabulary I taught before the listening. I also make sure they are comfortable with some of the concepts, grammatical or other, in the listening activity.
Beyond that, if you’ve done your job well, you’ve now got an interesting topic/activity on your hands. Why not use it? If the listening activity is a conversation, you’ve now set the stage to have your students create a similar roleplay. That, or you’ve now got fuel to feed an interesting class discussion about a topic.
These are some very simple solutions to a fairly complex topic. Improving listening skills is an essential component of teaching/learning a language, and sometimes, we as teachers, feel just as nervous about listening activities as our students. The key is not to rush through these sections. If you are patient and take the time to do them well, your students will benefit and you won’t have anyone throwing there hands in the air in frustration.
If you’d like some further tips on ways to help your students, or to learn about different types of listening activities, I highly recommend the book “Teaching Listening Comprehension” by Penny Ur. It’s a book I’ve personally gained a lot from, and it’s full of activities for different ages and levels. Also, if you’d like some fun and engaging listening games that work in my classroom, you can download them by pressing the button below.