Teaching listening comprehension is challenging for ESL learners, especially in the East Asian context. This is due to a range of factors: firstly, reading and writing skills are typically given greater importance in language learning at school as compared to oral/aural skills. In addition, Chinese, Japanese and Korean learners are typically more focused on accuracy, and often try to understand every word that is said rather than glossing over unknown words to process the larger message. Variations in English pronunciation are another contributing factor; the various accents of native and non-native speakers can be unpredictable for learners. By structuring listening exercises carefully and taking these needs into account, we can work towards a more engaging and useful experience for our students and improve their listening.
Preparation for listening
When teaching listening, we have to remember that during receptive skills work (reading and listening), learners do not have control over the language they are working with; the information being processed comes from an external source: a text or recording. For this reason, vocabulary is a key factor to comprehension, and it is important to set the context for the listening thoroughly before playing a recording. Be sure to tell students that they will listen to a conversation / radio programme / interview, fixing the genre of the speech in the minds of the students (ie. a discussion, a TV advertisement, a presentation, a description etc.). In addition, introduce the people who will be talking, and the topics that they will cover. This activates important preparatory schema in the minds of the students, readying them for the stream of information that will come at them when you hit the play button.
Another way that we can support students in preparation for listening activities is to go through any task questions or prompts carefully before the recording starts. Any listening task that you do with learners should be accompanied by a clear task. Simply instructing students to ‘listen to the recording’ does not lead to focused work in any skills or language area. In addition, it is unfair to ask students to process the questions they are trying to answer at the same time as trying to understand the flow of speech coming from the speaker, so take 5 minutes to run through the task first, asking questions such as ‘what kind of information are you listening for?’, or ‘what will the speaker talk about in the first section’? This provides further focus and purpose for listening and encourages students to make predictions about the content, which will result in more useful processing while the recording is playing.
Prediction and listening for gist
As further preparation for detailed listening activities, set a simple global listening task to ease the students into the recording. Questions such as ‘where are the people?’, ‘what are they talking about?’ or ‘how do the speakers feel?’ do not require intensive, detailed listening and allow students to pick up the style of the speakers (accent, tone and voice modulation), removing another possible barrier to understanding before the more detailed work to come.
Listen more than once
It is a challenge to follow all the necessary points of a listening recording in a single listening, so be ready to allow students a second or third experience with the recording before moving on. A useful procedure for these repeated listenings is as follows:
Gist task - Students listen for global information (as mentioned above). Then feedback by asking individual students what their answers and ideas are and why they believe this is so.
Listen 1) Answer as many questions as you can the first time round. Check with your partner based on what you heard
Listen 2) Check the answers you have from listening 1, and see what you can add – think about other details / missing answers. Check again with your partner (or a different partner)
Feedback by asking around the class for the answers students heard
Listen 3) Check all the answers and make links between the questions and the information on the recording
Feedback The teacher checks any points which are still unclear from listening 2
Feedback on listening tasks
A final way of making students engage with the information they hear is to manage feedback in a way that encourages closer focus on the information from the recording rather than simply aiming for students to ‘get the correct answer’. This can be achieved by delaying your confirmation of correct or incorrect student ideas until the final listening, when students have had several chances to comprehend what is being said. During the checking stages and feedback after listenings 1) and 2) in the procedure outlined above, for example, ask around the room for different ideas from students, and encourage them to listen to the parts of the listening they had problems with. After listening 3), if there are still problems with specific points / sections of the recording, isolate the part of the recording that contains the answer and play that portion, encouraging students to process only that chunk of information. As a last resort, if students still cannot hear the answer, read out that part and paraphrase to demonstrate the meaning. This process-oriented approach keeps the focus on listening activity rather than simply ‘the teacher says it’s right’ as a way of extracting the required information from the recording.
Above all, remember how challenging listening in a second language can be, especially when that language has the diverse and unpredictable features of pronunciation and usage such as those found in English. Focus on what the students can understand and reassure students that it’s OK not to understand everything. Despite some missing bits and pieces, understanding of the overall message is often more important than the specific answers to designed comprehension questions. Listening is a skill that has to be practised rather than learnt, so the process of listening development is equally, if not more important than the product of a single task.
If you'd like to know more about teaching listening, why not join one of our upcoming teacher training sessions in Hong Kong?
Tom Garside, EfA’s former Director of Teacher Training, has 18 years of teaching and training experience in Europe, New Zealand and China. He holds a degree in Linguistics and French, Cambridge CELTA and DELTA qualifications, a Post-Graduate Diploma in TESOL and an MATESOL. He has trained teachers in Europe, as part of the European Union Comenius teacher development project, provided initial training for the Trinity CertTESOL and provides in-service training for native and non-native-speaker teachers in a wide range of teaching situations. He is the author of the essential CertTESOL course supplement, Tesol: A Gateway Guide for Teachers of English.